A few months ago, I finished a little book by Shane Pruitt called Nine Common Myths that Christians Believe (And Why God's Truth is Infinitely Better). It was short and conversational, certainly not exhaustive or scholarly, but still helpful to address fluffy Christian jargon that means well but misses the mark of theological accuracy. Because it was targeting the average church-goer's vernacular and not necessarily that of pastors/teachers, it was soft instead of indicting in its approach to these harmful ideas. Nevertheless, it had some great points to chew on, not the least of which is the one that I earmarked to write this post. Here it is:
Self-righteousness leaves a wake of people who are either so arrogant they don't need God anymore or so burned out they don't care about God anymore. And whether they realize it or not, it all started from a place of wanting God to like them. Self-righteousness becomes its own form of religion, and religions are built on what mankind can do for their god or gods.
The Christian theology of God's initiating love is so different from the concepts of other religions. Jesus condescended to meet us where we are. He willfully became something less than He was, a servant sacrificing His own righteous life for the undeserving beloved. He did something for us, not the other way around. That's the beautiful truth of the gospel.
So why, then, the growing trend of "faith deconstruction" stories we hear today -- the testimonies of individuals, formerly self-identified as Christians, who are redefining themselves as "exvangelicals" or agnostics? Why would someone move away from the notion of undeserved, unmerited grace, payment in full for a debt they could never afford? These tales are complex, unique, and deeply personal. They also share many common themes of pain, disappointment, and disillusionment.
Before I unpack my thoughts, I understand that you may be reading this at a time in your life where you are questioning or redefining your faith. What I want to talk about here concerns your story, and I don't mean to imply by a summarizing approach that your experience is a cookie cutter, no different from anyone else's. You aren't so easily labeled. I want to humbly ask that you journey with me through the next few paragraphs and promise to help me better understand where you are if I've missed the mark on any of these things.
I also want to make it clear that I am not writing this to defend Christians keeping the "evangelical" label. Like the banner of "fundamentalism" before it -- which, prior to its pejorative use, stood for a positive theological movement seeking to preserve critical components of orthodoxy from encroaching liberalism -- the "evangelical" title has outlived its usefulness, especially if it carries a lot of baggage in the eyes of the unbelieving community. Many people assume that an "evangelical" is simply a right-wing, red-blooded, Christian Nationalist Trump-supporter. If that's the association the evangelical title holds, then it truly should be retired, because it is actually hindering gospel efforts! However, before we assume that we should all jump on the exvangelical bandwagon, let's differentiate between wanting to faithfully represent the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world and actively deconstructing our faith from a place of hurt, skepticism, or -- as Shane Pruitt argues -- self-righteousness.
My working theory of the exvangelical movement is based on the image of a stool. The arguments of "faith graduates" stand on three legs. One leg is righteous anger against very real and very ugly hypocrisy in evangelical Christianity. This is the most powerful leg, because it it has a strong basis in truth and experience. The second leg is a greater alignment with modern textual criticism than with the inerrancy of Scripture. This is a position that casts doubt on the Bible's accuracy and ability to speak to a constantly evolving human race. The third and final leg is embracing lifestyle choices and theological positions that are irreconcilable with "evangelical morals."
Without all three legs, the individual is likely trending exvangelical but isn't fully ready to abandon everything he or she has grown up believing. However, once all three legs are firmly anchored, suddenly the decision to abandon or reinterpret Christianity makes a whole lot of sense, and the faith deconstruction truly begins.
Leg 1: Evangelical Hypocrisy. As stated, many suggest that the "evangelical" label carries too much baggage to be useful any longer to Christians who are truly striving to live out their faith. That opinion doesn't just come from exvangelicals. They aren't the only ones seeking to distance themselves from cold religiosity or nationalistic faith. The sobering reality is that qualms with evangelicalism aren't unfounded. Historically, it isn't just the Catholic church that has hidden abuse scandals or turned a blind eye to clergy padding their pockets with donations. The most recent evangelical scandal involving RZIM ministries is an all-too-revealing example of how power and a lack of accountability can lead even a supposed "champion" of the faith to abuse the privileges afforded by his affluence and ultimately travel a lonely road of spiritual self-destruction. Many individuals who are moving away from evangelicalism have personal stories of pastors and church leaders who have committed similar egregious acts, unbecoming their role or the Savior they claim to worship.
