Can Evangelicals and Christians Coexist in America?

I just read an article entitled, “Can Gays and Christians Coexist in America?” Once again, I find myself annoyed by the presumption--the enduring arrogance present in unself-critically asserting that the “Christian position” with respect to LGBTQ people is by definition condemnatory.

This just in: There are Christians who actually believe God created LGBTQ people the way they are. So, I propose a title more representative of reality:

“Can Evangelicals and Christians Coexist in America?”

Oh, now I’ve got your blood boiling--at least some of you. Such a title sounds like heresy to a significant portion of the American Christian population, since in many people’s minds “Evangelical” is but a placeholder for “Christian”; which is to say, in many people’s minds the Venn diagram of “Evangelical” and “Christian” is a single, round circle. And therefore, anything not in that circle, anything not suitably “Evangelical” enough is suspect tout court.

But, I’ve got to tell you, I’m much less sympathetic to the outrage my title elicits from that particular segment of the population than I used to be. After repeatedly seeing evangelicals refer to their take on faith as “Christianity”--unqualified by even the slightest trace of humility that, you know, there might be other ways of reading the Christian faith that don’t necessarily correspond to evangelical interpretations. There’s always a subtle presumption at work among these folks that evangelical theology is the uncut dope, straight from the dealer--no fancy “interpretation,” no ostentatious hermeneutical parlor tricks (like the liberals employ), no “politically correct” weasel words that say “bad is good” and “down is up”--just the unalloyed stuff God intended for us to know and believe all along. Traditional means always and forever--as in, “We stand for ‘traditional marriage,’ one man and one woman, the kind God laid out in the Bible. We don’t go in for all that stupid contextuality stuff. God’s word is unchanging.”

But that is such a craptacular lie! Or if that’s too strong for you, God’s word may be unchanging, but our ability to read it correctly sure as hell isn’t.

Tradition. Orthodoxy. Precedent. These are not fixed theological quiddities, despite all the indignant howls to the contrary; they’re all much more fluid than Evangelicalism seems comfortable acknowledging. For example:

  • There was a time when baptizing people most likely meant dunking them under water, until it didn’t …

  • There was a time when fighting in the military was an unprecedented affront to the peaceful example of Jesus, until Constantine and his heirs came along and a new precedent was set …

  • There was a time when the mother of Jesus was deemphasized, until she wasn’t, but then the Reformation happened and (among Protestants) she was again …

  • There was a time when torture and forced conversion satisfied the rigorous demands of orthodoxy, until it didn’t …

  • There was a time when tradition permitted the owning of slaves, until traditional Christianity opted for a new tradition …

  • There was a time when it seemed clear to a number of the religious forbears of today’s evangelicals that interracial marriage was a grievous strike against God’s unchanging will for humanity, until it wasn’t …

Tradition, orthodoxy, precedent … all have a nasty habit of changing over time, and thus disappointing those who so vigorously contend that “God’s word is unchanging.” So, it seems a more plausible reading of the history of faith to argue that one of the constants of Christian theology over time is not some fetishized constancy expressed in a vacuum, but an ability to engage an ever changing world in new ways that honor the unfolding reign of God’s desire for peace and justice for all God’s creation.

Consequently, if one of the central components of Christianity is the tradition of thoughtfully embracing new traditions when those new traditions seem more fully capable of expressing God’s character and will in new and previously unheard of ways, then one is prompted to ask the difficult question: Can evangelicals and Christians coexist in America?

Christianity As Impurity Cult or It's Okay to Leave

This article by Tripp Hudgins (aka @anglobaptist) originally appeared on anglobaptist.org.

I guess I should offer a caveat right from the start. I know I'm privileged.  I know that my white, southern, maleness may make the following invalid to many. Still, I'm in The Body known as the Church, too. So, here's some musing on disillusionment, loving the unloving, and what it means to remain invested in the institutional life of Christianity. 

