Chapter 4: A Confession

A Confession

I ended the previous chapter with four questions Christians need to answer as we consider our responsibility to be agents of the gospel in the world today. However, before I can address any of those questions directly, it’s important for me to openly address the biases from which I am coming. All of us have our biases, and biases that I used to have might be biases that you still have and vice versa. It’s important to lay them all out on the table.

I used to have two overarching and simplistic perspectives concerning Christianity in the modern world. First, until recently, I adopted a firmly evangelical point of view on just about everything. In a moment, I’ll share what I mean when I use the word evangelical. Secondly, until recently, I thought of gospel as a word that indicated only a specific doctrine and the responsibility of an individual to respond to that doctrine. I never considered the social and societal implications of that doctrine or even if the word gospel meant anything more than just a doctrine.

I now consider those to perspectives to be insufficient, and I am beginning to move past their limitations, but I still need to acknowledge them and the other biases flowing from them because I can’t claim to have changed entirely, nor can I claim to have perfectly transitioned to something better. Part of my growth is an evolution of my previous perspective, part of my growth is a reaction to my previous perspective, and part of my growth is a rejection of my previous perspective.

Therefore, I offer this chapter as a slight detour from the overall content of this book because I need to be open with myself and with you regarding the perspectives I once held but now reject. I recognize that in my journey of faith over the past few years, I may have accidentally retained portions of a too narrow view that should be tossed aside, or perhaps I have allowed the pendulum to swing too far away from my origins and have tossed out something that should be retained. By putting these thoughts out there, I’m willingly opening myself up to the criticism and evaluation of others, but I do so for another reason too. I want you to know that I’m thinking through the implications of my own origin story, and I want you to join me in thinking through your own. We all have to address our biases. Some values we believe to be central actually aren’t. Some things we think of as peripheral need to be brought closer to center. But until we see our biases clearly, we won’t be able to see the difference between what is truly central and what is just peripheral. Since I can’t speak for you, I’ll just speak for me, but perhaps you will see a bit of yourself in my story too.

Pauline Doctrine — Gospel & Morality

In my church tradition, the evangelical tradition which I’ll address in a later chapter, I was taught and I fully accepted that only one thing was truly central to the Christian faith: the gospel. More specifically, though, my tradition used gospel to refer to the specific doctrine of salvation from sin through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and our individual response to that sacrifice through faith. Even more specifically, my tradition focused on the gospel as expressed by Paul in verses like these:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:6-8 NIV

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:23 NIV

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

1 Corinthians 2:2 NIV

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV

From that perspective, the gospel is almost exclusively a message of individual, personal salvation—forgiveness of sins, and the gift of eternal life—that we obtain through placing our faith in the person and work of Jesus. According to that perspective, nothing matters nearly as much as a proper understanding of the gospel. In fact, the understanding of the gospel often takes practical precedence over everything else. Consider what Paul said in Galatians.

I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Galatians 2:21 NIV

This comes in the context of Paul accusing the Galatians of leaving “faith” behind and focusing too much on “observing the law,” but the implied threat for all evangelicals is that certain attitudes and behaviors of Christians can lead them to diminish the significance of Christ’s death. This is a real fear evangelicals have. This is a real fear I was raised to have. It’s the fear that if I have believed an incorrect gospel, I will be invalidating the death of Christ in my life and will therefore be disqualifying myself for salvation. One more passage will drive this home.

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”

Galatians 3:10-11 NIV

As a result of verses like this, read from within the framework that the gospel is primarily a doctrine to understand and respond to, I believed with the majority of my evangelical brothers and sisters that faith is the important thing, that faith meant mental acceptance of a set of doctrinal claims about Jesus, and that if your faith was somehow not perfectly formed, your salvation was probably not real either. For most evangelicals, how a person lives is far and away less important than the set of doctrines that person believes.

