When it comes to reaching the “lost,” one of the most tried-and-true methods is the personal conversion story. Whether done privately or publicly, it’s compelling to hear about how someone came to believe in the truth of the gospel and the Bible. Such testimonies can personalize and soften the message so it is more easily understood and received.
But when it comes to reaching the “found,” there’s an equally effective method—and this is a method to which the evangelical church has paid little attention. It’s what we might call the de-conversion story.
De-conversion stories are designed not to reach non-Christians but to reach Christians. And their purpose is to convince them that their outdated, naïve beliefs are no longer worthy of their assent. A person simply shares his testimony of how he once thought like you did but have now seen the light.
Of course, there have always been de-conversion stories throughout church history—if one would only take the time to dig them up and listen to them. Christianity has never had a shortage of people who were once in the fold and then left.
In recent years, however, these de-conversion stories seem to have taken on a higher profile. Part of this is due, no doubt, to the technology that makes them more available, whether through podcasts, blogs, or other forms of media.
But it’s also due to the fact that many of those who de-convert have realized a newfound calling to share their testimony with as many people as possible. Rather than just quietly leaving their old beliefs and moving on to new ones—something that would have been more common in prior generations—a new guard seems to have made it their life’s ambition to evangelize the found.
Indeed, many of these de-conversion stories are told with the kind of conviction, passion, and evangelistic zeal that would make a modern televangelist blush. In their minds, they’re missionaries to the “lost” in every sense of the word. They just have to help these Christians realize they are mistaken and lead them to the truth.
Modern examples of those in the de-conversion business are well known: Bart Ehrman, Rob Bell, Peter Enns, and (as we shall discuss below) Jen Hatmaker.
Of course, each of their stories is different. Ehrman moved from fundamentalism all the way to agnosticism, with no desire to retain the label “Christian.” In contrast, those like Bell would still consider themselves “Christian” in some fashion.
What all these folks do share is the same background. They were all once what we might call traditional, evangelical Christians—and have now come to see the error of their ways. Whatever they embrace, it is no longer that version of Christianity.
Power of De-Conversion Stories
I’ve seen and written about a number of de-conversion stories over the years, but I was particularly reminded of the power and influence of these stories when I listened to Enns interview Hatmaker. This interview has been making the rounds, and I can see why. Hatmaker is a friendly, charming, and well-spoken woman.
And the title of her interview fits this de-conversion theme perfectly: “Changing Your Mind about the Bible: A Survivor’s Guide.” As many know, the main issue Hatmaker changed her mind about is that she now fully affirms the LGBQT lifestyle as consistent with biblical Christianity.
But Hatmaker’s journey in this interview should be seen in light of larger trend. In effect, she follows the same playbook used by Ehrman, Bell, and others. The details may be different, but the overall point is the same.
The purpose of this article is to lay out the steps in this de-conversion playbook and offer a quick response to each. I hope to help others who hear these de-conversion stories and struggle with how to respond.
Step 1: Recount the Negatives of Your Fundamentalist Past
The first place to start in every good de-conversion story is to tell about the narrow dogmatism of your evangelical past. You begin by first flashing your evangelical credentials—Hatmaker was a Southern Baptist who attended a Southern Baptist college—and then you recount the problems you observed.
For Hatmaker, her evangelical past included people who are afraid to ask questions, won’t let you ask questions, only give pat answers, and never acknowledge gray areas. “I had no idea that we had permission to press hard on our faith,” she says.
Of course, some evangelical groups are like this. And apparently Hatmaker is from one of these groups. It should be noted, however, that Hatmaker’s language does not apply to evangelicalism as a whole.
Many evangelicals believe what they believe not because they are backwater bucolic yokels scared to press hard on the biblical text, but precisely because they have engaged the text and are persuaded it teaches these truths.
Indeed, it’s usually evangelicals who are reading both conservative and liberal arguments and weighing them against each other. Meanwhile, plenty of liberal seminaries and universities never have their students read a single conservative book. And it’s evangelicals in the intellectual echo chamber?
