The Wrong Question

In his review of Thomas Kidd’s new book, Who Is an Evangelical, Samuel James begins with this anecdote:

Many years ago I was sitting in the basement of my Southern Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, when a friend asked: “Do you think it’s a sin to vote for John Kerry?” This was 2004, and conversation was littered with talk of the upcoming contest between Kerry and President George W. Bush. I thought for a minute, then said no, I didn’t necessarily believe that. But it never occurred to me to think of the question as strange. The congruence between believing in Jesus Christ and voting Republican was as natural in my mind as the inspiration of Scripture. Only much later would I realize just how novel that kind of thinking truly is among we who call ourselves evangelicals.

Roberts seems to think that asking about the sinfulness of a ballot choice is fine. The problem is identifying evangelical fortunes with the Republican Party.

What if both are wrong? I mean, why on earth (as opposed to heaven) would anyone conceivably think that a vote for a Democratic candidate is sinful? Why, that is, if the person asking had any sense of Ecclesiastes, Paul, and Augustine, texts and authors that indicate politics is intrinscially a temporal, earthly, dirty affair because it happens post-Eden. To expect politics to correlate with redemptive purpose is to border on utopianism or immanentizing the eschaton. What is rich, for evangelicals at least, is that questions about sinful voting rarely extend to the visible church, which is locus of Christ’s kingdom this side of glory. Why not ask if it is sinful to think Beth Moore should be president of the Southern Baptist Convention?

And so, the better way that Roberts hopes for in the end is one where evangelicals are not so predictably Republican:

Nevertheless, Who Is an Evangelical? is a hopeful book, demonstrating that the word “evangelical” is rooted not in our present culture wars but in our past gospel commitments. The solution is to look backward, to break the tyranny of the now and remind ourselves of a way more ancient, more holy, more biblical, and more evangelical.

In politics? Hello. That older evangelical way (at least in the United States) had some role in apotheosizing George Washington as the father of the country and turning Abraham Lincoln (a Republican, remember) into a Christian martyr.

Roberts’ (and Kidd’s) critique of political evangelicalism is simple. Trump is a despicable person who puts the fall in fallen. If evangelicals remain loyal, it’s because they are so politically partisan. Their political partisanship blinds them to Trump’s wickedness (as if evangelicals have ever been known for subscribing to National Review). That analysis is both moralistic and pseudo-psychological. If evangelicals wanted to vote for the Democratic candidate, were they facing a clearly moral and holy choice? And what if evangelicals were not merely tribal in their attachment to Republicans but also felt alienated from the corridors of elite institutions where people associated evangelicals with clinging to God and guns or were worse, belonging to a basket of deplorables (without the loaves and fishes). In fact, the divide between elites and non-elites likely has a lot to do with Brexit and Trump. But some evangelicals who work in the academy and publishing world, and aspire for inclusion in those same sectors within the secular world, do not seem to understand the elite-populist divide.

This post overdoes it, but it also captures some of the reality of life among Protestants who want to be evangelical:

The 2016 election and the years that followed have revealed this truth: that the composition of the current “respectable” evangelical leadership does not derive its legitimacy from the evangelical many but from the few. They are a self-legitimizing, self-perpetuating, and self-anointed elite—unaccountable to and disconnected from those whom they are to serve and represent. In other words, as to form, they are no different than the elite of broader American society; and, materially, they are increasingly similar in political sentiment.

I might qualify “self-anointed” and refrain from attributing motives. But 2016 did reveal a significant gap between those people who observers thought were evangelical leaders and spoke for the movement and the ordinary whites who voted for Trump. To be so completely out of touch with the eighty-one percent does raise all sorts of questions about whether you have your finger on the pulse of the movement so you can actually represent it to reporters and scholars. Whether traveling in evangelical academic circles, Washington think-tanks, or on-line fraternities necessarily isolates you from the rank-and-file is a question without an obvious answer. But given the way modern life works especially for people who don’t work with their hands or in the service sector, it’s hard to imagine that evangelical professionals would be immune from elitism.

