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Evangelical Self-Criticism: A Plea for Openness


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.

Concluding Appeal

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.

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20 Responses

  1. Eastern Orthodox here. Loved your comment about “…the church is always a mess” We have the same issues that you struggle with. For some people either you agree with them wholeheartedly and in every instance or you are in effect the Great Satan. I follow your YouTube feed and obviously as an Eastern Orthodox communicate I am not in full agreement. However we do not need to be in full agreement to love and respect one another. As a former Southern Baptist I am very impressed with your emphasis on the value of restoring to the Evangelical laity a knowledge of the early church fathers (and mothers!). Keep up the good work.

  2. New subscriber here – thank you so much for this. I have recently taken on a much greater interest in church history, and far too often as evangelicals we do ignore the logs that are in our eyes. God bless you! Keep writing what you the Lord puts on your heart!

  3. Good points. I’m a 62 year old evangelical and like you, I love evangelicalism. I remember the craziness of the 80’s and 90’s when evangelicals were fearful of and fighting the government, public schools, and the media. Sound familiar? As for culture wars there truly is nothing new under the sun. I admit that many among us, myself included, are a bit tired of the incessant drumbeat of criticism against white evangelicals, but nonetheless your point is a good one. We should welcome self-criticism, and definitely be ever wary of the creep of nationalistic thinking, conspiracy theories, or any other form of idolatry.

    As Progressives seem to be lurching further to the left we as evangelicals must not answer that trend in kind with a lurch to the far right. May God give us wisdom and patience in the Spirit.

  4. Hi Gavin,

    Thank you for your honest thinking here. I certainly agree about the nastiness of discourse and desire for reform. I am curious about your word choice of ‘conspiracy’ though. I think there are plenty of evangelicals who thoughtfully have questions about the election or the vaccine. Or perhaps are most concerned at what they see as the leftward movement of evangelicalism and our nation, particularly in the areas of gender and sexuality. Disagreements can be had of course but how we define terms seem to be crucial. What do you think qualifies as a conspiracy or conspiratorial thinking?

    Thanks again.
    – Sam

    1. Hi Sam, thanks for engaging. You referenced “the leftward movement of evangelicalism and our nation, particularly in the areas of gender and sexuality.” I am not sure how that comes in. I have not referenced that as a conspiracy. In fact, my original tweet referenced affirming a traditional view of marriage. Regarding the election and vaccine, I do think the evidence makes abundantly clear that the vaccine is safe and helpful, and the election was not stolen. I realize others disagree but I think the evidence warrants using the word “conspiracy” for the alternative views. God bless.

      1. Thanks, Gavin. That makes sense and is helpful. I’ve really appreciated your videos on the sacraments. Thanks for your work in that area.

  5. I’m a former Evangelical and currently identify as a Progressive Christian. I really appreciate your willingness to offer thoughtful critique of your own tradition. I’m sorry for the harsh reactions you received; it sounds like you are processing and responding to them with a lot of maturity. I wouldn’t normally offer a comment, and I must admit I’m not too familiar with your work, but I want to use this moment to express that this is what people in “deconstruction” and other “Progressive Christian” sphere experience frequently from evangelicals. Your iceberg analogy is fitting. Many of us in Progressive Christianity see ourselves in much the way you do in that analogy. We are aiming to faithfully follow Christ and we want the Church to resemble Christ and his teachings more and more. Often, we hear evangelical voices (even those with large platforms and substantial influence) mock, slander, and shame our faith. This often produces an overwhelming feeling of isolation and anxiety in Evangelicals who begin to ask “the wrong questions” or develop “wrong answers” to those questions. I offer this, not to invalidate or compare your experience in any way, but in the hopes that your experience can empower you to empathize more with those who are deconstructing. This article gives me a lot of hope that more dialogue can emerge between our traditions. Thank you for sharing.

      1. Hey, thank you for sharing that bit of your story with me. It’s clear to me that you have been committed to thinking through your faith and living intentionally. I appreciate the concern you show to others who are asking questions and experiencing doubts. I’m curious to know if you explored or studied other traditions within Christianity? You framed your testimony in a manner that seemed primarily between remaining Evangelical Christian, or deconstructing to atheism/agnosticism. I’d be curious to hear how you have engaged with alternative streams within Christianity? I also would love to hear how you think Evangelical and Progressive streams of Christianity can engage in fellowship with each other, or if you think they can at all? This particular question is a major source of pain and passion for me personally. I also totally understand if this is way more intellectual effort and emotional disclosure than you want to share with an anonymous commenter.

      2. Thanks Andy. For me, the main options did not include other traditions during my process. However, since then I have come into contact with many Orthodox and Catholic people and that has driven me into a study of those issues. I have been challenged by their complexity but been solidified as a Protestant through the process. I think the question of fellowship between Evangelical and Progressive streams of Christianity depends on HOW progressive. But I definitely think there can be, at least, friendship and dialogue. God bless!

  6. Sometimes I think that such labels as “evangelical, progressive Christian, etc” can be unhelpful. They divide believers into opposing groups when we really should be united by our faith in Christ.

    Like many Christians I am more identifying as a “Jesus follower” or something similar to try to avoid this tendency and to more accurately identify where my faith is.

    Of course, in the end we should be identified by our allegiance to Jesus and our behavior rather than a label.

  7. I also want to mention how much conservative and thoughtful evangelicals like you, David French, Russell Moore and others have been a grounding, encouraging, and, like Onesiphorus, refreshing voice over the last five or six years. Please keep up the good work.

  8. Hi Gavin,

    This is a great example of why twitter is the worst medium for discussions that matter. I’m not surprised that this blew up the way that it did.

    After reading this post it still have a few questions:

    1. What exactly does “conspiratorial thinking” mean? This is not a common term and seems highly dependent on context. Does it mean cynicism, distrust, honest questioning, paranoia, or something else? You mentioned several distinct topics in a row, making it hard to pin down exactly what you meant by the term. I imagine people felt this term had a negative connotation and was too broad a brush to be painting with.

    2. Whatever the answer to 1 is, why does it matter if one engages in “conspiratorial thinking”?

  9. I think you may have to accept the legitimate concern that “evangelical” has essentially lost it’s meaning. Your example of it being a demographic label misses and hits the point at the same time.

    “men under 25” is a large and diverse group, but their label describes what is true about them… they will all be men, and all under 25.

    “Evangelical” is also a large group, but those using it or being labelled with it do not all hold the same clear characteristics of what “Evangelical” is. That’s the point… the word basically cannot describe a defined demographic that anyone agrees on anymore. It is applied to neo-nazis as often as Trump voters as often as TGC conference attenders or Willow Creek members or just people with conservative views.

    — It is as if the “men under 25” label was actually being widely applied to 57 year old women, 36 year old turtles and 500 year old Oak trees. At that point it would stop being a useful label and have lost all meaning.

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