Abandon the Evangelical Ship or Evangelical Idols? Reflections on the Prophet Jeremiah
In a recent blog post, I mentioned that a student asked me why I still call myself an Evangelical Christian. On account of all the conflicted positions and associations politically and culturally, many people connected with the movement are now abandoning the label. Should we abandon ship, or abandon the idols of power, wealth, comfort and privilege that serve as stumbling blocks to right relationship with God and others? In this post, I will consider the prophet Jeremiah as well as other prophetic voices, and what import they might have for our situation today.
In the paragraph above, I mentioned the idols of power, wealth, comfort, and privilege. Before proceeding with our analysis, it is important to specify what I have in mind by these idols. Here I turn to the late Evangelical statesman, James Montgomery Boice. In 1998, Boice wrote an article titled “Our All-Too-Easy Conscience.” It was a play on Carl F. H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Boice said that Henry, in his 1947 work, had put his finger on a matter that was disturbing many fellow Evangelicals: “Evangelicals had been avoiding the great social issues of the day, above all racism and the plight of the poor and we were uneasy about it somewhere deep in our inmost thoughts and hearts.”
In his historic manifesto, Henry called the fundamentalist-evangelical movement to rigorous theological reflection and social engagement: “Fundamentalism is wondering just how it is that a world-changing message narrowed its scope to the changing of isolated individuals.” Later Henry writes, “Whereas once the redemptive gospel was a world-changing message, now it was narrowed to a world-resistant message. Out of twentieth-century Fundamentalism of this sort there could come no contemporary version of Augustine’s The City of God.”
Boice notes that the time had come for another book to be written, this time “The Easy Conscience of Modern Evangelicalism.” Boice was referring to Martin Marty’s claim that the most worldly people in America at the end of the twentieth century would be the Evangelicals. Boice concurred with Marty’s assessment: “We have fulfilled his prophecy, and it is not yet the year 2000.” Boice argued that Evangelicals have fixed their gaze on gaining the kingdom of the world and “have made politics and money our weapons of choice for grasping it.” In addition to raising concerns about pop psychology and the like replacing sound biblical doctrine, he lamented the Evangelical movement’s preoccupation with “success, wonderful marriages and nice children,” in addition to being fixated on “numerical growth and money.”
Troubled that Evangelicals cared very little for “getting right with an offended God,” Boice exhorted them to take seriously the words of the prophet Amos, who spoke the following words to a culture much like the present: “Woe to them who are at ease in Zion.” Boice said that fellow Evangelicals should become uneasy about their complacency and comfort. One area where this complacency is evident is the Evangelical community’s failure in the inner cities of America: “I would like us to become uneasy about our failure to establish strong churches in America’s inner cities, where the breakdown of American culture is so obvious and the needs of the people are so great.”
Moving on from Boice to the present day, it is worth drawing attention to a recent Brookings report and analysis on the changing cultural norms in our society on how Americans view those politicians with ethical improprieties and lack of strong religious convictions. The report highlights a dramatic shift for many Evangelicals. The analysis is instructive, and so I will quote from it at length:
The breakdown along religious lines is instructive. Americans without any religious affiliation haven’t shifted much—63 percent in 2011, 60 percent today. Catholic acceptance of politicians’ personal misconduct has increased from 42 to 58 percent. White mainline Protestant support is up by 22 points, from 38 to 60 percent.
These large shifts are dwarfed, however, by the change among white evangelicals. In 2011, only 30 percent believed that personal immorality was consistent with an ethical performance of official duties. Today, 72 percent of white evangelicals—up an astounding 42 points–believe that the two can go together.
In a related change, fewer white evangelicals now believe that strong religious beliefs are very important for presidential candidates—49 percent today, versus 64 percent just five years ago.
The survey did not go on to ask why people have changed their minds. But the data are suggestive. Yes, the general public’s center of gravity has shifted toward greater acceptance. But white evangelicals have shifted more than twice as much. As recently as 2011, white evangelicals were the least likely of any religious group (including unaffiliated Americans) to say that personal immorality was compatible with an ethical political life. Today, they are the most likely to affirm this.
