In my last post I discussed Andy Stanley’s controversial take on the Old Testament and the church’s long historic struggle with it’s appropriation of Jewish Law. In that article I attempted to show that the church’s understanding of “inspiration,” as meaning an inerrant text, has resulted in unethical behavior, following the pattern set in the OT. In other words, inerrancy doctrine blinds the church to unethical behavior and has been used as an excuse for some pretty awful actions over the centuries. It continues to do so.
Historically the church has prided itself as a bulwark against immoral behavior and against the relativism of society as a whole. While there is a degree of truth to the claim; the church has had a stabilizing influence on society, and has been responsible for some good in terms of its ministries, but its successes need to be honestly assessed in terms if its misses as well. In my studies at an evangelical college and later at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena CA, the church’s failures were never much of an emphasis. Church history tended to center around the development of and arguments about Biblical doctrine. To put it another way, sound doctrine was more of a priority than “doing unto the least of these.”
This is not to say students and faculty were uninterested in ministering to those in need, helping the poor, practicing peace and fighting racial inequality. These were focal points of the evangelical, as opposed to fundamentalist agenda. Fuller, in particular, had a diverse faculty and student body, but what I don’t recall was a broad sense of the social impact the church has had on society for better or worse. While I think Fuller has changed of late in that regard, it has been, in my opinion, a shortcoming of the church as a whole.
To better understand what I am taking about we need to go back to the 19th century. America was growing in leaps and bounds, technological advances were making life easier and Americans wealthier. It was a time of manifest destiny, as America became the most powerful nation on earth. Science was telling us more about ourselves, medicine was finding cures for diseases and social barriers were eroding. And in the midst of all this positivity the American church was more “evangelical” than at any other point in history. Unfortunately, the church squandered its opportunity to lead.
The American civil war was the church’s defining moment, and its failure to come to a consensus on the evils of slavery would ultimately would allow society as a whole to take the lead in social reform, while the church would become less and less relevant to social reform and in many cases, resistant to reform. That evangelicals in the South could not understand the evils of slavery while those in the North did, was one of the greatest moral failures of the church in America. Eventually the insistence on an inerrant scripture that supported slavery would divide the biggest denomination in two. Theology took precedence over ethical concerns.
Following the civil war many Southern Christians refused to concede defeat, but allowed a simmering cancer of racism and bigotry to eat away at Southern society, resulting in the Jim Crow South, lynchings, black poverty and eventually civil unrest and rioting. Where the church was during this time is a tale of two cities. Eventually the church would divide along liberal and conservative lines, with liberals following the general trajectory of reform held by society as a whole, and conservatives resisting that trajectory as “conforming to the world.”
Rather than learning a lesson from the civil war, conservatives became merely more entrenched in their unmitigated opposition to change in society. They became nostalgic rather than progressive. This backward thinking, this longing for a imaginary better past, hampered the church from moving forward. Again and again, doctrinal certitude has taken precedence over meaningful social interaction and reform. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, still struggles with racism, white nationalism and misogyny.
As the progressive church (mainline denominations) shrunk in membership, the Moral Majority surged in numbers in the 70s and 80s. What fueled the growth of a largely white conservative church was a fear of the rapid changes to society: feminism, equal rights, gay rights, and a racial blending of America that had once been controlled solely by white males. And, again, the nostalgia for the good old days was largely influenced by Southern evangelical leadership as it is still to this day. Conservatives circled their wagons, and ensconced themselves in megachurches, protecting the faithful while decrying the dangers of communism, the sexual revolution and liberal Christianity.
While hot button issues such as feminism, abortion, illegal aliens and Gay marriage are a constant source of energy and consternation for the conservative church in America, the church has become more and more reactionary and less and less revolutionary. With the hypocrisy and White nationalist tendencies clearly on display the last election cycle, the Religious Right has lost any ability they once had to lead in American society. Instead, their merger with a white, patriotic world view borders on idolatry. And sadly, they are losing their youth. Without a younger generation to pick up the torch, evangelicalism will eventually die. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen.
What we are seeing in America is not a healthy, vibrant church leading social reform, but a reclusive church more concerned with infighting and doctrinal purity than meaningful change. As long as the American church is convinced they are morally superior to society they will be largely oblivious to their own sins and will end up hurting others rather than healing. Ironically society, in its inclusion of people regardless of race, sex, national origin, sexual orientation and religion, is becoming more Christlike and the conservative church less so, at least when it comes to accepting the “others” who look or act differently. When the church focuses narrowly on doctrine, sexual mores and control of women as more important than larger ethical concerns, society moves on without them and rejects the church and its mission. This is sad.
Mark A Noll, “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”