Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Evangelicalism’s Greatest Sin: The failure of the evangelical experiment as illustrated in the recent Saddleback Civil Forum

Evangelicalism, not the classic meaning of the term in church history and theology, but the unique constellation of doctrinal, sociological, and historical characteristics that are part of today’s American religious life is a movement in trouble. For a few years now I have been struggling vainly to find the key to unlock my growing disquiet with a movement so broad as to encompass Bill Hybels and Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham and that Lakeland Revival guy Todd Bentley, Robert Schuller and John MacArthur, Jack Hayford and Michael Horton, Fuller Seminary and Dallas Theological Seminary.

Historian David Bebbington describes this movement, shaped by revival and molded by resistance against “liberalism,” in terms of its characteristic beliefs and emphases: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Some observers have noted that belief has less to do with the movement than technique. Mega church pastors like Rick Warren boast of “training” more than 400,000 pastors and sending out a newsletter weekly to 230,000, many of whom simply copy his sermon notes for their own Sunday messages. As evangelical Christianity has morphed in America, it has proven more ingenious and mutable than a pesky virus in a CDC laboratory.

Quick to embrace new technologies, whether Luther’s use of the printing press to flood Germany with Reformation tracts, Charles Fuller’s early employment of radio in his “Old Fashioned Revival Hour,” or the 24/7 coverage on numerous religious cable television stations today, conservative Christians have been among the first to adopt and adapt new technologies to the service of proclaiming their brand of Gospel. And, in the process, they have changed not only “how” they do church, but the very content of the Good News (the root meaning of the Greek “euangellion” or “evangel”) itself.

Shamed and scolded by “liberals” for decades for being so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good, evangelicals have begun to address these criticisms. In the past few years we have seen Bill Hybels invite Bill Clinton, ordinarily a pariah among religious conservatives such as James Dobson, and industry titans like Jack Welch to his annual Leadership Summit for church leaders. Warren has stressed AIDS relief, made common cause with U2’s Bono, and developed his own P.E.A.C.E plan to tackle the five “global giants” of spiritual emptiness, self-centered leadership, poverty, pandemic disease, and illiteracy.

The recent Saddleback Civil Forum reveals evangelical Rick Warren doing what socially conscious liberal Christians have long advocated: engaging the culture politically. But, in typical Saddleback fashion, it was done on a big scale, bigger than anything ever attempted by a pastor before now. The two presumptive candidates for our nation’s top office each sat for their genial hour long interview with the purpose driven pastor-in-chief, all before the glare of television lights and cameras.

A report on the event by Weekly Standard’s publisher, Terry Eastland, finally got to the heart of my growing discontent. Evangelicals have responded to the complaints of our cultured liberal interlocutors by selling, bartering away, and down-right squandering their birthright. In short, the evangelicals have no Gospel, no Evangel anymore. In place of the liberating good news of the Gospel, they have substituted the same tasteless recipe responsible for the decline in the liberal mainline churches over much of the last half century. Rather than Gospel, evangelicals have settled for Law, or as they practice it today, moralism.

Eastland reported that on the day after the forum, Warren preached to his 22,000 people a message “The Kind of Leadership America Needs.” Using 21 citations from the Bible, including 13 from Proverbs, two from the Psalms, three from the Gospels, one from Philippians, and two from James, he buttressed his case and supported his points.

However, as Eastland observes, something was missing? The Gospel!

"Notably absent from the message, however, was the distinctive content of the Christian faith, even though this was a worship service. Warren didn't discuss the verses he used in the context of the Bible's overall redemptive message. Had he done that, he would have made it to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Even when citing a text explicitly mentioning Jesus, Warren didn't go into what it was actually about. "When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36) is fundamentally not about how leaders need to be compassionate, though they do, but about how Jesus the shepherd has come for his lost sheep."

Then, in words as prescient as they are indicting, Eastland concluded that “Plenty of pastors mine the Bible for moral teachings and character lessons. Warren's approach to Scripture on this particular Sunday was hardly unusual. And taken as a civics lesson, his message was fine. But as a sermon for a church, it left something to be desired.”

“Leaving something to be desired” politely states the obvious: Evangelicalism, so full of desire to be relevant to the unchurched and frankly, so anxious to be taken seriously by both the secular and the liberal religious establishment today, has essentially become the liberal religious establishment of yesterday.

Rather than being the party of faith, Scripture, and Gospel, evangelicals have gradually become what they started out to oppose. The fundamentalists of the early 20th century took the Gospel seriously enough to withdraw from the mainline denominations where it had decayed into maudlin moralism. The formation of the neo-evangelical movement in the 1940s, with Fuller Seminary as its flagship, attempted to strip some of the more noxious and socially unacceptable attitudes from ugly fundamentalist extremism in America.

However, the most characteristic expression of theological liberalism has been Law, not Gospel. And, church history teaches us that when it decays, as surely as a radioactive isotope, Law leads inevitably to legalism and moralism. Evangelical moralism is no better than the fundamentalist flavor, which in turn is no improvement over the sappy moralistic nonsense of the liberals in the last century.

Now that the movement has aged to the point of feeling its power, staging a civic forum where candidates are summoned to make their appearance might make some sense. At least they are engaging culture rather than hiding from it. But, the lessons learned from their critics were learned both too perfectly and too inadequately. Following up on the liberal critique, evangelicals have begun to “care about” HIV, poverty, peace, and the qualifications for the next President of the United States.