Lest we think this is a modern evangelical issue, however, let's not forget the litany of prophetic diatribes against Israel's priests in the Old Testament. Isaiah railed against the entire congregation, likening them to a collective snake -- the "elder and honored man" being the head, and the lying prophets being "the tail" -- that was leading the people astray into all manner of oppression, violence, and immorality (9.15-17). Jeremiah lamented that, "from the least to the greatest, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely" (8.10b). Ezekiel demanded judgment for the priests who "misled" God's people, and for the prophetesses who "hunt[ed] down souls" while keeping their own souls alive (13.10, 18).
The point is this: at no point in the history of mankind have spiritual leaders been sinless messiahs who are above corruption. The religious institutions that commission and empower clergy of any denomination, at any point in human history, are likewise fallible.
However, for every pastor or organization that has fallen, there are two others that have lived above reproach -- not perfect, but taking sin seriously enough to recognize the potential pitfalls of abuse and temptation, and building accountability into their leadership paradigm. The exvangelical solution to the abuse of power and scandal in the church is problematic because it is enmeshed in a cancel-culture mentality: if it's broken, scrap it. No second chances. The faulty assumption -- that because some churches are toxic, all churches are toxic -- is misguided and tragic. Churches and institutions that are willing to recognize the dangers that sin poses, not assuming they are above its influence, are able to handle error with grace, tact, and love in humility.
Maybe you -- or someone you know -- were a victim of church discipline that was cold, unbiblical, or incorrectly administered. If that was the case, I am deeply sorry for the pain to which you were subjected. However, let's be careful not to confuse biblical church discipline with gossip, judgment, or power tripping. The process outlined in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 is a stern but necessary practice for a) the protection of the Body, which suffers when unrepentant sin is left to fester, and b) the restoration of the sinning brother/sister, who is being subjected to the type of compassion prescribed in Galatians 6.1-5. It is intended to be a humble entreatment of a spiritually endangered individual to turn from what might destroy them. If you or someone you know was subjected to a process of church discipline that any of the following bullet points describe, then you were subjected to a sinful and unbiblical method, not in any way prescribed by Jesus:
- an impersonal letter announcing the revoking of your membership without any personal meetings or discussion prior to your excommunication
- a process that did not follow the clear and necessary steps of Matthew 18, and that did not err heavily on the side of grace and time
- a proclamation of your sin that went beyond the privacy and safety of your church family
- a process that was intended to shame you, rather than entreat the congregation to go to you personally, humbly, and in love
What sin is worthy of church discipline? In a way-too-brief answer for this space... It's not about categories or tiers of sin. It's about a heart that is unrepentant. Do we all have sin? Yes. But what do we do when confronted with that sin? Do we harden our hearts and refuse to change, declaring that sin to be our personal choice and no one has the right to tell us how to live our lives? Or do we acknowledge that we were wrong and receive wise counsel on how to do better next time? The existence of sin in our lives is not grounds for church discipline. What we do when confronted with sin is another matter.
The reality is that church leaders who sin must be held to this same process! However, many churches have historically failed to remember the admonishment of James 3.1, that those who teach and lead will be held to a greater degree of accountability. If church leaders are above discipline, above accountability, or in any way considered holier than the congregation, you have the makings of a toxic church culture where sin will be hidden, abuse will be rampant, and people will leave (if they can escape!), disillusioned with the sham of "Christianity" they witnessed.