However, if you spend any time in any church with such a perspective, you will quickly hear a practical inconsistency in the teaching of the church. Specifically, if you listen to just a few sermons from a middle-of-the-road evangelical preacher, you will hear the strong implication that certain behaviors really do matter, and they matter so much they can invalidate the spiritual effect of correct doctrine! This is because Paul didn’t only teach doctrinal accuracy. He also gave strong and clear moral instructions too. Now, if you push evangelicals on whether the moral code is as central to the faith as the gospel, they will likely deny it, but if you listen to how they talk about their faith and what it means to be a believer, the strength of Paul’s moral statements will be clearly evident in their words. Passages like the following are deeply important to evangelicals.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Galatians 5:19-21 NIV

I highlighted the last phrase to indicate the emphasis evangelicals place on this passage. Passages like this allow evangelicals to talk about a gospel that saves you by grace while also talking about behaviors that invalidate you for salvation. Moreover, passages like this allow evangelicals to make lists of which behaviors are the most damaging to one’s spiritual condition—which behaviors are the least compatible with Christianity. Passages like this blur the lines between a message of grace by faith and a message of behavior as proof of sincerity.

For many church traditions, the apparent incongruity between Paul’s words don’t create a problem. For many church traditions, gospel has always been a message of behavior. The gospel is the news of what God has done for us (behavior) through the obedience of Christ (behavior) and an invitation for us to join in the work (behavior) and receive the blessings of that good news. For those church traditions, understanding what Christ has done is not a mental magic bullet that turns you into a Christian, understanding what Christ has done and following him is what turns you into a Christian.

However, evangelicals are trained to reject that understanding of the gospel. Evangelicals are trained specifically to think of salvation as something brought about through faith and to think of faith as the mental acceptance of doctrinal statements about Jesus plus specific behavioral changes that result from accepting the authority of Jesus. But evangelicals are also trained to use specific key words to describe the dividing line between what is doctrinal acceptance and what is behavior transformation.

The well-trained evangelical will carefully use words like law and grace or justification and sanctification in an attempt to separate the doctrines of the gospel from the behaviors of morality. When a person accepts / believes the doctrine of the gospel, that person is justified by the grace of God meaning that their sins are forgiven and if they were to die right then, they would obtain eternal life. When a justified person continues to live, though, the Spirit takes up residence in that person’s life to progressively sanctify them over time into being more and more holy / righteous. Through the use of terms like these, evangelicals try to create a very distinct line between the gospel that saves by grace and the morality that flows from a transformed life, and the lines work well enough whenever someone is actually obeying the morality of Paul, but not so much when someone is failing to obey that morality.

Whether the person is trying to follow the Pauline morality and failing or rejecting Pauline morality entirely, the person who believes the doctrine of the gospel but doesn’t live the life Paul proclaims is a person who serves as a counter-example to the structure of justification and sanctification evangelicals believe so firmly in. The only way to reconcile the incongruity is to claim that since Paul’s morality is the expected outcome of Paul’s gospel true Christians will behave themselves. Therefore, any person who violates the moral code without subsequent repentance and successfully doing-better-next-time, must not be a real Christian. As a result, for many evangelicals, Paul’s moral code is the de facto litmus test of true Christianity.

More than that, for most evangelicals, Paul’s moral code is the only viable test of true Christianity. Because Paul so vehemently rails against “The Law” in his writings, evangelicals have taken to using the term “Legalism” to refer to any emphasis on any behavior that is taught in Scripture but is outside Paul’s specific moral formulations. If a person talks about keeping the Sabbath (10 Commandments #4) or tithing (throughout Leviticus and Deuteronomy), he or she will often be labeled a legalist who has added something to the gospel. If a person talks about allowing secular same-sex marriage, that person will be labeled a “liberal” who has watered down the gospel. In evangelical circles, adherence to Paul’s formulation of the gospel and Paul’s specific depictions of morality to the exclusion of all others is the test for true Christianity.

