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The scandal of the Evangelical spine: Unelected 'evangellyfish'

Unsplash/Anna Tsukanova
Unsplash/Anna Tsukanova

For almost three decades now, Evangelical Christianity in America has been haunted by a single sentence. That sentence is the opening line of Mark Noll’s 1994 work, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which bluntly suggests that “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” 

Noll continues: “Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations. Despite dynamic success at a popular level, modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life.”

The reason this (largely inaccurate) assessment has so haunted the striver class of American Evangelicals is that, like all fallen humans, they desperately desire to be accepted by the so-called elites of society. They fear man, and thus they crave man’s approval. They are embarrassed by the clear teachings of the Bible and so they try to downplay it in order to gain a seat at the table in the academy or have their opinions published in The New York Times.

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But I’m not here to talk about Noll (other than as a convenient foil) and why his thesis is wrong. I think there is a vibrant Evangelical mind, but it’s one that submits to God’s Word and views the Bible as inerrant, and then works all of its scholarship and cultural engagement out from that starting point.

When it comes to even more fundamental doctrinal issues of the Christian faith, such as the virgin birth of Christ, the veracity of His miracles, and the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, faithful Christian scholars — truly bright scholars with new hearts, saved souls, and, yes, strong minds — must again stand strong on these commitments as “true truth.” Any effort to disguise our beliefs in order to garner a broader audience in the secular academy or to win praise from the world reveals a Christian mind that has forgotten the purpose of knowledge and scholarship, which is to find and affirm the truth and never to downplay or discount it.

When viewed rightly, the Evangelical mind is alive and well, but I would suggest there is a much greater scandal plaguing Evangelicals — the scandal of the evangelical spine.

And the scandal of the Evangelical spine is that there is not much of an Evangelical spine.

What do I mean?

I mean that our cadre of unelected “evangellyfish” leaders (to borrow a phrase from Douglas Wilson) have proven themselves to be blessed with a backbone consisting of the same fortitude as a mushy banana, which is to say, not much of one at all.

The anatomical purpose of our backbone, our spine, is to enable us human vertebrates to stand tall. Sadly, a survey of recent Christian anthropology in America yields results that would map much better onto a bunch of arthropods — the class of animals without a spine. You know, like worms.

When the winds of cultural change blew in fast and furious over the fruited plains, bringing the sexual revolution and all of its myriad sins and sophistries, far too many Evangelicals folded like a cheap suit.

Birth control? Why not. Freezing embryos? Sure.  No-fault divorce? No problem. Abortion? Well, that’s a knot that even many of the most morally flexible Christians couldn’t quite tie themselves into supporting, but that didn’t stop them from trying. My body, my choice, right? Wrong. Pornography? Well, Christians shouldn’t view it, but it’s protected by the First Amendment, so what can we do?

You could rent a spine, to start, and then walk back out into the public square and boldly decry the heinous evils of synthetic sex.

Then came the hurricane of civilizational destruction we now know as Obergefell and the “legalization” of a same-sex mirage we so euphemistically call “gay marriage.” Even here, at one of the most critical junctures in the history of America, with nothing less than the pre-fall, God-ordained institution of marriage on the line, so many pastors, public Christian leaders, and people who claim the name of Christ couldn’t manage to stand up against the lies of “Love is love.” It is? Well, water is water — so why don’t you drink out of the toilet?

Instead, they bought the lie that sexual orientation is immutable and that what we really need to do is praise singleness, downplay marriage, and make everyone feel welcome. But as pastor and theologian Jared Moore — a man who does not suffer from the scandal of a missing spine — so aptly put it: “So, you believe Jesus can walk out of a tomb, but He can’t change your same-sex desires? I don’t buy it.”

I don’t buy it either. And neither should you.

I could go on. In fact, I will.

When the lies of Ferguson and “Hands up, don’t shoot” birthed the Black Lives Matter movement, Evangelicals bowed before the false god of Critical Race Theory (CRT), social justice, and wokeness in record time. Never mind that James 2:1 clearly teaches to “show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” Some partiality is apparently needed when deciding between “Anglo 8s” and “African American 7s,” in a pastoral hiring search process, or so says Matt Chandler.

When #MeToo hit the airwaves, Evangelicals bowed before the false gods of “Believe all women,” promptly throwing out the biblical standards of justice and due process as quickly as you could say “Smash the patriarchy” or “I’m with her.”