It is not fair to suggest, then, that evangelicals give “pat answers.” No doubt this is sometimes true. But, liberal complaints against “pat answers” are typically just veiled complaints about answers in general. It’s just another version of the oft-repeated idea that “Religion isn’t about answers, it’s about the questions.”
Hatmaker often describes herself as merely exploring or on a “journey”—it’s a way to disarm a postmodern world that wants there to be no answers (all the while she is happy to slip her own answers through the back door—more on that below).
Step 2: Position Yourself as the Offended Party Who Bravely Fought the Establishment
A major theme of Hatmaker’s interview is the relational-social trauma she experienced as she left the evangelical world. She was mistreated in ways that were “scary,” “disorientating,” “crushing,” “devastating,” and “financially punitive.”
Of course, it’s difficult to sift through these sorts of statements. No doubt some people were cruel, mean, and unchristian to her. And such behavior should be called out for what it is: wrong.
At the same time, there’s nothing illegitimate about people criticizing her newfound theology. Much of the response to Hatmaker was simply vigorous opposition to her new direction—one many regard as fundamentally unbiblical and out of sync with the entire history of orthodox Christianity.
Regardless, the tone of the interview sets up Hatmaker as an oppressed minority fighting against what she called “commercial Christianity.” She is the victim of a powerful evangelical world bent on revenge.
Needless to say, this portrayal needs to be balanced out by an acknowledgement of the current cultural climate where LGBTQ-affirming people are embraced as heroes (including Hatmaker herself), and evangelicals are being fired and sued for enacting their convictions that marriage is between a man and a woman.
And if we want to talk about “satire” and “outrage” and internet “hit pieces,” we need to also acknowledge the intense level of vitriol displayed by the LGBQT community and its advocates in the mainstream press toward Christians who don’t embrace our culture’s new sexual direction.
Step 3: Portray Your Opponents as Overly Dogmatic While You Are Just a Seeker
In our culture, there’s nothing more offensive than being dogmatic. Just about anything except certainty is allowed.
The quickest way to a successful de-conversion story, then, is to admit you used to commit this cardinal sin but now you know better.
Hatmaker states, “For a season that sense of certainty was wonderful . . . but of course upon scrutiny it breaks down because, as always, we come to Scripture and the things that we say are certain are obviously not certain to other people . . . certainty really only works in an echo chamber.”
In other words, Hatmaker now believes that certainty is not consistent with the way religion works. All of us who have a deep conviction about the truth of our beliefs just need to realize how wrong we are. It turns out we can’t really be certain about what Scripture teaches after all.
Of course, there are numerous problems with this sort of position. For one, it’s profoundly self-contradictory. Hatmaker seems certain this is the way the Christian religion works. She’s dogmatic in her condemnation of dogmatism.
Even more than this, later in the same interview Hatmaker is certain about what the Bible teaches on a great many things. In particular, she is sure the Bible accepts the LGBTQ lifestyle and that the historic evangelical position is wrong and harmful.
Apparently she is not uncertain when it comes to that issue.
And there are additional issues beyond this one. If we’re all required to be uncertain in our interpretations of the Bible, then what doctrines can really be affirmed? On those terms, aren’t all doctrines uncertain? And if that’s the case, then we cannot affirm with assurance even the most basic Christian truths—including the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection from the dead, the forgiveness of our sins.
I doubt Hatmaker is willing to abandon the certainty of these basic truths. But that just reveals that her commitment to uncertainty is being applied selectively. The appeal to uncertainty seems designed mainly to justify belief in homosexuality.
Step 4: Insist Your New Theology Is Driven by the Bible and Is Not a Rejection of It
Hatmaker wants people to know that her newfound theology is due to rigorous Bible study: “It was a lot of work, a lot of labor. It wasn’t just a feeling, it was an incredible amount of study and inquiry.”
Thus, she is bothered that anyone could doubt her commitment to the Bible. How could anyone question “our faithfulness, our commitment to Scripture”?
Perhaps one reason people doubt her commitment to the Bible is because she’s rejected one of the plainest teachings in it—that marriage is a union between a man and a woman—one that has been uniformly affirmed for 2,000 years of church history.
Of course, Hatmaker claims to have good reason for her new interpretation (an interpretation coincides with the biggest cultural shift on sexuality in the modern world). And what are these good reasons?
Here is one: “Obviously so much of what is written about homosexuality in Scripture is contextually bound; and there’s not much in there, frankly. But it’s deeply bound to culture . . . just like a thousand other points in the Bible are.”
But, this sort of statement is overly simplistic and misleading. It is by no means “obviously” true that scriptural teachings on these issues are contextually bound, nor are there a “thousand other points” in the Bible that do this.
Hatmaker makes it sound all too easy. With the mere wave of the hand, she takes the mountain of biblical teaching on sexuality and sweeps it under the rug of “culture.” Easy as 1-2-3. Nothing to see here.
If there were ever a concern about evangelicals giving pat answers, here is a prime example from the left.
Moreover, to say “there’s not much there” in regard to guidance on sexuality is beyond stunning. The Bible has an enormous amount to say about sexual ethics, male and female, husbands and wives, and the institution of marriage.
But Hatmaker will have none of it. She insists the Bible is just unclear about such things: “When we struggled to find clarity [on sexuality issues] . . . the Bible refused to cooperate.”
But is Genesis 2:24—“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife,” a verse reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:4–6—really that fuzzy?
But Hatmaker isn’t done. She has a second argument: “We have the gift of looking backward to see all the other places where the church collectively decided . . . ‘I think we’ve understood this incorrectly.’”
And to top it off, she says, “There’s never been unanimity ever, on anything.”
Such statements reveal a jaw-dropping unawareness of church history. To portray the last 2,000 years as “there’s never been unanimity ever, on anything” is not only mistaken but also irresponsible. The Apostles’ Creed itself shows otherwise.
Moreover, when it comes to the actual issue at hand, homosexuality, the church has been absolutely unified for two millennia without exception (for more on that point, see here).
Given that Hatmaker is arguing for a view of sexuality fundamentally out of accord with the entire history of the church that precedes her (not to mention the Bible), one might think a little more caution would be in order.
Step 5: Attack the Character of Your Old Group and Uplift the Character of Your New Group
The final step in the de-conversion playbook is to attack the character of the group you left, while upholding the goodness and integrity of the new group you’ve joined.
Hatmaker states, “When I looked at the fruit of the non-affirming Christian tree, the fruit was so universally bad. It was suicide, it was broken families, it was folks kicked out of their churches, it was homeless teenagers, it was self-hatred . . . depression, crushing loneliness . . . . If we are being honest, the fruit of the tree is rotten.”
This rhetoric is so uncharitable and over-the-top, one hardly knows where to begin. Aside from repeating the cultural trope about evangelicals kicking kids out of the home (with no evidence to back it up), and aside from judging every human heart that believes in traditional marriage as “rotten” (after complaining how judgmental other people are), she actually bases this whole argument on Scripture’s teaching about good and bad fruit (after declaring that Scripture is just not clear about these things).
But perhaps most troubling is Hatmaker’s laying the blame for suicides, loneliness, depression, and more all at the feet of those who believe in traditional marriage. Those are serious charges. But it’s not just contemporary believers she is throwing under the bus. She is condemning two millennia of Christians who believed the same thing about marriage.
Frankly, such rhetoric gives fresh meaning to Isaiah’s sobering warning, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil” (Isa. 5:20).
Rife with Problems
There’s no doubt Hatmaker’s de-conversion story will be persuasive to our postmodern world. And I am sure some will adopt her newfound theology as a result.
But on closer examination, it is rife with problems. While claiming to be non-judgmental, she declares the fruit of those who espouse traditional marriage as “rotten.” Despite her insistence that the Bible should be read without certainty, she offers dogmatic claims about what it teaches. While claiming her views are due to a deep study of Scripture, she offers simplistic (and even irresponsible) explanations for the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality—while disregarding 2,000 years of Christian history.
No, we should not settle for pat answers. But sometimes the Bible does give clear answers. And when it does, we should be willing to listen and receive them.