Then again, they could ask whether it’s sinful to think that your professional office or rank make your theological or political judgments more valuable than those of the average pastor or church member. Expertise does yield insights. So does the communion of the saints.

Gospel Coalition as Harlem Globe Trotters

One of our many southern correspondents notified me of TGC’s year-end pitch for charitable donations. At the end of Collin Hanson’s post is a link to TGC’s 2016 Annual Report. Curiously absent are the financials. The Allies encourage people to give but those people have to trust TGC staff about funds.

The similarities and differences between the Coalition and a church are striking. Since I serve on the Christian Education Committee of the OPC and am also one of the OPC’s representatives on Great Commission Publication’s board of trustees, I see strong similarities among the OPC, PCA, and TGC at least in the arena of education, curriculum development, and publication. TGC’s report on website hits, best selling books or pamphlets, and plans for 2017 titles is the sort of information I see four times a year as an OPC/GCP officer. But what I don’t see from TGC is any financial spread sheet. Since the church and parachurch both operate in a voluntary world of free-will gifts, support, and self-identification of members, you might think that giving supporters some insight into the Coalition’s funds would be not only wise but honorable.

Chalk up one for the church over the parachurch.

Another note of concern for TGC supporters may be the popularity of Jen Wilkin. According to TGC’s report:

Our all-time bestselling resource on any paid platform is Jen Wilkin’s Sermon on the Mount study with LifeWay, but it may end up topped by her 2016 TGC release, 1 Peter: A Living Hope in Christ.

Jen Wilkin may be a great lady — I’ve never heard of her though she appears to take hairstyle-advice from Ann Voskamp (not Jen Hatmaker) — but do supporters of TGC have no trouble with a non-ordained person teaching the Word of God to Christians? Maybe Ms. Wilkin is ordained. Either way, TGC’s efforts to attract support from conservative Reformed Protestants runs up against church polity that again separates the parachurch from the church (not in a good way, by the way).

But when you look at TGC’s report, you have to come away impressed with all the effort the Allies put into their labors. But what would happen if those same people put their energies into the PCA with Tim Keller or into the Southern Baptist Convention with Ms. Wilkin who goes to The Village Church (is there only one?) or into the Evangelical Free Church with D. A. Carson (does he belong to the EFC?). Where’s the efficiency? Sure, a TGC supporter could argue that the OPC or PCA or SBC are competing with TGC and these other Protestants should join forces with the Allies. But this is always what happens with “unity” projects among Christians. You form one agency to unite everyone and simply add one more organization or church to the landscape. The United Church of Canada did not unite Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. It added the United Church to the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican churches.

And then there is the question of officers or pastors who hold credentials in the PCA or SBC adding their energy and resources to another Christian organization. If I play football for the Philadelphia Eagles, would the NFL allow me to play for a European football league midweek during the season (or even in the summer)? Or if I am a contributing editor to Atlantic Monthly, do I write regularly for The New Republic? These are obviously apples and oranges — publishing and sports are not ministry (though to hear some neo-Calvinists. . .). But questions about which is the primary outlet for Coalition contributors and officers is a real question that supporters of TGC should question. If I give to TGC, do I want Tim Keller spending a lot of time on committee work for his presbytery?

Chalk up another for the church.

One last observation that makes me think TGC more like an exhibition sports team (Harlem Globe Trotters) than a Major League Protestant Communion: I went to the staff page of TGC and noticed that no one works in a central office. The executive director lives in Austin, Texas (no church mentioned). The executive editor lives in Birmingham, Alabama and is part of a local community church. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the organization, payroll, accounting, general housekeeping, again staff is scattered. The director of operations lives in Austin (no church listed). The director of program development lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (no church listed). The director of advancement lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota (no church listed). The manager of operations lives in Minneapolis (no church listed). The business manager lives in Austin (no church listed). And yet, for full-time staff’s location in places far away from the Big Apple, TGC’s major publishing project for 2017 is a print version of Keller’s New City Catechism. When terrorists band together, we call them non-state actors to distinguish them from the military personnel of nation-states. Nation-states engage use coercive force legitimately (ever since 1648). Terrorist organizations do not. Does that make the Allies spiritual terrorists who have no geographical or ecclesiastical home?