If you've witnessed any of these types of things, you aren't wrong to be angry. God Himself is angry at the injustices, abuses, and sinful choices of people -- especially those perpetrated in His name. However, exvangelicals would do well to acknowledge the universal integrity of the Church, the global Body of Christ, as a mixture of wheat and tares (Matthew 13.24-30). Even if some specific local churches have proven to be hypocritical or even cultish, the Invisible Church will prevail to the end of the age. If we neglect our responsibility to the Body, even because we are rightly angry at injustice and sin, we risk putting ourselves on a self-righteous pedestal above other Christians, or marooning ourselves on an island apart. By remaining committed to the Church, despite its imperfections, we leave room for God to be the Judge, and trust Him to finish the perfecting work that He began in each true follower of Christ.
If your church let you down, find another one -- albeit, not one that proclaims a different gospel, but one that more closely adheres to the truth and practice of God's Word. There will never be a perfect local church, unfortunately, but it is far better to labor alongside fellow imperfect believers than it is to languish in spiritual isolation and leave ourselves open to worldly vices and ideologies.
Leg 2: Textual Criticism. There is no possible way that I can fully address this topic in a single post (if you're so inclined, I've written more on it here and here -- again not exhaustively). But let me make a few comments on why acknowledging the inerrancy of Scripture might not be as much blind faith as you think.
The concept is often rejected because it sounds naive. How could an ancient text written over centuries by different authors and translated from an ancient language be without error? Modern textual criticism has the weight of scholarly authority, intellectual giants who question the ascribed authorship of many Scriptural texts, the dates of writing, and authorial intent. The treatment of Scripture is highly skeptical, viewing theological paradoxes as contradictions, and attempting to contrast Pauline doctrine with Jesus' teachings rather than trace the symmetry between them. In all, when you begin from the position that an ancient text is a flawed, manmade document, then all the conclusions drawn will likely match the premise.
On the other hand, inerrancy is simply the belief that the Holy Spirit accurately and organically led the original writers of Scripture to preserve God's own words in written form. It differentiates God's perfect and authoritative truth from the imperfect written form. It is believing that God sovereignly transmitted and sovereignly protected His writings, even through gross Latin mistranslations that fostered belief in penance (thank you, Jerome) and periods of time when the very words of Scripture were deemed too lofty for the eyes of common people to read and became twisted by high church tradition. Inerrancy fully acknowledges textual challenges of various types while still trusting in the power of God to accurately communicate to His people.
The assumption that the Bible is riddled with errors and contradictions is simply misplaced. Ancient Bible scholars across eras have been able to triangulate incredibly accurate translations from an overwhelming amount of source data. Belief in inerrancy doesn't (or shouldn't) deny the "errors" or differences of translation from ancient to modern languages, and it doesn't pretend that there aren't manuscript issues where copyists made mistakes or age has obscured certain pieces of text. In fact, the best Bible translations are those that make a point to show where original wording is difficult to translate, or is missing. However, the Swiss cheese picture that many people have of the Bible's composition, as well as the "whisper-down-the-lane" theory of oral biblical transmission, are simply the result of scholarly doubt unfairly cast upon the single most influential book in human history.
Many exvangelicals are diving deeply into Greek and Hebrew in order to uncover the "real" meaning of the texts, a meaning that they believe has been obscured by decades -- if not centuries -- of Christian mishandling (at best) or tampering (at worst). The problem with this is not the desire for deeper study, but the motive. Evangelicals aren't innocent of sometimes making the Bible say what they want it to say, rather than allowing the power of the text to speak for itself. But exvangelicals are only replicating the same error. Studying the original languages is an undeniably valuable pursuit, but the complexities of these ancient tongues means that zooming in too closely on individual words and phrases can be a little like missing the forest for the trees, or pixelating a picture because you're after individual specks of color and not the whole hi-res image. Context is everything!
One of my fellow elders at Fellowship Bible Church has quoted his father's pastoral wisdom on more than one occasion: "If the first sense makes sense, take care lest you come to nonsense." While there are plenty of challenging passages in the Bible that we would do well to read far more carefully than traditional handling of the text has done, sometimes the plain meaning of the text is often not difficult to discern. In fact, the whole Reformation concept -- that everyone should have access to reading the Bible in their own language -- implies that the average layperson is capable of understanding the plain message of the gospel via the illumination of the Holy Spirit. It is not the clergy with advanced degrees in linguistics who have special access to unlock the real truth of God's Word. Plain and powerful truth can actually be obscured by drilling in too deeply without discretion, in search of the meaning you want to be there.
In sum, textual criticism is doomed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, due to the preconceived notions that scholars and exvangelicals alike carry into their research. Belief in the inerrancy of Scripture doesn't mean using the Bible to proof text for your personal values -- which, to be fair, many evangelicals have likewise done. It means holding the Word of God in high esteem, and giving it the authority -- as the divine self-revelation of God Almighty -- to speak real truth into our modern lives. The alternative is to place myself above the truth of the Bible. This is what textual criticism does. Suddenly, when I move myself out from under the Bible's authority, I have the theological impetus to believe whatever I want.
Which leads us to...
Leg 3: Lifestyle & Theology. Maybe you are having a hard time seeing how churches can justify maintaining a 501c3 status. Maybe you associate evangelical theology with racism. Maybe you can't stomach the idea of a wrathful God who judges sinners, and instead embrace the "love-wins" theology of Christian universalism. Maybe Christian counseling denied that your depression was a chemical imbalance and instead labeled it as a lack of faith. Maybe you are divorcing your wife, or deciding your sexuality is deviant from traditional evangelical norms. Maybe you simply see yourself as an Ally for someone else who is doing one of the above. Whatever your reason, the irreconcilable differences between personal choices and evangelical ethics often becomes the impetus for redefining one's faith.
Exvangelicals follow typical Western thinking that emphasizes the individual over community, and the self as actuating truth. If how I view myself is incompatible with another system of thinking, then I must be true to myself. Particularly with regard to sexual identity and interpersonal ethics, the modern American is unwilling to allow any tradition, norm, culture, or belief system to dictate his or her personal choices. As usual, the heart is king: what I feel, what I believe, and what I want are paramount.
That logically means that an archaic text like the Bible, with its black and white treatment of human sexuality and gender, must be irrelevant. Dangerous, even.
It's important to note that you can be an exvangelical and still claim to live by the Bible. This is done by embracing a different hermeneutic or interpretive principle than evangelicals. Of course, reading the Bible this way also makes a lot more sense if you're also leaning on the leg of textual criticism. While evangelicals interpret the Bible via a literal hermeneutic, whenever possible, exvangelicalism embraces symbolism and subjectivity. If much of the historical narrative (especially of the Old Testament) is allegory, then the commands therein are merely principles given to emerging communities of faith that no longer speak directly to the modern iteration of the Church. And if Jesus is really just a good teacher, then the entire gospel message can be summarized in one misappropriated and misdefined word: love.
At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, here is what I have found to be the single common thread of those claiming to be exvangelicals: lifestyle choices -- especially pertaining to sexuality and gender -- that are unable to be justified in evangelical theology. Homosexuality. Physical boundaries for dating relationships. Cohabitation. Appropriate grounds for divorce. Gender roles in marriage. As our culture redefines and then redefines its own standards and definitions for these things, the evangelical crowd continues to hold the longstanding and prevailing positions on these issues, as defined literally by the Bible. To a world driven and tossed by the various winds of philosophy and theology (Eph 4.14), a rock in the midst of the current is a danger, not a refuge.
So. Those are the three legs of the faith deconstruction stool. Evangelical hypocrisy, textual criticism, and lifestyle choices/theological differences. Certainly, greater weight can be placed on any of the above. Sometimes individuals start with Leg 3 and then find the more or less sinful reactions from individuals at their home church to provide them the grounds for Leg 1, and then they are forced to establish an alternate view of the Bible (Leg 2) in order to defend their position. Others begin at Leg 2 because they have serious doubts about the harmony of the gospels, or they have embraced the evolutionary theory and can't rationalize it with Genesis 1-2. Not everyone's journey toward faith deconstruction will have all the exact same earmarks
Maybe you're reading this and finding yourself growing increasingly disillusioned with Christianity, struggling to find reasons to recommit to a church and doubting the efficacy of prayer or the necessity of reading the Bible. Maybe you've wrestled with the problem of evil and found evangelical theology to be full of stale platitudes on the topic. Maybe someone or some organization has tragically let you down. Maybe you're reading this because you're chosen a walk of life that has led you to completely rejecting Christianity, and you are mildly amused by my attempts to define your faith journey.
If any of the above is you, here are a few pleas.
Don't place your faith in people or in a system. Place your faith in Jesus. Reaffirm your confidence not in fallible people, but in the infallible Christ. The entire narrative of the Bible is that people aren't good enough! No one person or institution can break the cycle of sin. When we allow people to become our access point to Jesus, we will always be disappointed. The author of Hebrews contrasts the Levitical priesthood with that of the Messiah, arriving at the conclusion that Christ's priesthood is superior, because He never has to offer sacrifices for His own sin (see Heb 7.17-28). Ultimately, clergy cannot make intercession. Only Christ opens the Holy Place to us once and for all.
Don't abandon the Church. A church can (and probably has) let you down. Maybe even multiple churches have. Maybe your parents, the figureheads of your faith, let you down. But THE Church has not. The true Body of Christ is a real and powerful entity that truly exists, even in a world where heinous groups of people calling themselves a church ruin everyone and everything within their reach. The individual components of the Church certainly have work to do, but the Bride of Christ prevails, because her Husband promises to present her blameless and without spot or wrinkle (Eph 5.27).
Don't trust your heart. It's deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer 17.9), capable of all manner of wickedness and self-deception. Unless truth has a firm anchor outside of yourself, you will never stop oscillating in your beliefs, the same way your feelings about things change from day to day.
Don't stop asking good, hard questions. The problem is not doubt or your desire for answers. In fact, one of my favorite moments in the gospel records is when a father asks Jesus to heal his son of a demonic oppression that has lasted all of the boy's life. From a place of despair and hopelessness, he cries out, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief." (Mark 9.24) This heart-rending moment shows us the necessary relationship between skepticism and faith. When everything our senses and reasoning are telling us screams that something is impossible, Jesus changes the equation. He is willing to meet each of us in our own places of doubt and uncertainty. I say again, the problem is not doubt. It's when doubt gives way to a cold, proud certainty that deems faith a meaningless, childish, perhaps even dangerous exercise, that you move to a hard-hearted place that becomes impervious to truth. Balance your skepticism, your experience, and your history with the necessary questions that faith prompts in each of our hearts.
If you're in the process of deconstructing your faith, maybe the most critical thing is for you to ask yourself whether or not Jesus was ever truly the Lord of your life. Not just conceptually, but truly. He can't just be your friend. He IS the believer's friend, but He is also so much more. Does He love with an everlasting love and lay down His life for us? Yes, and amen! But He also is the eternal Son of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords to whom every knee must bow and every tongue must confess His right to rule. Far too many exvanelicals have never truly submitted their hearts to Christ, perhaps because of doubts, or perhaps because sin distorts our motives. Wholeheartedly receiving the free, radical gift of grace as the undeserved pardon for our personal sins means we owe Him everything. On some spiritual level, none of us whats to make that commitment -- we want to maintain our sense of personal autonomy. The only way we can embrace that reality is if we truly see the depths of our own depravity, acknowledge the grace of Jesus as the only thing that can atone for our problem, and wholeheartedly submit ourselves to Jesus' divine rule. Totally, completely His.