For most of my life, I felt exactly this way. Although I was convinced that I was saved by God’s grace and my faith in the message of Jesus, I was also convinced that adherence to Paul’s moral code was just as important, not as a means of getting me to heaven, but as a means of proving my adoption into the family of God. In many ways I am still convinced of that, but I am now beginning to see the inconsistencies inherent to this approach. Specifically, I was trained to focus on the specific behaviors of Paul’s moral code but not the social and societal implications of his code or the source (OT) morality from which his code was formed. Since he often mentioned sexual immorality, improper speech, drunkenness, greed, and church governance, my moral code and the moral code of my upbringing focused almost exclusively on those specific vice. Rather than seeing sexual immorality in the context of one person exploiting or oppressing someone else, I saw it only as a comment about sexual behavior itself. Rather than seeing the instructions about greed in the context of a community of people who need to trust each other, I saw it as an internal attitude toward money visible only to God. Fearing legalism and liberalism equally, evangelicals focus on the specific vices mentioned by Paul in the narrowest possible terms.

As a result of all this, evangelicals have a strange relationship with the things Paul never addressed at all. Paul said nothing about tax brackets, public health measures, public schools, climate change, vaccinations, systemic racism etc. but these issues have become and continue to be important issues for our modern society. Still, evangelicals consider them peripheral largely because of Paul’s silence on the matters. Few sermons in my church tradition ever address any of those issues at all regardless of their moral implications. Mention any of these issues to an evangelical today and you are likely to hear them labelled as private matters, matters of personal freedom, or “political” and therefore irrelevant. No matter their label, in the context of the life of the evangelical church, these issues are largely ignored. It isn’t because the church is consciously taking a side in the matter. It’s simply because Paul never said anything specifically about those issues, and so the issues are rejected as viable topics for conversation. Since these moral concerns are not part of Paul’s explicit moral teaching, they aren’t central to evangelical doctrine.

But as you probably know, that isn’t the whole story when it comes to things Paul never said. Even though evangelicalism has firmly adopted the Pauline formulation of the gospel and the attendant Pauline morality as forming the center of our faith, and even though evangelicalism has rejected taking a stance on certain moral issues never addressed by Paul, there are other moral issues never addressed by Paul that do find a place in the center of evangelical morality. Paul never said anything about immigration, abortion, capital punishment, capitalism, or the proper size of government, and yet many evangelicals have taken great pains to teach me the “Christian” way I should think about those issues. No evangelical will admit that capitalism is a central component of their faith, but if you question capitalism in front of an evangelical, you will quickly discover how important it really is to them.

I have only recently been able to see the hypocrisy in my own church tradition and in myself. To limit my understanding of morality to what Paul explicitly said is too narrow, to only consider Paul’s morality and not that of Jesus or James is likewise narrow, and yet this narrow understanding is predominant in the circles in which my faith and ministry have been formed. What follows is a confession of the ways I (and my fellow evangelicals with me) have been guilty of embracing certain issues as if they are central while ignoring other issues that should have been more central. This list will not be exhaustive. It is a precursor to the extended discussion I plan to have in Chapter 6, but this list is the more personal of the two.

Evolution & Racism

Let’s talk about evolution first.

Years ago, as atheism was on the rise in academic circles, Christians in my church tradition decided it was important to oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools. Christians went to court to oppose the teaching of evolution, and they built organizations to specifically promote what’s called Young Earth Creationism. Furthermore, evangelical Christians took great pains to equip children with the tools they needed to reject evolutionary ideas taught in schools. I was a beneficiary of that education. Having been raised in an evangelical church and having attended an evangelical Christian school from Kindergarten through High School, I was taught repeatedly that the Earth (and the universe as well) was a maximum of 10,000 years old, more likely only 6,000, and Christians had the science to prove it no matter what the secular scientific community wanted you to think. I remember the day in 6th grade when my teacher taught me about the shrinking of the sun. Paraphrased, the lesson went like this:

The Sun is shrinking by X feet every year. Scientists have done the math. At the current rate of shrinking, if we extrapolate back in time, at about 10,000 years ago, the Sun would have been so large that the Earth would have been on fire. Therefore, there is no scientific way the Earth can be older than 10,000 years!

