Christian Logic

hqdefaultWell, I managed a pretty cool accomplishment this past month. I got banned from both a liberal and a conservative website! There’s nothing like moody forum managers to illustrate the truth in my moniker.

I don’t want to name the liberal site because I posted under my real name, but the conservative site was The Gospel Coalition. Since my last post there was a rather innocuous post explaining why employers hesitate to hire employees with evangelical ambitions, I suspect that someone over at TGC took a gander at my blog and decided they didn’t like me anymore.

At the liberal site, my crime was disagreeing with the opinions of people on the forum. Yup, that’s it. My last two posts there was a statement that arguing that hell doesn’t exist makes a number of New Testament verses about hell sound nonsensical, and pointing out (after the forum manager ranted against evangelicals spreading the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra) that the quote actually comes from Augustine.

After engaging fellow Christians on message boards and blogs nearly twenty-years, I’ve found that forums run by liberal Christians tend to be much testier than those run by conservative Christians. There’s a constant culling and deleting of even the mildest dissenters at them. The stakes at conservative sites tend to be much higher (your soul is at stake if you’re wrong), but for the most part administrators at those sites tend to be very permissive of dissenting opinion and rarely delete the evidence. That’s always struck me as odd.

And then it hit me: the answer was hiding in plain sight. Conservative sites are more permissive precisely because for them, the stakes are higher.

For a while now I’ve been toying with writing a post about the different ways conservative and liberal Christians think. I’ve touched on this in various ways on my blog, but last night it crystallized me with two simple, logical equations.

Here’s the conservative perspective about God:

A. God said X.

B. Therefore, a society that believes X will be a more moral one.

Now here’s the liberal perspective:

A  A society that believes Y will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe Y.

You can plug in almost theological debate into these equations and they make things so much clearer. For example:

A. God said that homosexuality is immoral.

B. Therefore, a society that believes that homosexuality is immoral will be a more moral one.

and:

A  A society that believes homosexuality is moral will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe homosexuality is moral.

Now let’s plug exclusivism into the equation:

A. God said Jesus is the only way.

B. Therefore, a society that believes Jesus is the only way will be a more moral one.

and:

A  A society that believes there all religions are true will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe all religions are true.

Now so far, it sounds like I’m saying that the weight of logic falls in favor of the conservatives.  I’m not. And if we plug in slavery, then we’ll see why:

A. God endorses slavery.

B. Therefore, a society that endorses slavery will be a more moral one.

and:

A  A society that believes slavery is immoral will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe slavery is immoral.

And herein lies a thousand internet debates distilled into their core elements. Now I know that some readers will insist that the conservative logic should say “The Bible says..” But remember that, from the conservative perspective, the Bible = God. And certainly many liberals make a good case that the Bible doesn’t teach that homosexuality is immoral, and therefore their argument fits the conservative equation.

But we’re talking psychology here. Conservatives prefer top-down, authoritarian logic. They believe that God’s opinion weighs supreme, and any discrepancy between mankind’s moral values and God’s must mean that mankind has gone awry.

Liberals prefer bottom-up, evidence-based theology. A pluralistic society strikes them as a more just society than a theocratic one, so that means that the pluralistic society is more reflective of how God wants us to live. Societies with a more loving attitude towards gays tend to be more just, therefore God must endorse homosexual relationships.

These equations also illustrates the strategy each side uses to challenge the other. Liberals ask whether it’s self-evident what God says (or whether conservatives are consistent about this). Conservatives argue that modern society is less moral, and that liberals prioritize societal values over God’s.

Check out Christian blogs for example. Notice how many conservatives blogs start with the question “What does God say about this controversy?” Liberal blogs, on the other hand, usually start with a personal experience or the impact the controversy has on people, and use that to illustrate where God must therefore stand on the issue. For liberals personal experience is evidence in moral debates, while conservatives see it as a nonfactor.

So what does this have to do with surly liberal blogs?

