Peter Wehner recently wrote in The Atlantic that the political turmoil of the past six years is tearing evangelical churches apart. As a publisher of books in both academic and practical theology, I am in touch with many pastors and theological educators who agree.
Any evangelical Christian, at least until the recent past, would tell you that politicians come and go, but Jesus Christ is Lord yesterday, today, and forever. But when church members are abandoning, denouncing, and even bullying pastors who express reservations about their favorite politician, it seems clear that Jesus Christ has taken a demotion.
How was this turn of events possible? In my opinion, we are seeing a massive “catechesis” failure – or, in other words, a failure in religious instruction. The Evangelical church in the U.S. over the last five decades has failed to form its adherents into disciples. So, a great hollowness developed.
All that was needed to implode the hollowed-out Evangelical church was a provocative stimulus. And that stimulus came in the form of Donald Trump and an increasingly radicalized GOP. With the implosion, people who were supposed to be disciples of Jesus turned into disciples of something (or someone) else.
Evangelicals are fond of quoting the “Great Commission,” the paragraph at the end of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus commands, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
The Great Commission does not say to seek casual adherents or inspire rabid partisans. It says “make disciples” – people who internalize and embody all that Jesus taught. This is a rigorous and consequential kind of learning. It is life-shattering and life-shaping learning.
This kind of learning depends on a type of teaching traditionally called “catechesis”: deliberate, systematic instruction in the faith. Catechesis from the early church onward often focused on the sacraments and on the creeds (and later on “catechisms,” documents consisting of questions and answers around faith – an early form of FAQ).
Evangelicals practice the sacraments – like baptism and Lord’s Supper – and many in principle affirm the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, but they worry that that focusing too much on them in practice makes you Catholic, which they don’t want to be. They would see catechesis (or they might call it “discipleship training”) as having other main foci, such as Bible-reading, communal worship, the doctrines of the faith, prayer, and sharing your faith with other people (“witnessing”).
When I refer to failed catechesis, I don’t mean that the Evangelical churches failed at things they didn’t like to emphasize anyway: sacraments, creeds, and catechisms. I mean that they failed at three subjects they claim as essential: Bible, doctrine, and prayer.
Despite its often-vehement endorsement of the centrality and reliability of scripture, the Evangelical church has not managed to get its adherents to read the whole of scripture all that well. According to the Pew Research Center’s “Religious Landscape Study,” only 44 percent of 8,593 surveyed Evangelicals said that they prayed, read scripture, or participated in a weekly study group among other Evangelicals on a weekly basis. Another 33 percent said that they “seldom/never” did.
Also, when Evangelical preachers claim to be offering “biblical” preaching, they often mean that their teaching is “correct” or “orthodox.” But “biblical” sermons often contain more anecdotes and opinions than the Bible. And evangelical worship (in contrast to more traditional worship services) does not follow the discipline of reading the whole Bible (Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, Epistles) aloud together over the course of a three-year cycle. (To anticipate my next two points: it also tends to omit creeds and prayers, including prayers of confession.)
Furthermore, most church attendees never learn basic principles of interpretation. They do not know how to read all of scripture – in its two testaments and multiple genres – coherently and constructively. They are taught, whether by precept or more likely by implication, that many parts of scripture don’t matter, while other selected bits must be absolutely determinative with no reference to context.
Failure in doctrine follows failure in scripture because engagement with scripture in the church is doctrine. “Doctrine” is a Latin-derived word that means “teaching”; in the church, “doctrine” means orderly, comprehensive teaching, based on scripture, about God, the world, and the life of the people of God in the world. When scripture is used mostly as a vast, murky, and unexplored pool from which the preacher can fish out isolated proof-texts to mix with anecdotes in support of sectarian opinions, there is no doctrine. There is just reinforcement of prejudice.
Regarding the life of the Christian in a secular society, Evangelical traditions offer rich, coherent teaching about how we should relate to the world around us. Protestant thought leaders such as Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and their heirs left substantial bodies of teaching material. Even the post-Reformation traditions that are seen as less focused on doctrine – such as the Pietists and the Baptists – offer plenty of edifying stories, sermons, and books.
But many evangelical preachers neglect these riches. While hammering on particular verses about pet sins, they offer no comprehensive account of how we can get from particular bits of biblical story and law to sound instruction for living in a contemporary Western constitutional democracy.
Take the verse Romans 13:1, for example: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” In practice, some Evangelical pastors interpret this to mean, “You should honor a president of our party as ordained by God, but feel free to slander a president of their party.”
Responsible interpretation of this and related passages would consider the differences between political realities in Paul’s world and in ours. But Evangelical Christians too often apply such verses piecemeal. Lacking coherent, biblically grounded doctrine, they swerve between wanting to put the government under conservative Christian control and wanting to keep politics separate from faith.
Most Christians were never going to become competent biblical scholars or theologians. But every Christian is meant to live a life of prayer. This does not necessarily mean following a pattern of written or memorized words every day with knees on the floor and eyes closed. It does mean (at least) what Luther meant when he said, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”
Jesus said, on several occasions, “Take heed to yourselves.” To lead a life of prayer is to lead a life, not exactly of self-critique, but of radical openness to critique by the Spirit of God. But in our present moment, so many evangelicals to the contrary seem intent on
finding themselves, their fellow believers, and their nation innocent.
Evangelicals used to sing “Oh may I then in Him be found, dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.” In our current moment, politicized Evangelicalism has begun to insist – if not explicitly then by clear implication – on its own faultlessness. The innocent need no repentance and no corrective teaching!
Prayer, as Brother Lawrence taught us, is the practice of the presence of God. With a weak grasp of the Bible and doctrine and a weak practice of private and corporate prayer, politicized Evangelicals have not known how to live life together in the world while abiding in the constant presence of God. Such Christians have easily fallen prey to political deceptions and betrayed their own deep and longstanding commitments.
In closing, I struggle both as an individual Christian and as a Christian publisher to know how best to address all this. On one level, one wants to denounce the deceptions, subversions, and betrayals directly, and I’m sure that’s a necessary part of the picture. But to the extent that we are trying to reach hearers or readers who are not formed in the practice of repentance, in a coherent and comprehensive pattern of teaching, or in the manifold prophetic challenges posed by scripture, we run into a brick wall when directly addressing these Christians with a word of reproof.
They simply won’t have it, and in my experience, often reject it angrily. Sometimes that’s because of the manner of our criticism. But you don’t even have to reprove them or denounce their political idols directly to invoke their ire. Many pastors over the past several years have seen their mere failure to evince enthusiasm for Christian nationalism, dominionism, and fundamentalism provoke the departure of a fourth or a third of their congregation.
People who refuse to take heed to themselves and accept instruction prefer to accuse and bully others. And the bullying – power plays and dirty tricks by politicized conservative Evangelicals in ecclesial councils at various levels – is picking up. Pastors tell me about it. So do friends in Christian institutions like seminaries and universities.
For many observers of Evangelicalism (including myself), Trump is the elephant in the room, the last straw, the catalyst for the church’s implosion. But Trump didn’t invent the world, the flesh, and the devil. He and his most notorious acolytes have not even been the first to set them up in the churches and other Evangelical institutions and suggest bowing the knee to them in those sacred spaces. But they have done it more brazenly and more successfully.
The response cannot be to yell at the proponents of bullying in a voice that will feel to them like counter-bullying. Name-calling won’t help either. Railing against Trump and his leading cronies can be a response, and it may bolster Christians who already perceive the problem, which may be worth doing; but steadfast Trump supporters will be unfazed. They relish criticism – the harsher the better! The people we identify as false prophets or malformed disciples will not be helped by our blaming but confirmed in their low opinion of us. Anyway, it is unseemly and unwise to point fingers so confidently. We all have our deformities and must constantly take heed to ourselves.
The larger solution, if there is one, must involve finding, heeding, and amplifying the wise voices in the Evangelical world (Pete Wehner and David French are two examples) that can communicate the loving grace of God in a way that will lead to reformation of life from the inside out. Evangelicals see themselves as being serious about God, the Bible, doctrine, and prayer. That requires having a teachable spirit, and pastors who know how and what to teach. If liberated from captivity to worldly political ideology, Evangelicals may find their way back to their first love—and make a positive difference in the world.
James Ernest is vice president and editor-in-chief of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He graduated from an evangelical college and an evangelical theological seminary before earning graduate degrees in classical studies and historical theology from non-evangelical universities and going on to pursue a career in religious book publishing.