A few days ago I received the unfortunate assignment of the 6am shift at work. When I have to go somewhere this early I like to get up well in advance in order to be truly awake for my various tasks. As a result, I rose at 4am and took my sweet old time eating my breakfast. During my Honey Nut Cheerio feast, I took a gander into a magazine I found sitting on the table; it was the Christian magazine World Magazine. What I found in this magazine was frustrating and in my opinion a vivid example of some of the problems facing the Evangelical Church.
I opened the magazine and went to the religion section in the back. Here, I found an article entitled “Going Pagan.” The article begins by pointing out just how dark and unchurched Britain is by citing some poll figures (proudly lamenting the lack of faith in Europe is a bad habit American Christians seem to have developed, as if America is overflowing with believers itself and we here in the States are doing everything right), insinuates that this is due to the Church of England, and then begins digging into a recent evangelism idea thought up by a small group in the Church of England. The idea, inspired by the growing number of pagans in Britain, was to create pagan style worship services that had the Christian gospel at their center in order to meet the British pagans where they were. The article decries this saying, “the proposal for a pagan church has raised questions about theological compromise.” When I read this quote, I couldn’t help but think that this is just another self-righteous American evangelical article trying to selectively denounce possibly suspect theology.
As if this article wasn’t self-righteous enough, I quickly noticed that World Magazine had completely ignored Jesus’ command about hypocrisy and forgotten to take the log out of its own eye. On the very next page, directly across from the “Going Pagan” article, was an advertisement for a retirement community named Il Villagio. Here is the blurb about Il Villagio:
Retire to Florida’s Gulf Coast. Come enjoy the Florida sunshine at Il Villagio, an active 55+ evangelical gated community in Brandenton, FL. Settle on one of four picturesque fishing lakes. Enjoy a maintenance free lifestyle rich in amenities. Very affordable leases. Close to beaches, shopping, and great golfing opportunities.
I was dumbfounded. One page after World Magazine ran an article lamenting perceived theological compromise in the Church of England, it ran an advertisement that was the definition of Christian compromise with secular culture on comfort and life. There is nothing more contradictory than a gated evangelical community.
First off, the pagan church idea. The article does briefly and with a qualifier, mention that the idea never has and never will really come to realization in the Church of England. Even still, one could possibly make a case for creating a pagan style worship service that still preaches the gospel, not only through Missional thought but also based on Paul’s statement about becoming a Jew for Jews and a Gentile for Gentiles, or even Jesus’ own willingness to meet Peter at the level of friendship after Peter denied Him three times (see the different Greek translations for the word love, their meaning, and their use in John 15. Then, reflect on the discipleship implications of what you just learned). But even if we do grant that this is “theological liberalism,” it is amazing to me that American evangelicals are so quick to lambast the Anglican Church based on supposedly low levels of Christian belief in British culture. The Anglican Church has, after all, given us N.T. Wright, John Stott, JI Packer and C.S. Lewis (a darling of evangelicals despite not being too evangelical himself!) Only John Piper and Tim Keller could claim a position within this group of thinkers, without whom the Evangelical tradition would be greatly diminished.
Second, the idea of a retirement community for evangelicals. This concept is so contradictory to the Christian life that it can’t be considered theological liberalism, but a complete rejection of biblical principles. It fails to emulate Abraham, Moses, David, and so many other Old Testament figures in their lifelong quest for righteousness. It ignores Jesus’ message for his followers to pick up their cross and follow him. And it ignores Paul’s insistence that for a Christian the time to rest is only when the world is renewed and Christ physically reigns. This is true compromise with culture. It is compromise with the belief that the good life is one of a well earned retirement that guarantees good golf, good shopping, and good beach days (three things I love, but would never make the center of my life). The Christian life has become a career, something which you do until you’re 55 and then retire from, maybe taking up some part-time work but mainly just enjoying your time pursuing your own desires (which are really the desires projected onto you by the American dream).
Unfortunately, this kind of self-righteousness is becoming more and more prominent in the evangelical church. In the last 10 years, many theological controversies have popped up in my own denomination, the PCA. Controversies ranging from Peter Enns and the way we interpret Scripture, Peter Leithart and federal vision, and even the Philadelphia presbytery managed to get in a tuffle over whether it is okay to dip the bread in the wine during communion. The PCA is not the only evangelical denomination to experience destructive infighting (see Southern Baptist Convention). At the same time, this evangelical community, who works so hard to maintain high theological walls where it sees fit, is not scared to compromise with culture on things that Jesus would be absolutely disgusted by. Churches fly the American flag front and center sometimes draping it around the cross, evangelical scholars twist history in order to make it seem like the American revolution was a righteous war fought by good Christian men (heaven forbid non-Christians might do something that seems inspired by God- that is if you think war is inspired by God…) and that political tactics are the best way to show people that a Christian lifestyle is key to human flourishing.
My point in lamenting this cognitive dissonance within the Evangelical Church is that it makes us seem unloving to have all these divisions while at the same time chiding other denominations for being too liberal or too compromising. The Evangelical Church has become a Church of schism. This is not something to be proud of. God’s people are unified in Christ. This issue is so important that all of Paul’s letters were written to help churches navigate difficult situations and avoid breaking apart. We need to find a way to go beyond theological battles no matter how important they may seem, and we need to find a way to encourage our fellow Christian denominations in their way of spreading the good news of Christ.
It’s time we stopped selectively putting high walls around theology and started embracing the idea of mystery and a range of interpretation when it comes to the nature of God. It’s time we made sure no Christian ever thinks of their faith as a career that ends when Social Security begins. It’s time that we show the world, in a period when the Middle East is being ripped apart by revolution and tyranny, Europe is being ripped apart by austerity-driven wedges between the classes, South America is being ripped apart by sports tournament budgets, and America is being ripped apart by political extremism and gridlock, that the people of Christ are united, are one body, are abundantly loving, and find the knowledge of Christ crucified and risen as the only knowledge that carries enough significance to be able to draw a boundary marker.
Note: the author of the “Going Pagan” article is Thomas Kidd who is a contributor to the Anxious Bench blog over at Patheos.