Next the devil took him to the peak of a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. “I will give it all to you,” he said, “if you will kneel down and worship me.” “Get out of here, Satan,” Jesus told him. “For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the LORD your God and serve only him.’ ”
After years of deep personal introspection, much head-scratching, and more than one fruitless conversation, I finally came to a conclusion. Here’s the thing: I had been searching for a singular underlying ideology or philosophical framework that undergirds modern Evangelicalism (particularly in America)—a “theory of everything” if you will—that would explain much of the behavior and posture Evangelicalism has towards progressives and others which lie outside its self-imposed bounds. I wanted to be able to explain the very real differences between how progressive Christian movements and the Evangelical movement understand and interpret Biblical texts, and the downstream impact that has on politics, morality, and so much more.
The pieces fell into place in my mind just recently while jotting down notes as I listened to Alisa Childers’s podcasted response to Pete Enns’ podcasted commentary on Alisa’s article for The Gospel Coalition: 3 Beliefs Some Progressive Christians and Atheists Share. (Got all that?)
Alisa’s article on TGC’s website certainly rubbed me the wrong way when I first read it back in November 2018, and I thought about writing a response here at Simple Praxis. In a nutshell, the article contends that progressive Christians and Atheists share some particular ideas which just might result in progressive Christians heading down a path to rejecting faith altogether and becoming Atheists.
Here’s the gist of what I planned to say in my rebuttal:
I’ve seen the exact opposite trajectory happen in my life! Progressive Christianity hasn’t led me on a slippery slope towards Atheism, but rather my flirtation with Athesim (or Agnosticism to be precise) was curtailed by my embrace of progressive Christian approaches to Biblicalism, morality, and faith matters. In other words, I didn’t consider leaving the Christian faith behind after becoming a progressive. I became a progressive in order to hold on to my Christian faith after my severe disillusion with conservative Evangelicalism!
All right, so that would have been an article—had not an interesting turn of events transpired. Pete Enns, a popular author and podcaster in the camp of progressive Christian theologians, recorded a response on his show The Bible for Normal People, in which he took Alisa to task (in a respectful and gentlemanly manner I believe) for the many category errors and false premises of 3 Beliefs Some Progressive Christians and Atheists Share. Alisa then in turn addressed Pete’s podcast, and that’s what I’d like to address today.
I do appreciate that both Alisa and Pete were able to have this dialog without resorting to petty name calling or ad-hominem attacks. However, what made me increasingly upset as I listened to Alisa’s response to Pete is she never engaged in any sort of self-reflection or self-critical analysis over what he had said. At the end of it all, she stood by her article 100% and showed no interest in understanding where Pete was coming from and why he was so concerned about the problematic nature of her original article.
So the two “tribes” here are certainly clear. Alisa consideres herself in one, Pete in another. What I’d like to do is look at how Alisa’s defense of her article reveals some extraordinary insights into the inner workings of Evangelicalism—in particular, how its obsession with categorization points to an underlying need to establish authoritarian power dynamics which are inhumane, divisive, and—in my opinion— thoroughly un-Christ-like. We see this authoritarianism play out in Evangelical positions regarding social justice, sexuality, gender relations, race relations, abuse in the Church, leadership roles, governmental politics, interfaith dialog, contemplative spirituality, and many other areas of faith and life.
Why So Many Categories?
authoritarian (adjective): favoring complete obedience or subjection to authority as opposed to individual freedom; exercising complete or almost complete control over the will of another or of others.
The authoritarian bent of Evangelicalism sometimes shows up in subtle ways. One of the common symptoms you’ll find is that Evangelicals are obsessed with putting concepts into distinct categories. At least that’s the impression I get after reading or listening to so many of the arguments Evangelicals make, and Alisa Childers is no exception. The reason this is so important to be aware of is that by putting ideas (and thus the people who hold those ideas) into distinct categories, and labeling those categories as “of God” (holy, pure) or “not of God” (sinful, rebellious), Evangelicals get to pick the winners and loosers of the religious game they play. It also results in seeing entire people groups as nothing more than stereotypes, as other. Woe to you if you ever pursue a line of thinking which lands you in the other category!
