The Evangelical Drift
What do escalators and stairs have to do with Evangelicalism today?
A comedian once remarked:
“I like an escalator, because an escalator can never break;
it can only become stairs.
There [should] never be an ‘escalator temporarily out of order’ sign…
only an ‘escalator temporarily stairs
...sorry for the convenience’.”
Stairs and escalators are both feats of engineering that help you get from, say, the first floor of a building to the second floor (and vice versa). Rather than having your friends throw you up to the next level, launching yourself up to the next level from a giant trampoline, or being shot out of a cannon, stairs and escalators conveniently and efficiently get you from point A to point B, without the need for athletic friends or circus equipment.
Stairs and escalators...they’re awesome. And they’re pretty much the same...except for one major difference: you won’t find yourself effortlessly drifting from point A to point B when you step on the first step of a flight of stairs. You have to work to ascend the steps.
Not so with an escalator. If you’re on it, you’re moving--drifting along its engineered trajectory. If you want to go any other direction than the one it is taking you, you’re going to have to work pretty hard (and frustrate the other passengers as you disrupt their calm and peaceful glide).
But the question remains, “What does all of this have to do with Evangelicalism?”
Because the philosophical movements driving our culture are more like escalators than stairs.
In other words, though you may feel as if you’re firmly planted and unmoving in your convictions, the way you think about truth, ethics, and even the Bible is constantly being moved by influential worldviews and philosophies such as Postmodernism, Pragmatism, and Feminism. Our culture is, unfortunately, constantly drifting on a trajectory away from truth, Scripture, and the hope of the gospel, and toward falsehood, darkness, and cultural presuppositions.
The point is that as long as we’re unwilling or unable to resist this slow drift, we will find ourselves easily and conveniently carried further and further away from Christian theology and practice.
The Evangelical Drift
For a clear example of this gradual drift, one needn’t look further than American Evangelicalism. Whether you are aware of it or not, a significant shift has occurred in Evangelicalism over the past 5-10 years. The Christian group that once “held the line” when it came to things like the doctrine of biblical inerrancy or the authority of Scripture has been slowly drifting away from much of its historic Christian thinking.
This blog aims to give a brief overview of a few of the primary philosophical movements influencing and driving this undetected drift among American Evangelicals. These movements are: Existentialism, Pragmatism, Postmodernism, Liberation theology, and Feminism. This will also include a brief discussion of the origins of these movements, what their adherents tend to say, and give an idea of how Evangelical thinking might evolve when driven by such philosophies.
Major Players: Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche
Main Claim: Existence precedes essence.
Explanation of the view: For most of world history, truth was seen as objective. Something’s “essence” (think of “essence” as a “definition” of what something is) existed before your experience of it. Essence preceded existence. Things were true regardless of your experience of them; it was true even before you were born. Sharing was a good thing to do regardless of what you thought about it. Adultery was bad regardless of what you thought about it. Marriage was defined as a union between a man and a woman regardless of what you thought about it. Your personal experience was shaped around and conformed to truth that came before and was more authoritative than your experience, not the other way around. But, in the Existentialist’s worldview, it is the opposite. Truth begins with you. Your personal acquaintance/experience with/of something (existence) precedes the truth about what something is objectively (essence). You define what things are as you experience them; they don’t come “pre-defined.”
Implications of this view:
The avoidance of truth claims from others that don’t share your demographic or experiences.
An elevation of “tone” or how the hearer of an argument feels over the objective content of the argument.
A searching for what you think God is telling you internally (subjectivity) instead of looking to Scripture and church tradition (objectivity).
Random phrases you’ll hear in church that reflect existentialism:
“You can’t tell me that because you are of a different race than me / are a different gender than me / didn’t have to grow up the way I did / don’t know what I’ve been through.”
“It is morally wrong for you to tell me something that is true if it offends me or we don’t have a deep relationship.
“I know the Scriptures say that the only ground for divorce is adultery or physical abandonment, but you don’t know how toxic my marriage is.”
“I don’t have to listen to what you say because I don’t like the way you are saying it.”
“You can’t be against abortion unless you are willing to adopt all the unwanted babies.”
“You just don’t ‘get’ it.’”
Major Players: Charles Sanders Pierce, John Dewey, William James
Main Claim: What is “best” or what is “true” is whatever is most useful.
