An Easter Service That Missed the Mark

So, Easter 2019 has come and gone, and it couldn’t have been more awkward or spiritually depressing. I was too disturbed emotionally to post an uplifting Easter message on my blog, so I shared one from another blog: Letters to the Next Generation which I had found inspiring. My wife and I take my 94 year old mother to her Assemblies of God church, the denomination I had been raised in, every Sunday. As I have “deconstructed” my belief system over the past half dozen years I have come to realize that my faith has become at odds with that tribe’s belief system and have been looking for a “graceful” way to transition to a more open, affirming church, but in the meantime…we are kind of stuck with things the way they are.

As usual, the worship portion of the service was vibrant and uplifting, as is befitting a Pentecostal service. Unfortunately, the sermon was anything but. The pastor is a good man and means well. He has all the pieces of the puzzle, as do many evangelicals, but doesn’t seem to realize how the pieces are supposed to fit. He follows the same tired pattern of fitting the pieces together that Bible School has taught him, ignoring the solutions that don’t fit the evangelical dispensational narrative and forcing pieces together that don’t quite fit.

He started with some humorous antidotes and pictures from his recent trip to the Holy Land, a sort of Mecca for evangelicals. He remarked on the serine beauty and foliage surrounding the purported tomb of Jesus and pointed out the emptiness of the tomb and the promise of life rather than death it and the surroundings denoted. So far so good… Then the sermon took a turn: he started comparing other religions to Christianity. He tried to spin things so that it appeared he was taking, not about Christianity as a religion, but a relationship, but in evangelicalism “relationship with Jesus” ALWAYS means “religion,” belief in certain orthodox doctrines. So his attempts at painting other religions as man’s attempts to reach God, and Christianity as true “relationship,” sounded hollow.

Then he expounded on a frequent hot button issue recently, and a big factor in the Religious Rights war on society: inclusivity. In describing salvation he likened other religions and those outside traditional Christianity to Little League players who receive “participation trophies.” In his mind’s eye there should only be winners and losers. Participation trophies are for losers. As in all evangelical churches I’ve come across, evangelicals are the winning team of course, while all else earn a place in hell, no matter how good their intentions or how sincere the effort. This obsession with declaring who the losers are permeates much of evangelical teaching and in my opinion weakens the atonement and declares the Cross a failure.

In building his argument he used the usual scripture: “no man comes to the Father but by me,” John 14:6, to be interpreted as exclusive rather than a declaration of what God has done through Christ for ALL. Oddly, he quoted Jesus’ words from the Cross: “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” Luke 23:34, as showing what great love God has for us, yet didn’t see the correlation between the two different verses. This is what I mean by evangelicals have all the pieces to the puzzle, but don’t know how to fit them together. How can Jesus’ request to the Father be sincere if God’s love is conditional? Did God then say, “sorry Son, I know you mean well, but only a few will be forgiven?” The request becomes entirely rhetorical and utterly meaningless in evangelical teaching. And, of course, it puts Jesus at odds with the Father, another problem altogether.

Without getting into the early church teaching on Universal Reconciliation, which was the default for almost 500 years, I will say that Jesus IS the means by which all will be saved, and it is ONLY through Him that the Father has accomplished that, and that ALL will eventually declare Him Lord, and every knee shall bow Philippians 2:10-11. This is not a forced obeisance, a powerful overlord demanding worship from the vanquished, as some evangelicals believe, but the accomplishment of the fruition of the Coming Age, when YHWH is declared Lord of all. The evangelical God is too petty, too vindictive and to tribal to be Lord of All.

So in conclusion, a missed opportunity, a service that did not provide hope and was more bad news than Good News. A sermon that predictably followed the usual confirmation biases and settled for “alternate facts,” having the pieces but not following the picture on the box cover. So close, yet so far.

Ps. I don’t think I have stressed strongly enough the implications the pastor was suggesting in his attack or critique of “inclusivity.” In the “culture war” that the Religious Right has been waging, a war that has its roots in the antebellum South, the resistance to inclusivity has strong racial and sexual overtones. Although the sermon weaponized the Bible against people who fell outside evangelical conventions, historically evangelical exclusivity has been used to exclude, not just those of other religions, but women, minorities, entire races (other than Whites), and people of non-binary sexual inclinations. It is a White, patriarchal dog-whistle that divides, rather than unites people.

While I am sure that the good pastor was not intentionally implying those exclusions: most White evangelicals are oblivious to their subconscious biases, it was there, nonetheless. The problem with the whole winner-loser approach of evangelicalism is that it totally misses the point of Jesus’ interactions with women, Samaritans, sinners, outsiders and the Romans themselves. Jesus was very inclusive…it disturbed the leadership of Second Temple Judaism deeply, and like the frustrations of evangelicals with inclusivity today, brought Jesus into direct conflict with the religious leadership of Jesus’ day.