Not only was I taught that, I believed it. I accepted the claim that “scientists” had proven a young earth by extrapolating current measurements of the sun into the past. The hypocrisy of the argument was beyond me at the time, but I see it now. All of evolutionary science is based on extrapolating current measurements into the past to give us the age of the universe, the age of the Grand Canyon, and even the age of the sun, but I, according to what I was taught, accepted this one anecdotal extrapolation and rejected all the extrapolations done by the “secular” scientific community. I accepted the statement of the sun shrinking as definitive proof all the way until I learned how stars actually work, how fuel, temperature, and gravity are always in a state of equilibrium and how “shrinkage” of the sun doesn’t work the way I was told. Lest you think it’s an out-of-date claim, my children were taught this very same sun-shrinkage proof in their Christian school not 5 years ago!

That’s not the only “proof” I was given for a young earth. Here’s another one. Paraphrased, it goes like this:

Carbon 14, and other forms of radiometric dating are unreliable methods for determining how old something is. Not long ago, a seal was found dead on the beach and when scientists did Carbon 14 dating on it, the numbers said it was thousands of years old! Clearly, Carbon 14 dating methods are flawed, and therefore, we can’t trust any radiometric methods for determining the age of fossils or the age of the Earth.

Anecdotes like that were frequently given to me, but they were all given to me without sources. Who were the scientists? Why did they decide to date a recently dead animal? Did they even do it properly? How does one bad result from one group of scientists using one method of dating (and coming from a biased perspective) prove all radiometric dating wrong? Over and over, I was given similar bits of logic that pretended to be science even though none of them were published in a scientific journal or recognized by the scientific community. In fact, I was taught that the whole secular science establishment was just a godless hoax propped up by Satan to get Christians to toss out Genesis. Why would Satan want us to toss out Genesis? Well, according to these Creationists, if we got rid of Genesis, we would have to toss out the whole rest of the Bible, and if we got rid of the rest of the Bible, we’d also have to toss out Jesus. It was as if the age of the Earth was the reason we should believe in the resurrection of Christ!

For a good long time, I bought into it all too. I rejected the science about evolution. Then, since I doubted the scientists about evolution, I also rejected the science of climate change, biology, anthropology, paleontology, geology, cosmology, and anything else that seemed to imply anything in contrast to this one narrow view of the Genesis creation account.

I confess that such thinking was arrogant.

Far from being thoughts in submission to God’s Word, these were beliefs built upon the assumption that I and my Christian brothers and sisters were simply more noble and more intelligent than the entire scientific community. Darwin was an evil man with an evil agenda, not a brilliant scientific mind who discovered a simple yet beautiful, natural principle for all the biodiversity of the world. I and my Christian friends could see the truth through all the nonsense. The rest of the world was hopelessly duped. Such thinking was and is arrogant and wrong. I am casting it aside.

Now, let’s talk about racism.

When I recently began to think deeply through the arguments of the Young Earth Creationists and the history of the movement, I also learned something truly interesting and truly disturbing. Young Earth Creationism was a new doctrine formulated in the 20th century. Throughout most of church history scholars had taken Genesis metaphorically and had taught that the age of the Earth was unknown. In fact, when Darwin published his seminal work, some Christians hailed it as a glorious exploration of how God’s wisdom was wired into the natural world! Here’s the kicker: in the 1920s religiously motivated people moved states to outlaw the teaching of evolution, and in 1925 William Jennings Bryan attempted to defend Creationism in a trial known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, but those same religiously motivated people, including Bryan, also believed that the Earth was old! Even in opposition to evolution, Christians were not promoting a Young Earth. In fact, the true start of Young Earth Creationism came when John C Whitcomb and Henry Morris published a book called The Genesis Flood in 1961.

Why did Young Earth Creationism take hold of American Christianity in 1961? At least one reason Young Earth Creationism rose to prominence when it did was that it specifically empowered Christians to oppose a different societal change that was also brewing in the early 60’s—civil rights. Before, you think I’ve gone crazy, there are real reasons for the connection between opposing evolution and opposing civil rights. There are doctrinal reasons why many conservative white Christians actually opposed the civil rights movement of the 60s. Even in the 70s and 80s, I was still being taught the reasons why. Those reasons still connected to Young Earth Creationism, and I believed them.

