I used to be an Evangelical Christian 1, though as I look back I realize I was never a very good one. I was too fascinated by the history of the Church, and our theological heritage before the Reformation, to ever fit in with rank-and-file Evangelicals. I got tired of speaking of some of the great insights we had over the centuries, only to be told, “But weren’t they all Catholic 2?” I also never understood the fascination with Young-Earth Creationism and Dispensational readings of Revelation, both of which were the de facto norms when I walked in Evangelical circles.
My exit from that branch of the faith didn’t happen right away. In fact, it took a number of years, with certain milestones along the way. I’ve laid out four below.
First, I looked at the arguments for inerrancy and thought, “Yah, this doesn’t make much sense.” I found the majority of Evangelicals didn’t understand the nature of the inerrancy argument, which was problematic enough 3, leading people to treat their translations as inerrant. At the same time, people who insisted on a young earth because of inerrancy also tended to downplay the importance of living out Jesus’ teachings in the here and now because they would “turn Christians into doormats 4. The dissonance was too jarring for me.
Second, I got tired with neo-Evangelicalism’s limited understanding of atonement. In Evangelical circles the atonement is only what is called “penal substitutionary atonement.” It describes God as having a case against humanity, and Jesus stepping forward to take all the wrath God has pent up against us. To be fair this language can be found in the New Testament, but it’s in no way the majority. In fact, the Church didn’t codify this language until the Middle Ages 5. Throughout the centuries the Church has put forward a number of theories of the atonement, and has made room for many of them within orthodox Christianity. In the earliest church there were two prominent theories of the Atonement. First was the Christus Victor theory, which stated that Jesus conquered the powers of sin and death on the cross 6. Second was Ransom Theory, which many modern Evangelicals mis-read as Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Ransom Theory is based off a Greco-Roman practice in which people can be ransomed back from a god by a representative going to that god’s temple and paying the necessary price. When applied to Jesus, it states he entered the world where Satan ruled because of sin, and paid the price demanded in order to buy humanity out from under his dominion – a life. Only his life, which was pure and undefiled and didn’t need ransoming, purchased all humanity back from Satan’s dominion. Ransom theology is a substitution, which is why so many people confuse it with Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but the being demanding the price is shifted. If you’ve ever read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe Aslan’s death on the stone table is a great example of Ransom Theory.
Third, I grew weary of the Evangelical fascination with trying to figure out who was “going to Heaven” along with our compromises with worldly power 7. Even more than that, I gave up on the fascination with Heaven altogether as dangerous and escapist. Determining who is and is not going to be accepted by Christ is way above my pay grade, and even Jesus’ own parables tell us a lot of people are going to be surprised on the day of judgement. My calling is to proclaim Christ’s Lordship and the emergence of the New Creation in his name and by his power. What I am not called to do is tell people “how to get into Heaven.” The Christian faith is not a life boat, taking people away from a sinking ship and letting everything else just go down while saving what we think of as “ours 8.” I don’t read this kind of thinking in the New Testament 9. What I do read in the New Testament are stories of a people who are confronted by worldly power and say, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” These were people who offered friendship to slaves, crossed racial boundaries, treated women as people, and acted with charity and self-sacrifice. They were missionaries in a world where they had no power and no reason to suspect they could have power. Nowadays Christians of all political stripes seem to think the world would be better off if we did have worldly power, just as long as it’s not that kind of Christian who wields it. Evangelicals are, perhaps, the worst of the lot when it comes to this poor theological assumption.
Fourth, the 2008 US Presidential election was the final straw for me. I watched as people who claimed to be champions of truth spread lie after lie in an effort to do nothing but raise people’s fear levels to apoplectic levels. Obama was a “secret Muslim.” Obama was going out of his way to destroy the country. Obama wasn’t even a natural born US citizen. And on and on. These posts would be shared over and over and over, and people would fume and fear. Anyone who questioned the veracity of these lies was considered delusional or suspect. I’d been an uneasy Evangelical for years, but seeing the ease at which Evangelicalism had been manipulated into spreading outright lies was the end of the line. I couldn’t in good conscience claim the name any more.
In the years since I’ve watched Evangelicalism be guided even deeper in its compromise with with right-wing politics. The wagons have been circled ever tighter, and the public demeanor of Evangelicalism has become more and more aggressive. The landslide of support for Donald Trump was a direct result of this aggressive stance. Voting for a candidate who promised Evangelicals what they wanted, even though he lived out the opposite of every moral belief Evangelicals claim to hold 10, was a way for the movement to spit on the rest of the country and prove their strength as a political block. I no longer view neo-Evangelicalism as a Christian religious movement 11. Rather, it’s become a cult 12 for conservative nationalist politics with some Jesus window-dressing.
What pains me about my exit from Evangelicalism isn’t the move itself, but the assumptions so many Evangelicals make about my faith. So many assume I’ve given up on Jesus being “the way, the truth, and the life.” I often have to overcome the belief that I don’t think the Bible is God’s word. I am forced to overcome the fear that I’m not really a Christian at all.
I am a Christian. I follow Jesus, who is Lord of Heaven and Earth. I believe in the redemptive power of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I look forward to the full consummation of the New Creation. But I’m not an Evangelical. And I left because I felt compelled to be part of the wider Church.
- More accurately, I was a neo-Evangelical. I like to make the distinction between the modern movement and that of the Wesleys, Newton, and Wilberforce. ↩
- It was phrased as a question, it was meant as a warning, “You are saying nice things about people we’ve been taught to reject. You need to stop.” ↩
- The 19th Century argument for inerrancy affirmed it only for the autograph, the original document. As we don’t have the autograph, leaning on inerrancy felt silly to me. Also, the language only rose to prominence in the 19th Century. For the better part of 1900 years the Church got along fine without it. ↩
- So the Sermon on the Mount was projected forward into Jesus’ future Kingdom, it could not be lived out today. ↩
- A lot of my frustrations with neo-Evangelicalism comes from its a-historic nature. I am a student of history and can’t abide long when it is ignored. ↩
- This understanding comes from passages like Colossians 2:15, in case you were wondering. ↩
- And the two ideas are linked, which is weird. ↩
- This attitude is what causes a good deal of the disconnect with between Jesus’ call to follow him and Evangelical politics. Since this world doesn’t matter, and what we’re called to is “saving souls,” treating undocumented immigrants in a ways contrary to Jesus’ teaching doesn’t matter. We can love them in Jesus and treat them poorly in the name of a sinking state, as long as we’re trying to get them “saved.” ↩
- Nor do I read the triumphal assurances that we can create the Kingdom of Heaven by following progressive ideals. Just to be fair. ↩
- The hypocrisy of this continues to gall me. As Evangelicals had spent decades convincing that personal morality was of upmost importance. ↩
- This is not the same thing as saying Evangelicals are not, as a whole, Christians. ↩
- Not in the popular sense of the world. “Cult” means an apparatus for worship. ↩