For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers . . . — 1 Corinthians 4:15a
Setting – November 1992, an evangelical church in the American South.
Concerned Voter: I don’t know. I can’t believe the American people elected this man. Unconcerned Voter: Ah, don’t worry. He’s a natural leader. CV: Yes, but some of the things he stands for, some of the things he says are in opposition to the way of Jesus. UV: He just knows his audience, is all. He says he’s a Christian. That’s good enough for me. CV: But does he actually live out what he says he believes? Lots of people are saying he’s a womanizer. Or worse. UV: Who are we to judge? Look, God can use anybody. Think of King David. He was an adulterer too.
The above scenario is entirely imagined. I say “entirely” because I cannot imagine that it actually took place in any conservative church hallway in the early ’90s. No, evangelicals stood almost lock-step in opposition to the elected president that year, and they did so largely because of his platform but also because of his questionable character. Indeed, we heard lots and lots and lots about his character. Still do, in fact. Evangelicals care a lot about character. Except when they don’t.
I’m a child of the ’70s and ’80s. I grew up in the height of Reaganism and the rise of the Moral Majority/Religious Right, and so on. I remember the Sunday Oliver North came to “preach” in our church. I still have the hardback copy of his book that he signed for me, though I don’t remember a thing he said from the pulpit. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest that it wasn’t a Christ-exalting piece of biblical exposition. I do remember wondering why he was speaking as a patriot when his patriotism seemed to be applied in some kind of scandal.
I don’t remember any of the churches I grew up in going overboard on the nationalistic fervor, even during the chilliest years of the latter stages of the Cold War. Patriotism just kinda hung in the background, like the flag on the sides of so many church altars. But, then, the gospel just kinda hung in the background too.
One thing I do remember our preachers and Sunday school teachers telling us, however, is how much being a good person mattered. Your reputation, your integrity, your character—this was your currency. This warning was expressed in a variety of contexts and with a variety of applications. It was especially stressed during anxious election seasons, but it was a constant lesson from our elders, for whom personal integrity meant so, so much.
We were schooled on the importance of the Christian worldview—in opposition to postmodernism and other philosophical evils. Our teachers typically weren’t well-versed in philosophy, but they warned us zealously against moral relativism, situational ethics, and hypocrisy.
I was scared into the kingdom by one of those late-’70s “Left Behind” films. Nothing could be more important than to stand for the truth, even in the face of the anti-Christ’s persecution.
We Saw You at the Pole, where evangelical students gathered ostensibly to pray for the country but also, honestly, to thumb their noses at all those worldly humanists who wanted to take away our right to pray in schools.
We ate apologetics books like communion wafers—and were about as nourished. What we learned was to argue, to corner our opponents in their intellectually unfurnished corners, defeating them with our theistic strength and consistency.
And then something happened. Our Merlins and Gandalfs became Barnums and Baileys. Or something. Worldview became market share. The rock-hard truth unchanging became circumstantial application.
Then came more seismic shifts. My generation is called Gen-X. Remember them? Probably not, because we contributed essentially nothing to the evangelical movement save for the emerging church, which has emerged into thin air (or into the mainline). Anyways, we got lost in the shuffle. We looked up to our forebears, who seemed to be merging their mid-life crises right into their church-growth strategies. (What’s with the Hawaiian shirts? We’re nowhere near an ocean.) The worst thing you could be was irrelevant.
And I think that’s where we ended up becoming ecclesiological latch-key kids. Because the pursuit of relevancy is the pursuit of influence, of power. And when power becomes your god, you’ll do as much biblical gymnastics as it takes to get it or keep it.
The younger generation now is basically a bunch of theological orphans. They are the latest theologically orphaned generation. Why? Because their church leaders have effectively abandoned them—we’ve left them to figure out discipleship by themselves, to figure out church growth by themselves, to figure out the application of biblical Christianity in general by themselves.
I’m not a millennial, but I feel abandoned too. The opening dialogue is something I see reflected almost every day now in comment threads, news articles, and from friends and family on social media. Not about Democrats, though. Heavens, no. Democrats are still obliged to keep good character, and in fact, they cannot, as their very platform precludes it. Conservatives, however, may do as they like. Say what they want. Get away with almost anything. So long as their platform reads right.
This is the logic daily rehearsed from believers in the unchanging Jesus! From the same believers who raised us to believe that standing for the truth was more important than anything, that being persecuted for your integrity was better than compromise, that morality was not relative, that ethics are not situational. And now these same teachers are wanting us to believe that a little “R” by a man’s name covers a multitude of sins. That what wasn’t okay for a “liberal” is justifiable for a “conservative.” That if there weren’t just so many other things on the line . . .
A new poll in fact shows that white evangelicals are now the most likely constituency to believe “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” This is up from 30 percent in 2011 to a whopping 72 percent this year. And this is not because evangelicals suddenly decided to show some grace to politicians, because you don’t see this kind of consideration given to political opponents. There is really only one main explanation for this sizable jump in 2017 in the ability to look the other way. Ethics kinda seem situational all of a sudden.
We’ve been abandoned by our teachers. Our guides have left us without fathers. The men and women we looked up to have gone against everything they told us to believe in. We wonder if they ever really believed it themselves.
Some of this orphaned generation will fall in line, because they were discipled according to the moralistic therapeutic deism fueling the evangelical zeitgeist. But some of this generation will refuse to do so. Because they learned to do as you say, not as you do.
The evangelical generations are divided. That much is clear. It is a sad situation to see so many orphans. They’re reading all the old dead guys, because they can see how those guys finished. They can see who held the line all the way and who didn’t. They are listening to more non-white evangelicals, because those folks have learned how to persevere from the margins for centuries. And the upside to all of this is that the orphan will come home. These youngsters who have rejected your idolatrous politics, your nationalistic faith, your moral subjectivity, your fear of the alien and the stranger, your gospel neglect will finally do you proud when they inherit your churches. If they can keep their heads on straight.
Godspeed, you theological orphans. Do not take your eyes off the gospel. The church’s absentee landlords have their reward. But yours is the kingdom of heaven.