April 25, 2019

Riffs: 11:13:08: My Response to Scot McKnight and “What Evangelicals Do Well.”

First, read Scot McKnight’s BeliefNet piece, “What Do Evangelicals Do Well?”

I’m not Scot McKnight, and I don’t play him on TV. I’m nowhere in his league on New Testament scholarship and he’s got far more world-wide experience than me in describing evangelicals. He’s written lots of great books and has a classy blog.

So of course, I have to disagree with his optimism about evangelicalism.

Well….not entirely. I agree with everything Scot has to say. In fact, I’ve had several positive posts on evangelicalism and Protestantism here at IM. (Seriously. That’s not a joke.) Before I make a more critical response, could I add some positives to Scot’s list? There are some things about evangelicalism that make even me hopeful and proud.

1) Missions: Evangelicals are a missionary people, and while we can do so much more, we shouldn’t neglect what we’ve done. The worldwide explosion of Christianity and the new wave of missions from other nations owes a lot to evangelicals and their enthusiastic, sacrificial support of missions.

When you are looking at evangelicals on mission, you are generally looking at us at our best. The Southern Baptist International Mission Board ought to make every evangelical excited about about missions.

2) Church planting. Right alongside missions is the current wave of church planting. It’s becoming normal again in evangelicalism for churches to plant churches. The missionary and evangelistic logic of new church plants has regained the ascendency. Even in this age of the megachurch and its many problems, church planting is booming. It’s far better that our young pastors be church planters than pastors of churches that have given up on missions and evangelism. Thank God for all the new church planting going on around us.

3) Christian education. I don’t need to write a paragraph. There’s a lot going that’s right and good. Not everything, but a lot.

4) Christian publishing. Ditto as a mixed bag, but this has to be a bit of a Golden Age of Evangelical publishing, even with all the fizz and tommyrot.

5) With the embarrassing exception of its dominance by word-faith heretics and prosperity cancer pimps, we should be justifiably proud of much of Christian media. Plenty of transition, of course, because of technology, and that’s made for an amazing and eclectic evangelical presence in every medium.

6) Mercy ministries. I think evangelicals really shine when you look at the mercy ministries they promote and sustain. World Vision. Samaritan’s Purse and all that.

7) Youth and student ministries. Many of evangelicalism’s problems come from these areas, but there is still nothing to compare with the student ministries of evangelicals. Look at the Veritas Forum, IVCF or RUF. Very good things.

Eight) Bible translation and distribution.

9) Hymnody. What a great treasure we have in our hymnody. Now…if we can just convince ourselves to not throw it all out.

So please don’t think I don’t want to come to the dance, folks. I do. And even though I believe evangelicalism is in its winter, what is alive and healthy in evangelicalism these days is very commendable. What’s right is very right.

Unfortunately, what’s wrong is very wrong and has the potential to ruin everything on any list of evangelical strengths.

And it’s in that vein that I have a few critical responses to Scot Mcknight’s list of good things about evangelicalism. (I’ve changed the order of Mcknight’s list for reasons that should be apparent.)

1) Scot commends evangelicals for their positive efforts at ecumenism. Evangelicals have demonstrated much positive ecumenism at particular points, but major questions remain about the foundation and effects of much of that ecumenism. Does the success of the parachurch demonstrate the health of evangelicalism or the weakness of its ecclesiology? What does the ascendency of the parachurch (and the megachurch as memberless ecumenical community) say about the condition of local churches and the attitude of evangelicals towards their churches? Has the movement to a parachurch led evangelicalism come at the expense of confessionalism and church discipline, especially meaningful church membership?

Many of us are distressed that the leadership of parachurch movements function as a de facto magisterium in evangelicalism, and particular ministers far outweigh the influence and importance of pastors for the average evangelical Christian.

Is it really healthy that a parachurch leader has more significance for thousands of Christians than their own pastor, and that so many pastors are faulted for not preaching like a celebrity pastor or author?

Does the positive development of the parachurch have anything to do with George Barna’s contention that the age of the meaningful local church is over, replaced by the internet and the house church?

2) Scot McKnight says that evangelicals are passionate about theology, and this is undeniable…if you look at the right kinds of evangelicals. But if you look at evangelicalism in general, compared to the beginnings of evangelicalism in the post-war, “Carl Henry” period, it’s hard to see how such a statement can be made without extensive footnotes.

