On Leaving Evangelicalism

If I moved to a small town in which there was only a Southern Baptist church and a Roman Catholic church then I would worship Christ at the Roman Catholic church. Some will be shocked by that remark and others will not at all be surprised. Moreover, I am unconcerned about what anyone thinks of that statement, and that is freeing in and of itself. But my comment regards the evangelical response (read over-reaction) to Hank Hanegraaff, the "Bible Answer Man," converting to the Orthodox tradition.

Evidently, this conversion of Hanegraaff to another Christian tradition has so troubled some evangelicals that it warrants a response from Southern Baptist Ed Stetzer, in a Christianity Today article: "Hank Hanegraaff's Switch to Eastern Orthodoxy, Why People Make Such Changes, and Four Ways Evangelicals Might Respond." Here is displayed for all the hubris of fundamentalist evangelicals: they are so convinced that they are the true Church that any deviation from their tradition warrants a full-orbed response. "Hey, evangelicals, we in no sense need your approval or response to our decision and convictions concerning our conversion to other faith traditions!"

That Stetzer senses a need to help evangelicals cope with high-profile Bible teachers leaving evangelicalism is very telling about the nature of evangelicals: "We do not see all that God is doing in the world," writes Stetzer, "and we certainly don't determine who is or isn't a follower of Jesus." That is an entirely false statement: evangelicals have historically been obsessed with naming who is and who is not "a real Christian." Evangelicals today still insist that a gay believer in a same-sex relationship is not a real Christian. I am not buying this polite suggestion that evangelicals "don't determine who is or isn't a follower of Jesus" -- not when they continually prove otherwise.

Stetzer continues: "Hank Hanegraaff certainly hasn't ceased to be a Christian (as some have said) any more than my parents have." (emphasis added) You would think, from the evangelical response, that Hanegraaff had become a Buddhist! "Not that my opinion matters most," continues Stetzer (emphasis added -- to which much attention should be paid by the reader), "but I, for one, will continue to listen to him, even though I think the move to Orthodoxy is unhelpful for someone who has been the "Bible answer man." Oh goodness, gracious, sakes alive! Did I really just read that from Stetzer?

I had to question, at times, while reading this article if this was a spoof piece. Does Stetzer, or any other evangelical, actually think that Hanegraaff's Bible teaching will now be drastically different than before his conversion to Orthodoxy? Are evangelicals really that daft and ignorant about Orthodoxy and other Christian faith traditions? But of course they are! The only tradition they truly understand is their own. That is why they, quite literally, fall apart when one of their own leaves their dogmatic flock.

Stetzer acknowledges that he and other evangelicals need to reevaluate their own tradition, that he needs to learn from those who have abandoned evangelicalism, and learn from their journey. While those are lovely sentiments, we are obliged to acknowledge Stetzer's own commitment and prejudice toward evangelicalism, as he himself accedes that the early Church tradition, which he claims even evangelicals long for, was liturgical. What is his response to this historical truth of the liturgical tradition of the early Church? "As a missiologist, my approach is, perhaps, simpler still—the ideas I (and many missiologists) advocate teach that the 'how' of some parts of worship are shaped by the who, when, and where of culture." In other words, that was how the early Church worshiped then, but that is not how we must worship now.

His appeal to cultural trends is specious at best, from my perspective, especially when he and other evangelicals afford themselves the privilege of determining what is and what is not still valid culturally. What of how women were treated in ancient times and not permitted a public voice or to share their gift of teaching -- especially teaching men? Well, for evangelicals, the ancient cultural tradition of putting women in their proverbial place (the kitchen, the home, the garden) remains. How convenient. Or how about how the ancient culture treated homosexuals? Again, conveniently, evangelicals retain that cultural tradition and even name it "biblical." But liturgy? No, that is not "biblical," but that was merely cultural and is, therefore, quite optional today.

Stetzer and other evangelicals should in no sense wonder why people are leaving their churches. Chief among the reasons is because evangelicals align their Republican politics with Christianity. Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham name their political and cultural opponents "godless secularists" and "progressives." (link) Evangelicals claim that they care about morality, opposing equal rights for LGBTQ people, yet support one of the most immoral candidates for the presidency in U.S. history; and they then wonder why people oppose their hypocrisy and double standards. Politics and hypocrisy aside, evangelicalism maintains other problems.

Stetzer suggests that Orthodoxy, and, by implication, other liturgical traditions, is "missiologically unhealthy." I ask: If the liturgy of the first century did not hinder missions then why does anyone imagine that liturgy will hinder missions today? He writes: "Many segments of Orthodoxy take Hellenistic (or other) cultural forms, consider them normative to today's context, and apply them as the 'true' or 'authentic' way." Again, let us revisit that conservative evangelicals cherry-pick what traditional or cultural forms that we are to retain from the first-century biblical context in our Christian experience, so that we are not bamboozled by this sort of complaint.

He then appeals to sola scriptura -- by far the most naïve statement in the entire piece:
A better approach than importing and normalizing cultural church forms [of which evangelicals, of all Christian traditions, are foremost guilty] is one that is built on Sola Scriptura. In the way of Jesus, and walking in the Spirit, I believe we need to go back to scripture for each and every generation of Christians and ask, "What would it look like to live out this timeless scriptural faith in this time and in this place?"
Authors of the New Testament demonstrate that congregations did not appoint their own elders, or pastors, but such were appointed to that position by the apostles. (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5) Though the assembly chose its own deacons, the apostles are the ones we find appointing those deacons to that position, not the congregants. (cf. Acts 6:5, 6) This represents the hierarchical structure established by the early Church and followed by the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox church, and Anglican and Episcopal churches. But Southern Baptists and other evangelicals do not care about truly following sola scriptura, and they demonstrate that truth when they reject following the tradition established by the apostles, and construct their own tradition and sanctifying, or baptizing, and, more importantly, solidifying that tradition.

What Stetzer is suggesting is that we glean pragmatically from Scripture what can be of use in our modern (or post-postmodern) context. If a hierarchical ecclesiological structure is not useful for today, and if he and evangelicals deem liturgy "unhelpful" for today, then abandon those biblical traditions and construct some semblance of historic truths from them and implement them, somehow, in a modern form. This is convenient, no doubt, but subjective and an overt embrace of relativism at its finest.

Among some fine statements that Stetzer writes in this piece, my own response is rather negative, because his article is so very typical in representing the primary problems with evangelicalism. This article is gratuitous at best; it is entirely unnecessary and entirely offensive at worst; except evangelicals render this article necessary by their knee-jerk (over-)reaction to an issue that is, quite frankly, none of their business. So Hank Hanegraaff became an Orthodox Christian. What of it?

Hank is, significantly, a Christian; Orthodoxy is a Christian tradition; evangelicals, imagining themselves as the bastion of Christian orthodoxy, are still hung-up on the adjective preceding "Christian." They are still fanatically ready to proverbially burn at the stake those who disagree with, reject, or abandon their version of Christianity. As long as they continue in this vein they will continue to render themselves irrelevant not only to an on-looking culture but even to those within the Christian religion.


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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.