It was 1992 when I was enrolled at what was then a clandestine Baptist seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond was just getting started. My step-grandfather was involved in the initial planning. The faculty was comprised primarily of folk who had lost tenure at places like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. They were too liberal...whatever that meant in the 1980's. The Fudamentalist Takeover had been successful and these intellectual leaders had been ousted from their seminary positions. BTSR was a place to regroup. It was a place to keep working. It was a place to start over. The students who first attended were also looking for a place to escape the insanity of Baptist life of the 1980's. Of course this would prove impossible. We brought the fights and fears into the classroom with us. We looked around and could only see small churches with entrenched and hurtful attitudes about women, human sexuality, and a myriad of other social issues. Enter E. Glenn Hinson...

Glenn was the professor for Christian Spirituality and taught an amazing class on the History of Christian Spirituality. He was also my advisor and encouraged me to become involved at Richmond Hill.

Glenn decided to host a book study group. We were to read Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We struggled with the language, both Bonhoeffer's dense thinking and prose, and the gendered language. We were all about the issue of gender in language about God and Christianity. But we worked through it and found ourselves struggling with the passages about disillusionment.

Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world...The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

Glenn shared his struggles, his losses. He spoke of how he lost tenure in the most abrupt and cruel of ways. Then he demonstrated again and again how through history the Church has been a place of brokeness...just like the rest of the world. He spoke of humility, the humility it takes to repent and forgive...and to recognize that we are not immune to one another's cruelty. We all shared our frustrations and fears. We each had our utopian vision for the Church. Again and again Glenn knocked them down. He did us a great kindness by doing so. Bonhoeffer wrote, "God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious."

The Church is not a purity cult. We try to turn our institutions into purity cultus of behavior or belief all the time. We're really good at it. We've fought wars over our theologies wrapped in nationalism. We've crusaded from west to east all in the name of the purity of the Church. "Ex filio" was a war cry a thousand years ago.

Rachel Held Evans is right. Evangelicalism may very well be losing a generation and by extension, we all are. But then some of us have been losing parts of generations for a long time. Some of the Boomers walked never to return. More of Gen X did the same. Now the enormous generation of Millennials is having its say. Many are voting with their feet. They are tired of the culture wars. They are tired of the purity fights. Many people from various generations are. They are all voting with their feet. The same thing is happening in Catholicism though some arechoosing to stay. If it weren't for the influx of Catholic immigrants to the US, we'd see the same statistical free fall in Catholicism that the mainline is experiencing.

Maybe those who leave the Church actually understand Bonhoeffer. I don't know. Maybe they are looking for what I like to call the "impurity cult" of Christianity. I don't know. All I know is disillusionment, in the end, is good for us. We need to learn that the Church is no different from any other community. We hurt one another. We even kill one another. It can be as terrible as any other place. And it actually becomes more so when we fall for the lie that we're better than anyone or anywhere else...that we are somehow morally pure.

I understand that I'm in a privileged position in many ways. My life and my rights are not threatened in any way. I understand that. I'm not suggesting that people not leave the institutional life of the Body of Christ. If you are being abused, get out. And if you need to stand in solidarity with the abused by leaving with them, then do so. What I do ask you to consider is this: it is one thing to love the "unloveable" or the lepers of this world. It is another thing all together to love the "unloving," the Pharisees of this world. God loves them both and the unloving will always be part of our life together. We are the unlovable and the unloving and we're all in this thing together.

Glenn echoed Bonhoeffer who echoed Christ: life in the Body, in the community of Christ, is not a safe place, a pure place with shiny happy people holding hands. It's not "up with people." It's a place with real people who will intentionally or not find ways to hurt one another. We will always need repentance and forgiveness in our life together. No matter how fluid (or post-modern) the institution, we will need these practices because we will always find some way to oppress one another.

In the end, disillusionment is good for us. We need to rid ourselves of the illusion that there is such a thing as a perfect Church. It doesn't exist. Our imperfections come with us, our impurities come with us when we enter into the life of the Church. So we repent. We forgive. And, sometimes we leave.