Explanation of the view: For most of world history people held to what is called a “correspondence theory” of truth. This means that a sentence is true if it corresponds to reality. If there is a cat sitting on a mat and I say, “there is a cat sitting on a mat,” then that statement is true. Pragmatism states that truth should be better defined as what is practically useful for me to believe to accomplish some goal. So, for example, if you asked a pragmatist to tell you whether a Protestant or a Catholic understanding of communion was most biblical, he would say that the question is wrong-headed. At the end of the day, both Protestants and Catholics are eating bread and drinking wine when they take communion, and that is the practical outcome. What is “most biblical” doesn’t determine truth; the practical outcome determines truth. If you know that gravity pulls things down, you know all you need to know about gravity; to ask, “What is gravity?” is just a useless question. Pragmatists care about numbers, worldly success, and what appears to be working more than what is true or faithful despite how things appear. In the church, pragmatists define success by what “works,” and emphasize measuring what works over and above what the Scriptures command (regardless of whether or not it seems to “work” from our vantage point).
Implications of this view:
Numbers equal success.
Group think—what we all agree works must be right.
The end result becomes more important than faithfulness.
The idea that the end justifies the means.
Getting a lot of people saved is more important than having a few people discipled really well.
Random phrases you hear in church that reflect pragmatism:
“Our church is growing and we have a lot of people so we must be successful.”
“We are being faithful as evidenced by our growing influence.”
“We have a lot of members, professions of faith, and baptisms, therefore we are necessarily being biblical.”
“That missionary our church supports hasn’t seen any conversions after 5 years of work in that country, so we should probably drop our support in favor of someone who is actually accomplishing something.”
“It’s not about numbers, but here are some numbers to show that we are succeeding.”
“I know the Bible says that, but this other way seems more practical.”
“It is better to go wide and save more people than to go deep with a few.”
“We will get more people if we are not as controversial.”
“Always be a bridge builder and not a bridge burner.”
Major Players: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard
Main Claim: All claims to absolute theories of truth are actually power plays to oppress those who do not hold to your view of “truth.”
Explanation of the view: Postmodernism does sometimes deny absolute truth, but it is more sinister than that. The Postmodernist claims that whenever someone is making over-arching truth claims, they are actually creating an “in group” and an “out group” in order to oppress those who do not hold to their larger metanarrative; such truth claims are made by the majority to marginalize the minority. Anytime someone says something like, “This is the normal way people act,” they are marginalizing and excluding smaller social groups who may act differently. And claims to be “right” are actually veiled attempts to oppress others. Another thing postmodernists hold concerns how we do interpretation. Since “all authors are dead authors,” it is the reader that determines the meaning of the text. For those like Derrida, we cannot get to the actual substance of what is being read; we just have words that lead us to more words. We can never get “beyond” the text.
Implications of this view:
People who claim to be right are actually proud or evil.
Two Christians who hold opposing views can both be right.
Whoever is currently in power is, by definition, an oppressor.
Because I belong to an oppressed demographic, people within my demographic can never truly oppress others.
The belief that all God’s commands are not contained in the Bible but also in things one thinks God is telling them in their head/heart.
Phrases you hear in church that reflect postmodernism:
“To me this text means” or “God is telling me this text actually means…”
“Well, that’s just your interpretation of Scripture. But I understand it differently.”
“Church leadership has too long been dominated by rich, white, straight men.”
“God cares especially about the poor and oppressed (no matter how they became poor or what they will do with the resources given to them).”
“Same-sex attracted individuals have not felt welcome in the church, so we should not talk so much about how homosexuality is sinful.”
“Yes, we’re both Christians, but I am a ___________ Christian, so you don’t get where I’m coming from.”
“Because I fit in the same category as a person or people group that has/have experienced oppression, I am qualified to speak about oppression and am immune to the charge of being an oppressor.”
“That’s just not my conviction (without biblical reasons that your convictions are right).”
4. Liberation Theology
Major Players: Gustavo Gutiérrez, James Cone, Leonardo Boff, Juan Luis Segundo
Main Claim: Christianity is primarily about the social action of liberating the poor from capitalist power structures or bolstering the status of those currently designated as minorities.