When the government handed down tyrannical lockdown orders during COVID that told churches they had to close up shop while casinos and liquor stores could stay open, Evangelicals all across America promptly locked the doors to God’s house and handed over the keys to the state.

Even worse, when an unproven “vaccine” became the price of admission for reentering polite society and earning a paycheck to put food on the table for your family, Evangelical leaders twisted Scripture and told us to “Love your neighbor, get the shot.”

Once again, I could go on, but I will pause here and point out what should, hopefully, be painfully obvious. The lowest common denominator uniting all of these examples, and it is low indeed, is that in each case, too many (though not all) of the men of God in our nation showed about as much courage as a church mouse. Even less, perhaps, as I trust the church mice continued to hold unmasked indoor church services during COVID.

If you were to look at the regime Evangelicals of our day, no doubt they look like men in full possession of an intact backbone. But when we put them, and their like, under the X-ray machine of God’s moral standards and cross-examine them by what He expects from those who occupy seats of leadership in our Evangelical life, you would see a gelatinous blob of third-way platitudes just waiting to take on the shape of whatever the world demands of them next. Their backbones turned out to be made not of bone but of Flubber. 

But as with the Gospel, so with this scandal: We need the bad news first, and then the good.

What is the good news? For that, we must turn to the Good Book. The Bible is chockful of men of courage, godly men with spines of steel, who stood tall when it mattered most and refused to bow to the idols of their day — even at the risk of their very lives.

Enter one image of gold, three brave men, a mad king, and a blazing furnace.

In Daniel 3 we learn what it looks like to be men of God who stiffen their spinal column when it counts.

“Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, ‘Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?’

Meshach and Abednego replied to him, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:13-18). 

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow before the golden image because it was a false god — it was an idol. And in God’s good world, idols are meant to be smashed, not worshipped. They are meant to be broken, not bowed to. You can’t bend the knee to the false gods of our day and their avatars while claiming to worship the King of Kings. No man can serve two masters.

But standing when everyone else bows, and smashing an idol in front of its worshippers, takes a spine that has been infused with a courage that can only be drawn from a well of fear — the fear of the One True God. This is indeed a paradox. Still, it is the choice that every Christian faces.  We will either fear man and go weak at the knees when Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar, the government, our family, employer, or culture demand that we offer a pinch of incense to the pagan gods of our age — or we will fear the Lord and stand on the two feet He gave us, pushing all 33 of our vertebrae erect, stare them in the eyes, and say, “I have no King but Christ.” 

To help bring this all to a close I must enlist the aid of the famed Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis puppets the demon Screwtape and explains the crucial nature of true courage:

“This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world — a world in which moral issues really come to the point.

He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality.

A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”

Courage is the testing point of every virtue. Courage is what makes it all count. Courage is what shows the world whether you actually believe what you say you believe — or whether your convictions are just another form of empty virtue signaling.

Courage is therefore necessary for the Christian life. Without it, we will be blown about by every wind of false teaching. Without courage — without a spine — we will, at some point, melt away into an indistinguishable bowl of lukewarm pudding. What does Christ have to say to those who are lukewarm?

“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16).

Bones are hard to bite down on. So grow a spine, and don’t get spit out.

Yes, the world is filled with dragons. But Christians worship a serpent-crushing King. Whom have we to fear but God alone? We don’t fear those who can destroy the body, but the One who can destroy both the body and soul.

It’s not the lack of an Evangelical mind that plagues American Christianity. It’s the lack of a spine. We have chosen men without chests as our leaders and have suffered duly for our folly.

Flannery O’Connor once called on Christians to “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

You can only push back if you have a backbone. A backbone on which you carry your cross — like our Lord, who set His face like flint towards Jerusalem. If He endured the cross, can we not endure some social scorn for our faith? Lost jobs? Even imprisonment?

We can endure these and all other trials set before us if we just reach around and press the middle of our backs, find our spine, thank the Lord He put it there, and use it.

Originally published at the Standing for Freedom Center. 

William Wolfe is a visiting fellow with the Center for Renewing America. He served as a senior official in the Trump administration, both as a deputy assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon and a director of legislative affairs at the State Department. Prior to his service in the administration, Wolfe worked for Heritage Action for America, and as a congressional staffer for three different members of Congress, including the former Rep. Dave Brat. He has a B.A. in history from Covenant College, and is finishing his Masters of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Follow William on Twitter at @William_E_Wolfe

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