I would contend that evangelicalism is rapidly evolving into a kind of theological minimalism; a sort of theological idiocy where whatever theology we still feel obliged to mention is stuck onto whatever we’re doing like the sinner’s prayer at the end of an Osteen sermon. I know that Scot and I know evangelicals for whom theology matters, but the larger evidence is that more than a bare minimum of theology threatens the dominant spirit of evangelicalism.

In my own Southern Baptist Convention, the theological resurgence is being openly opposed by fundamentalists who declare themselves “Biblicists,” and belonging to no theological team. The theological renewal of a place like Southern Seminary will become the fodder for fundamentalist sermons against cold intellectualism, and Calvinism will be blamed for opposing missions and church growth. (A complete canard, btw.)

Yes, the young, restless and reformed are highly theological, and components of the emerging church seem quite theologically inclined, but if Rick Warren or the tens of thousands of pragmatic pastors in his wake are any indication, theology is going to be a hobby, not a central concern, of future evangelicals. Driscoll and Piper represent a segment of evangelicalism, but I’m pessimistic that their tribe will be able to stand against the tide of pablum and amnesia that is drowning evangelicalism.

The rise of Osteen, Jakes, Meyer and a thousand other TBN teachers is made possible because evangelicals will buy almost anything these days that passes for Christian, because they no longer have a theological grid to sort out truth from poison.

Modern Reformation magazine has repeatedly cited research that demonstrates more and more evangelicals have abandoned their confessional theology, their theological vocabulary and any real concern for how theology operates in the life of their churches. “Doctrine divides” was once a description of Protestantism’s reason for existing. Now it’s a legitimate prayer request for what many feel is the worst thing about Christianity.

3) Brother McKnight says that evangelicalism stresses the new birth experience, and I completely concur. I do it every day as I deal with non-Christian students from all over the world. I preach it and I believe it. I believe in “George Whitfield” evangelicalism: “You must be born again.”

From the outset, however, this emphasis in evangelicalism has depended on a theological basis that’s been less than secure and rather elusive. From Wesley and Whitfield to Spurgeon to Graham to Warren to contemporary Southern Baptists and Ray Comfort and the decision cards at you local Judgment House, evangelicals have adjusted, evolved and outright rewritten what it means to be born again. I’m glad I’m born again, because I don’t know if I’d have a chance to know what in the world anyone is talking about today.

In my own life, I’ve gone from a Southern Baptist understanding that equated being born again with walking the aisle to a reformed understanding of a mysterious, surprising sovereign act of regeneration. My Catholic wife now believes that baptism is the means by which we are born again, but this is not just a Catholic view, but a view shared by some evangelicals like the Churches of Christ. Joel Osteen openly rejects the preaching of the cross and the Biblical Gospel in favor of Norman Vincent Peale, but assures his hearers that they are born again by asking Jesus into their heart. Is anyone else skeptical that this is the evangelical Gospel?

The more I hear evangelicals talk about the born again experience, the less I understand it. My old nemesis Phil Johnson has rightly pointed out that evangelicals will talk all day about various political distinctions, but leave all of the world in the dark as to what they mean when they say “you must be born again.” Call the newspapers: Phil’s absolutely right.

Joe the evangelical plumber most likely has no idea how to explain the theology of salvation. He may have had a practical evangelism course at some time and he may know the jargon, but if he knows as much theology as the Two Ways to Live presentation, he’s a rare bird.

Yes, we want the world to be born again. Whatever that means.

4) And lastly, personal transformation. This emphasis gives the most latitude for differences among evangelicals, and they take advantage of the opportunity.

Any fan of the blogosphere has been amused or bemused by the rantings of Ken and Ingrid against the classical spiritual disciplines when they are found in the mouths or books of evangelicals. To these watchbloggers, even Tim Keller is suspect because he endorsed a book that used the word contemplative. You can be personally transformed, just be sure it’s by reading blogs, reading Puritans and listening to Macarthur.

Dallas Willard and Don Whitney are talking coherently about spiritual transformation, but I’m still working on a Jesus shaped spirituality because evangelicals really scrambled my brains on this topic.

Pentecostals and Holiness Christians mean transformation by miraculous infilling of the Holy Spirit. Culture warriors want to know what you think about homeschooling, abortion and gay marriage. Southern Baptists want to know if you are a soul winner. Younger evangelicals say boomer evangelicals are going to the 40 Days of Purpose class.