The article concludes by saying that Evangelicals cannot go back to claim the high moral ground in a future election:
One thing is clear: Now that evangelicals have crossed this bridge, they will not be credible if, in some future election, they try to cross back and return to the status quo ante of inviolable principles backed by stern anathemas for dissenters. Henceforth they are in the same boat with the rest of us, judging each individual as an ensemble of good and bad traits. They have forfeited the standing to regard as morally defective those who disagree with their conclusions.
While the author of the article says that Evangelicals will not be credible in the future if they go back to their earlier moral stance, many today (including those inside my Evangelical movement) are already claiming we are no longer credible.
So, in view of Boice’s rebuke and the Brookings report, why don’t I abandon ship? It is not because I disregard or seek to justify the sweeping changes in our moral stances. Rather, it is because I don’t think abandonment of my tradition is the solution, but rather repentance and renewal. We find an example for this orientation in the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah prayed to the Lord God to have mercy on his people and not condemn them to destruction, even while rebuking them for their unfaithfulness to their covenantal relationships with God. He never abandoned ship on Judah or his Jewish faith, even while opposing their conduct at every turn. The NIV Study Bible puts the matter well:
… an aura of conflict surrounded Jeremiah almost from the beginning. He lashed out against the sins of his countrymen (44:23), scoring them severely for their idolatry (16:10–13,20; 22:9; 32:29; 44:2–3,8,17–19,25)—which sometimes even involved sacrificing their children to foreign gods (see 7:30–34 and notes). But Jeremiah loved the people of Judah in spite of their sins, and he prayed for them (14:7,20) even when the Lord told him not to (7:16; 11:14; 14:11).
Not only did Jeremiah pray for his people, but also he identified himself with them in solidarity with their sin. Here are a few of the verses that were noted above:
Though our iniquities testify against us,
act, O Lord, for your name’s sake;
for our backslidings are many;
we have sinned against you (Jeremiah 14:7; NIV).
We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,
and the iniquity of our fathers,
for we have sinned against you.
Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us (Jeremiah 14:20-21; NIV).
Like God’s messenger Jeremiah, righteous Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel identified with the people in their sin (See Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9 and Daniel 9). Moses interceded on behalf of his people Israel and begged God not to destroy them. Moses pleaded with God not to start anew with him and his descendants, as God intended on account of Israel’s sin (See Exodus 32, Numbers 14, and Deuteronomy 9). Even more radical is the sinless Lord Jesus who knew no sin, yet became sin, so as to make us the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). If these righteous saints of old did not abandon their people, and if the Lord himself does not abandon us, but remains in solidarity with them and us, why should we who do not hold a candle to these holy leaders of the faith abandon a movement that has changed its convictions for political expediency and power in many cases?
2 Corinthians 6:14 informs us to come out from among unbelievers in certain cases, but not from believers. Moreover, the New Testament gives examples of people being expelled from the Christian community due to sin, as in the case of the immoral brother in Corinth, or due to false doctrine, as in the case of false teachers (1 Corinthians 5:1, 5, 12-13; 1 John 2:19), but I don’t find examples of changing churches or movements because of them. While I do not wish to claim one should never leave a church or movement due to moral and doctrinal failings, I believe we should be extremely slow in considering the possibility of abandoning ship.
Like Jeremiah and the other prophetic leaders noted here, we must see ourselves in solidarity with our people. The point is not to condone or excuse sin, but to bring about change from the inside out—starting with us. It begins with acknowledgment, with joint confession and repentance, for we are not immune to the charge of sin or beyond scrutiny. So, the transformation of thought and conduct must include all of us. If he were hear today, I doubt Jeremiah (or Boice after him) would encourage us to abandon our faith communities, but our idols. In keeping with his context and message noted above, may we all return to the Lord, forsaking our idols of power, wealth, comfort and privilege, and ceasing to sacrifice our children and orphans, widows and aliens in their distress to those gods. Lord, have mercy on us!
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