Explanation of the view: For most of Church history, the message of Christianity centered on the gospel of Jesus. It was about how sin had broken the world and how through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ people could be forgiven of their sins and have eternal life. For liberation theologians, the main problem is not our sin, but rather sinfully-influenced socio-economic structures that prevent the poor or minorities from getting away from the “hell” of their day-to-day lives. Whereas orthodox Christians hold that works of justice are an implication of the gospel, liberation theology sees justice as the saving content of the gospel. It also defines “justice,” not in a biblical way, but in a way which prefers certain economic statuses and ethnicities over others. Liberation Theology is a strongly socialist and left-leaning movement, especially as it exists in Latin America. And whereas the Bible would have us minimize our differences (there is neither Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female) because our unity is in Christ, this movement would have us emphasize our differences.
Implications of this view:
The church should focus more on categories of oppressed/oppressor than lost and saved.
Differences among people should be emphasized.
Those who are wealthy or in a position of power must have gotten it by unrighteous means.
Equality should not be an equality of opportunity but an equality of result.
The concept of ethnicity should be evaluated by your particular culture instead of Scripture.
Phrases you hear in church that reflect Liberation Theology:
“Social justice is the primary point of the gospel.”
“Every local church should be ethnically diverse, like the universal church.”
“The church’s responsibility to care for the poor and immigrants, implies that the state must do the same.”
“Abortion is just one of many, equally important, political issues.”
“It’s always unjust for there to be such a big gap between the rich and the poor.”
Major Players: Susan B. Anthony, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Stanton, Simon de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem
Main Claim: Feminism began with the desire for women to have equal political and social rights as men. But as a result of the second wave of feminism that came out of the 1960’s, “feminism” now refers to a movement that seeks to eliminate all the distinctions between the sexes, exalts the voice of women as a marginalized and oppressed group, and seeks to minimize the voice of the traditionally male-dominated society.
Explanation of the view: Biblically, men and women have equal value and personhood, but different roles. Additionally, a truth claim is true for both men and women, equally. In feminism, both of these ideas are disregarded. The Feminist believes that for there to be true equality between the genders, there must be equal access in all roles and in all areas of life. Additionally, feminist writers seek to demonstrate that their “truth” and experience have not been adequately expressed by male authors. The concept of truth in feminism is similar to that in Postmodernism above.
Implications of this view:
The differences between men and women are social – not biblical or physical.
Men cannot speak to women’s issues because they have different standards and experiences of truth.
An attempt to see differences in the genders is seen as oppressive.
An intentional weakening of male leadership in the home and the church.
Phrases you hear in church that reflect Feminism:
“Unless you get a woman’s perspective on all issues affecting women, you are being unfaithful.”
“A woman can teach men in church as long as she is not an elder.”
“You can’t speak to that issue because you’re a man, and you don’t know what it is like to be a woman.”
“The voices of women have been ignored in the past, so we need to right the wrong by elevating their opinions and claims.”
“Only women can minister to women.”
None of the movements mentioned above are Christian. In fact, they all assert anti-Christian worldviews.
People will respond in one of two ways to this information. Some will assume that this is just old, outdated, conservative thinking or fear-mongering and that it can be dismissed because we just don’t “get it” (which is, again, a critique rooted in Postmodernism). But others will ask deeper questions and challenge their own presuppositions. In 2,000 years of church history how many theologians thought women should be ordained? In 2,000 years of church history what allowances were made for divorce? In 2,000 years of church history, how has the gospel been defined? In 2,000 years of church history, how was “justice” defined?
You may be tempted to say, “Well, in 2,000 years of church history, a lot of wrong has been done by the church. Did you forget about the crusades? The selling of indulgences? The murder of Anabaptists? You can’t just say that because the church has done something for a long time, it’s right.” Yes, you’re correct. We can’t just say that because something has been done for 2,000 years, it is right. But, you also can’t say that just because something has been done for 2,000 years, it is wrong. You run the risk of appealing to the same unfounded arguments as those described above. If a person suspects that church history is wrong, the burden of proof is on the person making the new claim to produce overwhelming evidence if they want to overturn what millions of Spirit-inspired believers have said for thousands of years.
We must be careful to anchor our arguments for why something is good or bad in the Scriptures, not our inherited presuppositions. We must question our presuppositions, and maybe consider whether or not the views of Jewish Christians from the first century might differ considerably from 21st century American Christianity.