Evangelical orthodoxy centers on one thing… and it’s not Jesus

Nor is it the Bible. Two things I grew up believing deeply, Jesus and the Bible, turns out, in practice, NOT to be the centering thoughts of our American evangelical lives.

And there is data.

David French’s article in The Atlantic may be behind a paywall, so I will try to pull his most significant thoughts out.

The premise:

Earlier this week, two theologically conservative Christian organizations, LifeWay Research and Ligonier Ministries, released the results of a biannual survey of American and evangelical theological views. The results are fascinating—and revealing. American evangelicals, it turns out, have a Jesus problem.

It is also true that trying to identify “evangelical” in America is incredibly difficult. Since the most press coverage portrays as Republican-loving, Democrat-hating folks who vote against abortion, it’s easy to land there. It’s not that easy.

An example:

For example, surveys now indicate that most American evangelicals now go to church once a month or less, with 40 percent attending yearly or less. Infrequent church attendance is most assuredly not a part of traditional evangelical theology. Moreover, those evangelicals who rarely attend church disproportionately identify as Republican.

I was well into my twenties and if someone an evangelical said they went to church once a month or less, people would call them a liar. Honestly.

Definitions truly matter. Getting at the “true percentage” of evangelicals in America takes some digging:

A 2015 NPR story demonstrated just how much. It turns out that the “true” percentage of Americans who are evangelicals ranges from 35 percent if identity is based only on self-identification, to 25 percent if identity is based on denominational affiliation, to a mere 6 percent if identity is based on agreement with a series of core evangelical beliefs.

French identifies three broad categories:

First are the self-identified evangelicals of any race or ethnicity. This group is ethnically and politically diverse (nonwhite evangelicals tend to vote Democratic).

Next are the self-identified white evangelicals. This group is religiously heterodox (ranging from biblical fundamentalists to casual Christians) but remarkably ideologically uniform. This is the core constituency of the Republican Party.

Finally there are the theological evangelicals. These are the subset of self-identified evangelicals who also agree with a set of key theological propositions. This group is what most evangelicals would call the core of the Church. These are the people who actually believe the key tenets of the Christian faith.

And in that last category, it is still complicated. What are key theological beliefs and do people in this group really hold to them?

For example, a majority of evangelicals agreed with the statement that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” Yet this is a flat contradiction of Christian teaching, which holds that Jesus isn’t a created being.

A majority of “Bible-believing” Christians in a particular category do NOT understand the nature of Christ?

Alas, there is ONE THING the majority hold to across all categories. It turns out it’s not what I grew up believing: Jesus and/or the Bible.

It’s sex.

…the respondents were remarkably orthodox on a very specific topic—sexual morality. Most evangelicals may misunderstand who Jesus is, but 94 percent said that sex outside of traditional marriage is wrong, 91 percent said that abortion is a sin, and 67 percent disagreed with the idea that the Bible’s “condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today.”

Well… yay us!

So, why this?

Answer: It’s the easiest place to draw a line of recognition and thus tribal recognition. (Which is a true mystery to me since belief in Jesus seems pretty “line drawing” in and of itself.)

Spend any time in Christian circles and you’ll quickly recognize that the culture is often consumed with line-drawing. Who is truly faithful? Or, to put it another way, when millions upon millions of people claim to follow Jesus, how do we discern who are his “true” disciples and who is heretical?

For generations, American evangelicals have been taught—by word and deed—that the shortcut answer to that question lies in sexual ethics. Know where a person stands on sexual morality (so the argument goes) and you’ll know whether they’re orthodox.

We just love shortcuts. I do. When I was in my 20s I would find certain questions to work my way to when talking to other believers to scope out those who “truly” believed and the “fakers.”

What is needed, in French’s view, is deep faith in Jesus which leads us to two defining places in our lives: humility and hope.

When we center in on moral codes we lack humility and hope. We are proud of our position on abortion, on sexual ethics in traditional marriage, and on homosexual behavior. We are RIGHT!

The way of Christ, on the other hand, humbles us:

Learn who Jesus is and you immediately recognize that even if you live your life compliant with the most strict of sexual codes of conduct, you will still, inevitably, fall short in countless other arenas of life, and that a Christ who knows our inmost thoughts knows that not one single person can possibly be as sexually pure as they may present themselves.

That is humbling. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.

The hope is found in the same source as the humility—a God who is gracious, who sacrificed himself to atone for our sins.

What do we need? A community of people following Jesus who walk in humility and deal in hope.

Yet, here is what is happening instead:

But when the Church leads with its moral code—and elevates that moral code over even the most basic understandings of Jesus Christ himself—the effect isn’t humility and hope; it’s pride and division.

Our quest for “morality codes” and certainly to see where the lines are… we have lost sight of Jesus. That is not a place I wish to occupy.

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