A response to Peter Wehner’s article in The Atlantic.
There’s trouble a-brewin’ in churches today. Yes, there’s division. Some of the division is good and is needed to provide some doctrinal house-cleaning. We’ve invited all sorts of heresies into church life these days and many of them are extreme, irreconcilable errors. Pantheism and its sibling panentheism (God is everything and God is in everything) have been found acceptable, along with a variety of sins that the God specifically condemns. Over 200 years ago the otherwise-respected preacher Jonathan Edwards adopted a panentheism and today Stephen Furtick has done the same. (And they say we’re intolerant!)
There are other errors coming in as well. To be certain they are not new errors. All of my life there has been a problem with how to engage civic issues. (I’ll minimize use of the term “political” because it conjures up the idea of party affiliation and preference. Party is not the point.) Some (notably Anabaptists) have tried to stay completely apart. Others have attempted to work out some sort of accommodation to civic questions and solutions and the options available are many and varied.
This is about evangelicals. Liberals have been doing this for decades. It’s nothing new for them. Evangelicals did it more before the 20th century but took a hiatus for most of the past century. There was a major theological shift that contributed greatly to this, but that’s another lesson.
The things that are happening in the church are multi-faceted. Some teachers/pastors have opted to adapt either the specific framework of certain neo-Marxists or, at a minimum, adopt the epistemology at play. That is, some have gone full CRT with its overt Marxist teachings while others are attempting to reconcile certain components of CRT (and adjacent questions) with Christian teaching. The results have been less than spectacular.
In The Atlantic is an article by Peter Wehner on division among evangelicals. “The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart” attempts to describe this shift. His first example is David Platt, followed by Russell Moore and Beth Moore. With these personalities the author describes their plight in terms of lies, manipulation, and abuse in order to bring a more conservative civic framework into church life.
After laying out his case regarding these personalities in the first section, he begins the second section with this statement:
How is it that evangelical Christianity has become, for too many of its adherents, a civil religion?
I can’t think of a more disingenuous remark. Yes, there are incidents of over-politicizing church life. I was saddened when the late E. V. Hill hosted Al Gore in 2000 and in 2020 Mike Pence was hosted in a flag-waving church service. (Not all evangelical compromises have been in favor of conservatives.) There is a difference between addressing civic issues versus the promotion of candidates.
The pro-life movement was and is about an issue. The voter guides common distributed in churches have, by and large, been careful to address the issue and draw a relationship to candidates without ever saying “Vote for ‘B’” as that would be a potential 501c3 violation. (The ACLU still opposes even this generic language.)
Likewise the question of race is an issue. But the concern in church discussions today, despite the author’s statements, is about the Marxist framing of the issue. Instead of dealing with the real question he goes with this syllogism:
Let’s say Person “A” commits an error. And let’s say that error is on a matter of socio-political concern. Now let’s say Person “B” takes note of the error and proposes changes that would seek to mitigate the error. The question is: Which party is being “political” in its behavior.
The author’s conclusion is that the leaders who are being criticized are just trying to be faithful on matters of race while the critics are politicizing the issue. I think that’s called a straw man, no matter how eloquent the writing style or prestige of the publication.
He does get one thing right in quoting Alan Jacobs: “Culture catechizes.” It does affect our sensibilities toward each other. Cable news and social media are having a significant impact on how people thing. But after spending most of piece going after the conservative voices in church life he draws the equivocation that it happens to both the right and the left. If that is so, why spend so much time demonizing the right for its opposition to current theological errors? Why spend zero time dealing the past several decades that have corrupted what was once an idealistic liberalism and turned it into a cynical political agent?
He also returns to the old canard about Constantine. I’m sorry, but those days are gone. He does bring up (via Du Mez) “Christian nationalism” and clearly doesn’t understand what is happening in church life. He would rather engage in a caricature than deal with any evangelical theologian who might explain things better.
