Within the last few weeks, we have seen a lot of commentary on Bart Campolo, a former United Methodist youth pastor and son of famous liberal evangelical speaker and author Tony Campolo, leaving Christianity to become a devotee of "secular humanism." Before his "deconversion," Bart became semi-famous in his own right in some Christian circles, among other things founding the Mission Year young-adult service organization.
Ed Stetzer wrote a thoughtful piece for Christianity Today on how evangelical Christians can react in a constructive and loving way. Another wayward son of a famous evangelical, the ever-nuanced Franky Schaeffer, responded by blasting that centrist evangelical magazine as "the disgusting reactionaries of Bob Jones ilk, just dressed better" and Stetzer as a "smarmy prick."
My interest here is neither in second-guessing the senior Campolos' parenting nor in determining if their son was, according to Christ's parable of the sower, a "path person," a "rocky soil person" or a "thornbush person."
But I find Jonathan Merritt's account of the younger Campolo's spiritual trajectory from evangelical Christianity to increasingly progressive Christianity to outright secular humanism to be particularly instructive, and sad.
An Incremental Decline
On his own bio page for his new gig as a humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California (basically an atheist student ministry), the younger Campolo describes his apostasy as a gradual transition. Elsewhere, he described the loss of his faith as beginning rather soon after his becoming a Christian as a teenager. "I passed just about every stage of heresy on my way to apostasy," Merritt quotes him as saying. "It wasn't until I exhausted every option for staying a Christian that I gave it up."
His teenage conversion may have started within a spiritual framework that was largely evangelical. But as Merritt tells it, Bart's "first step away from orthodoxy" came in response to meeting a young girl who had been horrifically violated. This led to him shifting away from belief in God's omnipotence. Then in college, he moved on to, in Merritt's words, "jettison the biblical verses that spoke negatively of homosexuality," which inevitably meant eventually denying the authority of Scripture more generally. Then he went on to embrace universalism.
In a controversial article (dated 2009 on this site), Campolo explained his departures from biblical orthodoxy to that point. Among other things, he described how he came to elevate his personal experience over Scripture as authoritative for his belief, for a time was able to regain trust in the Bible "but only because it so clearly bears witness to the God of love I had already chosen to believe in," and candidly admits that "God may be very different from what I hope, in which case I may be in big trouble come Judgment Day." In that same article, Campolo went on to say:
"I am well aware that I don't get to decide who God is. What I do get to decide, however, is to whom I pledge my allegiance. I am a free agent, after all, and I have standards for my God, the first of which is this: I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am."
(On a side note, as a Wesleyan-Arminian evangelical I am personally frustrated by how this article, like similar arguments by other adherents of "progressive Christianity," seems to paint neo-Calvinist predestinarianism and theological liberalism as the only two alternatives for Christians.)
By this point in Bart Campolo's spiritual journey he was by his own essential admission basing his belief system on his personal ideas and experiences – with apparently little caution about the Fall's damaging effects on any human being's mind, heart, and reason – and only then going to the Bible, treating its authority as subordinately confirming "what I had already chosen to believe in." As for some parts of the Bible that too unambiguously contradicted his preferred worldview to be re-interpreted away (i.e., biblical teaching against homosexual practice), he threw them out.
God-Centered or Human-Centered?
St. Augustine of Hippo is quoted as saying "If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself." It may be similarly noted that if you presume to have the authority to set standards for what God needs to be and do before He can become worthy of your worship, and insist on believing in a God whose definitions of compassion, beauty, love, and justice obediently conform to the values you have already determined for yourself, then it is not God in whom you have faith but yourself. With the Bible, Campolo admits to having played a game in which "we underline the parts we like and ignore the parts we didn't like," but a positive Forbes profile unfortunately seems to dismiss the possibility of a consistently biblical faith that allows oneself to learn from and be re-shaped by challenging parts of Scripture.
I have observed such mindsets abounding in theologically liberal or "progressive Christian" circles. It seems worth noting that by around this point, Bart was rather involved in that most prominent of Religious Left organizations, Sojourners, serving on its board of directors as late as 2010 and writing several articles for them in 2011. Sojourners has become rather yawningly ideologically predictable in its largely lock-step allegiance to the left wing of the Democratic Party. The group can often be hard to distinguish from mainline/oldline, theologically secularized church-related groups that treat promoting lefty political causes as the church's most important mission, while often ignoring or outright opposing parts of biblical and historic Christian teaching that might complicate that primary agenda or its related secular political loyalties. When things get to that point, Religious Left-ers have gone from simply having left-of-center political views on economic and foreign policy matters (as many faithful, theologically orthodox Christians do) to effectively making their political Party, loyalties, and pet causes into idols.
But when one's orientation and values have become so secularized, why even bother with the church? After all, neither the Bible nor worship, nor prayer are really necessary for lefty political activism.
Campolo moved on to where he "started rejecting the supernatural stuff, the orthodoxy," abandoning the beliefs that "God does miracles or that Jesus was raised from the dead or that other religions were false." (These are three of the key beliefs that have been most prominently challenged by modernist or post-modernist theological liberals.) And then after a 2011 accident, he finally ditched belief in an afterlife and whatever else remained of his Christian faith. And now he is a card-carrying leader of secular humanism.
Some Sobering Lessons
When Bart was in his no-longer-evangelical-but-still-a-professed-Christian-of-some-progressive-sort phase, I had the chance to meet him, finding him to be an extraordinarily warm, friendly, and charismatic person. I hope this article will prompt Christian readers to pray for him and for the extended Campolo family.
I also hope that some helpful cautionary lessons can be taken away from this sad (but still unfinished!) story.
Christian churches obviously differ on all sorts of important but ultimately secondary issues such as infant baptism, women's ordination, congregational autonomy, episcopal succession, and charismatic gifts. But once one crosses the line of rejecting matters of core, historic Christian orthodoxy (like the eternally triune nature of God, His omnipotence, His performance of laws-of-physics-breaking miracles, Christ's bodily resurrection, or whether or not we can simply jettison parts of Scriptural teaching that seem too demanding or counter-cultural), this has a way of throwing up everything for grabs. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who has crossed such a very fundamental line of faithfulness in belief or personal practice, but in every other respect is truly a model of Christian purity in doctrine and life. Unfaithfulness has a tendency to spread, like a cancer, until it has overwhelmed its host.
Bart Campolo's story also reminds me of another humanist chaplain I know who has flatly told me that "progressive Christianity" is already so secularized that he does not see much substantial difference between that faith and his own unabashed atheism. From my friend's perspective, theologically secularized "progressive Christians" could demonstrate integrity by simply leaving their churches for a local humanist club. I am afraid he has a bit of a point.
Obviously, the biography of Campolo the Younger is not a cookie-cutter template for exactly how others who begin in his steps will necessarily end up. But it does highlight the importance of churches being consciously on guard against the sort of departures from historic, biblical Christian orthodoxy that can eventually lead to a complete transitioning out of the body of Christ, into either a secularized, purely nominal Christianity or, as in this case, a more intellectually honest ex-Christianity. As a Wesleyan-Arminian evangelical, I believe that the New Testament includes such strong warning against Christians abandoning the faith because this is a deadly phenomenon that truly happens.
May all of our churches redouble their commitment to helping people wrestling with honest doubts and questions, and following Jude's exhortation to "Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh."