Evangelicalism has been weighed and found wanting in the eyes of the world.
This is another of those comments we hear from time to time. (In an earlier column, I questioned the assumptions underlying the statement that evangelicals have sold their gospel birthright for a bowl of political porridge.)
Evangelicals: found weighed and wanting. My first reaction is “Yes, we have too often fallen short of our own ideals. Our hypocrisy stinks.” One only has to think of the terrible scandals that have erupted in our churches and institutions, as well as political dealings, double standards, and worldly divisions, to acknowledge the depths of our movement’s compromises.
But I wonder if more often this statement refers not to our failure to live up to our ideals, but to the nature of those ideals in the first place. We are found wanting because of the ideals to which we aspire. Our ideals are harmful, not just our hypocrisy. And in that sense, upon hearing the comment that we’ve been weighed and found wanting, my response is “I certainly hope so.”
Don’t Lose Distinctiveness
The only way that Christianity passes muster in the eyes of the world is by losing part of our distinctiveness, by abandoning eternal ideals revealed to us in Scripture, so that we blend into society without the sharp edge of a truly missionary encounter. If we are not found wanting by the world in this sense, we’ve been unfaithful.
When people say evangelicalism has been found lacking, the assumption is that the church, in its role as salt and light, is to be a blessing machine to the world. And, of course, that is true in one sense.
But a world suffering from spiritual blindness will recognize only some of the Church’s blessings as blessings. And so in every generation, the world will appreciate certain blessings the church offers, but feel judged by other blessings that don’t seem to be blessings at all. Today, the world may weigh the church and find attractive its mercy ministry to hungry and hurting bodies, but not its insistence on the goodness of embodiment in other areas (by registering opposition, for example, to the neo-Gnosticism at the root of transgender theories).
The World Found Wanting
But let’s look at this from another angle. Since the church is God’s forever people, maybe that frame should be central. The redeemed people of God stand at the center of history, and it is the world found weighed and wanting in the eyes of God and his people. And it is precisely in these areas—in which the world is found wanting in the eyes of God—where Christians, as a missionary people, can fill the cracks of evil and despair with the goodness of God’s love and justice.
I realize that too many evangelicals, like our fundamentalist predecessors, are quick to assume that whenever people reject or disparage our faith, it must be due to our steadfast stance. We believe that worldly rejection is thanks to our uncompromising faithfulness, when in reality, it can often be due to an ugly self-righteousness and moral superiority that seeps out in our cultural engagement. We shouldn’t assume the arrows coming at us from the world are because of our noble stand for Christ, when it’s possible we’re unpopular because we’ve been jerks. Surely the church needs a large dose of cultural humility.
But let’s also acknowledge that some of the kindest and most gracious evangelical leaders today find themselves facing an onslaught of hatred and bigotry simply for holding to common Christian convictions that no longer align with mainstream morality in American culture. Personal charm will not protect you from cultural approbation.
Cultural humility, yes. By all means. But don’t confuse the adoption of a humble posture with the habit of vacillating on principle. True humility stands without wavering precisely because the humble person is bound to the truth, and this holy stance stirs within us a cheerful confidence in the goodness and beauty of Christian teaching, and fortifies us to be against the world for the good of the world.
It’s true that too often evangelicals have been found wanting in living according to our convictions and ideals. But let’s hope that in the days ahead, if the world finds us intolerable, it will be for all the right reasons. We witness to a kingdom that transcends the rancor of our times. We belong to a people who, worldwide, must learn to cross artificial categories and lines so that the world can’t quite figure us out but knows there’s something truly different there.
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