Friday, April 11, 2014

On the Question of Whether Evangelical Christianity is Worth Defending: Defend, Critique, Reform, or Jump Ship?

The last few weeks have been tumultuous and painful for many evangelical Christians. As you have probably heard, World Vision announced in March that they would change their policy to allow for the hiring of those in same-sex marriages. But after a shocking 2,000 evangelical supporters withdrew their child sponsorships, totaling a loss of about $800,000 that had supported children living in poverty across the globe, World Vision took back the policy change two days later. What’s most disturbing about this sequence of events is that the children whose supporters ditched World Vision after the original announcement were caught in the middle and used as leverage in a protest.

The events of last month left many feeling embarrassed of evangelical Christianity (or at least its loudest voices), and there is now, more than ever, talk of jumping ship. Some feel that we need “new wineskins”—we need to abandon evangelicalism and re-imagine the Christian faith. Evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans, who is a long time defender of evangelicalism and critic of it (but always from the inside), writes of her disappointment and a loss of faith in evangelicalism. In a heartbreaking response to the World Vision controversy, she considers leaving, raising the question of whether or not evangelicalism is worth defending anymore. It seems that this was something of a last straw for Rachel Held Evans, and she plans to take a break from her blog and consider what might be the best way forward for evangelical Christianity.

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about why “millenials” (i.e. twenty-somethings) have been leaving organized religion. Some blame it on the LGBTQ issue specifically, pointing to events like what happened at World Vision as the cause of a loss of faith in evangelicalism. Others feel that the more general problem is that millenials are tired of people telling them how to live their lives. I think there might be something to both of these, but perhaps what’s underneath all this is a growing distrust in certain types of institutional authority. When all that’s holding an institution together is doctrinal agreement, any strong disagreement can make it brittle at best.

Alongside the issue of why millenials are leaving the church, some are raising the question of why millenials are attracted to liturgical traditions. Many young evangelicals who have grown disillusioned with evangelical Christianity have gravitated toward Anglican or Catholic traditions, longing for liturgy and a kind of robustness in authority structure that evangelical Christianity tends to lack. Some evangelicals turn to the deeply historical Eastern Orthodox tradition, longing for a historical continuity that can seem thin in evangelical Christianity.

One of the core issues at stake here concerns what ought to be the basis for Christian unity. Is it doctrine? Structural authority? Tradition?

But the question that haunts us today and has haunted Christianity since the first century church, through the East-West Schism of 1054, and on through church splits and the events of last month boils down to this: (how) can there be unity at all when disagreements run so deep? 

Matthew E. Johnson is a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing his philosophical studies on hermeneutics, aesthetics, discourse, and issues surrounding individual and group identity.


  1. Whether traditional or evangelical, we've lost sight of the object/focus of our faith, Jesus Christ. If He visited us or some of our churches we'd break His heart with our DIS-unity...and that should break ours.

  2. You should first clarify: evangelical or Evangelical. The former is intrinsic, the latter should be abandoned at the side of the (very wide) road.