Well, if your theological arguments are evidence-based, then you’re working with a more ambiguous set of proofs than if you believe that God said it. The key difference is confidence. They are confident that the Biblical proofs they provide refute the liberal perspective. Conservatives are confident that liberals posting on their sites allow them to provide wise instruction to a visitor happening upon the debate. In their view, these debates serve a potentially evangelical function.

On the other hand, since liberals base their arguments on evidence, people providing contrary evidence muddy up the waters. A woman who pops into as discussion about gay conversion therapy to say she underwent it and lives a happy life will likely be deleted or banned (as I have witnessed), because the discussion as a whole rested on the case that gay conversion therapy has been awful for everyone involved in it. A man popping in to cite Bible verses to rebuke them gets tossed out because their focus is on evidence, not scripture.

In my case, I suspect that I was kicked out of The Gospel Coalition because my account linked back to my blog, where my liberal views are largely uncontested. The liberal site kicked me out because their case against hell rested on the belief that a God who creates hell would be unworthy of worship. Citing Bible verses muddies up their argument and takes it out of an evidence-based structure.

Peter Enns & The Sovereign Grace/ TGC Scandal Pt 2

christianity-todayIn my last post, I gave some context regarding the ongoing dispute between Tullian Tchividijan and The Gospel Coalition. For more details on the scandal, I highly recommend you check out the links in Part 1. Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to dive into Peter Enns’ response to the controversy:

1. First of all, I’d like to reaffirm my respect for Peter, so people don’t misinterpret my intentions. However, I think he opens up a lot of interesting ideas that are worth further analysis.

I’l begin with Enns’ contention that the belligerence Tchividijan experienced is endemic to Reformed Theology. This implies that the Reformed movement is inherently problematic and therefore falls short of being good theology.

I tend to be skeptical whenever people make a “fruits-based” argument against a theological position. At face value much of Enns’ critique of the Reformed mentality (especial as manifested by The Gospel Coalition) rings true. But the truthfulness of a belief system isn’t dependent on how that system impacts its advocates’ behavior. I happen to strongly disagree with Reformed theology. But in theory Calvinists could be insufferable bores and also have a correct understanding of God. Their behavior is not evidence for or against their theology.

For example, in my view Richard Dawkins is a very unpleasant person. But his understanding of science is rock solid, and he could still be correct when he argues that God doesn’t exist. Feminism is correct when it argues that patriarchy is a major problem in our society, but their constant infighting turns people off. Evangelicals could be right when they say that God has called them to convert people. But evangelists are frequently off-putting and rude.

I don’t dispute the argument that some belief systems cause more harm than others. But since we’re all sinners, there will be fruits-based evidence against any belief system.

2.  I don’t believe that there’s any evidence that members of the Neo-Reformed movement are more prone to “fight” against their ideological opponents than other Christians are. There’s aways been an adversarial streak in American Christianity. And to be fair, a lot of the reasoning behind it comes straight from scripture. Over the last few years the Neo-Reformed movement has dominated online discussions about modern evangelicalism, but it’s important to keep in mind that an equal number of evangelicals identify themselves as Arminians, and no one would claim that Arminian evangelicals are any less prone to an “us against the world” mentality. And let’s not forget that liberal Christians are just as likely to take up the fight for their theological beliefs.
3. Quite a few people got tripped up over Enns’ statement that he “doesn’t really care about this issue.” I highly doubt that Peter’s implying that he’s indifferent to child abuse or the need for justice. But his reasoning behind his statement – that he has “no personal stake in the outcome” – strikes me as overly cynical.
For one, our ability to discuss and act on newsworthy problems would be dramatically handicapped if we only focused on those stories that personally affected us. In that case, why would anyone outside of the Gulf Coast report on the Hurricane Katrina? Most Americans had no personal connection to the disaster, and the degree to which the region has failed to rebuild doesn’t affect them one iota.
And even if it’s not readily apparent, the outcome of this scandal might impact Enns. Many people are speculating that the fallout could doom The Gospel Coalition and possibly the Neo-Reformed movement itself. I doubt that the impact of the scandal could reach that far. But if Enns is correct that the Reformed Movement is inherently belligerent, then the collapse of their movement should result in less belligerent brand of Christianity taking hold. That’s something that Enns clearly desires (as do I.)
4. I agree with Peter’s statement that “the world isn’t watching” to see the results of TGC’s shakeup. But word of the chid molestation scandal itself is bound to spread, especially given the likelihood of additional investigations and trials. And yes, souls have already been lost. Some of the people who have been hurt by SGM have left the faith and never looked back.

Peter Enns & The Sovereign Grace/ TGC Scandal Pt 1

tullian-tchividjianI’m a big fan of Peter Enns. I’m a regular reader of his blog and a number of his books. I’ve always found his ability to straddle evangelical theology and modern scholarship very helpful and enlightening.However, I have to disagree with his post regarding Tullian Tchividijian’s recent split with The Gospel Coalition.

But before we get to Peter Enns, I should provide some very important context. To sum up, there are two versions of this split. The Gospel Coaition claims that Tchividjian left due to theological differences that peaked with an online debate with Jen Wilkin about failure’s role in theology.  Both posts are worth your time, but to briefly summarize: Wilkins argued that by “celebrating” our failure to obey God, we risk tolerating moral laxity, while Tchividijian (pictured above) argues that Wilkins is being too harsh and underestimates the scale of God’s grace.

The Gospel Coalition establishment sided with Wilkins, and given Tchividian’s many contrarian posts on the site (specifically regarding TGC’s horrifically tasteless response last year to the CJ Mahaney sex abuse scandal.) , TGC told Tchvidian to pack up and leave ASAP. This led to Tim Keller posting their version of Tchividijian’s exit.

Tchividijian claims that the theological disputes are a smokescreen, and the real reason they told him to leave was his crtitism of TGC’s insistence on standing behind CJ  Mahaney in spite of the growing evidence that Mahaney and Sovereign Grace ministries  knew that childen were being molested in churches in their network. Rather than report it to the proper authorities, Mahaney and the church leadership are alleged to have covered up the allegations and shame the victims. Testimony during the trial appears to confirm this accusation. The pattern strongly mimics the code of silence we witnessed with Penn State and the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Coincidentally, Tchividijian was let go the same weekend Mahaney and Joshua Harris (current pastor of Mahaney’s former church) stepped down from the TGC board. This took place just days after the alleged molester was finally convicted on five charges of child molestation.

Usually whenever hot button topics like this erupt across the Christian blogosphere, I bow out because other bloggers have already expressed my views better than I can. But Enns’ take goes in a different direction I think it warrants further analysis, which I’ll provide in my next post.

The Gospel Coalition Update

Jesus-HomosexualitySix weeks ago I posted a tally of the disproportionate number of articles about homosexuality at The Gospel Coalition. Since a month has passed since the last tally, here are the latest numbers. Since January 2012, the site has posted:

31 articles about the theological case against homosexuality and/or gay marriage.

17 articles about evangelism.

8 articles about caring for the poor and/or the Social Justice movement.

4 articles about divorce.

The Gospel Coalition Update

Jesus-HomosexualityTwo weeks ago I posted a tally of the disproportionate number of articles about homosexuality at The Gospel Coalition. The current total is:

27 articles about the theological case against homosexuality and/or gay marriage.

12 articles about evangelism.

6 articles about caring for the poor and/or the Social Justice movement.

4 articles about divorce.

Priorities, Priorities

Jesus-HomosexualityI came across a post by Kevin DeYoung over at The Gospel Coalition entitled Common Fault Lines In The Evangelical Approach To Homosexuality. The content of his post is self-explanatory; he discusses four arguments used to counter the conservative evangelical view of homosexuality. (Full disclosure: I am strongly in favor of gay rights and a reading of scripture that affirms both gay marriage and homosexuality).

I was most intrigued by his second argument, entitled  “We Are Hypocrites Because We Aren’t As Passionate About Divorce.”

His response is as follows:

Wehner contends that we “employ something of a double standard” because we do not show the same fierce opposition to divorce, even though it has been far more devastating to society. I’ve written about this before: comparing evangelical attitudes to homosexuality with evangelical attitudes to divorce is comparing apples and oranges..But the analogy with divorce is ultimately misleading.

Furthermore, many evangelical churches are just as staunch in their opposition to unbiblical divorce. I know we take it very seriously at our church. The reason we are not fired up on the blogs about it is because there are no denominational groups I’m aware of rallied around the central tenet that divorce is a blessing from God. The legality of anti-divorce legislation was not recently put before the Supreme Court. There are no Facebook campaigns in favor of unbiblical divorce. Homosexuality is the issue right now, so it’s natural that evangelicals, like everyone else, would be passionate about it.”

I edited his response for the sake of brevity, but feel free to read the whole thing. DeYoung underestimates how much heat the topic of homosexuality has drawn over time. Homosexuality has been the issue for evangelicals for decades. Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s I used to skim the messageboards at various Christian sites like Christianity.com, The “Homosexuality” subfolder on these sites dwarfed other topics. It was also the only category on Christianity.com that came with restrictions. You could only participate in discussions about homosexuality if you were against it. Anyone who made a statement in favor of homosexuality or provided a scientific or Biblical argument in favor of homosexuality would get banned from the site and their post deleted. So even with the pro-gay side muted, the topic still dominated the forum.

I understand that The Gospel Coalition is passionate about their views on homosexuality. But what has struck me has been the disproportionate amount of time spent on it, as well as the repetitiveness of the articles it posts about the topic. Not only are there numerous posts arguing against gay marriage or homosexuality itself, but the same arguments are repeated point-for-point ad nauseum.

So I decided to do a little unscientific research. I wanted to know how often the site posted articles about homosexuality and/or gay marriage. And I wanted to compare those numbers to the volume of articles about three other topics: divorce, poverty, and evangelism.

My methodology was as follows: I only counted articles that were specifically about homosexuality, evangelism, etc. I did not count any articles that mentioned these issues as a subtopic. I also did not count any articles that were news items. So the posts announcing the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage were not counted. The posts that analyzed the ruling from a religious context were counted. Since the site has archives that go all the way back to 1996, I simplified my search for sanity’s sake. So I decided to only count results that date back to January 2012.

One of the nice things about The Gospel Coalition’s search engine is that it brings up multiple forms of a given word, so searching “homosexual” brings up articles that include the words homosexuality, homosexuals, etc.  This made my research easier.

So for articles about homosexuality, I searched the terms “homosexual” and “gay.”

For divorce, I searched the term “divorce.”

For articles about serving/helping the poor, I searched “poor” and “social justice.”

For articles about evangelism, I searched “evangelism,” evangelize,” and “Great Commission.”

In each example, I cross-checked my results to make sure I wasn’t double-counting, so if an article used the words “homosexuality”, and “gay,” I only counted it once. My results were as follows:

24 articles about the theological case against homosexuality and/or gay marriage.

11 articles about evangelism. Almost half of them were written by Trevin Wax.

5 articles about caring for the poor and/or the Social Justice movement.

4 articles about divorce.

A few additional notes: there were a very small number of articles that mentioned divorce within its text. There were fewer articles that mentioned terms related to the poor. Dozens of articles mentioned evangelism, and the number of articles that mentioned homosexuality totaled 1,100+.

Since a large number of the articles on the site are advice-oriented (i.e. how the church should handle divorce or treat divorcees), one would hope for more input on divorce. So DeYoung’s apples and orange defense falls flat.

And given how hot the discussion over Social Justice and the Christian Left has been recently, there’s no excuse for that topic’s sparse showing, even if they wanted to dissuade people from pursuing Social Justice ideology.

And given the importance of the Great Commission and the constant opportunity for newsworthy items about church outreach and missionaries, the showing for evangelism is embarrassing.