A point I hear raised repeatedly by evangelicals I interact with online, is the belief that Jesus was religiously conservative. I firmly believe, had he been so, he would have fit in nicely with the Pharisees and Sadducees of his day. He would have sided with one on some topics and the other on other topics. He would have simply been just another rabbi arguing the finer points of the Law of Moses. But he was not. His teaching was a shot across the bow of Second Temple Judaism, a call for religious conservatives to repent. I wish evangelicals could see the Pharisee within their ranks.

When Society Acts More Christlike Than the Church

In my last post I discussed Andy Stanley’s controversial take on the Old Testament and the church’s long historic struggle with it’s appropriation of Jewish Law. In that article I attempted to show that the church’s understanding of “inspiration,” as meaning an inerrant text, has resulted in unethical behavior, following the pattern set in the OT. In other words, inerrancy doctrine blinds the church to unethical behavior and has been used as an excuse for some pretty awful actions over the centuries. It continues to do so.

Historically the church has prided itself as a bulwark against immoral behavior and against the relativism of society as a whole. While there is a degree of truth to the claim; the church has had a stabilizing influence on society, and has been responsible for some good in terms of its ministries, but its successes need to be honestly assessed in terms if its misses as well. In my studies at an evangelical college and later at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena CA, the church’s failures were never much of an emphasis. Church history tended to center around the development of and arguments about Biblical doctrine. To put it another way, sound doctrine was more of a priority than “doing unto the least of these.”

This is not to say students and faculty were uninterested in ministering to those in need, helping the poor, practicing peace and fighting racial inequality. These were focal points of the evangelical, as opposed to fundamentalist agenda. Fuller, in particular, had a diverse faculty and student body, but what I don’t recall was a broad sense of the social impact the church has had on society for better or worse. While I think Fuller has changed of late in that regard, it has been, in my opinion, a shortcoming of the church as a whole.

To better understand what I am taking about we need to go back to the 19th century. America was growing in leaps and bounds, technological advances were making life easier and Americans wealthier. It was a time of manifest destiny, as America became the most powerful nation on earth. Science was telling us more about ourselves, medicine was finding cures for diseases and social barriers were eroding. And in the midst of all this positivity the American church was more “evangelical” than at any other point in history. Unfortunately, the church squandered its opportunity to lead.

The American civil war was the church’s defining moment, and its failure to come to a consensus on the evils of slavery would ultimately would allow society as a whole to take the lead in social reform, while the church would become less and less relevant to social reform and in many cases, resistant to reform. That evangelicals in the South could not understand the evils of slavery while those in the North did, was one of the greatest moral failures of the church in America. Eventually the insistence on an inerrant scripture that supported slavery would divide the biggest denomination in two. Theology took precedence over ethical concerns.

Following the civil war many Southern Christians refused to concede defeat, but allowed a simmering cancer of racism and bigotry to eat away at Southern society, resulting in the Jim Crow South, lynchings, black poverty and eventually civil unrest and rioting. Where the church was during this time is a tale of two cities. Eventually the church would divide along liberal and conservative lines, with liberals following the general trajectory of reform held by society as a whole, and conservatives resisting that trajectory as “conforming to the world.”

Rather than learning a lesson from the civil war, conservatives became merely more entrenched in their unmitigated opposition to change in society. They became nostalgic rather than progressive. This backward thinking, this longing for a imaginary better past, hampered the church from moving forward. Again and again, doctrinal certitude has taken precedence over meaningful social interaction and reform. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, still struggles with racism, white nationalism and misogyny.

As the progressive church (mainline denominations) shrunk in membership, the Moral Majority surged in numbers in the 70s and 80s. What fueled the growth of a largely white conservative church was a fear of the rapid changes to society: feminism, equal rights, gay rights, and a racial blending of America that had once been controlled solely by white males. And, again, the nostalgia for the good old days was largely influenced by Southern evangelical leadership as it is still to this day. Conservatives circled their wagons, and ensconced themselves in megachurches, protecting the faithful while decrying the dangers of communism, the sexual revolution and liberal Christianity.

While hot button issues such as feminism, abortion, illegal aliens and Gay marriage are a constant source of energy and consternation for the conservative church in America, the church has become more and more reactionary and less and less revolutionary. With the hypocrisy and White nationalist tendencies clearly on display the last election cycle, the Religious Right has lost any ability they once had to lead in American society. Instead, their merger with a white, patriotic world view borders on idolatry. And sadly, they are losing their youth. Without a younger generation to pick up the torch, evangelicalism will eventually die. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen.

What we are seeing in America is not a healthy, vibrant church leading social reform, but a reclusive church more concerned with infighting and doctrinal purity than meaningful change. As long as the American church is convinced they are morally superior to society they will be largely oblivious to their own sins and will end up hurting others rather than healing. Ironically society, in its inclusion of people regardless of race, sex, national origin, sexual orientation and religion, is becoming more Christlike and the conservative church less so, at least when it comes to accepting the “others” who look or act differently. When the church focuses narrowly on doctrine, sexual mores and control of women as more important than larger ethical concerns, society moves on without them and rejects the church and its mission. This is sad.

Recommended Reading:

Mark A Noll, “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”