It’s easy to blame revivalism and the “Second Great Awakening” for many of the problems in evangelical and even fundamental Christianity. The movements took us into anti-intellectualism and radical individualism. They turned us into something other than confessional fellowships. We now define Christianity as being about the individual coming to Christ and later going to heaven. In between is some Bible study, inspirational music and a conference or two, a good marriage with a couple of children, and perhaps even caring about social justice. It seems to be all about us and little about God.
But revivalism, as shallow as it was (and is), was not the starting point for the problems. Christianity has been suffering since its early days. At some point the church hierarchy became unaccountable to the point of protecting its immorality. Pelagius’ complaint about the church’s headquarters in Rome was surrounded by a good number of prostitutes. One need not imagine much who was frequenting them.
Then came the obfuscation of doctrine. The primitive truths of the Bible would be supplanted with a cascade of doctrines. These new doctrines seem to make sense in their conclusions but fail when set against core Biblical teachings. As a result, grace was turned into a tradeable commodity, church authority was not to be questioned, and Aristotelean reason was given a place in both cosmology and hermeneutics. Thus the Eucharist was turned into a mystical experience and the Bible became unavailable to the masses.
Against these wrongs came two movements. In the South of Europe was the Renaissance, the revival of “reason” against, not faith, but the authority of a church that would not be questioned. In the North was the Reformation, a movement sparked when, raising money for Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel murals, Tetsel put the grace of God up for sale. Luther reacted and Rome removed him from their fellowship. (I’m ignoring English Protestantism because that split was all about sin, pride, and murder rather than core doctrine and truth.)
Luther emphasized the use of individual reason and conclusions. The Renaissance emphasized reason as a replacement for God. (If you don’t have God what else do you have?) And while Luther, Calvin, and the rest built confessional fellowships they none-the-less built separate confessional fellowships. They split instead of building a sort of functional ecumenical evangelicalism.
Now add two hundred years. Add more emphasis on the individual. Add a disdain for even protestant evangelical training and you have the depths to which American revivalism would take Christianity. Some evidence of this still exists in the humor that would compare “seminary” with “cemetery” as though that’s where one goes to dry up rather than just being about the Bible.
Then a hundred years later the fundamentalists would effectively empty their churches of anything but the Bible while defining itself as in a defensive (thus pessimistic) fashion as a reaction to liberalism rather than in an offensive manner for the furtherance of the Gospel.
One need not wonder long why today’s evangelicals have compromised and accepted social justice from the Marxists. They have rejected hierarchical authority for the supposed Biblical teaching of the “independent” local church. And while local church behavior is inherently Biblical, such a libertarian framing is far from justifiable. It seems we’re just as libertarian in our practice as is the world around us, a situation to which we are oblivious.
Where do we go from here? As I’ve said before, I have little hope for the American church though I have great confidence in the grace of God.
The starting point for a solution would be for every church to become, at some level, a local church Bible institute. Rich training in the Word and in theology. Teach people to think well. Add to that doing evangelism outside the four walls. Speak of the Gospel inside, but in its richness and fullness. Don’t over-simply things. Feed meat. Leave the pasta for pot luck. Call pastors who have a heart for the Word, for evangelism outside the four walls, for education, and for establishing something long-term that outlives him.
To my fundamental friends, I would suggest that there is a good quantity of uncompromising evangelicals who would enjoy their fellowship. We haven’t compromised on the integrity and authority of the Word and we only seek the best possible understanding of the original texts. We do practice “double separation” but only to a different degree. We may speak with the compromised but never accept their conclusions, thus we would never have Shane Claiborne or the like in our fellowships. We’re not that different, though perhaps we do like to get outside our four walls a little more and are stronger on teaching than the revival method. Yet we could fellowship, as did the very different and distinct NT churches.