It’s a wonder he didn’t bring up the Third Reich. But he does to half-way with an accusation of racism by raising the cited accusation of the “southernization of the Church” where the demons are “masculinity and male dominance, tribal loyalties, obedience and intolerance, and even the ideology of white supremacism” coupled with the assertion that “Southern culture has had a profound impact upon religion, particularly evangelical religion.”
So, he builds on this and interprets current events through a political lens.
The key issues in these conflicts are not doctrinal, Fryling told me, but political. They include the passions stirred up by the Trump presidency, the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and the January 6 insurrection; the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and critical race theory; and matters related to the pandemic, such as masking, vaccinations, and restrictions on in-person worship. I know of at least one large church in eastern Washington State, where I grew up, that has split over the refusal of some of its members to wear masks.
“There have always been mean people who cloak their unkindness in religious devotion,” one minister in a conservative denomination told me. “The New Testament itself is pretty clear about that.” But, he added, the conflicts have grown more widespread and more intense. “Without doubt you’ll see—you already are—a ton of pastors quitting,” he said. ”Most pastors actually hate conflict. So if you’re going to pay me one-quarter of what I could make on the market, why put up with this?”
Note that the author deals only with surface issues. He does not, whether he can or not I do not know, deal with questions of doctrinal integrity or worldview.
Then, again, he does in a backhanded way. It is pressure like this that is placed on evangelicals to treat things like either overt Marxism or the less-visible Marxist epistemology as secondary, lower-shelf items. They are nothing of the sort. Marxism always corrupts the doctrine of salvation by making certain claims on human nature and sin. A Marxist epistemology may not make such statements directly but always makes the demand that issues be framed in that manner, according to conflict and class. That’s not James, that’s not Philemon, that’s not Galatians. That’s not Christian.
When you commit to a political framework for everything you analyze then that’s all you’re going to be able to communicate to people. As Christians we know that a proper worldview is through the lens of the Bible, not the lens of politics and class divisions. This article can serve as a working example of how a Marxist epistemology corrupts doctrine, for it does the same thing to thought in general. Whether the hard thought life of the confessed Marxist of the softer analytical method of cultural Marxist is employed one ends up with corruption of doctrine and teaching.
It is this pressure which is dividing evangelicalism. While new age cults creep in and may be easily identified by their mysticism, questions of epistemology and framework are less visible to “the average person in the pew.” We’re getting our catechism from the emasculated character of Free Guy, from cable news, from popular entertainment, from social media, and more. At the same time we are treating church education as unnecessary activity, or one that, because it isn’t what it needs to be, should probably be set aside. Fixing it might be a better idea. Just my opinion.
Historical frameworks are useful to see where we are at. For the past several decades, really the past three centuries, we’ve eliminated in-person corporate prayer, catechetical instruction, and so much that the church in the U.S. is but a shadow of its former self. It took a couple centuries for the individualism of democracy and individualism to infect the church. Modernity as expressed in “I think therefor I am” later became a covenant-free salvation message that often excluded the church. Today we follow culture by roughly two to three decades. The feminism of the 50s & 60s became the theological feminism of the 80s and 90s. The sexual revolution of the “gay 90s” became the tolerance for sodomy of the 2020s. The theological Marxism of the 70s (eg Cone, et al) is now bearing its fruit with a theological influence that seemed difficult to predict. But it’s here in a variety of forms. And the theology of many has been corrupted.
I did find it odd that the author would rail against people, especially elders, holding pastors and teachers accountable. I wonder what he thinks about the Roman Catholic system not holding priests accountable for their abuses. It seems a position that cannot be held with consistency. Accountability of pastors to both denominational and local church leaders is critical. Pastors are not above legitimate and properly-handled criticism.
Articles like this spend their time repeating talking points over and over again. In a year you’ll read the same thoughts in different words in another publication. Same song, next verse. And on and on it goes.
The challenge is to ask pastors to deal with questions of race apart from a Marxist frame of reference. Again, James, Galatians, and Philemon cover the core issue of class and church behavior and they do so without introducing a foreign set of principles into our theology.
The whole of this nation is a hotbox for Marxist indoctrination. What’s left for the church is to cease its compromises.