Let’s watch this categorization obsession in action. Starting off her podcast speech, Alisa made this statement:
“Christianity is set apart from other world religions—others are a set of teachings or things to do, but Christianity is about following the person of Jesus Christ.”
The funny thing is I used to believe this. I bought the party line without question. “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” was a phrase I heard numerous times. The problem is it’s demonstrably false. Christianity—at least as it’s practiced by Evangelicals—is absolutely and unquestionably a set of teachings and things to do. And you’d better be on board with those teachings, and you’d better do the things you’re expected to do by the religious establishment…or you’re out.
This has happened countless times—in fact, if there’s any one commonality between all of the people who claim solidarity with the modern #Exvangelical movement, it’s that they’ve all felt the fury of Evangelical wrath rain down on them for their lifestyles or philosophies which are considered heretical or demonic…or worse, liberal. To be honest, I’d love to say that Christianity is simply about following Jesus, and not all the other 2,000+ years of baggage which typically comes along with it. But that’s not the world we live in.
The next statement I’d like to highlight is, in a bizarre twist, Alisa cites notorious Atheist author and pundit Christopher Hitchens and his attempt to define the parameters of true adherence to the Christian faith and why many progressives simply don’t qualify. Wait, what? Alisa agrees with the Atheist about what it means to be or not to be a Christian? Hmm, perhaps she should write an article about the beliefs which conservative Evangelicals have in common with Atheists! All snarking aside, the notion that a progressive Christian can be denied the right to religious identification with Christianity on the grounds that an Atheist has defined Christians as being solely of the conservative/fundamentalist ilk (which of course makes it easier to turn religion into a rhetorical punching bag) is simply ludicrous.
Let’s turn our attention now to another categorical obsession: creeds.
Overloading the Historical Creeds
Alisa kept using the term “historical Christianity” over and over again in her arguments and went to great lengths to establish the notion that Christianity was born with the shared understanding that creeds define what it is and what it isn’t. In other words, you can only claim to be a Christian legitimately if you adhere to those creeds. One of the creeds she cited is a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church. –1 Corinthians 15:3-9
Now the nature of this passage isn’t particularly controversial. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is indeed a central part of the story taught by the vast majority of Christians about their faith.
But what Alisa does is insert Evangelical doctrine into her interpretation of this creed, thereby “overloading” it with concepts which later developed over hundreds of years. In particular, she claims that in this passage, Paul establishes the early beginnings of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. “Christ died for our sins” becomes Evangelical code for “Christ died on the cross to save you from the punishment you deserve and the effects of God’s wrath, so that instead of being damned to hell for all eternity like most of the human race, you will now go to heaven along with a select few who have also accepted Christ as their personal savior.”
In light of this, progressives who reject the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement run the risk of apposing Paul’s creed as outlined in 1 Corinthians. Yikes! This is complete nonsense, because there’s nothing in this creed whatsoever to define what it means to say that Christ died for our sins. It could mean what Alisa says it means, or it could mean something very different…a Christus Victor understanding of atonement being one of many possible options.1
It bothers me that Alisa would choose to ignore this very historical theological debate and instead claim that “historical Christianity” is in fact just the beginnings of Evangelicalism. Very convenient for her side, of course, but it’s in no way an accurate portrayal of the rich tapestry of Christian theological discourse over many centuries. (She made the same mistake in a recent article on her blog along with other similar assertions.)
