There is no doubt that Evangelical Christianity in this country is in an uproar. Sex abuse scandals, Jesus and John Wayne, you name it: things are a mess. There are many, especially in the academy (the usual source of trouble) calling for change in Evangelical churches.
As someone who started in what is IMHO the Main Line Church and ended up in a Pentecostal one, this whole hue and cry is a farce. Why is that? Because these newly famous critics of Evangelical Christianity are saying the same things that Main Line people have said for years. Wouldn’t it be easier on everyone if these people just ditched their credobaptising Evangelical church?
Let’s start with the gripe list:
- Evangelicals are judgmental and narrow minded. Main Liners have been saying this for as long as I have been on the earth and longer.
- Evangelicals are money grubbers. Same for this one. The current critics of the Southern Baptist Convention say it’s all about power and money. If it is, why stick around?
- Evangelicals are Bible thumpers. This is especially explosive when the matter of the LGBT+ community comes around.
- Evangelicals are down the social scale. In my Book Review: Richard Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism that comes out loud and clear, at least in the origins. In the old days the Main Liners had better taste than to say this in public (most of the time) and the Evangelicals were too ashamed to admit it was true.
- Evangelicals are racists. It’s true that the SBC was split due to slavery (so was the Methodist church as well.) The Main Line churches have not, however, figured out how to translate their “enlightened” racial attitudes into a more diverse membership, unlike the Roman Catholics, the Pentecostals, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and even the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- Evangelicals are pushy. That speaks to their name: evangelism has been in bad taste in many Main Line circles for a long time. Tim Keller’s “winsome” approach is an attempt to address this issue, but some think that is past its sell date.
So, if Main Liners in the past and progressive Evangelicals now really believe even half this stuff is true, why don’t the latter join up with the former? There’s plenty of pew space in Main Line churches these days. Some have actually done this: say what you will about her, but Rachel Held Evans had the courage of her convictions to switch to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland. So why don’t more follow her example?
I think there are two reasons for this.
The first is that Americans in general and progressives in particular are obsessed with existing institutions, even when those institutions have the antecedents that they do. Why, for example, would a self-respecting progressive want to change the SBC, knowing where it started? Existing institutions have the advantage of an existing cash flow and systems of appointments, which makes you wonder what this is really about…
The second is that progressives, for all of their talk, are seriously into “tradition.” They like to retain the form of the religion in which they started, but to change the belief structure to suit where they’re at now. I’ve repeated Elaine Pagels’ story of the drunken seminary professors as a good example of how this works, and honestly cannot top it.
As someone who has had to abandon many of my “traditions” for more important objectives, I have little sympathy for those who insist on changing their existing institution, even though they know it is rooted in whatever they dislike. Become a Main Liner and stick your nose up as those you leave behind–at least for a while…