Is It Time for an Evangelical “Divorce”?

This Sunday I’ll be speaking at First Covenant Church in St. Paul on “Reconciled Diversity: Seeking Church Unity in the Midst of Conflict.” I’m still working out the kinks in the talk, but at this point, I think I’ll probably start with a much-discussed op-ed piece published late last week by Baptist ethicist David Gushee:

David P. Gushee
David P. Gushee

American evangelicalism is fractured, probably irreparably. The split between two major camps, which we might roughly label conservatives and progressives, is comprehensive. It was hugely visible in the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton. It is visible all the time, if you know where to look….

The differences appear irreconcilable. Angst and bitterness often get the better of us as we discover and debate those differences.

Conservative and progressive evangelicals need to let each other go their separate ways, acknowledging that despite shared faith in Christ we have become two separate religious communities. Our fighting is doing no one any good at all.

It’s an important, if frustrating piece. Given how I’ve defined Pietism in part by its instinct for Christians to stay together, I know that I need to do more than have an impulsive aversion to Gushee’s suggestions. (That’s why I didn’t write anything before now.) But even on further thought, I keep coming back to three responses:

1. There’s nothing new about conflict within evangelicalism.

Gushee acknowledges this, hearkening back to the fundamentalist-modernist split and then the move by Carl Henry and others to unite what we might call postfundamentalist neo-evangelicals. And it’s this alliance that Gushee thinks is past the point of staying together: “Seventy years later, though, the descendants of the Henry-era evangelicals are fractured. One might even consider the radical idea that “evangelicalism” was a fictive rather than real religious community. In any case, the community bearing that name is today slipping back into the divisions (or labels) of a hundred years ago, when we need to be moving forward to face the challenges of the 21st century.”

Perhaps. But if I’m right, then evangelicalism (meaning here the centuries-old movement that originates with Puritanism, Pietism, and the awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries and includes — but is not defined by — Henry et al.) has always been “best understood in terms of its inherent tensions.” Seen in this light, the fact that what Gushee defines as “conservatives” and “progressives” are at odds is nothing new. And even if this current version of old tensions leads to a “divorce,” then we shouldn’t expect that evangelicals won’t soon find new ways to combine.

2. There are more “centrists” than we know.

Gushee, The Future of Faith in American PoliticsAs he acknowledged in the op-ed, Gushee once identified with “centrist evangelicalism,” and claimed that this category accounted for 30% of the movement. But he argues now that, since 2008, “polarization has nearly evacuated that category of any serious and visible leaders or institutions. The center is collapsing, and this 30% is moving right or left or right out of evangelicalism altogether.”

Maybe I just happen to inhabit an odd corner of evangelicalism, since I’m part of institutions shaped primarily by Pietism. (Which Gushee mentions — yay! — but identifies primarily with the “progressive” camp, only somewhat convincingly.) But I constantly run into people fitting Gushee’s definition of “centrist evangelicalism” at Bethel University and in the Evangelical Covenant Church — perhaps the prototypically “centrist” evangelical denomination, since it takes a both/and approach to almost every tension that Gushee can name. (This also means that we’re perennially wrestling with identity and unity — hence my invitation to First Cov on Sunday.)

But I don’t think my experience is unique. Here’s part of Messiah College professor John Fea’s response to Gushee:

In the end, I think that centrist evangelicalism is still alive and well.  I see more and more “doctrinally pure” born-again Christians trying to live out their faith in ways that might be described as progressive.

John acknowledges that culture war debates can complicate this picture, but even there wonders if “perhaps the center is now occupied by evangelicals who take traditional stands on these culture war issues but are willing to engage in fellowship with, rather than condemn, Christians who take progressive positions on them.”

3. In any event, I’m not sure what the “divorce” would even look like.

World Evangelical Alliance logo
Should people also quit the World Evangelical Alliance and Lausanne Movement? As usual, we’re talking about evangelicalism as if it’s principally an American phenomenon, which it hasn’t been for at least thirty or forty years…

What’s least clear to me is what Gushee, having encouraged evangelical readers to accept the inevitability of a “divorce,” wants them to do about it. Should denominations, churches, and individuals withdraw their membership in the National Association of Evangelicals? Should self-identified “progressive” evangelicals stop giving money to World Vision because it backtracked on affirming the relationships of its LGBT employees? Should “conservatives” stop supporting InterVarsity because it (kind of) endorsed Black Lives Matters? Should one group or the other stop sending its teenagers to evangelical colleges or its future pastors to evangelical seminaries?

(That kind of educational “divorce” might already be happening. But declining enrollment for both kinds of institutions might as easily reflect economic as religious concerns.)

In a follow-up Q&A, Gushee responded that “In many settings, separation probably looks like one side wins and the other side leaves. (Sadly.)” But I’m not even sure the “sides” are that clear once you get down to the level of embodied Christian communities that worship, serve, or work together. The most conservative church has members who Feel the Bern; the most progressive has people who picket Planned Parenthood clinics. Small groups are this way. Families, too. (Mine is, at least. Are my Calvinist, Arminian Baptist, and Pietist relatives supposed to “go their separate ways”?) Christian colleges certainly are, as Gushee admitted in a follow-up Q&A post:

Besides denominations that contain both parties, there are numerous congregations in the same boat. And the evangelical colleges (like Wheaton) and campus ministries (like Intervarsity Christian Fellowship) are in an exceptionally tough spot.

Believe me, Bethel University has significant numbers of conservative, progressive, and centrist evangelicals working — and, right now, grieving — together. And it’s got plenty of people (especially undergraduates) who don’t care about any of these categories (or others that we use: “Pietist”; “Baptist”; “Protestant”) but do care about each other.

Those fissures have been around as long as I’ve been here. We might have reached a point at which they’re more likely to rupture than in earlier years, but if so, I think it could take several years, perhaps a generation, to become evident.

Frayed knot
Licensed by Creative Commons (Tom Bech)

I might well be wrong here. (Even as I wrote this post, a colleague stopped by to lament a split pending in her church.) Please feel free to use the comments to tell me that Gushee is right that divorce is the best possible path forward.

But then you also should try to convince me that Wheaton College and Larycia Hawkins somehow served their stated purposes of advancing reconciliation by agreeing to separate from each other — and that it would be for the best if versions of that split became increasingly common in evangelical churches, denominations, colleges, nonprofits, missions organizations, and families.

Right now, I’m left unconvinced that taking seriously the New Testament injunctions about Christian unity (Gushee cites John 17:11 and Colossians 3:15; Ephesians 4:1-6 is even clearer) is wasted effort, nor that it has to lead to the “paralyzed silence, vague platitudes, and a constant effort not to talk about critical issues (and suffering people) that really demand reflection and response” that Gushee (rightly) warns can result from trying to avoid controversy.

But if you want to know how I think this can work… Well, stop by First Covenant on Sunday, 11am. 🙂

4 thoughts on “Is It Time for an Evangelical “Divorce”?

  1. It seems to me that the reality of any divorce sets in before the actual proceedings of divorce. As such it really comes down to a perspective. And divorce really only has power if the perspective is equated with reality.

    What I think would be helpful is if some para-organization could arise that teaches the language of reconciliation to a significant number of American evangelical leaders. It seems this skill is lacking, and one perspective would be: “It appears we’re lacking in a certain skill which can be learned. So let’s learn this skill.”

    But that requires the ability to take a step back to evaluate.

    Can we die to such an extent that we are able to take that step back?

    It is a matter of dying in order to live…that strange paradox. What are we dying to? The perspective on reality that we are alone (or divorced). This is the path Christ calls each of us to and collectively. To die to self, to die to aloneness, to die to divorce.

    “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone [i.e., divorced]. But its death will produce many new kernels – a plentiful harvest of new lives. … Anyone who wants to be my disciple must follow me…Now my soul is deeply troubled. Should I pray, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But this is the very reason I came! Father bring glory to your name.” (John 12:24, 26, 27-28, NLT)

  2. There was never a marriage, unless it was as Mr. and Mrs. Republican. That is the bond that has broken down. Additionally, scientific progress and changing views of human sexuality are forcing more attention on the profoundly different realities different people live in. The country will not accept or survive with two different realities, each with its own science and civil rights laws. A conservatism that is a stealth form of anti-democratic insurrectionism and anti-science, anti-intellectualism cannot cow enough people to accept democracy as a suicide pact.

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