The Scandal of American Evangelicalism

I was not there, but I am now wishing I had been, at least for R.C. Sproul Jr.’s address.   The Layman Online reports that Sproul prophetically challenged those gathered for 2012 Ligonier National Conference “… about the true scandal of the evangelical mind.”

Developing his message from 1 Corinthians 1.18-31 Sproul briefly outlined the Christian faith, and emphasized the Unity of those within the faith.  He then contrasted the unity of Believers with the perspective of Christians “by those outside of the room – the Greek, the Gentile…” reminding his hearers that “the story [the Gospel] is a scandal. It is foolishness. It is a stumbling block.”

This is an important reminder.

As Sproul elaborated:  “Paul wasn’t just saying they don’t get it.  Paul says, ‘they don’t get you!’ They think you are foolish … They won’t take you seriously.” And those in the evangelical church perceive this distaste and displeasure.

So we see that the unbelievers around us don’t get us, and don’t appreciate the Gospel.  This should be no surprise. This is as God said it would be.  But here is where what Sproul said really begins to carry weight:

“What scandalizes me is that this truth scandalizes us … that we, who embrace this Gospel that is an offense to the world, are offended that they are offended by us!”

I think this is so true.  Despite the fact that we are told that we will be despised and rejected, we seem surprised.  We don’t like it.

“Evangelicals grouse and complain. They go on television to complain about how they are presented on television. We want to insist that Paul is wrong – and not just Paul, of course. This is the wisdom of the Holy Spirit here … The text says ‘this is how the world will see you.’”

The greater scandal is not that we are “scandalized” by the worlds rejection but how many seem to respond:

“Some Evangelicals not only fight back and argue against it, We insist on our rights and worse of all we begin to adapt. We begin to reshape ourselves and our story. We diminish the stumbling block and, to establish our credibility, we begin to rewrite the story.”

“If we are Emergent… We say it is just our story. You have your narrative. We have our narrative. All God’s children have their narrative … You don’t need to be scandalized. I just have a different story, and I’m not sure about my story. Will you let me into your cool club?”

“If we are Seeker-sensitive, then we take the story and remove the sharp edges of talking about sin and judgment and wrath because people don’t want to hear about that.”

I won’t go into much more detail. Instead let me encourage you to check out the whole story at The Layman Online. They have done an excellent job of chronicling Sproul’s message.  But I do want to share one more of Sproul’s observations, related to the laments listed above about some common responses:

“When we remember the Gospel – when we remember our own salvation – we remember the necessity of resting in His provision. In our sanctification, we are called to have our heart, mind and soul rest in His wisdom.”

And this is also true of our mission.

The primary aim of our mission is to extend the Gospel of the Kingdom. To do this we must faithfully proclaim the rich, deep, truth of the gospel in all it’s dimensions.  Our hope is that this message will impact many, many people.  BUT we must be clear, and we must regularly remind ourselves and one another, that we cannot make the hope of impacting many people the priority over faithful proclamation.

I am afraid many are inverting these priorities.  The measure of success, in such cases, is numbers of people at the expense if gospel fidelity.  So we embrace either the Seeker or Emergent approach Sproul mentioned above, or something of a similar ilk.   But when we are willing to accept a gospel that is not complete, or even necessarily accurate, we then are preaching a different Gospel than the one that is faithful to Christ.  Success may be apparent, but as Paul warned, if anyone is preaching a gospel different from the one the Apostles preached they are “perverting” the gospel. What they are preaching is “no gospel at all”.  (Galatians 1.6-9)

If what is preached is not faithful to Christ, then it follows that the mission cannot be of Christ.  We may want to offer it to him, but it is not his mission. Christ is the King. He dictates the message, the means, and the motive.

So if such mission, mission in the name of Christ but without the genuine message of Christ, is not really mission for Christ, then who is it for?  Us. For our own sense of importance; For our own apparent success in the eyes of those around us;  Perhaps even, we think and hope, so that God will be pleased with us.  But regardless of the motive, such motive for mission is not so much for God’s glory as it is for selfish ambition. (See Philippians 1.17, Philippians 2.3)

What Sproul suggests about our sanctification, that we must “rest in his provision”, must also be applied to our mission ambition. We must rest in his provision of pure gospel and gospel power.

6 thoughts on “The Scandal of American Evangelicalism

  1. Lots to cover in this one Dennis ! I liked where your post was going in the beginning and I agree with RC in his message that many Christians are taking offense by those outside especially in the media today that don’t “get” Jesus or Christians. He is correct we should expect this as the Bible is clear on this subject. & but then agin, much of the time we Christians communicate more of what we are against than what we are for. So we don’t share and show the world what real Christianity is like much of the time. So we become our own worse enemy in a general way.

    But then you begine to talk about and are critical about the “emergent” Church as well as the seeker Churches or I will make an assumtion that you may be talking about big box churches. Issue here is “emergernt” means different things to different people and you or RC should not make assumtions and general statements about churches who are seeking the lost and may be more attrational than you are comfortable with.

    We have a great diversity in our Christian world made up of many denominations and as we know Jesus has His Bride, the Church. So when we discuss these things we and especially me, have to be carefull and wise at the same time. We may not agree on all doctrinal issues but certanily the Gospel.

    If the Gospel is being preached then we should glory in that fact. If it’s a false Gospel then it will not succeed.

