Propositional Evangelicalism

One of my complaints about conservative evangelicalism is a primary focus on what one believes to the neglect of how one behaves, the disposition of one's heart, and how one is to treat other human beings. This type of Christianity is what I call propositional evangelicalism -- the notion that, as long as one believes what he or she ought to believe -- and that will differ depending upon which group one is aligned with -- then such a one is considered orthodox. This contorted expression of Christianity is not only contrary to the teachings of Christ, to say nothing of St Paul, but also gives birth to overt sin.

To demonstrate this point let us look at the life and ministry of fallen pastor Tullian Tchividjian. He had all his theological ducks in a row: conservative theologically, conservative politically, a Calvinist, a complementarian, co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, pastor to the late D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, invited to all the popular venues (e.g., Together for the Gospel), and yet, secretly, he was carrying on an adulterous affair while preaching and speaking, and then, later, repeated the sin in another setting. Tullian did not merely commit one sexual misconducted act, repent, and live anew in Christ. He continued sexually abusing his ministerial power for his own sinful gratification.

What is worse is that two elders from Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church concealed Tullian's sin. (link) The Christian Post notes that Tullian endured suicidal thoughts as a result of the downward spiral into a quagmire of sin. (link) I will tell you why I think propositional evangelicalism contributed and enabled Tullian down this path: believing doctrines does not automatically conform one to the image of Jesus Christ. You can believe any number of propositions, biblical or otherwise, and still be an ungodly individual, mistreat others, and live in sin. I know -- I did it. I used to think that the top priority of any believer was believing right, "biblical," teachings. This line of thinking led to sin and turmoil.

I witness ungodly propositional evangelicalism all the time: whether on Facebook, or on Twitter, in churches, or in public, I witness professing Christians who think they are holding to right doctrines but who live as enemies of the Cross. (cf. Phil. 3:18) Yet, the core of Jesus' teaching amounts to this, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matt. 22:36-40)

Jesus' latter statement is also translated to convey this simple message: "The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments." (Matt. 26:40 NLT) In other words, all the propositions that are listed within the scriptures are important, but they all rightly depend upon, or hang upon, loving God with all one's being, and loving others as one loves him- or herself. Loving doctrinal propositions is not the same as loving God and loving others as one loves him- or herself. Loving the Bible is not the same as loving God and loving others as one loves him- or herself.

So, the conservative evangelical can promote conservative and traditional values -- social, biblical, or political -- and remain guilty of not loving God and not loving others. Such a one believes all the right doctrines (or so he thinks) and yet his heart is far from the Lord. Orthodoxy (right belief) does not innately or automatically produce orthopraxy (right behavior). What produces right behavior is spiritual formation or Christian discipleship. Instead of being steeped in theological discourse, and systematic debates, we are called to Christlikeness and to following and imitating the heart of Jesus.

We have to wonder why Jesus does not stress learning correct theology if orthodoxy is of utmost importance. Instead, he focuses on one's relationship to God, as well as to other human beings created in the image of God. We cannot blame propositional evangelicalism on St Paul, either, since he spends much time in many of his letters either correcting wrong behavior (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1-4; 5:1-8; 6:7-11) or informing us how to live (cf. Gal. 5:1-26; Eph. 4:1-32; 5:1-20; Phil. 1:27-30; 2:1-18; 3:17-21; 4:4-9). We do not conclude that theology is insignificant. What we conclude is that our priorities need reorientation.

So, for example, instead of posting anti-abortion messages on Facebook, we remember that Jesus died for those who promote abortion as a viable option, and we love them all the way to the Cross. We look past our soapbox issues to the people Christ is calling us to reach. We do not speak at people, with our memes, but with people one-on-one because we care about these people as we care about our own selves.

If I thought that most conservative evangelicals actually cared about, actually prayed for, those with whom they so very obviously disagree on a daily basis, as lived out on social media, I would not have to promote my ideas on this topic here on this site. But I see absolutely no evidence that these evangelicals care about anyone or anything other than their own "biblical" propositions. They are comfortable calling Hillary Clinton a lying murderer on social media and also comfortable supporting Donald Trump -- someone who has gladly fueled a raging fire among violent so-called Republicans. (link) Allow me to remind you what God thinks of violence: "The LORD examines the righteous and the wicked. He hates the lover of violence." (Ps. 11:5 HCSB) But what "the right" cares about, from all evidence, is being right.

My challenge to propositional evangelicals is to spend more time in places like Matthew 5-7, thinking deeply about what Jesus is saying to us, and reflecting on how you might live out His teachings in your everyday lives, on social media, and in real life. If not, if you think I'm wrong and you intend to carry on as before, then understand this: from even a cursory reading of Jesus' teachings, if you think He affirms you touting your "rightness" instead of genuinely loving those whom you consider enemies, then you more reflect the Pharisees rather than the revolutionary Christ who taught us how to live and how to love.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.