“These so-called ‘progressive evangelicals’ believe the Church must conform to the world or die. They tell us millennials will leave if we don’t get with the program and imitate the culture when it comes to gender, sexuality, and science. But we must remain faithful to the Gospel and to God’s Word in the face of this pressure or else risk losing our identity. We can’t just give in to the world because of pressure to be cool.”
I hear some version of this argument at least once a week—most recently from Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention—and I believe it is common enough (and reasonable enough) to warrant a brief response here, extended with nothing but grace, peace, and goodwill for my brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I respectfully disagree.
There is an understandable assumption among many conservative Christians that those of us advocating for change in how the Church approaches things like gender, sexuality, and science are taking our cues from the culture, with no regard for Scripture or tradition, in an effort to "make the Church more cool.” Basically, they seem to assume we caught a few episodes of "Modern Family" and then decided to challenge traditional views on marriage.
While this may be the case with some, it is certainly not the case with me or with most of the people whose stories I have the privilege of hearing each day. Most of the people I meet as I travel around the country are people who grew up in Church and who long, with every ounce of their being, to remain faithful to the Church and to Scripture as they work through these difficult issues.
In light of that, I have two points of clarification that I hope will be received with the grace with which I offer them:
First, you certainly won’t find me screaming “adapt or die!” when it comes to the Church. Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, so I’m pretty sure it’s going to survive the Internet Age! I agree with my more conservative brothers and sisters that there’s no need to water down the Gospel in an effort to make it more relevant. The Gospel—the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord—will always be relevant. So long as there are Christians baptizing one another, confessing to one another, breaking bread, and preaching the Word, the Church shall endure. I suspect we can all agree on that.
Second, when it comes to challenging common narratives around gender, sexuality, and science (among other things), it’s not about rejecting Scripture and conforming to the world, it’s about trying to make sense of Scripture in light of new information, lived experience, and often Scripture itself.
I’m not taking my cues on what to write about from the secular culture; I’m taking my cues on what to write about from fellow Christians. I’m taking them from men and women whose study of Scripture led them to support gender equality in the Church and mutual submission in marriage. I’m taking them from gay and lesbian Christians who are more likely to be seen sitting in the pews than marching in a parade. I’m taking them from people who are leaving the Church, not because of the cost of discipleship, but because of the cost of false fundamentals—man-made impediments created out of non-essential doctrines and legalistic rules.
It’s not about “conforming to the world.” It’s about confronting the truth.
It’s about the Christian kid who lies awake each night pleading with God to “cure” him of his sexual orientation because his youth pastor denounced homosexuality as a sin requiring repentance.
It’s about the woman with a PhD in Hebrew who is prohibited from speaking to her church from the pulpit—not because she’s unqualified, and not because she isn’t called, but because she is a woman.
It’s about the young man who grew up loving both the Bible and science, but who was told faithfulness to Scripture required a literalist interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 and a rejection of the scientific consensus surrounding evolutionary theory. One college-level biology class revealed that the well-meaning teachers at his Christian high school had not told him the whole truth about the evidence. Reeling from a sense of betrayal, he believed the lie that he had to choose between his intellectual integrity and his faith and so he walked away from the Church for good.
It’s about the teenager contemplating suicide because she had sex with her boyfriend and her church told her that once she lost her virginity, she was “damaged goods,” that no good Christian boy would ever want her.
It’s about the stay-at-home dad who is called a “man fail” by Christian leaders who measure masculinity by earning power.
It’s about the girl who was told by her elder board that she needed to forgive her abuser and not report his crimes to the police because it might “damage the reputation of Christ.”
….And if you think these stories are exaggerations, then you need only look at my inbox to know that every last one of them is true.
It’s not the “outside world” driving many of us to re-think things; it’s the “inside world” of the Church. It is Christ himself who compels us to respond to these stories with compassion, repentance, and a commitment to change.
I agree that the Church shouldn’t sacrifice the Gospel in an effort to gain acceptance in our culture, but it is my contention that any gospel presentation that leads hungry, searching people to believe that they must ignore their calling, or choose between science and faith, or lie to themselves and others about their sexual orientation, or keep silent about their abuse is not, in fact, the Gospel.
We may disagree on how to respond to the various situations I’ve described, but please know that I don’t speak out about this stuff because I want the Church to be more like the world. I speak out about this stuff because I want the Church to be more like Christ.
Peter Enns recently shared this quote from Oswald Chambers which rings with the truth of Jesus’ message in Matthew 11:28-30:
Always measure your life solely by the standards of Jesus. Submit yourself to His yoke, and His alone; and always be careful never to place a yoke on others that is not of Jesus Christ.
I am concerned that we are placing yokes on other people that are not of Jesus Christ. I am concerned that we are slamming the door of the Kingdom in people’s faces and tying up heavy burdens and placing them on their backs. I am concerned we are straining gnats and swallowing camels. I am concerned that we are kicking out the very people Jesus welcomed in—the poor, the marginalized, the misfits, the heartbroken, the “rejects,” the “sinners,” the troublemakers, the merciful, the peacemakers.
And I am concerned that the Church is indeed conforming to the world—every time it preaches violence as a way to achieve justice, every time it glorifies celebrity and success, every time it reduces womanhood to subordination and manhood to power, every time it justifies cruelty or unkindness in the name of proving a point.
If millennials leave Christianity, let it be because of the cost of discipleship or because of sincere unbelief, not because we put unnecessary stumbling blocks in their way.
In conclusion, I hope this post will not be used as another wedge driven between Christians who disagree on the difficult and complex issues involved. My aim is not to attack, but simply to clarify my own motivations, muddied as they are by my sin, in an effort to find some common ground.
I suspect we agree on more than we realize. And that's good news.
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