Evangelical Prophets or Martyrs?

I vividly recall leafing through World magazine back in 2006 and reading the unsettling but hardly surprising news that Randall Terry – the firebrand evangelical who formerly headed Operation Rescue and was then financially wiped out following a series of lawsuits by pro-abortionists – had joined the Roman Catholic Church.

“Unsettling,” because it provides further evidence of the growing weariness and disillusionment I’m seeing among spiritual “entrepreneurs” who’ve been laboring within evangelical circles to expand the Kingdom of God in all spheres of life and culture.

“Hardly surprising,” however, as those “on point” for the Kingdom increasingly seek refuge from the prevailing pop-theology (or dare I say lack of theology) and me-focused brand of Christianity that pervades evangelicalism (which includes charismatics and Pentecostals), animates many of our local church and national leaders, and cuts believers off from the great historic doctrines and creeds of our faith.

Evangelical Drop Outs

Nor is Randall alone; several other cutting-edge evangelicals I’ve worked with in the past have made similar choices. One of my best friends recently undertook a comparable journey by becoming an Anglican (not Episcopalian!) priest, while continuing to serve as the founding dean of a college campus affiliated with the evangelical Assemblies of God denomination.

Such people find it increasingly difficult to stand in the gap between the broad Biblical worldview needed to address the challenges of our age, and the trivial thought and practice of most evangelical churches. Rather than burn out, they drop out (in whole or in part) and reconnect with a richer history of theological vigor and ecclesiastical order.

It’s Time for Fruit Inspection

This is not to defend, or criticize, Randall’s or anyone else’s decision to find new church homes outside evangelical circles. But our national and local church leaders in Evangelical Land (especially in the subset of Pentecostal and charismatic churches from whence I’ve come) better wake up to a glaring reality: Christians who want a pro-active faith of substance and significance, a faith that daily seeks to pick up the cross and follow Christ, and a faith that transforms rather than conforms to our culture, are doing some “fruit” inspection.

  • They are beginning to compare the flashy shallowness of Joel Osteen and his ilk to the humble power shown by Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa.
  • They are turning from the theological fads of evangelical best sellers like “Look Great, Feel Great” and the “Left Behind” series to well reasoned, Biblically sound Papal Encyclicals that confront world leaders with the theological basis for human dignity and the problems of post-modern relativism.
  • They are weighing in the balance their here-today, gone-tomorrow feel-good churches that operate under some of the most dysfunctional leadership and organizational structures imaginable, against the stability, awe and continuity of two thousand year church lineages that enjoy defined structure and ecclesiastical accountability.
  • They are no longer content with self-affirming performance-based worship that proclaims “I am a friend God,” while missing the grace of the cup, the fellowship of the bread and the renewal of confession.

Respect for Rome

No, I’m not in danger of joining Randall; I have significant theological differences with Rome and I will never abandon the biblical truths of salvation by grace alone, the supremacy of Scripture over tradition (although I’m growing much more willing to consider tradition as I seek to understand Scripture), and the priesthood of all believers. On these essentials, I am reformed through and through. But we evangelicals need to ask why Rome is routinely far ahead of us as it anticipates, analyzes and articulates cohesive, Biblically sound answers to the great issues of our age, while routinely transcending the inconsequential fads that so often distract our brand of Christendom.

What is the Gospel?

In my experience, evangelicals embrace a Gospel of salvation, but not the Kingdom. As a result, our focus primarily is on personal experience. In contrast, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologies embrace the Gospel of the Kingdom, but not salvation, with a focus on the broader application of God’s precepts. (This is not to question whether Catholic or Eastern Orthodox communicants are “saved”. I’ve come to appreciate over the years that God’s grace is sufficient for all who truly call Jesus Lord, despite their secondary doctrinal distinctives.)

Many of those leaving evangelicalism for older traditions like Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are Christian activists who feel this tension between a primarily individualistic faith and God’s call to impact the nations and transform cultures. They believe in the progressive advance of the Kingdom of God as taught in Scripture, rather than the eschatologies of retreat, defeat and escape that currently are so popular within evangelical circles. They’ve also seen how Scriptural precepts throughout history have consistently redeemed not just individuals, but whole cultures and nations.

These entrepreneurs for the Kingdom have – or at least desire – a comprehensive theology and Biblical worldview that makes their faith relevant to all spheres of life and human endeavor. But they’ve grown weary of their evangelical brethren, who try to battle evil and promote virtue without understanding the fundamental and comprehensive precepts that God has integrated into the very fabric of creation and revealed in Scripture. Understanding those broader precepts requires hard study of God’s Word, grounded in the great historic struggles of the Church and the resulting doctrines and creeds of our faith.

Transforming the Nations

No doubt, Christ wants to transform whole nations – that’s clear from the Great Commission’s mandate that we disciple the “nations” – but evangelicals too often become captive to the political agendas of those who have learned to manipulate us by tossing around a few Christian buzzwords. Tragically, we remain ignorant of Christianity’s triumph, time and time again throughout history, over competing worldviews. Our ignorance obscures the core truths of a comprehensively Biblical worldview and we simply react to the hot issues of the day – as though the challenges of our culture somehow are unique or particularly intractable – rather than proactively building firm foundations for all aspects of life based on God’s eternal truths.

Evangelicals instinctively feel God’s grief over cultural disarray, but have avoided the discipline of learning what God actually tells us in Scripture about his precepts for transforming cultures and blessing whole nations. We have zeal and heart, but lack knowledge. We also fail to seek God’s specific will in the tactics and methods used to address the problems of our age. For example, are we accommodating power, or speaking truth to power in the humility of God’s grace? Our cause may be right, and our concerns Biblically sound (although frequently even this is not the case), but are we proceeding in God’s way or man’s way?

Our Evangelical Rut

Those who understand the times and what needs to be done, based on a comprehensive Biblical worldview that is rooted in the great historic doctrines and creeds of our faith, increasingly are leaving our evangelical churches.

  • It’s not that our core evangelical doctrines are wrong; it’s just that our core doctrines are narrowly focused on us and our needs and desires, rather than God’s majesty and sovereignty over all of life and creation.
  • It’s not that our cultural concerns are wrong; it’s just that we’ve been too self absorbed with the theological fads of the day to engage in hard Biblical scholarship.
  • It’s not that those “on point” have any fundamental differences with other evangelicals; it’s just that they no longer can endure being isolated by local church leaders who are more motivated with protecting their self-interested status in the Evangelical ghettos our churches have become than they are in broadly advancing the Kingdom of God.

Those “on point” likewise are tired of being  humored with encouraging words by “leaders” who then won’t join them in climbing out of our theological ruts.

Our Leaders Perpetuate “Me”-Focused Christianity

I lay this evangelical malaise at the feet of our national and local church leaders. As I travel and teach, I uniformly find that our laity are hungry for more than shallow “bless-me” Christianity. They are hungry for solid teaching, discipleship and a comprehensive faith that transforms not only their lives, but their cultures. But they aren’t being challenged by their pastors, who seem more interested in accommodating than confronting our “me”-focused culture and attitudes.

At best, our pastors may encourage people to shun personal vice (if even that), but again the focus is on a purely individual faith that centers primarily on individual problems and personal aspirations. We should not be surprised, then, that our churches are filled with Christians who think God’s highest purpose is their own fulfillment, and lack vision beyond their own needs and problems. Nor should we be surprised with local church leaders who mimic the same self-focused malaise by resisting, with mesmerizing “pastor’s” faces of well-practiced but often self-serving concern, anything outside their complacent positions of settled privilege.

A Kindred Soul

I don’t profess to know all of Randall’s reasons for becoming Roman Catholic, nor do I claim to be a close friend. But I found in him a kindred soul as we engaged, off and on over a couple of years, in several deep, soul searching discussions. In those conversations we encouraged each other and struggled over how best to address the current state of affairs in evangelical circles.

At the same time, we lamented the Gnostic tendencies of many evangelicals to limit God’s relevance to “spiritual” matters, rather than proclaim Jesus as sovereign Lord over all spheres of life and human endeavor; their tendency to embrace faddish eschatologies of retreat, defeat and escape that rob Christians of our heritage as overcomers in this world; and Sunday sermons which implicitly, if not explicitly, teach that the answer to every problem is getting our hearts right with God. It’s as though our heart is the only issue and there’s no need to renew our minds with a comprehensive Biblical framework that embraces all of life.

Such is the crazy world of modern evangelicalism.

Renewing our Hearts and Minds

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating dry intellectual faith. God created us for fellowship with him, and our hearts must remain tender as we routinely encounter him in a deep, personal way – including personal and also corporate prayer and worship. But this can’t be at the neglect of sound doctrine and systematic theological training.

We need to renew both our hearts and our minds. Unfortunately, our Sunday morning church services seldom include didactic teaching on the great historic doctrines and creeds of our faith. Instead, we exhort people to “experience” Jesus so all our problems can be solved and all of our needs met. This is good as far as it goes, but critically needed theological instruction is often relegated to secondary ministries that impact only a small portion of a typical local church.

Kingdom of Self or Kingdom of God?

At the local church level, evangelicalism by and large has transformed itself into a brand of Christianity that accommodates, rather than challenges, the spirit of our age. It does this by pursing an experience-based, subjective “Kingdom of Self,” where “I’m OK, You’re OK” and God’s highest goal is my self fulfillment. Like any deception, this sounds appealing because it contains an element of truth. After all, doesn’t God want us to be happy and “purpose driven,” with large churches, healthy families and successful careers?

Well, maybe.

But then again, maybe God wants us to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” In the Kingdom of Self, it is easy to be only a “heart” Christian because the heart is subjective and demands very little beyond emotional affirmation. A purely “heart” based faith values empathy, relationships and experience above all else. It is like a marriage that tries to sustain itself on feelings alone. While we need a heart relationship with God and each other, we also must train and discipline our minds to think and act God’s way. After all, a good marriage requires hard work in addition to (but certainly not in lieu of!) passion, and we should expect that our relationship with God demands no less.

Scripture teaches that if we truly love God then we will keep his commandments – in our personal lives, in our churches, in our cultures and in our nations. To be authentically Biblical, evangelicals must leave the Kingdom of Self and enter the Kingdom of God. Subjective heart relationships are good, but not sufficient; we also need renewed minds that embrace God’s precepts for all of life.

“Your Will be Done…”

There’s only one way this can happen. We must make God’s will – rather than our will – first and foremost as it applies to all aspects of life and creation. We must die to self and want nothing less than God’s purpose not only for ourselves, but also for our families, our churches, our culture, our nation and the grand sweep of history.

The central focus of Christ’s ministry on earth was proclaiming the present reality of the Kingdom of God. When you boil it all down, the core concept of the Kingdom of God is very straightforward, but utterly powerful. When grasped, it necessarily will transform individual lives, families, churches, cultures, nations and history.

Simply put, the Kingdom of God is the application of God’s will “on earth, as it is in heaven.” It is not some future “sweet by and by”, it is not “feel good” church services (for which I’m not opposed, but there’s so much more!), nor is it only concerned with the heart. Rather, it is now, it is real, and it encompasses not just individuals but all spheres of life and human endeavor.

Unfortunately, many evangelicals forget that Jesus calls us, in the Great Commission, to transform cultures when he commands us to “make disciples of all nations”. In the original Greek text, “nations” is “ethne,” which means whole cultures and ethnic communities. This can’t be done with a purely subjective and me-focused faith built primarily on feelings and experiences. It requires the broad wisdom and understanding that comes only through a disciplined study of God’s objective precepts and a comprehensive, Biblical worldview that is rooted in the great historic doctrines and creeds of our faith.

A Comprehensive Faith

The Kingdom of God is the application of God’s will regarding all of creation to all of creation. Churches often are being built on feel-good Christianity, to the neglect of sound doctrine and theological vigor, but not on the Kingdom of God. Likewise, short-term personal contentment can come from a purely subjective relationship with God, to the neglect the precepts he has revealed in Scripture and built into the very fabric of creation, but this negates the Kingdom of God.

The Gospel of the Kingdom finds fulfillment in both the challenge and the promise of the Great Commission: Because our resurrected Lord has authority over all of heaven and earth, we are compelled to exhibit a level of discipleship that transforms not only individuals but whole cultures and nations. And a podium church focused on a sole-proprietor pastor or pastoral team is not going to get us there because it limits the plethora of gifts God has invested in his people in order to accomplish the much broader work of advancing his Kingdom.

Rather than swinging the pendulum too far in reaction to our Evangelical malaise by submitting to Rome or becoming a clog in some other vast, often moribund ecclesiastical structure that offers a measure of stability and security but is divorced from authentic New Testament patterns, why not take Scripture seriously? Why not once again “be the church” by ministering one to another in a comprehensive framework of authentic fellowship that affirms the great historic doctrines of our faith, while also progressively expanding God’s Kingdom by equipping, engaging and giving voice to the full range of God’s gifts and thus meeting the full challenges of our age? (See my blog on Participatory Church, Podium Church and Facilitating Leadership.)

Our Evangelical Disconnect

I have not asked him, but I think the dilemma for Randall Terry was that he understands that the Kingdom of God is the ever expanding application of the Father’s will on earth as it is in heaven. He also sees the disconnect between the Kingdom of God – with the need for wholesale submission to God’s will in the context of a theology that encompasses the whole of life – and evangelicalism’s shallow, me-focused and experienced-based faith coupled with our dysfunctional local churches.

Randall has been a soldier constantly “on point,” and I suspect he’s suffered more fatigue and battle scars (some of which, he readily will admit, were self inflicted – but that’s not unusual) than most Christians can even imagine. He needed to find a community of faith that possessed sufficient depth to sustain him while also providing a stable structure, a rich history and a theology that encompasses the whole of life. Although evangelicals can critique Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic doctrines on issues like soteriology, grace and the supremacy of Scripture, on the “worldview” issues confronting our age we have much to learn much from our Orthodox and Catholic brethren.

Prophet or Martyr?

As my father was apt to say, one step ahead and you’re a leader, two steps ahead and you’re a martyr. Those who are entrepreneurs for the Kingdom, because they seek to proactively apply God’s will to the challenges of our age, sometimes see far beyond their brethren. Call them prophets, if you will. But as visionaries urging God’s people onward, they sometimes become fatigued from lack of support and understanding. Most often, this lack of vision comes from short-sighted local church leaders or our all-to-common self-promoting national “leaders”. It is not uncommon, then, for true visionaries to become emotional martyrs, if not worse.

With increasing frequency, I’ve watched those with the ability to understand the times – and what needs to be done – become so frustrated with our current evangelical malaise that they leave rather than become martyrs. My cry is for God to restore the New Testament concept of “church” as authentic communities of believers who identify, embrace and develop the broad range of gifts God places in his people to address the challenges of each age. Only a restoration of true “church” will allow each of us to come forth in mutual ministry as we are able, once again, to launch forth with the full plethora of gifts God has placed among us. Only this, I believe, will minimize the temptation and growing trend by the best among us to otherwise turn back to Constantinople or Rome.

Maybe God didn’t call Randall to be a martyr. If not, I truly pray that he finds God’s grace in his new church home. As for me, martyrdom likewise holds little appeal. While likewise growing weary of our evangelical follies, I decided to go in a different direction by finding authentic church with authentic community based on a restoration of New Testament fellowship.

Nonetheless, dear God, “not my will, but your will be done.”

(c) Copyright 2009, Fulcrum Ministries. All Rights Reserved.

6 responses

  1. This article is thought provoking. There seems to be an almost “Christless” Christianity that is being preached from so many pulpits that is individual centered with a focus more on personal transformation or moral concerns. It is time to get back to the orthodox doctrines of the church – the theology of the cross.

    I’m highly concerned at the state of evangelical Christianity and by many of these big named evangelists on the circuit who preach a Gospel that is not Scriptural such as Osteen, Joyce Meyers, Benny Hinn and the Copelands. I am dismayed when friends who I would consider mature Christians flock to counterfeit revivals such as the one in Lakeland, Florida. I researched the teachings of this Todd Bentley and was sick at heart by his hideous views which incorporate occultic beliefs and practices.

    I am still a Pentecostal Christian and since moving to Charlotte I have been attending a Charasmatic Presbyterian Church which seems to be very balanced between the emotional and the intellectual. The doctrine is sound and pretty much orthodox reform.

    I do believe that people are hungry for teaching that has substance.

    As I was praying prior to helping out in a high school, I was heavily convicted to ask forgiveness for myself and my generation (boomers) and our self-centeredness that has affected our own children. I asked the Lord to forgive me for not crucifying my own desires, wishes, and dreams with Him and follow Him. This self focus has so permeated the Church as well.

    I’m tired of books that tell me “how to live my best life now”, theologies that measure blessing and abundance in terms of answering individualistic me-centered prayers and materialism, and preaching that is not focused on the cross of Christ. I am tired of worship music whose lyrics are about me and how I love His presence (which I do, don’t get me wrong), and how I am feeling; the types of songs that more reflect the songwriter’s devotion to the Lord which is wonderful, but does not reflect His glory, His holiness, and our redemption.

    I guess you can say I’m just tired of the church being a Christian ghetto and a parallel universe to the greater culture; like we’re saying, “look we’re just like you”. This is not the radical message of the Good News of the Kingdom. Oh, how I long for revival; genuine revival!

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  2. I think you have some good points. Yes, I do feel sometimes like I am being hit with “feel good Christianity” without more substantive teaching, like eating a lot of candy and not much protein. But I don’t think about these things too much. Mostly I think about what to make for dinner.

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  3. Jim, I appreciated your substantive comments. I leave Thursday for ministry in Hungary and Ukraine. Some of what you have expressed is pertinent to the Pentecostal/Charismatic communities there. I hope I have the freedom and boldness to share some of the ideas you express as well as ideas I express in my book, PENTECOST REVISITED.

    A further note regarding book sales, a few continue as a result of word-of mouth. I’m still praying for guidance regarding a professional Christian marketing team that can help get the book before a wide Christian audience and provide me some speaking opportunities.

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    • Glenn — Feel free to share anything I write about. And yes, it does apply to some of the things I’ve seen there, as well as here in the States. In matters of the heart our Ukrainian brethren have much to teach us. Unfortunately, the Ukraine protestant churches otherwise generally have inherited some of the worst of American Christianity. They are great brothers and sisters, but very bound up in the least healthy aspects of American fundamentalism — both in theology and practice. Some seem inclined to escape and seek a Kingdom perspective, but not many. Plus the prevailing attitudes make an effective escape very, very difficult.

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  4. Good to get back in touch with you. I just read your most recent post on your blog. I would say your analysis is correct, especially on the historical rootlessness of much of modern American evangelicalism and the problems that it appears to be creating for certain evangelicals, especially those, as you point out, who are ‘on point’, that is, if I understand you, activistic, broadly speaking.

    It’s problematic, as I’m sure you know, not only for activists but also for intellectuals; and this is where my own studies come in. Much of my work this past semester, especially the two projects I did on JH Newman, alerted me to the nature of the intellectual tradition of evangelicalism. Of course, it is not surprise that evangelicals have an impoverished intellectual tradition. Mark Noll told us that convincingly in 1994; and before him, David Wells was bringing evangelicals to their knees regarding their failure to think well, especially on theology.

    Newman himself was struggling with the trajectories of evangelical thought in his own day (he was converted at 15 and was evangelical long into his fellowship at Oriel College in the 1820s), and his solution was, famously, to reformulate the nature of Anglican ecclesiology by ‘re-sourcing’ (as his intellectual heirs would later say) the Anglican Church in the patristic canon; and, ultimately, and even more famously, to kiss the bishop’s ring and enter the Roman Catholic communion.

    Reading biographies on Newman and some of his own treatises and sermons caused me to think more deeply on the nature of evangelicalism and an intellectual tradition. Does evangelicalism have the resources (and here I’m thinking mainly of resources of tradition, of things which bind evangelicals together at irreducible, perhaps inexpressible levels) to sustain what is necessary for thoughtful interaction with ideas–i.e., sustained thought, intellectual sympathy, openness, broad-mindedness, freedom of inquiry, etc.

    Of course, the answer, from history, from cultural criticism, from just a quick glance inside an American evangelical church, is a resounding No. What does it mean then to remain an evangelical and pursue the ideas and thinkers which, as best I can tell, are important and also interest me–ideas like the nature of tradition and memory, of self, of the relation of self to communities (family, church, polis, etc.); and the historical development, particularly in the modern West, of these ideas, especially their German variants? Importantly and unfortunately, Evangelicalism does not have an answer to that question.

    I am quite encouraged then to read your post, where you show a remarkable level of sympathy for the people with whom you, ultimately at least, see things differently, and where you are able to offer immanent critique of the tradition which you happily self-identify with. That is, in practice, as close to what I have been trying to think about as I have seen, and it’s gladdening to come across it.

    It seems to me, and I guess you would agree, that the richness of the Christian tradition is such that it is sinful for evangelicals to ignore it, and more practically, that the sort of problems which the world and the church face cannot be addressed adequately using the resources of modernity and its evangelical variants. The four powerfully accurate observations you make (marked with ‘–’ dashes) bring this latter point into painful relief. A long way we have come even from our evangelical heritage–the Wilberforces, Lord Shaftesbury, Hannah More, and Co.

    So, I don’t know what exactly to think about those activists within evangelicalism who burn out and turn to other, more energizing ecclesiastical orders; but if the situation is at all like that which intellectual evangelicals find themselves in, the question must be answered robustly: what are the conditions, particularly the ecclesial conditions, of successful social activism and intellectualism? After the fundamentalist donnybrook with ‘Liberalism’, this question has become incredibly difficult for evangelicals to answer.

    I’ve been more prolix than good judgment allows. I’m just going to send this without editing!

    Lord be with you.

    Cordially,
    ADAM M.

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