Young Earth Creationism taught me that God made the Earth and all the biodiversity on it in a short period of time. Likewise, the biodiversity of humanity was created by God’s guiding hand through a very short period of time. Because everything happened by God’s divine choice and over a short period of time, I was taught and believed that after Noah’s flood, God made three basic races of humans by intentional choice. Noah’s son Shem was the father of all the Hebrews and all the Asian (olive- or yellow-skinned) people. I was taught that Japheth was the father of all the white-skinned people who ended up in Europe, and that Ham was the father of all the dark-skinned people who ended up in Africa. No one in evangelical circles could ever tried to explain to me where the native Americans (red-skinned) came from.

Since these different races were directly created by God there was a moral reason to keep them “separate.” Moreover, I was also taught that these different races were not actually equal. In fact, I was taught (never explicitly, but through many layers of implication) that dark-skinned people were under God’s judgment somehow. You see, Ham, the supposed father of all dark-skinned people, was the son who saw his father Noah naked and laughed at him, and was the son Noah cursed to be subservient to his brothers. I wasn’t personally raised to think of black people as slaves, but Young Earth Creationism as a whole is directly connected to a much older belief that black people bear a generational curse. Young Earth Creationism required me to reject the idea that human variations were the result of very long and slow natural processes of genetic diversification. Young Earth Creationism required me to believe that the “races” were made that way by God, and that his will was to have them be separate. It’s a central doctrine of Young Earth Creationism to say that race was created specifically by God for his purposes over a relatively short span of time. It’s a secondary component of Young Earth Creationism to say that God values the “diversity” of the “separate” races; so therefore, Christians in my tradition used the doctrine of Creation to justify the “separate but equal” forms of racism that have been and are still persistent in the United States.

Again, no one explicitly taught me that apartheid was God’s will, but no one ever encouraged me to think of interracial marriage as normal either. The separation of races dribbled into my own subconscious not by direct teaching but by implications of the Young Earth Creation doctrine. Sometimes someone would refer to something in the New Testament about unity in the body of Christ and how the old divisions were now over, but the ongoing implication was always that the white people were living a culture that was “normal” or “preferred” and that other people needed to join in (assimilate). I was never taught separate but equal, but I adopted a strong belief in separate or same. There was only one proper culture, and it was the one into which I was born. For other people, the door was open, but they had to join. I now confess that such attitudes are racist.

Young Earth Creationism is a subconscious engine driving the perpetuation of certain forms of racism in this country. That’s why I don’t think it is a coincidence that in the 60s, 70s, and beyond, Christians were busy talking about Young Earth Creationism and creating organizations like the Institute for Creation Research but were not also talking about the Jim Crow south, the redlining in the north, or any other expressions of systemic racism. In retrospect, I wish we had built an Institute for Racism Research or an Institute for Racial Justice! Instead, evangelicals chose to use their energy to oppose science but chose to ignore racial injustice. Opposing mainstream science became foundational to evangelicals, but opposing racism never did. To this day, evangelicals regularly exercise activism against evolution or other mainstream scientific concepts, but the white evangelical voice is almost never used to address racial injustice. In fact, evangelicals today usually just deny that racism even exists.

These beliefs are expressions of arrogance and racism, and I confess that my participation in them was also arrogant and racist.

Religious Freedom (For Us)

In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools should no longer practice the daily ritual of Christian prayer. To this day, Christians in evangelical circles point to that moment as a hallmark tragedy in the history of our country. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard pastors and other Christians lament the “ban on prayer in schools” even though prayer is frequently expressed by students before school, after school, in club meetings, and individually at lunch tables. Still, for evangelical Christians, the issue of prayer in schools is one of today’s fundamental issues. “If only we could get prayer back in schools…” they say wistfully, as if the reintroduction of ritual corporate prayer in public schools will somehow solve society’s problems.