    But yes, Christians should not be surprised if they are looked at a little sideways at times. But that is no reason we should not shy away from our Missions and reaching out to all.

  2. The criticisms I lay out are actually quotes from Sproul. And I think if you will notice, they would be better classified as cautions than criticisms.

    As far as Big Box churches, you will have to clarify your meaning. This is not a criticism of large churches, if that is what you mean by Big Box. I have no problem with large churches, or even mega-churches. i am a product of one. If you mean Big Box in that many people can come to explore and be part, regardless of where they are on their spiritual journey, and thus they have a box big enough for people, this is not an indictment of them. BUT if you mean by Big Box, a church that is willing to compromise the substance of the gospel so that they can draw from the largest possible pool… then yeah… I am strongly against that. And so is God.

    As far as Emergent, I think you may be confusing Emergent and emerging. Emerging is a big category. Emergent is a specific camp within the emerging movement. Emergent is reflected by folks at the Emergent Village and Brian McLaren. And yes, despite some good things they contribute, they clearly embrace and espouse heresey.

    As far as disagreeing about doctrinal issues, we need to be clear that there is also a doctrinal component to the true Gospel. To simply say that we should allow for doctrinal differences, without specifying which doctrines we are discussing, is not helpful. Paul instructs Timothy to keep that which is of “first importance”. In other words, there are things that are primary, and essential; and there are other things which are secondary.

    Doctrines such as Church Government, Baptism, Creation, etc.are seconday. They are important, and should be rooted in what scripture says, but Christians disagree without violating the essence of Christianity. While churches may align according to preferences, organic fellowship is not broken by such organizational diversity.

    The gospel is primary. ALL docrines related to the gospel must be embraced and proclaimed. Simply neglecting the unpopular doctrines in order to have a bigger box is not faithful. Nor is telling everyone they can have a box any way they like it. And it is those type of compromises that Sproul addresssed, and which I elaborated. It is not simple differences of some doctrinal points.

    And while no doubt there are some who do seek to divide on the basis of secondary issues, nothing Sproul said, nor anything I wrote, would rightly be considered to fall into this category. In other words, while it may be a discussion for some time and place, it is not pertinent to this post. What would be appropriate to debate is if one thinks it is appropriate to deny the doctrines of the gospel.

    Finally, this is NOT an anti-missional statement. This is a mission clarifying statement. I assert with no reservation, that if one is “On Mission” and is proclaiming a gospel contrary to, or compromised from, what we have been given by Christ and his Apostles, those engaged on such a mission are NOT engaged in the Missio Dei. We MUST declare the gospel in ALL it’s glory. And yes, that requires some doctinal reflection and precision.

  3. You know what…I agree with you ! By big box i ment inclusive to a point, and by emergent I ment emerging.

    I have an issue with “precision” when referred to doctrine. Because we have very Godly people on different sides of the fense when it comes to some doctrine. But regardless I think there are bigger issues at the heart of this discussion.

    One would be the why we have so many people focused what we are against which leads others to think poorly of Christians.

    Why so many christians think it odd to be looked on as a bit weird or silly….

    Why is it that Christians take it pooly when criticized by a world that doesn’t know Jesus.

    I think part of the issue is just a complete missunderstanding of the Gospel thats been preached in America for years. Probably a discussion for another time.

  4. I agree that there is a misunderstanding of the gospel. I would also say that many people (i.e. pulpits) purport to preach the gospel when in reality they are preaching something very different. This is how we got into the fix we are in.

    Sociologist Christian Smith has observed, the prevailing philosophy among American Evangelical Christians is better described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, than historic Christianity. (NOTE: Smith is not Reformed by any stretch, so he would not qualify as narrow by that definition. In fact he is a former Evangelical now turned Roman Catholic.)

    How did we get there?

    First, it sells. People want to hear what they like, and what makes them feel better about themselves. Second, there has been a lack of principle in the pulpits. The chief goal is butts in our pews. And if it takes telling people what they want to hear to get them in the pew, there are all too many pastors willing to do so – and all too many churches that demand the pastor do so. The end result, most people do not understand the gospel.

    As far as precision, the fact that we cannot know exhaustively, and that people disagree on secondary matters, is not reason to forgo sharpening our understanding to the degree we can. Disagreement is not a problem, as much as ignorance. It is ignorance that allows heresy to prevail.

    From a logical standpoint, if we should abandon all doctrines where there is a disagreement, we would have no understanding at all. Satan would certainly offer counter theories. But if we “renew our minds according to the scripture”, and discern between the things of first importance and of lesser importance, then we can sharpen one another through our differences. Look at groups such as Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition. These groups (Movements really) have a wide range of denominational participation, and with that a diversity of views on secondary matters. But they are unified in the doctrines of the gospel.

    And again, what I appreciated about Sproul’s point is that we need to be clear about the gospel, proclaim it with no compromise, if we are going to be effective in our mission – rather, God’s Mission. It is the gospel that is the power of salvation. If you add to it or take from it you diminish it’s potency. And even if you can build big churches, if it is done apart from the power of the gospel, then God did not do it. Nothing we do by our own strength and wit will stand.

    So again, it is vital to realize that doctrine and mission are not contrary. Our mission is to teach in accord with sound doctrine for the building up of the Body. Sound Gospel fuels genuine mission. Genuine mission harvests people who long to know more about God and what he has done.

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