Let’s recap: so far we’ve looked at how Alisa created categories of “who’s in” and “who’s not in” the center of genuine Christian faith based on…what Atheists think and how Evangelicals insert their pet doctrines into historical Christian creeds. But wait! It gets even weirder…
Pushing the Boundaries of Inerrancy
On the topic of Biblical inerrancy, which is something Pete Enns talks about frequently on his podcast, Alisa insisted she isn’t making the claim that if you don’t hold to the doctrine of inerrancy (aka the Bible is wholly the inspired word of God without error in its original manuscripts) you aren’t a Christian. While she thinks it’s dangerous to throw out that doctrine, you can and still be a Christian even if you do. I appreciate her saying that. The problem lies with his woefully inconsistent Alisa is in her position. Even as Alisa tries to appear fair-minded in her podcast, her very own article says otherwise! It makes the opening statement:
“Here are three atheistic ideas that some progressive Christians espouse and may lead them into full-blown atheism.”
One of those ideas of course is that the Bible isn’t entirely infaliable or inerrant. Apparently Atheists are the ones who first question the reliability of the Bible, and then progressive Christians pick up that ball and run with it—setting them on the slippery slope to renouncing their faith. Alisa wants to seem reasonable and not make inerrancy a litmus test for Christianity—all the while stating you’re just one step away from full-blown Atheism if you’re not an inerrantist. I’m sorry, but you simply can’t have it both ways!
Like I stated towards the top of this article, many progressive Christians have rejected the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy/infalibility not because they are in the process of losing their faith, but rather so that they can in all good conscience hold on to their faith! When we see major violations of decent moral conduct in the Bible (for example, the problematic nature of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, or the numerous affirmations of slavery), or when we find clear examples of ancient Mesopotamian or Grecco-Roman culture influencing the Biblical writers (and not the other way around), we have the freedom to discuss those problems and wrestle with them honestly. An inerrantist has no such freedom—to acknolwedge there’s any problem whatsoever is to open the door to the humanity of the Bible, and we simply can’t have that!
Speaking of the human authors of the Scriptural texts, Alisa was very bothered by the notion that the Bible was written by humans, for humans. She made a big deal about a Rob Bell quote she included in her original article: “[The Bible is] a profoundly human book.” In Alisa’s view, that quote is misguided because the Bible is not about humanity, but rather “it’s about God.” (Let’s just ignore the fact that the Gospel is literally centered on the story of God becoming human!)
Alisa continued by claiming that not only is the Bible about God, but the Bible was literally written by God—not simply inspired by or influenced by, but actually written word-for-word by God. Her exact quote:
“The Doctrine of Biblical Inspiration teaches that…what they [the Biblical authors] wrote were the actual words of God.”
Let’s all shout for joy that Evangelicals know exactly how the Bible was written! It was some sort of divine dictation—all the authors heard voices in their head or something, and subsequently wrote down just what God told them to write. This means, for example, God wrote Psalm 23, not David! (Does this mean God wrote Song of Songs 7? He’s one racy deity, that guy.)
Seriously, I’m not even sure many Biblical scholars who hold to inerrancy are willing to go out on that limb. But the sad truth is there are scores of lay people who simply lack deep historical and cultural knowledge concerning Scriptural passages and have bought the party line on inerrancy because that’s what they’re told by Evangelical preachers. The reason inerrancy is so useful is because it shuts down reasonable discussion and debate. “God said it, here’s the chapter and verse, case closed.” I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen people take to Twitter, for instance, and they honestly believe that just by quoting a verse here or there they have put forth the divinely-inspired final word on any matter.
Alisa chafes at this depiction of Evangelicalism. In the podcast she argued that Pete Enns put forth a straw man when he claimed that Evangelicals will look up specific chapters and verses to find solid moral statements about good or bad behavior. But here’s the thing—this is what everybody in every Evangelical Bible study I’ve ever been to does! This isn’t a straw man. This is how Evangelicalism works. This is how most people who consider themselves “Bible-believing Christians” read the Bible. They pull certain verses out of Genesis or Romans or whatever, and construct very rigid moral or theological statements out of a simplistic and context-free reading of those verses. I’ve seen it happen time, and time, and time again. Alisa is deliberately ignoring a very real, very concerning problem that is commonplace and widespread in her own camp.