This same basic idea expresses itself in the evangelical desire to have monuments to the Ten Commandments, Christian nativity scenes, and the use of phrases like “Happy Easter” and “Merry Christmas” prominently displayed in public places and on the lips of public officials. However, just as before, even though evangelicals have embraced large-scale activism to reintroduce prayer and other expressions of Christianity in the public square, they still have yet to employ any large-scale activism to address any issues of social justice. I could once again point out the sinfulness of that moral imbalance, but instead, I’ll confess to a different kind of discrimination borne out of this religious activism. In our efforts to promote Christian religious freedom, evangelicals have largely disregarded and in fact opposed all public religious expression that is not Christian in nature.

Those who want prayer to come back to school are adamant that it’s Christian prayer they want back in the schools. They don’t want Muslim prayers or Baha’i prayers in the graduation ceremonies, in the morning school announcements, or over the loudspeakers at sporting events, but they definitely want prayers in Jesus’ name in all those places. Likewise, those who want the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses only want the Christian concept of adultery and marriage to be reflected by the practices of those courthouses. Specifically, they want the courts to oppose same-sex marriages and to defend Christian discrimination against those who identify as LGBTQ+. This is hypocrisy. It speaks like a desire for religious freedom when it’s really a desire for religious favoritism. Islam, Baha’i, secularism, and even homosexuality are each a worldview. They are belief systems, whether they identify themselves as religions or not. Of course, they compete with the Bible in many ways, but they are alternate worldviews nonetheless and therefore fall under the same establishment clause from the Bill of Rights. Evangelicals benefit greatly from the protections offered us in the Constitution, but based on our activism, we only desire those protections for ourselves, not others. Evangelicals claim religious freedom is a foundational concern, but we actively oppose extra-biblical worldviews not only through personal apologetics, but also through political activism.

Let’s be honest. This is not the advocacy of religious freedom, this is the advocacy of Christian Nationalism, and I confess that I have been a participant in it. Inasmuch as I have supported religious exemptions or special treatment for Christians while opposing or remaining silent about similar exemptions or similar special treatment for other religious groups, I am guilty of a hypocritical Christian Nationalism that says Christianity, further, my version of Christianity, should be the national religion or at least the predominant and controlling worldview and morality for this country regardless of how that affects those of other faiths, worldviews, or no faith at all. We should admit this is un-Constitutional, but more than that, it is un-Christian, arrogant, and sinful, and I confess I have been guilty of it.

I need to explain this confession a bit more to prevent misunderstanding. I have had a number of conversations with evangelical believers who literally do want this country to embrace Christian Nationalism. They will ask me questions like this: “Don’t you want more and more people to turn toward God, to receive Jesus, and to walk as his followers in this world? Don’t you want people to turn away from religious error and false doctrine and turn toward Jesus? Don’t you want God’s will to be represented in our country in the way people live their lives?” My answer to all these questions is “Of course, Yes!” but I firmly disagree that the Christian way to achieve these goals is through the leveraging of secular political power. No one can read anything Jesus said and conclude that he wanted us to use secular political power to get people to obey God, to learn correct doctrine, or to follow him. Do I want people to become Muslims or to embrace the LGBTQ worldview? I’ll be honest, no. But do I think people will become true followers of Jesus if the government outlaws Islam? Also no! And do I want to live in a country where one worldview is favored at the government level to the exclusion of others? Definitely no!

However, for much of my life, I have lived in the midst of this hypocrisy. I have lived and labored with the idea that Christians should be activists whenever the issue in question is something that supports Christians and the Christian worldview. But I have opposed or ignored all issues that relate to the benefit of other people. Though I still want to promote Christian morality and the Christian worldview in this world, and though I still want people to find and follow Jesus, I no longer think that political activism to defend Christianity is the right way to operate. In fact, I think it is sinful, and I repent of my involvement in it.