The impression TGC gives overall is doing all the stuff a church does (including solicitation of funds) without many of the rules that give accountability to churches in their work of word and sacrament ministry. The Allies produce conferences and literature and a website presence that provides much of the teaching and encouragement that churches also give. And yet, the Coalition has no mechanism for discipline or oversight or even ecumenical relations. To be in TGC’s orbit is like following an exhibition basketball team instead of the National Basketball Association. I guess, when your home team is the Sixers, the Globetrotters look pretty good. But it’s not real basketball.

Not Winning

Even if evangelicals think they are:

Since the 1995-96 academic school year, Princeton Theological Seminary has seen 30 percent fewer full-time enrolled students. Reformed Theological Seminary saw a 33 percent decrease to 547 full-time students while Candler School of Theology experienced a 39 percent drop to 414 full-time students.

Joe Carter spins this as victory for the Gospel Allies:

Kenneth Kantzer, the late academic dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, once said that in 1890 all of the Protestant theological seminaries in the United States—with the notable exception of Harvard—were evangelical. Forty years later, though, almost all of them had become liberal (i.e., denied basic tenets of orthodoxy). By the 1950s, only four of the top ten largest seminaries were sponsored by evangelical denominations. Of those four, three were part of the SBC, which was struggling at the time to take back control of its schools from liberal professors.

By the 1990s, the trend had shifted once again back toward conservative evangelicalism. After the “conservative resurgence” in the SBC, all six of the denomination’s seminaries were solidly orthodox. And by 1995, only two liberal-leaning seminaries remained on the list of top ten schools by enrollment (Princeton at #9 and Candler School of Theology at #10).

Doesn’t he know that for some Southern Baptists, evangelical is a “Yankee” word.

And what does he not understand about Kenneth Kantzer’s reasons for leaving Fuller Seminary?

Roman Catholic apologetics are catchy.

Southern Baptists and Jason and the Callers Together

SBC Today continues to press hard against Calvinism, this time by sponsoring a conference with four former “Calvinists” under the theme, “Leaving Geneva” (hello! Geneva is not in the South):

Please join us for supper! We will explore the journeys of four former Calvinists who have each found a spiritual home within our tradition. Afterward, we will entertain a brief Question and Answer Period. The cost is $20 and includes supper and books! Each registrant will receive:

Reflections Of A Disenchanted Calvinist: The Disquieting Realities of Calvinism by Ronnie W. Rogers

Chosen or Not?: A Layman’s Study of Biblical Election and Assurance by Doug Sayers

God So Loved the World: Traditional Baptists and Calvinism by Fisher Humphreys and Paul E. Robertson

The Return of Christ: A Premillennial Perspective by David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke

Between the SBC at one end and Bryan’s logic at the other, Reformed Protestantism looks pretty darned moderate.

(All that coalition building, so few SBC Calvinists.)

Postscript: Calvinism in the SBC is like slavery in the SBC:

There are those today who take the view that the founders of the Baptist denomination (the ones who were right, anyway,) were Calvinists – and therefore all Baptists ought to be as well. This might be called the historical argument for Calvinism. If I were to argue that since many of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention believed God ordained slavery, all Baptists ought to do so today, would you buy that historical argument? Or would you rather go to the scripture and try to see how at a particular time and in a particular culture, such a doctrine could actually be expressed as revealed truth? History, as I say, is debatable. Just for the sake of debate, why don’t we look at an interpretation of certain facts of history, and see if we can find some historical reflections that will help us in our conflicted present?