What happened to the evangelical church?

Philip Yancey is a well-respected Christian author in the evangelical community. In an early 2011 interview he spoke of the negative reaction that people have when they hear the word evangelical. He asked a person on an airplane what she thought when she heard the word: “We had a good conversation; but when I asked that question, the words that came up immediately were ‘judgmental,’ ‘telling me how to live,’ ‘intolerant.’” Philip went on to say in the interview, “I would put it this way, evangelicalism is flexible, and it appeals to many people if they give it a chance. It got quite complicated by right-wing politics. That really exacerbated the image problem.”

Please understand me when I say I am not advocating for either conservative or liberal political persuasions as being definitive for the church. I heartily agree with the position that Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon take in relationship to the church and politics: “We believe both the conservative and liberal church are basically accommodationist (that is, Constantinian) in their social ethic. Both assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy. In so doing, they have unwittingly underwritten the moral presuppositions that destroy the church.” They go on to say, “We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”

Jesus tells a story to a partisan “legal expert” (a guy who clearly knows his Bible) that demonstrates the bipartisan spirit of the kingdom of God. The question is asked of Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds with the story about the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The idea of a good Samaritan would have been an oxymoron for an orthodox Jew. Samaritans were racially mixed and considered unclean. Samaritans were the descendants of Babylonian captors and the Jewish remnant that were left behind during the captivity period, considered too old or weak to be of benefit as slaves for the conquerors. The Samaritans also rejected important Old Testament doctrines essential to Jewish interpretation, primarily concerning the atonement and means of sacrifice. You can imagine what went through the Bible expert’s mind when Jesus asked the question: “Which of the three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hand of robbers?” The man replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus’ directive was: “Go and do likewise.” Point made: right action trumps right doctrine and even legally correct ideology when all is said and done. Does truth matter? Absolutely, but God’s truth will always be demonstrated through loving, redemptive actions.

As followers of Jesus we are not to define nor are we to divide ourselves according to the ideologies and platforms of Caesar. The two extremes of rigid conservatism and relativistic liberalism can destroy Christ’s mission in the world through his church. But I see a new generation of Christians who are seeking a way that is neither left nor right, red nor blue. They are striving together to reclaim the radical and inclusive message and mission of Jesus by tearing down the partisan divides that separate us. 

This post was excerpted from my book with Chuck Gutenson, Hijacked: responding to the partisan church divide (Abingdon Press, 2012).

Recent Comments

It saddens me to see Christians who are more passionate in following their political party than in following Christ.  Our hope is not in a political party but in Jesus.

No one can destroy the mission of Christ. His mission is finished, perfectly.

So did Kim Davis do the right thing?  The Godly thing?

No.  She tried to use the power of her secular office to impose her religious views on everyone, including her staff.  Her job as a public official is to administer the law.  She can resign if she is unwilling to do this.

Thanks so much, Mike! It seems so easy to get distracted from what we know God wants us to prioritize and do. We get scared by events and circumstances that worry and confuse us, and perhaps think we need to take a “short cut” to “get things back on track”? Thanks for your leadership!

Thank you for your post. I find myself in a good discussion with friends on the topic.
Can you help me understand what you mean by “We believe both the conservative and liberal church are basically accommodationist (that is, Constantinian) in their social ethic. ” Or point me to examples of Constantine accomodating. I don’t know if my google search found reputable references or not, but they seem to suggest more conservative views than liberal one being introduced by him.

Hi Tom. You are referring to a quote that I took from the book ‘Resident Aliens.’ I would definitely recommend the read. It is in my top ten all time must reads. I also go into depth on this subject in my book, “Renegade Gospel-Rebel Jesus.” The theological roots go back to the early church under Roman rule during the ten persecutions. The church asserted that the politic of the Kingdom of God superseded the politic of Caesar. Christians refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord. This is why so many Christians were executed. Constantine was the emperor who legalized Christianity in 313 and in thus doing subjugated the church as an instrument of state. Constantinian accommodation also took place when much of the German church fell in line or remained silent during Hitler’s regime. Bonhoeffer was one of the excellent exceptions.

Jesus certainly calls us to act kindly and show mercy. But no one is born of God unto eternal life by showing acts of kindness. Many people do good deeds yet do not know the Lord and do not receive Him as their Savior. Jesus says, “If you continue in my word then you are my disciples indeed. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). Not only does truth matter, it’s crucial. Again Jesus says, “..Those who remain in Me, and I in them, will produce much fruit (John 15:5). So according to Christ, we must know and abide in the truth first, and then the fruit or right actions will come. God’s word makes no mistake on the importance of right doctrine. “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16). And again, “He must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with right teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong”( Titus 1:9) Does truth matter? It’s all about the truth…

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