In order to learn from the past, we must recall it and review it. Here is a sampling of some events from 2019 and my tentative interpretations.
Rise of the Planet of the Tribes
2019 saw the rise of tribalism in all sectors of society. Christendom was not immune to this infection. The Roman Catholic Church saw the growth of anti-papal feeling as Francis lead Catholicism toward theological contradictions, non-Catholic teaching, and a general ‘progressive’ approach which resembled the Latin American Marxism of his early ministry.
The post-war consensus in Protestant evangelicalism saw a fracturing along cultural and political lines. An older evangelicalism with its institutions firmly entrenched in the cultural establishment tended to become aligned with right-wing politics. A new evangelicalism was actively distancing itself from the right-wing, but not to stand apart from politics, but to rationalize left-wing thinking.
In each case, evangelicalism continued to lose theological moorings and instead took on a vaguer definition as a sociological grouping. This change, which has been well documented from David Wells’ book from the 1990s, became prominent as US President Donald Trump claimed support from “the evangelicals”. Yet his prominent supporters were largely from the heretical ranks of the prosperity gospel.
No Neutral Zone
Further to this sociological definition of everything, 2019 saw the shrinkage of neutral spaces. No longer was it permitted for a person to merely vote for Trump, support gay marriage, or have concern for the environment. The new tribal demand was that a notional commitment meant nothing without action.
So hold-your-nose voters became propagandists. Slightly libertarian ‘friends of gay people’ had to become ardent virtue signallers. Dutiful recyclers had to add shrill voices in the cause of raising the climate alarm.
Like a hockey rink without a neutral zone, many people felt like they needed to be attacking or defending constantly. They weren’t permitted to have any space to make transitions in their beliefs and practices.
The Pressure of Casuistry
Without firm biblical convictions, the bulk of Western society felt pressured to fit into moulds which they were ill-equipped to resist. Even Christians had a hard time resisting this pressure to be “conformed to the world” (Rom 12:2). The worldly structures of fallen human society and thought were summarized by the Apostle Paul as the “stoichea tou kosmou” or “the elemental principles of the world” (Gal 4:3,9; Col 2:8,20). These structures are constantly pressing believers to conform to them and turn from God.
What has been embarrassing is the way that leaders in the high theology movement of gospel-centred evangelicalism have brought back old errors and fuzzy thinking that was discarded a generation ago. So the Southern Baptist Convention has been debating whether or not women can preach in church. Inexplicably, the debate has occurred among those who claim not only the name ‘evangelical’, but the narrower, theologically specific identifier of ‘complementarian’.
Just as troubling has been the way that the sexual revolution (Albert Mohler) has affronted the high theology movement within evangelicalism. The Revoice conference, advocacy for ‘gay Christianity’ and general accommodation to the revolution have made the church follow along with what secular author Douglas Murray calls “the madness of crowds”.
In all of these cases, high theology evangelicals are giving in to the pressure of the world but doing so with as much subtlety as possible. The result is that casuistry is on the rise. As a dictionary definition states, casuistry is “The use of clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions; sophistry.” In this sense, the theological skill of evangelicals is being deployed to defend the biblically indefensible.
The way this casuistry is performed is in five steps:
- Subconsciously commit to accommodate worldly pressure.
- Find nuances and fine points of doctrine which can be highlighted in favour of the desired cultural norm.
- Minimize foundational or patently obvious biblical interpretations.
- Encourage agnosticism about any doctrinal positions which would resist the new cultural norm.
- Let the worldly pressure make accommodation seem logical and contextually sensitive.
Maybe my little taxonomy of how this new casuistry works is too simplistic or too pessimistic. Yet I think that anyone who sees the way that all of us are feeling the pressure knows that this casuistry is something we are all practicing in minor and major measures. We are all tempted to hold mutually exclusive ideas, inconsistent convictions and generally instinctual but uninformed responses.
Disillusionment with Champions
The late Tom Wolfe coined a term to describe how people relate to leaders, sports teams and politicians. He called it “championism”. Another author summarizes, “Championism takes hold of sports fans who identify passionately with athletes they hardly know and – truth be told – probably would not want to know.” This is what happened within the Reformed Renewal in evangelicalism. There became a sort of ‘championism” based on a leader’s theology and popularity. So from the 1990s people would identify their theological confessions by citing, “I like John MacArthur” or “I like RC Sproul”.