But, rather than learning from the liberals’ loss of the Gospel, we seem intent on replicating it. Today, evangelical preaching, even the “Bible based expositional” kind tends toward moralistic, Bible laced versions of old liberal standbys. David becomes an example of five principles for having a good friendship. Elijah's battle with the prophets of Baal turns into a lesson on depression.. Ephesians becomes a formula for better marriages. And, as in the case of the Saddleback sermon, Proverbs and Jesus help us to choose a president.

Citing a lot of verses from the Bible does not a biblical sermon make. Quoting from the secular Weekly Standard again, “notably absent from the message, however, was the distinctive content of the Christian faith.” And, unless the verses used are put into the “context of the Bible’s overall redemptive message,” preaching will border on the shallow, the sappy, and the sentimentally self-help oriented. In this sense, slick Joel Osteen rather than smart and effective Rick Warren should be seen as the ultimate exemplar of evangelicalism today. Osteen’s “Become a Better You” more faithfully represents what evangelicalism has become in this post-Christian era than anything written by the affable and sincere purpose-driven pastor of Orange County.

As Eastland concludes,
The irony of Saddleback is that one of the two candidates--it was not McCain, but Obama, in his remarks about Christ dying for his sins and redeeming him--actually said more about the Christian faith in the civil forum than America's most influential pastor did in his message on Sunday to his congregation. Such are the oddities that attend the present moment, in which our faith-involved politics carries on, triumphant.

What is missing in the midst of all the Law is the redemptive sound of the Gospel. Until preaching recovers the victorious pronouncement “done” of the Gospel, the current preoccupation with reducing everything to a seeker sensitive mass of moral lessons and self-improvement “how to” applications will sound like a lot of “do.” Sadly, the man behind the Saddleback Civil Forum received his doctorate in ministry from Fuller, the school begun in 1947 as the new “evangelical” alternative to mushy liberalism.


roy said...

great post Dennis

Robert said...

You raise sole solid issues Dennis, but fail to offer some constructive suggestions on how Warren could have delivered this message while including the Gospel. Since the Gospel carries the implication that the power of the Kingdom has come and that the rulership of God has been established, are you suggesting that the answer to the question, "What kind of leader does America need?" is "one who will continue bringing in the Kingdom of God"? Or, would you suggest that America needs an au-millenialist who will enable the Kingdom to be brought into fulfillment? If you suggest neither of these, then how does one answer Warren's question with a full and honest recongition of "The Gospel"? Of would you suggest instead that this is not the right question and it really has no place at all in a worship experience??????????

Dave Miller said...

Thanks Dennis. Insightful and challenging.

Can I link to it?

Gary said...

Dear Baptist/evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ,

I ask you to consider these points:

1. When God said that he would preserve his Word, what did he mean? Did he mean that he would preserve the original papyrus and parchment upon which his Word was written? If so, then his Word has disappeared as none of the original manuscripts remain.

Did he mean that he would preserve his word in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek only? He would not preserve his Word when it was translated into all the other languages of the world?

Or did God mean that he would preserve his Word…the message/the words…the Gospel: the free gift of salvation, and the true doctrines of the Christian Faith? Would God allow his Word/his message to mankind to be so polluted by translation errors that no translation, into any other language from the three original languages, continues to convey his true words?

2. There is NO translation of the Bible, from the original ancient languages, into ANY language, ANYWHERE on earth, that translates the Bible as the Baptists/evangelicals believe it should be translated.

No Bible translation on earth translates Acts 2:38 as, “Repent and believe in Jesus Christ every one of you and you will receive the Holy Ghost. Then be baptized as a public profession of your faith.”

Why would God allow EVERY English translation of the Bible throughout history to be mistranslated or use such confusing language as to suggest that God forgives sins in Baptism? And not only all English translations, ALL translations of the Bible have retained these “mistranslations or confusing wording”.

Do you honestly believe that God would allow his Word to be so polluted with translation errors that EVERY Bible in the world, if read in its simple, plain interpretation, would tell the people of the world that God forgives sins in water baptism??

3. Why is there not one single piece of evidence from the early Christians that indicates that ANYONE in the 800-1,000 years after Christ believed that: Water baptism is ONLY a public profession of faith/act of obedience; sins are NOT forgiven in water baptism? Yes, you will find statements by these early Christians that salvation is by faith, but do Baptists and evangelicals really understand how a sinner obtains saving faith? THAT IS THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION, MY FRIENDS! Does the sinner produce faith by his own free will or does God provide faith and belief as a gift, and if God does provide faith and belief as a free gift, with no strings attached, WHEN exactly does God give it?

4. Is it possible that: Baptist-like believers, at some point near or after 1,000 AD, were reading the Bible and came across verses that read “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” and “Call upon the name of the Lord and you will be saved” and established their doctrine of Salvation/Justification first, based on these and similar verses alone, and then, looked at the issue of water baptism, and since the idea that God forgives sins in water baptism didn’t seem to fit with the verses just mentioned, these early Baptists re-interpreted these verses to fit with their already established doctrine, instead of believing the “baptism verses” literally?

Is it possible that BOTH groups of verses are literally correct?? If we believe God’s Word literally, he says that he saves/forgives sins when sinners believe/call AND when they are baptized? Why not believe that God can give the free gift of salvation in both situations: when a sinner hears the Gospel and believes and when a sinner is baptized?

Should we re-interpret God’s plain, simple words just because they don’t seem to make sense to us?

God bless you and keep you!