Patronizing the Progressives
In my final point, I would like to showcase the way that Alisa defends Evangelicals by invoking the “no true Scotsman fallacy.” According to Wikipedia:
No true Scotsman or appeal to purity is an informal fallacy in which one attempts to protect a universal generalization from counterexamples by changing the definition in an ad hoc fashion to exclude the counterexample. Rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule (“no true Scotsman would do such a thing”; i.e., those who perform that action are not part of our group and thus criticism of that action is not criticism of the group).
Alisa posits that progressive Christians who spend their efforts pushing back against Evangelicalism are often attacking a false caricature of Evangelicalism. When we say it’s abusive, authoritarian, inhumane, etc. we’re simply looking at extreme cases which aren’t representative of most Evangelicals. If only we truly understood Evangelicalism for what it is, it would no longer be something we have to fight against.2
Alisa’s attitude is unfortunately quite patronizing towards progressives. Basically she thinks we simply can’t be trusted to share an accurate portrayal of the seedy underbelly of Evangelicalism. Another way this comes out is in her response to Pete’s contention that Alisa’s original article and much of Evangelical apologetics in general indicates a troubling lack of curiostiy. Alisa got very upset about that observation…all while recording an entire podcast which demonstrates a serious lack of curiosity! Alisa does not seem interested in what’s actually going on with progressive lives, theological perspectives, or concerns. All she can do is what Evangelicals always do when people realize the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes: circle the wagons, engage in stereotyping and categorization, defend their “God-given” Biblical authority, and gaslight any critics who have suffered at the hands of Evangelicals.
The very last straw arrives near the end of the episode. Alisa’s wise word to progressives is that we must be careful not to resort to trusting ourselves in our faith journeys away from Evangelicalism. Instead, we need to allow ourselves to be gently nudged back to orthodox Evangelical faith and practice by caring churchgoers. Our concerns, our critiques, our sense that something is deeply wrong, our processing of spiritual abuses, our reexamination of the Jesus story, our deconstruction process…that’s all a phase we might have to go through for a short time, but it’s acceptable only insofar as the end result is that we end up squarely back in the Evangelical fold—like Alisa.
I feel like it should go without saying that if you’ve determined the outcome of an intellectual inquiry before you even begin that inquiry, it’s called “don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind’s made up.” If you begin questioning what you believe about God with the determination that you’ll end up believing the same things about God…well, honestly, what’s the point of that?
It All Comes Down to Authority
This basic Evangelical contention that our own minds and our own hearts can’t really be trusted…that our sinful humanity will inevitably betray us…and thus we need to submit to the authority of the Bible (really, the Evangelical interpretation of the Bible)—this is ultimately what everything boils down to. The categorization, the stereotyping, the rewriting of history, the gaslighting of abuse victims—it all comes down to authority. Evangelicals shout from the rooftops that “the Bible is the ultimate authority.” What they really mean is: “our reading of the Bible and the conclusions we draw from it is the ultimate authority.”
Alisa Childers makes this clear in yet another blog post where she states:
Even if we work together to build a better society, we will still be rotten to the core without repentance and the transformation of the Holy Spirit.
If you don’t accept the Evangelical interpretation of the Gospel and what the ministry of Jesus represents, clearly you remain unrepentant. Therefore, like everyone else who isn’t in the “saved” category, you are still rotten to the core.
Progressive Christianity is a threat to Evangelical power, which is why Evangelicals hate it so much—perhaps even more than Atheism. It challenges the way they misuse Scripture to establish their power and wield it.
- Progressive Christianity challenges misuse of the Bible to promote hatred of LGBTQ+ people.
- Progressive Christianity challenges misuse of the Bible to defend abusive church or political leadership.
- Progressive Christianity challenges misuse of the Bible to further subjugation of women (under the guise of “complementarianism”).
- Progressive Christianity challenges misuse of the Bible to promote bad policies, ignorance, and sometimes sheer malice towards the ethnic or religious minorities such as African-Americans, Muslims, etc.
- Progressive Christianity challenges misuse of the Bible to encourage bad science which denies very real environmental concerns such as climate change and ecosystem decimation.
And the list goes on.
Listen, I’m not trying to launch rhetorical grenades at Alisa Childers. She’s not the enemy. She’s simply presenting the party line of Evangelicalism. She does that well! It’s not surprising. But what is surprising is how so many of us who believe in Jesus let ourselves get duped into thinking Evangelicalism is Christianity. Yes, at one time, I was completely fooled. But slowly I began to see the cracks in the armor, the nonsense of so much of its doctrinal positions, the racism and the bigotry…and then the election of Donald Trump happened. 80% of white American Evangelicals who voted in 2016 voted for a white supremacist who abuses women and worships at the altar of money. How could this have happened?
The answer is simple. Trump promised political power to Evangelicals. And because Evangelicalism is obsessed with authoritarianism, it gladly accepted the offer. You see, authoritarianism trumps (ahem) every other consideration. Even Evangelicals who rejected Trumpism and are quick to call out those who support such a man remain entrenched in a belief system which finds, one way or another, its mojo in authoritarian contexts.
It’s good and right for the #Exvangelical movement to fight against specific ills of Evangelicalism. But I believe the heart of the matter is very basic. Progressive Christians examine the life of Jesus and come to believe:
Jesus came to demonstrate godly authority by being a servant who gave generously, loved freely, sought peace, revealed the hypocrisy of the religious/political establishment, and affirmed the humanity of the least.
Evangelicals reject such a Jesus, and in doing so, their claim of faithful adherence to “historical Christianity” can be demonstrated as thoroughly misleading and untrue.
It’s high past time we who consider ourselves “progressive” Christians in America challenge the popular notion that to be a Christian is to be an Evangelical. Believe me, I am more than willing to join hands in Christian fellowship with anyone who follows in the footsteps of Jesus. But you have to be willing to tear down the walls that divide us, lay down your desire to win some “culture war,” and start listening to the voices of the downtrodden and abused. Only then can we witness the glorious outcome of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-24:
I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began!
Christians (such as myself) who hold to a “Christus Victor” doctrine of atonement equally affirm along with the proponents of “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” that Christ did indeed die for our sins. But in the Christus Victor scenario, Jesus didn’t die so that we would be spared from God’s wrath, but rather to free us from enslavement to the powers of evil, sin, and death that have ruled over the world. Instead of God starting out as the villain of the story and then Jesus comes to rescue us from…God (a very odd narrative to be sure), Jesus comes to rescue us from cosmic powers of darkness and God is actually the hero of the story after all. Interestingly, in C.S. Lewis’ allegory of Christ’s work on the cross contained in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we see a definite portrayal of the Christus Victor understanding of that event (a fact which has caused not a small amount of consternation among certain Evangelicals). In short, it is disingenuous to posit that Christians who reject the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement are somehow part of some progressive fringe element trying to deny the power of Jesus’ sacrifice and mess with historical Christian theology. ↩
Alisa put forth a logical fallacy: “no true Evangelical would be abusive/hateful/etc.” And yet…countless stories have come out and are continuing to come out in the #ChurchToo movement about sexual assult, abuse, manipulation, covering for leadership, hate speech, and many other ills which plague Evangelical churches. These are widespread problems, not infrequent one-offs seen in fundamentalist backwaters. Sweeping them under the rug benefits no one in the end. (Let’s be honest, it’s not just Evangelical churches where we see these problems. Any authoritarian religious institution will trend towards systematic abuse and bigotry, as we’ve also seen in various corners of Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, and so forth.) ↩
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