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Evangelicalism and the Sickness of Western Culture Part 2 — What Went Wrong

Wallace Henley Portrait
Wallace Henley |

"America is untethered from reality," said Kurt Anderson. "We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole," and the nation "has mutated into Fantasyland," Anderson wrote in The Atlantic. (September 2017)

What has gone wrong?

In Part 1 of this series we noted that the health of culture is directly linked to the health of the Church within the culture.

For good or bad, civilizations "have always been religious," wrote Christopher Dawson in The Historic Reality of Christian Culture. Social order historically has depended on "human institutions... firmly anchored by faith and law to the realities of the higher world." The type and quality of the religion is of utmost important. North Korea's cult of Kim produces a far different outcome from that of William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Mother Teresa.

Christianity, said Dawson, has been the "soul" of Western civilization.

Thus, if America and other western nations have suffered breakdown, judgment must begin at the "household of God," as the Apostle Peter wrote, and we stressed in Part 1.

Back in 1984 Frances Schaeffer was fretting over the "disaster" of evangelicalism. He wondered if evangelicals understood what "the battle is about in the area of culture and ideas." Schaeffer noted the shift in the consensus of Western culture "from one that was largely Christian" to one "growing from the Enlightenment," and antithetical "to Christian truth at every point."

The "disaster" was "the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth." Evangelicals had accommodated themselves to the Zeitgeist, the "spirit of the age," thought Schaeffer.

The problem is cumulative. We have come now to the point where, in the words of contemporary evangelist Beth Moore, evangelical Christianity is in "humiliating need of reform." (The Christian Post March 27, 2018)

What kind of "reform" do we need?

Consider seven malignancies (among many) that I believe are infecting contemporary evangelicalism and metastasizing throughout the culture:

1. Immanence displacing Transcendence Losing sight of God's "otherness," unapproachable holiness, and ultimate authority, we focus more on the immanent scale, enshrining the self. We commit the great sin behind all idolatries—the apotheosis of the immanent, fulfilling the "promise" of Lucifer, that we shall be "as gods." Without Transcendence we lose reverence for God and His creation, wonder, childlike humility, the idea of sin, accountability, repentance, and the joy of forgiveness. We wind up with what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton call "moralistic therapeutic deism."

2. Participation rather than separation "How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness?" asks the Apostle Paul, rhetorically. "We are the temple of God," he says. Therefore, come out and be separate, he urges. (2 Corinthians 6:14-18 NLT) Ekklesia is the Greek word translated "church." Literally, it means to "call out." But Jesus shows in John 17 that we are called out and separated from the world so that we can be transformed to be put back into the world as catalytic agents, "leaven", of and for Christ's Kingdom. (Matthew 13:33) The Church loses its capacity to heal the nations when it becomes a participant in the worldview, beliefs, and behaviors of the world.

3. Embracing culture as authority The blurring between participation and separation happens as we allow culture to be more authoritative than the Bible. The pressure is intense because culture, driven by the ferocious religion of humanistic progressivism, is increasingly authoritarian. The very survival of churches as legal entities is threatened in the increasingly tyrannical West. The mandate is conformity to contemporary socio-cultural doctrines or be put to death—institutionally, at least.

4. Style as the driver of theology In a noble effort to reach the fallen culture we evangelicals have sought to express the Gospel of the Kingdom in the style of the culture. But we are too often allowing style to actually drive our theology.

5. Confusion regarding predestination and freewill The internal debates simmering in the Southern Baptist Convention and other groups over Calvinism and Arminianism are having a negative impact on evangelism.

6. Utility rather than commitment The Gospel of the Kingdom is reduced to just another product for better living when churches and Christian organizations promise they will give people a happier life, more stuff, and much fun. Christ's gospel becomes merely utilitarian. What if people think they already have a "happy life"? The only conditions under which such a marketing strategy is biblically sound is when it is employed by churches with strong discipleship ministries that lead to serious commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord of all.

7. Conflating Kingdom vision with political vision Confession: I am a strong advocate of Christians engaging directly in the political arena. Organically, the state is to be separated from the church, but functionally and relationally Christians are not to be excluded from involvement with government. However, the vision they bring to the Oval Office, congressional chambers, state and local centers of government must be based on the partisanship of Christ's Kingdom, not Republican, Democrat, or any other party. Kingdom vision for society is that of righteousness-justice, peace, and Spirit-given, transcendent joy. (Romans 14:17)

How do we as evangelicals get healed so that we can help bring health to our sick culture? If the problem in the "soul" of culture is a breakdown, then the recovery of stability in the "soul" is crucial.

That means regaining our equilibrium. We reflect on this in Part 3.

After a decade in journalism and politics, Wallace Henley became a pastor in 1973, serving in churches with memberships from 100 to 78,000 (Second Baptist Church, Houston, where he is now senior associate pastor). He has worked with churches and their leadership in 22 nations, and is designer of Belhaven University's Master of Ministry Leadership degree.

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