I grew up a Southern Evangelical. I went to Bible churches and Baptist churches my whole life. At one point I even went to a Bible Baptist church, though I’m still not totally clear what that one meant. I went to Christian school from kindergarten to…well, from kindergarten all the way to seminary.
If you share this background, you know we were taught a lot of things by leaders and teachers in that context–some good, some bad. They taught us the importance of personal piety, of a real relationship with God. They taught us to appreciate hard work and honesty. They taught us respect and integrity. They taught us to vote Republican and hold conservative values.
But more than anything else, they taught us to believe the Bible. And therein, to me, is the great irony of conservative evangelicalism.
Teachers and preachers and leaders held up the Bible as the inerrant, infallible Word of God, worthy of all obedience and proclamation. To be a Christian meant taking it at its face value, submitting ourselves to what we found there, and standing firm on its truth and declaring its good news to a dying world. And therein is the great irony and hypocrisy of conservative evangelicalism.
The irony lies in the fact that conservative evangelicalism claims to defiantly define itself according to a strict, literal reading and following of the Bible. Conservative evangelicals claim to do this in the face of a culture that rejects God and the authority of his Word, a culture that has abandoned Scripture for human judgment and rationalizes away any parts of the Bible that it finds inconvenient.
And yet conservative evangelicalism is, in fact, and perhaps increasingly, defined by doing just that–by abandoning Scripture for human judgment and rationalizing away any parts of the Bible that it finds inconvenient. The great irony and hypocrisy of conservative evangelicalism is its proclivity for picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to hold as absolute, unchanging, eternal truth–and which parts to disregard as obviously unrealistic or contextual. It confidently points to the speck in the eyes of the liberals and secularists while stumbling around too blind to see the planks in its own.
Look it. At the end of the day, I’m an evangelical. By some measures, I’m probably a conservative one. (By others I’m probably a liberal one, and for the same reason–because I think we should take the Bible at its word across the board…see below.) And I recognize that both terms, conservative and evangelical, are often too vague to even be helpful. And I recognize that I’m speaking broadly and stereotyping. But the thing about stereotypes is that there are usually enough stereos playing the same music to give them a genre. Moving on from the poorly attempted metaphor. I SAID MOVING ON.
There are, in my estimation, four major ethical issues in question at the present cultural moment. They are 1) Homosexuality/gay marriage, 2) Abortion, 3) Violence (currently manifesting in gun control and war/terrorism/Syrian refugee crisis), and 4) Economic (in)equality. The staggering hypocrisy of conservative evangelicals consists in the absolute insistence on biblically defining the first two, while completely neglecting biblical reflection when it comes to the latter. Allow me to demonstrate.
1) Homosexuality/gay marriage. For the sake of objectivity(ish), I have no desire to give a personal position here (it would be so nuanced that you would have gone through two R.E.M. cycles by the time I was finished anyway). But there is not much need to lay out the conservative evangelical position on homosexuality. On the basis of numerous Scripture passages, both Old and New Testament (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Timothy 1:10; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11) homosexuality is, essentially, unilaterally condemned by conservatives. This is of no particular surprise, given the evangelical tenant of taking Scripture as absolutely authoritative and in its plainest meaning. Given the presupposition, it is a fair enough conclusion.
2) Abortion. Though the Bible never explicitly addresses abortion, numerous proof texts are generally cited in defense of the sanctity of life, which, it is claimed, begins at conception. Psalm 139:13-16 and Jeremiah 1:5 are generally the substance of these arguments. Is it a fair appropriation of these passages to claim that they demonstrate that “life begins at conception”? Maybe. Maybe not. I could argue fairly convincingly either way. (Maybe that should in itself lead to deeper reflection and dialogue?)
These first two are pretty straightforwardly argued. The Bible says clearly(ish) that homosexuality and abortion are against the will of God. Are there nuanced arguments available that would push back against these conclusions? Yes, there are. But one couldn’t really fault conservative evangelicals for holding to their core conviction that the Bible should be taken literally and at its plainest meaning. Except…
3) Violence. The abstract concept of violence is currently manifesting itself in issues of gun control, war(s?) on terror, and, at least tangentially, in the Syrian refugee crisis. In the face of these ever-escalating issues, conservative evangelicals have largely responded with: vehement rejection of gun regulations (even advocating that students on Christian campuses pack heat and be ready to take out Muslims); calls for more aggressive military action in response to ISIS and terror threats; and frequently decried the very notion of accepting (Muslim) refugees, for fear of the threat of admitted covert terrorists.
Whether or not one finds these items politically practical or not, the damning thing about all three positions is that they cannot be held according to a staightforward interpretation of the Bible. That’s it. Simply put. I have absolutely no problem making that clear-cut statement, and feel exactly no need to qualify it in any way. Perhaps a demonstration is in order.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..” (Matthew 5:43-44, also in Luke 6)
“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.'” (Matthew 26:52)
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:19-21)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-32, also also in Luke 6)
“Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:9)
“When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.'” (Luke 23:33-34)
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)
“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’” (Matthew 25:40-43)
The list could go on, as could the staggering evidence of the early church, which unequivocally witnessed to the essential nonviolence of the gospel despite state-sanctioned torture and execution. The irony of conservative evangelicalism is perhaps most apparent here–where Scripture is skirted and nonviolence is tossed aside as impractical for the American nation. The best biblical argument available is that God commanded the Israelites to kill Canaanites. But if we want to use the narrative of the Old Testament to override the clear commands of Jesus, there are an awful lot of hermeneutical gymnastics to be done to explain why it’s okay to wear 50% cotton shirts and why it’s not okay to have multiple wives. (There’s also my favorite maxim that if the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, shows up and tells you to kill a Canaanite, you should probably do it–but until then, stick with what Jesus said.)
At the end of the day, it’s a plain and straightforward statement that a plain and straightforward reading of Scripture calls for an ethic of nonviolence. That might have to be critically worked out and nuanced, but it’s pretty difficult to get around. I’ve made this argument before, only to be asked what would have happened if nobody fought Hitler; only to be told that Jesus couldn’t have really meant that, because it’s impractical and dangerous; only to be told that some things shouldn’t be taken literally.
But if those considerations are the determining factor, biblical authority has been left behind. The binding authority of Scripture has been disregarded. The authority of the Word of God has been abandoned for human judgment about what is convenient, practical, and comfortable. Cultural norms and expectations have replaced the clear commands of Scripture.
At the end of the day, I am an evangelical. And I believe the Bible is the authoritative and inspired Word of God that bears witness to the revelation of the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. But I yearn for a Church that remains consistent. I long to be a part of a Christianity that is not ruled by the forces of fear-induced hatred and comfort-driven selfishness. I want the Church to pray as our Lord taught us, for his kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as in heaven. I ache for a communal faith in the Slaughtered Lamb who has already conquered death and is making all things new.