Last week I put out a tweet thread expressing concern about a tendency toward conspiratorial thinking among evangelicals. I concluded the thread by affirming my solidarity with evangelicalism amidst dysfunctions:
Most of the responses were positive, but there were also some very negative ones, and it was interesting to ponder the different mentalities reflected in the positive vs. negative reactions. In some respects they seem to reflect one the emerging fractures within evangelicalism.
I’ve carefully considered the critical responses, sincerely trying to understand where they are coming from. Upon reflection, I’d like to interact with a few of them in order to make a plea for more openness to self-criticism among evangelicals. I do recognize that criticism of evangelicals can be done very badly (and often is), so I understand how people can feel a bit defensive. But I also think that self-criticism is necessary to a healthy evangelical Protestantism: we cannot practice semper reformanda if we close our eyes to what needs reforming.
Here are four of the more common reactions, and my responses. I know that the more militant voices on the right will simply respond with more attacks, but I share these thoughts in hope they might help those who are open to considering that evangelical self-criticism can be appropriate.
1. It’s Unloving
One common response is that criticism of conspiratorial views or other flaws in evangelicalism is unloving, too frequent/incessant, elitist, and/or scolding/self-righteous. These concerns surprised me because my tweets contained nothing defamatory or contumelious. They simply cited statistics, asked how we can talk about them without getting a volcanic backlash, and affirmed my love of evangelicalism amidst my concerns.
So far as I am aware, I’m concerned about dysfunctions in evangelicalism precisely because I love evangelicalism. I don’t feel superior to evangelicalism, nor am I incessantly criticizing conspiracies (this is actually the first time I have publicly addressed them). I’m simply trying to be faithful as a Christian and a pastor within evangelicalism in light of what I’m seeing both in my local context as well as in the sociological data.
Suppose you are on a boat. You see an iceberg ahead. You express alarm. Responses like “I don’t believe you” or “Yikes! How close?” or “How good is your eyesight?” all make sense. But the response “that is unloving and elitist” is hard to comprehend. Worrying about the iceberg is a reflection of concern for the boat (and the people aboard it).
The charges of being unloving or self-righteous are also ironic in light of the avalanche of nastiness in the responses, like this one:
There were lots even worse that I could cite: people questioning my salvation, calling me a wolf in sheep’s clothing, saying I am doing the work of Satan, etc. They neither surprised nor fazed me, so no one needs worry about it. I run a YouTube channel; I’m used to the internet being the internet.
What is noteworthy, though, is how some of those calling for more loving criticism seem curiously untroubled by the lack of love on their own side.
2. It’s Inconsistent
Another response was that my concern with conspiratorial views among evangelicals is inconsistent with my more nuanced thinking about matters of theological triage. This was the heart of Woke Preacher’s Clips long response.
But my comments on theological triage are in long-form mediums like books or video interviews; of course they will be more nuanced than tweets. No one should be surprised that books and videos go into more depth than tweets.
More basically, this criticism simply mishears me. I never suggested that these conspiratorial issues were first-rank issues. In fact, I live and move among Christians who fall on both sides of them with ease (and with love).
By contrast, and to clarify, I do think that issues of sexuality and gender can move into the first-rank territory, though it depends on what the issue is. For example, I think openly teaching and approving of gay marriage generally moves into the first-rank territory. At the same time, there are many nuanced questions about same-sex attraction that true Christians disagree about. I was reacting in the moment to the question about this in the clip Woke Preacher links to, and I didn’t communicate my convictions well.
3. What About the Good?
Another common response is essentially, “but look at all the good evangelicalism is doing!” This helped me understand that some people were mishearing my tweets as a kind of generalized condemnation of evangelicalism.
It had never even occurred to me to think that concerns about conspiratorial thinking among evangelicals would be perceived to be at odds with the good within evangelicalism, as though the two are incompatible. I study church history. The church is always a mess.
To this concern my response is simply that pointing to the good in evangelicalism is a woefully inadequate response to the bad. If you disagree, just imagine if someone used that excuse to avoid personal sanctification or accountability. “You have a problem with stealing,” you say. They respond, “yeah, but look how much I’m tithing at church!”
That doesn’t work for evangelicalism as a whole any more than it works for an individual. Essentially, it’s a deflection.
4. What Does “Evangelical” Mean?
Another response is to object to the label “evangelical,” or perhaps “white evangelical.” Some question the accuracy of the label on the grounds that many people self-identify as evangelical for political or cultural reasons, but have minimal evangelical theological beliefs, church involvement, or spiritual commitment. The problem, however, is that surveys often do assess the church attendance, biblical knowledge, prayer life, and general spiritual interest of those identifying as evangelicals—and the presence of conspiratorial beliefs does not seem to be significantly reduced among evangelicals who rank high in these areas.
Others object to the label “evangelical” on the grounds that the entity it refers to is so large and diverse. But this is simply how labels work. If I did a survey on “men under the age of 25” or “Americans who own at least one car,” the results would give you information about a huge and diverse target group. But that doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful and accurate information. All abstract nouns work like this. Descriptions of evangelicalism as a whole are meaningful even if they do not apply equally to every individual or institution that goes by that name.
There are real problems in evangelicalism, and those who love evangelicalism should be the first to say so. Even when we see increasing hostility to evangelicalism from the left, and are (rightly) concerned about that, we must not minimize the ugliness, hate, fearmongering, violence, and general lunge toward fundamentalism that is happening on the right.
We should not be threatened or defensive about acknowledging these problems. Our identity as the people of God is not rooted in being better than our ideological enemy in a culture war. It is rooted in the gospel, the evangel, the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. When we understand that, we can oppose sin and error wherever it is found, whether on the right or the left. An evangelicalism that can freely acknowledge its own sins and errors is the only evangelicalism worthy of the name.