Evangelical Idolatry

I have been thinking, as of late, about the various strategies in evangelicalism to navigate the marketplace of ideas. It seems to me that the typical evangelical strategy to “win” (sorry, I don’t mean this to be polemical (yet) but I can’t think of another word which is accurate), is simply to create something of a boys club. In other words, we surround ourselves with people who both agree with every word that comes our of our mouth and who won’t actually attack our views in any significant way. This is enough, in itself, to be idolatry, but it rarely stops there. The next step is to start a movement. A movement, in these terms, is nothing more than simply organizing leadership and adopting worldly strategies for kingdom building. Once teaching, leadership and dogma can be disseminated, there is a twofold turn outwards: First, a turn outwards to evangelize – not Christ as much as the movement itself – and, second, a turn outwards to attack anyone who thinks differently. The latter turn stems from the inherent fundamentalism in evangelicalism which equates difference with danger.

So, why this seemingly random rant about evangelical idolatry? Well, I have been thinking about what a healthy movement of the church might look like, and I didn’t have any examples. All the movements I can see, from my perspective, seem to be endlessly idolatrous. Which made me think about the emergent church conversation. It was the “conversation” piece that frustrated all these other movements. It seems unfair to just talk about things without calling anyone a heretic. As I was contemplating these realities, it struck me that the emergent church dialogue was truly a healthy endeavor. Now, there were certainly “movement” portions of it that were equally idolatrous, but the main thrust was that questions need to be asked, and the solution shouldn’t merely be reasserting what those around me simply assert. The emerging church conversation, it seems to me, was a prophetic call to the church against the idolatry of movements.

Therefore, I want to think through what a healthy “conversation” or “movement” could look like. These are random thoughts, I haven’t thought about this very much, so I am looking for some more input. What are the signs or fruit of a healthy theological conversation?

First, I believe self-criticism is necessary. In other words, if you can’t think of any possible problems with the given “movement,” denomination or conversation you are a part of then you are an idolater.

Second, it seems necessary that you can truly understand someone else is seeking to be as faithful to the biblical text as you are and still disagrees with you. There is a general thought among evangelicals, sadly, even educated evangelicals, that their view is just simply what the Bible clearly says. This, again, is idolatry.

Third, in light of the second, it is necessary, to be truly faithful, to stay away from rhetoric. What I mean by rhetoric is this: you don’t ever use “biblical” as an adjective of your own projects. I am astonished how quickly people label something they do “biblical.” This kind of rhetoric is a strategy employed by those who believe that God’s kingdom comes through their own rhetorical might, and is, again, idolatry. Rhetoric, in other words, is simply the use of a platform to self-will one’s own agenda and seek to commandeer God’s reign for one’s own use (almost always done so out of a belief that to do so is obviously “biblical”).

Fourth, there must not be a true telos to the conversation/movement. In other words, those who have a vision statement that spells out a well defined teleology do so out of a belief that they are God’s answer to the church. This, again, is idolatry. In the words of Eugene Peterson concerning pastoring, “I don’t know what God has for these people.” Likewise, we don’t know what God has for our agendas, movements, ideologies, etc.

Fifth, it seems necessary that the conversation/movement cannot be inbred. There must be ears to hear prophetic voices from without, from those whose views, ideas and theology may be foreign, may contradict our own or may even be perceived as dangerous. I am continually shocked at how many evangelicals, dare I say possibly the majority of the laity, believe that agreeing with something someone said necessitates agreeing with everything they say. By failing to listen to those outside of our own conversations, and truly listen for God’s voice, we assume the gospel can be read in its entirely through our own worldviews, and that, again, is idolatry.

Sixth, it seems that it is necessary that areas of interest widen rather than shrink. In other words, a truly healthy movement would seek deeper in the tradition, would continue to search for answers beyond its own assumptions, while an idolatrous movement considers its views solidified and now simply circles the wagons to protect those inside. What is inside, of course, is idolatry, and what is being protected is, in itself, wicked.

Seventh, and this goes along with the idea of self-critique. A movement/conversation must be weighed by the people it helps produce. In other words, if the broader church regards members of the conversation/movement (with good cause) as zealous without knowledge for instance, or, angry, arrogant and, ultimately, sub-Christian, then a leader must come to grips with their failure to truly lead to Christ, and therefore, necessarily, the cross. Evangelicals have turned ego-driven movements into a franchise network, so, likewise, we should recognize that God is the ultimate judge of our movement, and therefore he gets to draw up the qualifications for what “successful” is. Again, a movement believing they can do so without the larger church’s input is toying with idolatry.

Any other thoughts? What have I missed? I stayed away from naming names, which is probably a good idea, but I am certain this only scratches the surface.

13 thoughts on “Evangelical Idolatry

  1. kyle…first off thanks for a great and encouraging post. you have given a thoughtful and fuller expression to so many of my half baked agitated rants about my frustrations with evangelicals. while you have rightfully stayed away from naming names, I suspect most folks out there can place exact folks and perhaps exact situations/converstaions that fall into one or even several of your points. i need to spend more time with it but, again…thanks.

      • Some shots of light…thanks…the strength of the discussion, though, got me to reflecting about the nature of idolatry through the post here. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks Kyle – a very thoughtful post indeed. I believe I fall into the trap of each of these categories from time to time.

    For myself (which may be true to some extent for others), I have a strong desire to belong. And in this belonging, I gravitate to others and movements that allow me to belong. Then, I become too dependent upon the group that I belong to and am paralyzed by fear to not belong when I know it is time to not belong.

    I would suggest that many to all of us go through a similar cycle with the groups that we are a part of. The key of course is what your first point is kyle – Self-critique or self-examination. It takes a courageous faith to overcome one’s own feeling of belonging to the tangible to focus on belonging to God.

    Which, to bring back another of your wonderful posts, is where meditation comes back into play. We need to invest ourselves in His presence then help our current groups and movements to do likewise.

    Thanks for this post – I will be thinking on it for a while and it is good to think.

  3. One of the reasons I didn’t name names, other than fighting the obvious temptation to succumb to what I have stated already (viz. by trying to show that those who disagree with me are just stupid, immature, etc. – you pick your ailment), is that I know that we all immediately think of “those people,” and that alone should clue us in to the fact that we find it relatively easy to just write off other Christians. Ryan is right, we all can think of groups who break every one of my points above – but I would be willing to bet that many of us would be thinking of totally different groups.

    I would even, at this point, be so bold to say that I’m not sure you could adequately define evangelicalism without adding in a disclaimer that part of what it means to be evangelical is to judge other Christians as either ignorant or dangerous, either stupid or “probably not in” (if you know what I mean). It just seems to be so ingrained in the DNA of the “movement” that to ignore it would be to fail to describe it correctly.

  4. Kyle, in your fifth point you mentioned the extent to which you suspected the laity to buy into this “inbred” all-or-nothing view. To what extent do you think this idolatry is coming from the ground up, vs. from the top down? I am curious how implicated you would see seminaries to be in this idolatry as well.

    Could some of this also be in part a result of the proliferation of media in the last 40-50 years? It seems too difficult even for the most dedicated reader to stay abreast of the many streams of discussion within his or her own tradition, much less to allow time for reading and discussion outside the tradition. Could it be that in the glut of information, people are most desperate for reliable editors who can tell them who to trust and who to doubt? It seems that this could easily cause the myopia of many American evangelicals.

    • Paul, I think the blame must fall to seminaries first and pastors second, but, of course, pastors are trained somewhere…well…many of them at least. Evangelical seminaries tend to start the trend I think.

      In terms of the media deal, I definitely think that is the case. If you look at Christian publishing, blogs, internet ministries, etc., the average pastor/seminary, in my opinion, just tells people what the right people to read and what the right buzz words are, and as long as they have those down (and, of course, can deliver a stellar 3-point sermon) then the kingdom will come.

  5. There is a tension in any group to (a) preserve its identity and culture and (b) to promote its agenda / message. The latter requires “getting out there” and the risk is exposure to ideas that potentially threaten the identity and culture of the group. So the strategy essentially becomes launching a war from the cozy confines of your own castle (or only visiting “the faithful”) in your own franchise network (your ‘satellite churches’).

    I happen to believe the identity and culture of institutions are important. If you have a Christian University I don’t think you should be hiring tenure-track faculty who hold ideologies that are antithetical to the identity of your institution. However I also believe if the identity and culture of your institution is “worth its salt” you should be confident enough to offer peripheral tracks and/or guest speaking events to your (alleged) “enemies.” Dialogues and conversations are nice, but what is needed is *real* debate where there is real risk (hope?) for being persuaded by another’s views.

    As it is, there is too much of a personality-cult in the evangelical world. There are too many “fans” and not enough “disciples”; or if there are disciples, they are not the Lord’s disciples. I can put it into a very simple modus tollens:

    If (p) Christians are perfected in Oneness in the way that the Father and the Son are One, then (q) the world believes in the Truth of their message. [Jn 17:23]

    ~(q) The world does not believe in the Truth of their message.

    Therefore, Christians are not perfected in Oneness in the the way that the Father and the Son are One.

    They have not yet resisted sin to the point of shedding their blood. They only subscribe to the Twitter and satellite-feeds of speakers who “tickle their ears.” They have a “form of godliness, but deny its power.” They have a semblance of ‘love’ but they do not love *as He has loved them*; they do not love with *God’s love* or obey Jesus’ commands (If you love Me…). They are still bystanders on the Via Dolorosa. They have yet to step out from the crowd, declare Him “Lord”, take up *His* cross, and follow Him daily! [Hebrews 12:4; 2Timothy 4:3; 3:5; John 14:5; Luke 9:23]

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to do get some more Christ-mas shopping in ;-)

  6. Kyle,

    i really like this post and find many of the ‘marks’ of this conversationalist approach to be healthy challenges to my own tendencies towards idolatry.

    It strikes me that these 7 qualities could describe a local church – one that i would love to be a part of i might add! Did you think of this as exclusively toward parachurch or mega-movements exclusively, or could these parameters and criteria apply on the local church level as well?

    • Geordie, I hadn’t really thought about a local church when I was writing it, but I imagine all of the marks would carry over. There are other distinct evils in local churches, most notably the way other churches are seen/talked about.

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