Anti-Abortionism & More Racism

In 1971, before Roe v. Wade, the Southern Baptist Church adopted a resolution stating the following:

Be it further RESOLVED, That we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother

Resolution On Abortion, adopted at the SBC convention, June 1971

The emphasis in this quotation is mine, because I think it’s important to see the activism of the SBC in 1971 included the creation of laws to legalize abortion in specific cases including where the mother’s mental health was at risk! This one paragraph illustrates how in the early 70s, conservative Christians saw the technology of abortion through the lens of the needs of the mother and the quality of life of the infant so clearly that the Southern Baptists, a huge and incredibly conservative denomination, saw the importance of being activists in the promotion of abortion rights! However, something changed, and by the late 70s, regulating, limiting, and outlawing abortion became the foundational position of conservative Christians. What happened?

Learning the history of that transformation has been revolutionary for me.

During the mid 20th century, segregation and racism had divided the world of conservative Christianity into two camps. The Fundamentalists had formed in response to the growing “modernist” movement in the mainline Christian denominations and had become the predominant form of conservative Christianity early in the 20th century, but Fundamentalists, particularly in the south continued to embrace either vocally or tacitly the segregation of the times. A number of Christians split off from the Fundamentalists largely because of that. Adopting their name from the abolitionist “evangelicals” of England from a century before, these “Neo-Evangelicals” embraced the same basic doctrine as the Fundamentalists, but rejected their racism.

Nevertheless, a reunification event happened in the late 70’s when the two groups found common ground over anti-abortion activism. Embracing the name “Evangelicals” as their new identity, they simply ignored the racist background of the Fundamentalist schools and churches and pushed headlong into a political agenda now known as “Pro-Life.” From the 80s into today, opposing abortion and being “Pro-Life” has been de-facto political foundational for evangelical churches. No pastor would equate it to the centrality of the gospel, but nearly every evangelical pastor I know spends a Sunday or two each year on the “sanctity of human life” and the need to oppose the evil of abortion by changing the laws. I did it too. However, I have never heard an evangelical pastor address systemic racism or the legacy of segregation from his pulpit on a Sunday. Until recently, neither did I. The Pro-Life agenda served as an incredibly effective way for white Christians to ignore and even deny our own complicity in this countries racism.

Additionally, the so-called Pro-Life agenda bears an intrinsic hypocrisy and inconsistency that I have only recently been able to see. Not only is it hypocrisy to claim you are Pro-Life while denying the “Life” concerns of oppressed people, many other apparently pro-life or anti-abortion issues are also ignored, treated as peripheral or unimportant. For example, increasing access to adoptions, providing contraceptives to women, or providing healthcare and daycare services to young mothers are all proven to reduce abortions and favor the life of the unborn, but they are regularly ignored in Pro-Life Christian activism. The clear message of my tradition has been that getting babies born is a foundational concern but helping them live or caring for their mothers is not. In evangelical circles, sermons against abortion are foundational, but talking about universal health-care, free contraception, expanding adoption, or subsidizing daycare will be labeled political and is likely to get an evangelical pastor fired. God forbid he also mention systemic racism and the way Pro-Life policies actually make life more difficult for inner city moms!

For some reason, evangelicals are comfortable with activism that opposes abortion rights because that has been sanctified as “Pro-Life.” But any activism related to racial equity, the elimination of the death penalty, the expansion of healthcare, adoption, or financial assistance to moms is disallowed. Being anti-abortion is being biblical. Being for any of these other life-affirming policies is being political. This is logically inconsistent and it is practically hypocritical, and I confess that I have been guilty of it too.

I confess that I am complicit in promoting an anti-abortion Christian activism that still fails to recognize or address any of the other issues that should be included in a Pro-Life stance. I confess that in making the opposition to abortion seem like a central issue, I have been ignorant of and complicit in the perpetuation of other societal ills that are equally immoral.

And More…

The previous items I just mentioned combine to make other tangentially related issues foundational. Here are a few more ways I have been guilty.

I confess that I have allowed “Christian religious freedom” to lead to “personal freedom,” and therefore, I have been part of normalizing the promotion of individual rights and freedom of speech to the point that Christians feel free to discriminate against or treat people poorly whenever we have a religious excuse to do so.

I confess that I have been a participant in a Christian culture so in love with this personal freedom that I have blamed victims for being “oversensitive” when I say something offensive.

