Evangelical Self-Reflection and the Danger of Contempt
In late December, my friend Andrew Walker wrote an important op-ed titled, “Can Evangelical Journalists Say Anything Good about Evangelicals?” In it, he raised what I believe is a serious issue: The virtual cottage industry some prominent evangelical writers have made in attacking, relentlessly, the real and perceived deficiencies of our faith community.
First, to be clear, of course there are problems in evangelicalism, that branch of Protestantism that has remained faithful to the major tenets of the Reformation. There are charlatans and hucksters, people who idolize the false promise of transformation through politics and others to whom the needs of our country and our world are matters of indifference. There is false teaching and conformity to the world, both in varying degrees and in different ways. These things merit exposure and rebuke, firm and unequivocating yet, except in cases of deliberate and persistent sin, gracious and patient.
Andrew agrees. “The ability to receive critique is a mark of health.” He acknowledges that we always need to come clean about issues of sin in our camp. However, as he goes onto note, “The tendency to give nothing but critique is not.” He continues: “I raise this question of critique because if anyone has followed along for the past two or three years, self-identified Evangelicals with elite-media platforms at such places as The Atlantic, Yahoo, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and even Evangelical outlets have a ceaseless fixation on criticizing Evangelicals, especially ‘white Evangelicals.’”
Andrew’s piece has generated a lot of commentary. I sent it to roughly 60 evangelical leaders — pastors, theologians, and academics. The responses I received were immediate. The former president of a well-known evangelical college immediately replied, “Excellent — thanks for sending.” A political science professor at a prominent Christian university wrote, “Excellent article and a voice of concern many of us here have had.” A respected past president of the Evangelical Theological Society asked, “Why are folk not pointing out the incredible work that Evangelicals are doing in the world?” He concluded with another question: “Is ‘too political’ ONLY about right-wing Evangelicals?”
Sadly, those Andrew challenged have pushed back, hard. For example, while not mentioning Andrew by name, one brother, writing in Christianity Today, after discussing the prophets of the Old Testament and their extensive warnings to Israel to repent, wrote, “When a generation is more enamored with Values Voter Summits than with Vacation Bible School, the arguments for the [false] prophets who denounced the ‘enemy’ and spoke reassurance to God’s people seem plausible … After all, isn’t that how confidence is maintained — by focusing on the ‘good things’ and telling us everything is about to get better?”
In addition to the undercurrent of defensiveness and contempt in this excerpt from his article, the writer sets up his straw man and then ignites him. His brush is so broad that he seems to have run out of paint. First, as to those he excoriates, I suspect that many who have attended Values Voter Summits over the years have taught Vacation Bible School. They give generously to Christian churches and ministries and do countless things behind the scenes that please their Savior. Are some of them willing to turn a blind eye to the immorality and danger of political leaders whose debased character disqualifies them from office, even if what they do in those offices might objectively be valuable? Sure. But do they deserve bitter denunciation? Show me where in Scripture reproof must always be severe. Should it not come first with a gentle hand instead of a fist?
Second, anyone who has read Andrew’s penetrating and often brave writings knows he is a man unafraid to confront evil, including evil in American evangelicalism. Yet the near sole attention to the flaws in the American evangelical church by the Christian commentators Andrew indicts excludes the grandeur of God’s work in our country and world. It is nothing less than insulting — petty — to suggest that Andrew only wants us to write about “good things.” In making this crass accusation, the apparent woundedness of the man who wrote it is more compelling than his criticism itself. I will pray for him, truly.
If you want to see political idolatry, greed, sexual sin, materialism, provincial narrowness, and doctrinal compromise in American evangelicalism, you’ll find it in abundance. From pulpits to pen, it needs to be rebuked. But you will also find millions of people sharing the gospel, raising their children to love the Lord Jesus, and giving generously of their time and treasure to help heal the sick, care for the poor, reach out to the addicted and the broken. They support educational institutions striving to wed educational excellence with sound theology and missions of every kind in all parts of the world. Their work unheralded except by theangels, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brethren.
The seemingly desperate desire by some evangelical writers and thinkers to distance themselves from those of their brothers and sisters they find embarrassing or frustrating reflects more pride and disdain than truth spoken in love. Claiming for oneself the mantle of prophet can be a great excuse for simply being cruel.
The holiness of life demonstrated by countless followers of Jesus is lost when the focus is almost exclusively on the deficiencies, real or perceived, of the body of Christ. Such an emphasis also detracts from our ability to share the greatest news ever broadcast to a fallen race and to fulfill our Lord’s teaching that the world will know the Father sent the Son by the love of His followers for one another (John 17:20-23).
This last, I hope, still matters to all of us.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.