After We've Left: Pursuing The Character of Christ

I'm humbled by the conversations that my last post sparked. I expected some comments positive and negative, but I was overwhelmed by the support, open dialogue, and genuine emotion I got from most everybody.

So WHAT did all that mean?

A close friend started a conversation with me about the post with the assumption that a large step had been taken. "So now that you're an exile..." he started. But, I don't think that's quite what is happening here. As I tried to make clear in that post, the way I see it, very little is changing. I'm not leaving a church because I'm not currently part of one. What I'm doing is leaving a label that I think has worn out its welcome. I'm leaving a philosophy.

The way that I see this decision is that I'm stepping out of a closed-minded theological framework, and, perhaps more importantly, I'm refusing to be cowed by those still inside of it scolding me for doing leaving.

And yes, I'm unapologetically disqualifying a huge number of churches from consideration in my future "church shopping" (we'll talk another day about how I hate that term), sight unseen.

So what are you actually QUITTING?

My good friend Rufus challenged me with a Webster's definition of "evangelicalism" on Facebook as a response to the post. He, lovingly and necessarily, wanted to press me on whether I was really willing to quit what I was claiming to quit. The answer turned out to be yes, but I want to share and elaborate on that definition and that exchange. (I acknowledge first that this is not the only, nor necessarily the most important definition of what "evangelical" is, but I found it to be a worthwhile exercise).

Rufus quoted: "Emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual"

I took that definition point by point:

1. Emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion
I find myself more and more wanting to flee from a kind of faith that ignores James 2:14-26. I don't think there's much value in a religion that is simple mental assent. I don't think responding to an alter call, repeating after me, sinner's prayer/fire insurance type faith is much more than useless... or depending on your translation, dead. It's important to me that the values of a faith movement don't end on that "personal conversion." I'm far less interested in a person's personal relationship with Jesus Christ these days, and I'm far more interested with their relationship with the Jesus Christ who is dwelling already in the weakest among us.

2. the authority of Scripture
I believe strongly in the Luther-derived concept of "Sola scriptura," though I (perhaps counterintuitively) also believe in the import of church tradition (especially things like the Creeds). What I do not believe in, and what I'm more than happy to walk away from, is a conservative understanding of "Biblical Inerrency" that ignores the text's cultural and historical context. This includes unhealthily clinging to things like anti-homosexuality clobber passages, the refusal to allow for women in leadership (Ruth? Esther? Lydia? No? Seriously?), bizarre Rapture eschatology, and--perhaps most egregiously--young earth creationism.

3. and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual
This one's a trickier one for me, because I do love a good sermon. I do love a really well constructed bit of Christian teaching. But in today's world there are a thousand places I can get such things, and I'm not going to stay in a place I find problematic solely because I like (most of, but obviously not all of, or we wouldn't be having this talk) the teaching.
For that matter: how many times have you heard a pastor rationalize us to back away from the severity, the sheer terror, of Christ's message? You know, the "I mean he didn't mean we literally have to sell our things and give them to the poor?"
What's so wrong with simply reading the evocative, engrossing, convicting text itself in the midst of a rich liturgical experience?


I think this is the big question. And I do not have a clear-cut answer. Just a series of small starting points that I'm hoping to build on.

I acknowledge that trying to step away from this big thing that I'm calling evangelicalism and into something else risks being a "grass is greener" situation. As one friend warned, I could be leaving bad for worse. (After all, one of the groups leading the charge in the World Vision Abandonment Debacle was the Assemblies of God--so jumping out of classic evangelicalism for that particular strain of pentecostalism is a pretty pointless endeavor, no?)

This whole attempt to step away from the things we're unhappy with is a journey that we know is filled with obstacles. Obstacles like Melissa and my conflicting desires for liturgy. But that's okay. We're going to figure it out because we believe strongly that this is a journey towards, not away from, the character of Christ.

WHAT is this NOT?

This is not a judgement of those staying. It really looks like one, and I likely need to repent of the myriad ways in which I've made it resemble one, because it's not meant to be one. That's a big part of why my "I'm leaving" post contained the part of my testimony where my faith was restored by a church very much of the kind that I'm not interested in moving away from. Because I'm not saying there's nothing good there.

For that matter, my blogging hero Zach Hoag is currently working through how to stay, if the label is important to you, "evangelicalism." Read him at Patheos explain how evangelicalism can be a big tent still. He argues that it's a thing that can, and should be redeemed. I'm respectfully disagreeing, I think the PR damage is such that "evangelical" is a word that is now essentially antithetical to evangelism, but, y'know what, I also reserve my right to change my mind.

Melissa and I are still going to visit evangelical churches. Especially the one I've been mentioning repeatedly without mentioning explicitly these last couple posts. We have good friends there who we want to celebrate our new child with. And for that matter, we've got enough faith in those people to know that they won't begrudge us for striking out in a different direction as we attempt to pursue the character of Christ.

But what this is above all else, is just that: a pursuit of the character of Christ. A refusal to continue to be a part of living out a faith in him that prevents us from looking our neighbors in the eye. If that sounds harsh, that's because it's meant to. We don't believe that living like Jesus requires as many caveats, as many "buts" as the more popular, well-known strain of conservative evangelicalism forces us to feel like it does. And so we go.


On Leaving Evangelicalism

Just a little over a year ago, I shared on this blog about one of the moments that shaped the way I see the world. Back in 2003 we invaded Iraq, and the aftermath of that event unravelled everything about how I thought I saw politics. This past couple weeks, another shaping moment happened. It's likely that it was in fact, two moments, (the first being the one in which I became a father), but this post will focus on the second.