Those evangelicals with the strongest heritage in the theology of personal transformation are often the least heard from, drowned out by the prosperity preachers and their promise of a whole new YOU! The megachurch has the programs that will transform you, unless you are unlucky enough to be in one that’s decided you need to be a self-feeder.

The emphasis is there….no doubt. So much so that the ensuing confusion necessitated the previous post on sola fide. Personal transformation has become so wrapped up with some evangelical’s theology of salvation that they aren’t sure you are a Christian if you recently had a beer or voted for a Democrat.

I’m sure I qualify as one of the persistent evangelical naysayers, and I need to do better. I should give up the internet and find some reasons to be cheerful. I wonder what’s on Christian television…..

Seriously, thank you Scot for a good and thought-provoking column. I’d be honored if you’d respond to my thoughts here or elsewhere.

Comments

  1. Heh, I saw these exact responses coming from you as soon as I read the McKnight piece!

    Yeah, I’d like to see us Evangelicals get back some of what we’ve lost without throwing out the good stuff that’s still here. I hope Scot does respond 🙂

  2. Great post, Michael. I’m curious to hear you say more about your #7 regarding many of evangelicalism’s problems stemming from youth and student ministries. I agree with your kudos for Veritas, IVCF, and RUF. As a long time youth pastor, I’d like to hear your thoughts about what we could do better. Peace, Jimmy

  3. “…they no longer have a theological grid to sort out truth from poison.”

    Well said. I attended an evangelical church for over a year and couldn’t figure out their theology (maybe it changed from week to week). The trend in some churches is to never carry a Bible, you know you will never need it. Theology is stifling and stops you from discovering the “real Jesus” or whatever. It’s more about asking questions than giving answers. Mr. McLaren, step right up.

  4. “Evangelicals have demonstrated much positive ecumenism at particular points, but major questions remain about the foundation and effects of much of that ecumenism.”

    • Questions remain about the foundation of evangelism itself too. Question remain about the foundation of the Reformation also.

    “Does the success of the parachurch demonstrate the health of evangelicalism or the weakness of its ecclesiology?”

    • Both. I would rather have a bunch of passionate evangelicals spreading the gospel and advancing the kingdom of God without careful organization than careful organization without passionate advancement of the kingdom (so long as your distinction holds).

    “Does the positive development of the parachurch have anything to do with George Barna’s contention that the age of the meaningful local church is over, replaced by the internet and the house church?”

    • House church IS local church when they have elders, preaching, coummunity, discipline, etc.

    “From the outset, however, this emphasis in evangelicalism has depended on a theological basis that’s been less than secure and rather elusive.”

    • Those with theological education (including myself) all too easily slip into a sort of theological snobbery just because evangelicals aren’t all that articulate. If someone says as much as, “God has changed my heart” or “Jesus has changed my heart,” they’ve pretty much said it biblically (Jer 31:33, Ezek 36:26). Nicodemus had no idea (at first at least) what Jesus meant by it either. It’s not an easy concept, and I’m not sure if one can really appreciate the notion anyway until they’ve experienced it. Joel Olsteen does not represent evangelicalism in general (if at all).

    “Dallas Willard and Don Whitney are talking coherently about spiritual transformation, but I’m still working on a Jesus shaped spirituality because evangelicals really scrambled my brains on this topic. … soul winner … 40 days of purpose …”

    • Well … there are different ways of addressing the topic of spiritual transformation. One need not get caught up in semantic variations or despise diverse approaches to sanctification. After all, different people are at different points in their walk and may benefit from a variety of discipleship focus.

    “Personal transformation has become so wrapped up with some evangelical’s theology of salvation that they aren’t sure you are a Christian if you recently had a beer or voted for a Democrat.”

    • Uhh … you gatta point here. This is Legalism with a captial “L” (i.e. false standards for gauging spirituality). But you and I both are guilty of the same thing, but it shows up in different ways.

    “I should give up the internet and find some reasons to be cheerful.”

    • No need to give up the internet! Too many people benefit from your perspectives. Just try to look at evangelicalism as God’s imperfect church much like you look at yourself as God’s imperfect saint and extend the highest possible charity that sober realism will allow.

    Those are my thoughts anyway …

    Bradley

  5. OK, Michael, you’ve throttled me. But I swore off critique in that post to focus on the good things evangelicalism does do — and to invite others to do what you did in your long list — and, for one day, to admit that our friendly fire is friendly. I want to say I agree with all of it, with squibbles here and there, but this post was to be a positive one about evangelicalism.