The Reformed Renewal, which could be traced back to D.M. Lloyd-Jones after WWII or to the Cambridge Declaration in 1996, gave rise to a number of other leaders who became massively influential. The Reformed Renewal became the vibrant driver of spiritual energy within evangelicalism. Names arose like Piper, Grudem, Mohler, Mahaney, Chandler, Driscoll, MacDonald and more. Even historical figures became proxies for championism in the Reformed Renewal, epitomized in the tee shirt with a wigged New England Puritan and the slogan, “Jonathan Edwards is My Homeboy”.
But 2019 saw cultural currents that shattered the confidence in champions, both secular and spiritual. The apparent vacuity of political leaders from Justin Trudeau to Donald Trump left citizens utterly disillusioned with leaders. The church was no different as the fall out from Bill Hybels’s early retirement in late 2018 foreshadowed investigations about his alleged unethical behaviour. Since Hybels’ model of ‘seeker-sensitive’ church became the dominant one across North America, to see a champion’s legacy tarnished was troubling for many Christians who had trusted the Willow Creek method as a way to market the gospel to an unchurched society.
The Reformed Renewal was not without its own champions falling in 2019. Another Chicago pastor, James MacDonald was fired from Harvest Bible Fellowship for unethical behaviour. Claims of misconduct stretched credulity with reports of misappropriated monies to murder for hire. Not seen in the headlines was the tumult in the lives of church members, as their high theology pastor was exposed as living quite inconsistently with what he taught. Further, the many churches that were associated with Harvest Bible Fellowship were forced to re-organize themselves as the wake from MacDonald’s actions nearly capsized many.
Another fallen champion was the once ‘rising star’ of the reformed charismatic world, Josh Harris. Having left his pastorate, many suspected there was more to it when he enrolled at Regent College in Vancouver. But fears were confirmed when he announced his abandoning of the Christian faith, his repudiation of his previously believed sexual ethic, and his impending divorce. Many evangelicals responded to Harris in print or in Harris’s mode of communication— social media.
But the point which I’m making here is simply to say that Harris had been a champion of the “Young, Restless and Reformed”. As a twentysomething guide to young newly Reformed Christians, he had an outsized influence given his lack of experience and theological training. Sadly, the championism that surrounded him has given way to disillusionment. Some are angered at his ‘deconversion’ while others embrace his continued ‘restlessness’ and are jettisoning traditional Christian faith too.
There are many more champions who have fallen or disappointed in some way. But 2019 revealed that championism would no longer be the natural position for people to take. New suspicion of champions arose. The hope is that trustworthy leaders can arise, lest we are left with anarchy.
The Stability of Hope
In the events of 2019, the apparent crumbling of post-WWII consensus has left many people shouting doom and gloom from the right and left. But the stability of hope has remained where it has always been, in the sovereignty of God and the invincibility of the rule of Jesus Christ in the gospel.
Few reports cite the fact that the gospel is spreading in the Muslim world leading to conversions, at first a trickle and now a steady stream. In the two major belligerents of the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia, there are more Muslim’s casting off the darkness of Islam and confessing Jesus as God, the Son.
In China, the increased hostility of the Xi regime has lead to more persecution of unregistered churches. Yet the doctrinal vigour and ecclesiastical health of many churches continue unabated, despite local and national policies of religious coercion. While Western Christians are tempted to scramble after political power, Reformed Christians in China are too busy practicing meaningful church membership, expositional preaching and reading high theology books from John Calvin and the English Puritans!
All is not discouraging in the West as pastors and church members seek to be faithful during turbulent times. The political temptations and the disappointment of fallen leaders have left many pastors more focussed on eternity, and seeking to be faithful rather than successful. It is likely that the legacy of ministry in 2019 will not be measured in church attendance, or book copies sold, but in whether or not a Christian, pastor or parishioner was faithful.
My conclusion as we enter 2020 is this: endurance in the faith is going to be the most valuable trait that Christians can aspire too. Let us pray that God would grant us the faith to persevere to the end.