But to get to there, we first need to back up close to ten years.

- - -

Towards the end of my time in high school, I began dating a girl whom I quickly decided I was destined to be with forever. I know it's pretty common for high schoolers to think this way, and everybody knows of a handful of "high school sweethearts" who are still together five, ten, or fifty years later, but I think this belief was a bit unrealistic. We held it, though, because marrying young was a highly accepted practice in evangelicalism, and it seemed to be working fine on the later seasons of Boy Meets World too.

The danger in our hope for relationship permanence, though, was in our idiotic desire to see it through the Christian Worldview™ through which we were supposed to see everything. It wasn't long before we convinced ourselves that it was God's will that we be together. I used the word "destined" in the previous paragraph, and I meant it in all of its weight.

It may come as no surprise to anyone reading this, but that high school relationship did not last. It ended, and it ended messily. This is common in young people. It is expected in young people. But when God wills you to be with someone and then they don't love you anymore, it's earth shattering.

This may be a completely juvenile reason to experience a crisis of faith, and so it's not something I've shared widely before, but it's my story. Halfway through my freshman year of college I got dumped by the girl I'd decided God wanted me to spend the rest of my life with and then I tanked my academic career (it still hasn't fully recovered) and abandoned the faith I was raised in. True story.

- - -

Shortly after moving to Cleveland in 2008, I began to feel like I was missing something in that place inside me where my faith had been. I began idly searching online for nearby churches belonging to the denomination in which I was raised, never visiting one. I considered praying again. But not much came of it until I met Melissa and she (nearly immediately) invited me to the big, rockin' worship service at the large seeker-friendly baptist church she'd just begun attending.

I'm intentionally using dismissive language to make a point. The church we attended brought me SPRINTING back to my faith. It was a family to us. It was a center for us. Melissa and I got married there, led a small group there, grew in Christ there, and still have nothing but wonderful things to say about it save for the long drive to get there. I acknowledge that you can find genuine Christian faith in a big, Baptist megachurch because I did.

My running return to faith led me to attend Indiana Wesleyan University (online) in pursuit of a Christian Ministry degree. It led us to travel to Sheffield, UK to study the resurgence in missional style church that began there. But I now held my Christian faith with my eyes wide open. I was unwilling to overlook the ways in which the church appeared hypocritical to me. I was unable to ignore the parts of faith, or perhaps "faith," that I saw as anti-science or anti-reality. As such I hungrily explored theological discussions that diverged from the usual--the work of Peter Rollins & Rob Bell to name a few--and I never really identified with the more conservative of the evangelicals around me.

The Neo-Calvinists seemed to my eyes to be very certain they had all the answers, but I found their answers wanting. I neared despair when I looked deeper into their antagonists, Arminianism, and found them at least as unfulfilling. I have been intrigued by a handful of strains of theological thought but haven't always known best how to comfortably pursue them (and I keep having to work on Sundays, anyway).

I've never really stood up and said "I am an evangelical" because it has never been a label that I've strongly cared for one way or another. Perhaps I was one of Rollins' "Orthodox Heretics" anyway, perhaps I was something else. Perhaps I am an evangelical and just didn't realize that where I fell on matters of theology was inside that camp. It doesn't matter anymore.

- - -

It has been better explained a dozen other places, but to recap as quickly as I can manage: Recently World Vision was forced to give a statement affirming the decision to allow people in homosexual marriages to work for them--depending on your point of view, either a statement of support for gay marriage or a statement of openness to the plurality of orthodox denominations that affirm same-sex marriage--and the evangelical backlash was swift and severe enough to cause them to reverse course to staunch the bleeding. Bleeding to the tune of the reneging on sponsorships for some 10,000 needy children by evangelical sponsors.

This debacle, and evangelical wagon-circling for the likes of Phil Robertson and Dan Cathy and Mark Driscoll and Pat Robertson and many others like them, has convinced me that the label of "evangelical" is one of gatekeeping, of spite, and of theological policing that goes far beyond our faith's sacred creeds, and I want no part in it.

I believe that this kind of behavior has so tarnished the word "evangelical" that it is irredeemable. This should seem absurd to believers in a faith whose entire existence hinges on belief in resurrection, but the label is not our Savior.

- - -

After Melissa and I left the big, Baptist church we started off at for reasons having to do partly with distance and partly with our desire to do something meaningful and missional (another post for another day) we ended up doing some half-hearted church shopping before ending up attending nowhere.

It's not our desire for this to remain so, but we do not currently attend church anywhere. But we can add to the list of House Hunters' like "Must Haves" (Gay affirming, egalitarian views on gender roles, engaged in local mission) a new "Must Not Have:" even a whiff of the kind of "Evangelical" mindset described above. I'm horrified to consider taking my daughter to such a place, and having to de-program her after. I'm tired of considering telling a friend I attend such a place, but "it's okay, I'm not like that."

This World Vision fiasco was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. I am severing all ties (none, were you paying attention? there were already essentially no ties) to evangelicalism. I joked in my last post about leaving for Judaism. I love Jesus, and so that was a joke. But I also mentioned Pentecostalism, I assure you I'll be exploring it. We'll look harder at the mainline denominations that hew closer to my values, and hope to find one that doesn't too closely resemble the Catholicism that Melissa fled from. We are going to find a church because we believe doing so is important. And if we fail, I assure you that we will start one.

But I'm hereby tendering my resignation from evangelicalism, effective immediately.