Granted, I know that it’s just one site, but TGC is a major force online, and it reflects the priorities of its churches and readers. Whatever Christians think about homosexuality, the evidence shows that it’s more than just a hot topic. It’s an obsession.

A Seething Cauldron Of Rage

LeavingThat’s how I’m feeling right now. I’ve read a number of responses to Rachel Held Evan’s CNN essay describing the reasons Millennials are leaving the church. Like Rachel, i’m firmly in the Gen X demographic (and closer in age to the Boomers than the Millennials), but my frustrations and experiences echo theirs.

I’ll admit that a whole spectrum of blogs have written about her concerns, and many of them have supported Rachel’s message. But in the circles I travel the bulk of the links I’ve seen have been among the most toxic, and reading them made me as angry as the day a woman was dragged out of a Texas  Senate hearing for daring to voice her disapproval of the state’s latest salvo in the war against women.

I expected conservatives to launch a passionate defense of the status quo, and to be honest, none of their talking points surprised me. But I did expect at least a sliver of concession that the church was accountable for its declining relevance, even if I disagreed with their solutions. Instead the tactic has been to attack Rachel herself and  insist that Millennials are the problem.

Since Trevin Wax at  The Gospel Coalition gave a concise representation of the evangelical establishment’s defense, I’ll focus on his post. For those who might want a concise summary,  my response is that:

A) Instead of assuming that Millenials are shallow, self-centered narcissists, they should consider the possibility that Millennials are sincere about their concerns.

B) Ultimately it seems as though the evangelical response is to say “good riddance” to anyone who might have concerns about the state of the church that can’t be addressed with a sermon series or  an updated selection of worship songs.

Now here are my specific counterpoints to Trevin Wax’s arguments. I’ve put his statements in bold, and any quotes from Rachel in italics. First, let’s looks at his response to Rachel’s argument that the church has become “… too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people:

“She’s right to decry a vision of Christianity that reduces repentance to a list of do’s and don’ts.”

Note that this has nothing to do with Rachel’s statement. It’s a complete dodge. A church can get caught up in do’s and don’ts without engaging in political activism. Do’s and don’ts are a trap that any church can fall victim to.

What Rachel is talking about is the conscious prioritizing of political victories over spiritual victories. A classic example is AL Mohler’s statement that Obama’s victory in the 2012 election was an evangelical disaster.  For his ilk, the voting booth is the true gauge of the church’s mission. And he represents the mentality of a large percentage of the modern church.

“I couldn’t agree more when she says “we want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.”

Okay, great. He agrees that God should be our priority. But he’s not willing to look at the evidence that God is not the evangelical establishment’s priority. (A simple test is to ask an evangelical whether they would rather a constitutional ban on gay marriage or one more soul coming to Christ. At best they will try to say “both.” But if you try to pin them down on a choice, they’ll squirm.)

Consciously or not, every evangelical church I have attended equates God’s Kingdom with American political interests. It’s funny how they’ll bemoan the state of the nation until you suggest that perhaps other nations should be granted the same level of respect. A church that truly rejects equating the Kingdom with an allegiance to a single nation wouldn’t spend the 4th Of July singing patriotic anthems instead of worship songs.

Here’s where Rachel and I part ways – on what communities following Jesus look like in our culture.

I invite you to read Wax’s response here because it’s not conducive to quotations, but again we have a dodge. The community Wax insists Christians should seek is no different than what Rachel is asking for. All of Wax’s characteristics of a positive Christian community  are desirable, but the underlying implication of them is that he believes that Millennials aren’t  interested in life-altering repentance and faith, and they aren’t interested in a Jesus who explodes our understanding of sin, repentance, forgiveness, etc.

In other words, he’s saying that the church is right where it should be. It’s got everything down pat and its priorities in order. But Millennials, with their supposed  hunger for superficial faith and a Jesus who doesn’t change their lives one iota, need to get their priorities straight and get in line with the church.

“I visit lots of churches, and I find that sexuality is not a frequently discussed subject from most church platforms or Bible studies. In fact, one could make the case that Christians haven’t talked enough about Jesus’ radical zealousness when it comes to sexuality.”

This was Wax’s response to Rachel’s contention that the modern church is too obsessed with sex. I’ve seen variations of this defense many times, and it’s a Wizard Of Oz mentality. Somehow evangelicals have convinced themselves that people can’t see behind the curtain and track the words and priorities they exhibit outside of  Sunday mornings.  The Gospel Coalition itself publishes an essay on sexual mores at least once a week, and it felt the need to publish not just one but dozens of screeds against homosexuality and gay marriage during the past year, each stating the same case with the same arguments. If they aren’t obsessed, why the need to make the case against homosexuality so many times?

I’ll concede that some churches don’t discuss sexuality from the pulpit. But they do hammer the purity and complementation line during Bible Studies and outside the sanctuary. If you don’t hear about it on Sunday mornings, it’s because the vast majority of church members are married couples, therefore they’ve moved beyond the need to hear purity sermons. But gender role sermons almost always make an appearance, as do sermons about porn addiction.

“When it comes to sexual obsession, we ought to take a look at pop culture.”

Ah, but here’s where we get to the do’s and don’t mentality that Wax said he discourages. Pop culture conversations are almost always reduced to advice on which programs to avoid and whether a given musician is Christian enough. And since these conversations are led by people who haven’t actually read or seen the media they’re criticizing, the discussion is almost always rooted in ignorance.

“Rachel says millennials want to be “challenged to holiness,” but the challenge she appears to be advocating is one on our own terms and according to our own preferences….Truth be told, I don’t want a church that serves my preferences. I want a church that gives me Jesus and makes me want to serve His.”

Sorry, but everyone seeks out a church according to their own preferences. Years ago I read that the two biggest factors that determined which church a Christian attended were the quality and style of the music and the time of day the worship service was scheduled, Child services were the third biggest factor. Even for evangelicals, doctrine and preaching were less important.Most Christians don’t have the luxury of growing up in a church they love and never leave, so as they move around the country, they shop for churches. I can guarantee you that Wax did the same, and I bet he insisted on a finding a church  that fit his standards of a Godly community. The fact that he found what he’s looking for doesn’t mean that the Millennial’s search is any less genuine.

“Christianity without a cost is Christianity without the cross. And Christianity without the cross isn’t Christianity at all.”

I agree. But again we see Wax unwilling to admit the church has hemorrhaged members for a good reason. As many people have pointed out, The Gospel Coalition itself is guilty of  one of the most revolting defenses of the leaders implicated in the Sovereign Grace child molestation scandal, going so far as to blame the victims and accuse them of ulterior motives. Somehow churches believe that they can compartmentalize these issues without people noticing, They think that they can preach the gospel without people noticing that on the side they’re spouting racist sentiments and engaging in blatant misogyny. They think it’s enough to pay lip service to those who’ve been wounded and abused by the church, and they don’t think that people will notice them defending the individuals and practices that have caused abuse in the first place.

But the bottom line is that Wax feels that the church has the luxury of dictating the terms of debate. And notice that people who write these anti-Millennial retorts are always people who have never experienced being an outsider in their own church. They’re always white, usually male, with beliefs that fall perfectly in line with the evangelical status quo. Their politics are sufficiently right wing, so they’re on board with the church’s political agenda. They support all of the candidates and causes their fellow congregation members support. If they have any issues with their church’s teachings, it’s always a question of whether their church is conservative enough.

So the bottom line is that at no point has Wax admitted any fault on the church’s part. No shortcomings, no misplaced priorities, no hypocrisy, no false teachings. If Millennials aren’t happy, then it’s their fault. So we’re left with a choice: get in line or get the hell out, because you’re only welcome to the degree that you’re willing to suck it in and keep quiet about your concerns. An attitude like that is a Christianity without a cross, and I think that churches who share Wax’s sentiments should be honest and replace their crosses with middle fingers. Because that’s the message they’re giving to Millennials.