    I agree: I could have better expressed myself had I said “cooperation” instead of ecumenical. That latter word has some connotations I didn’t intend to enter into the conversation.

  6. This is a nice post. I was screaming, “preach it!” at the computer monitor as I read the Sola Fide post. But I think most evangelicals get justification pretty close, but their view of sanctification typically throws justification out the window. Justification becomes a sort of “second chance” or spiritual bail-out plan; then sanctification becomes a renewed self-driven effort to reform ourselves through the law. Justification becomes a one-time event in the rear-view mirror; sanctification becomes the long, never-ending climb up Mount Sinai toward Mr. Legality’s house.

    So, I’m glad you mentioned “born again” in this post. Salvation by faith alone is a great comfort, but a life of faith that is doomed to a life of bondage to sin is not a message of hope. The message of new life in the spirit announces that not only have I been and am being forgiven, but that every day the Holy Spirit is sanctifying me, conquering sin and manifesting the holiness of Christ in me and my works. I think Luther preached this; I also see it in the Articles of Concord. That is why I get very irate over Lutherans calling themselves “weak on sanctification”. BULL COOKIES!

    But it is also why I will always be a fan of John Wesley, and why true-blooded Nazarenes get me excited. They seriously preach the hope of sanctification as a work of God’s grace. With so many voices preaching various forms of deterministic fatalism, I think people want to hear not only a message of forgiveness but also a message of the hope of change – not change through ten step self-help principles or political revolution but by the power of the Holy Spirit.

  7. “I would contend that evangelicalism is rapidly evolving into a kind of theological minimalism; a sort of theological idiocy where whatever theology we still feel obliged to mention is stuck onto whatever we’re doing like the sinner’s prayer at the end of an Osteen sermon. I know that Scot and I know evangelicals for whom theology matters, but the larger evidence is that more than a bare minimum of theology threatens the dominant spirit of evangelicalism.”

    I think lumping evangelicalism with the antics on TBN is simplistic and disingenuous, and it should be admitted that the “bare minimum of theology” threatens the entire spectrum of American Christianity, including the emerging, the emergent, the postmodern and yes even the “post-evangelical.”

    Brad

  8. DUMB OX >> not only have I been and am being forgiven, but that every day the Holy Spirit is sanctifying me, conquering sin and manifesting the holiness of Christ in me and my works.

    In my recent comment on Sole Fide.. I said that Grace requires a response from the individual..an action. Your description of Grace at work is awesome. Satan knows and understands Grace more than most. But he is not a participant in its covering. Yielding one’s soul to the transforming and redemptive power of Grace is a necessary response.

    IMONK: 🙂 I am likely one of the dumb referred to in scripture, “I called the dumb to confound the wise.” I am ‘dumb’ enough to believe that the Word is the perfect Word of God. I am ‘dumb’ enough to believe that its message is taught by way of the Holy Spirit. I am ‘dumb’ enough to believe that God is perfect, that His creative plan is perfect, that His redemptive plan is perfect, and that His victory in all things is perfect….now and forever. I am completely ‘dumb’ enough to understand that “religion,” in these last days, becomes blended with worldly theology…and that true belief in the one true God is almost extinct. But the state of religion in the world has nothing to do with me. Only the state of MY religion has to do with me. I don’t waste my time concerned with the deceptions of others…unless God sets them in my path. [Mod edited]

  9. A very good list of goods and a very strong and well put critique of some serious downsides.

    As a member of an ecumenical religious community and an evangelical, I find that the first response of too many evangelicals when I talk about my Roman Catholic friends is concern for the influence they might have upon me. We do not do well at ecumenism for several reasons: because we can’t put down the gloves and listen for a minute, because we are habitually oriented towards the conversion of our discussion partners (for good and bad), and because many elements of our fundamentalist roots remain that should be more closely examined.

    With respect to passion about theology, I am mainly around Piper influenced Evangelicals, but what you write frightens me.

    With respect to new birth, you hit the nail on the head. What evangelicals are passionate about is not so much a robust understanding of new birth (one that accords with new creation, new adam, new heaven and new earth, etc.) as it is the ‘classic’ experience of personal conversion. We get conversion – at least in a narrow sense. We don’t get the wider reaching, all encompassing re-generation as well.

    And finally, on a VERY related note, transformation … it would be interesting to ask 1000 evangelicals this question: “What are the top 10 ways in which you hope to be a better Christian 10 years from now than you are now?” It would be interesting.