I confess I have been a participant in a culture that so values personal freedom that it claims the right to oppose vaccinations and other public health measures even when they are proven to save or improve lives. I didn’t myself oppose vaccinations, but I have contributed in my own way to the culture that has empowered those who do.

I confess I have participated in a culture that embraces limited government and emphasizes “personal responsibility” over social welfare.

I confess I have participated in a culture that makes opposing science foundational and therefore elevates as a religious discipline the rejection of climate change, COVID warnings, and anything else that comes from the general (secular) scientific community.

I confess I have participated in a culture that makes the opposition to abortion foundational and therefore rejects out of hand any and all Democratic policies and politicians. I have participated in communicating explicitly or implicitly that if a person was willing to preserve abortion as a right, that person can be written off entirely and treated with disdain along with everything they say.

I confess I have participated in a culture that makes being Republican a foundational aspect of the Christian faith.

I’m sure I have more to confess as well.

Time to See Clearly

I have no doubt that these “foundational” things arose gradually from the good intentions of those who went before me in my church tradition, but I am also convinced that they are the result of an uncritical application of certain portions of the gospel in ignorance of others.

Let me reiterate that no one specifically taught me to think of these issues on par with the gospel. No one in my circles would ever admit to thinking these things were central to the Christian faith. However, they are there, just under the surface, falsely supported and perpetuated by many proof-texts in Scripture, and that’s the deception I’m attempting to leave. I never thought of abortion or Christian religious freedom as being central issues to my faith either. It took me a long time start seeing how central they actually were in practice, how important they had become to me and to others in my tradition, and how effective they had been at blinding me to other important issues of the faith.

My journey to become aware of these biases borne of my upbringing has not been an easy one. I have faced opposition from many, but I have become convinced that just because my tradition says something is peripheral doesn’t mean it is and just because evangelicals practically consider something foundational doesn’t mean it is either. I’m grateful that God has led me down a path of seeing these things for what they are: misapplications of an overly narrow gospel. I’m sure many aspects of my upbringing are continuing to blind me, but I’m on a new journey that I don’t intend to leave.

I invite you to join me. Perhaps you see a similarity between your story and mine. Perhaps you have been on a journey of discovery and are encouraged by what I have said. But perhaps you feel that some of the items I just mentioned are supposed to be foundational and you are a bit offended by my assertions that they aren’t. Perhaps you were put off by my mention of racism or the way I spoke about Creationism or climate change or anything else. If that’s you, I just invite you to hang in there with me. If these things truly are essential parts of the Christian faith, and your heart is committed to the things of God and His Word, then what I have to say here won’t change your mind, but it’s worth reading anyway because if by chance you have misunderstood God’s Word or if by chance a bias of yours is preventing you from seeing it clearly, you owe it to yourself to get clarity. More than that, you have an obligation to your Lord and Savior to understand his Word clearly.

I’ll be clear with you. I’m writing these words because I think you might have a speck in your eye.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:3-5 NIV

I understand it is a dangerous thing for me to point out a speck in your eye if I have a plank in my own, and that’s one of the main reasons I have spent so much time in prayerful self-reflection considering my own biases and perspectives. I understand that as long as a plank is in my eye, I won’t see the world clearly and I won’t see the Word clearly let alone your part in it. But dear reader, I assure you that to the best of my ability, I am working on the planks I find. And here is the beauty of what Jesus taught in the parable, as I find the planks and remove the planks from my eyes, I gain a better handle on identifying what the wood looks like even when it’s small. As I work on removing these planks from my life, I gain better insight in identifying them and helping others to remove even the specks they have. Moreover, according to Jesus, it is my responsibility to help others remove the speck once I have removed the plank. So join me in this process of seeing clearly. Join me in the process of identifying what is central and what is not, what is part of following Christ and what is a distraction.

It’s time that we strip away all our “good intentions” and the legacy priorities of misguided predecessors to get back to what the gospel actually calls us to in the context of this modern world.

Let’s get to the hard work now.