I started this post with the quote from Shane Pruitt's book. The repeated word in that paragraph is one that we most fervently deny when it is the most applicable to us: "self-righteousness." Like many other sins of the human heart, self-righteousness can manifest in a number of different ways. But the common thread is the simple notion that spiritually, intellectually, morally, I am better. Superior. It often germinates from a good seed -- for example, anger at hypocrisy in the church. Justification starts sound, but skews sinful: "The people of Christ should be better than this. Why aren't the people of Christ better than this? Why aren't the people of Christ seeing this problem like I am? Why aren't the people of Christ like me?"
Here's my fear for individuals who are deconstructing their faith. One, they are pointing the finger of judgment at evangelicalism and missing their own self-righteousness in the process. Exvangelicals, hear me: no one is arguing with you that the Church should be better. The magnificent Pauline prescriptions of the Body are a far-cry from the sad reality presenting itself, especially in America. But the solution to this discrepancy is not to point fingers or to burn the whole Christian movement to the ground in order to start your own better, "more mature" version of faith. The solution is to humbly entreat, humbly teach, and humbly lead by example. When Frederick Douglass was vehemently attacking white southern preachers who used the Bible to defend the institution of slavery, he argued via a significant rhetorical question:
What do you do when you are told by the slaveholders of America that the Bible sanctions slavery? Do you go and throw your Bible into the fire? Do you sing out, 'No union with the Bible!' Do you declare that a thing is bad because it has been misused, abused, and made bad use of? Do you throw it away on that account? No! You press it to your bosom all the more closely; you read it all the more diligently; and prove from its pages that it is on the side of liberty -- and not on the side of slavery. -- Frederick Douglass, "Baptists, Congregationalists, the Free Church, and Slavery: An Address Delivered in Belfast, Ireland, on 23 December 1845."
If you are fed up with Christian hypocrisy, the solution is not to forsake Christianity, its theology, or its promises. The solution is to "press it to your bosom all the more closely" in order to prove faithful to the high calling of Christ -- even though every other man prove to be a liar (Rom 3.4).
Two, while exvangelicals may claim to be rediscovering God independently of the Church, the reality is that they are recreating God in their own image. While the Church may be guilty of failing to fully live up to the standard of identifying love to which Jesus called them, they have been the guardian of orthodox Christian theology since Pentecost. Shane's quote argued that self-righteous individuals (people too proud to need God or too burned out by their religious efforts) abandon the gospel of grace to worship or serve something else. The self-righteousness of exvangelicals has led them to serve their own ideals or personal values -- causes that can be wholeheartedly served, but which can do nothing to save the individual. The God of the Bible is not your crusade, social movement, perfect society, or accommodating divine grandparent. He is the immutable, holy, and transcendent God who sovereignly, graciously chose to draw near to weak and weary sinners, and who will one day judge all human beings, declaring to be justified only those who are covered by the freely given blood of His Son, and all the rest as condemned for their self-righteous rejection of so great a salvation (Heb 2.3).
Three (and finally), in some part, we all wrestle with wanting God to like us for "who we are" -- that is, our own self-conception with all our quirks, beliefs, and preferences intact. That, as opposed to truly embracing the identity into which Jesus wants to transform each of us. One again, the beauty of the gospel is that we desperately need what God offers us through the person of Jesus Christ. There is no other name by which salvation may come (Acts 4.12).
In our self-righteousness, we human beings are more inclined to deny that we have a need, to insist that we are fine the way we are. The very notion of needing something is denies me human agency, my right to choose, my self-worth, etc. But the gospel message is unwavering on the fact that it is only through death to our old self and spiritual transformation through Christ that we become people truly accepted by God. Jesus said we must be born again, through a radical faith in what He alone can achieve (John 3.3). Paradoxically, the Bible holds both the lowest view of human depravity and also the highest hope for human potential -- far more radical extremes than any other faith or ideology in the world. It is not in ourselves that we find hope, however. It's not in defining our own identities. It's found in reclaiming the idea that we are made in God's image but broken by our own sin, and allowing Him to transform us into human beings fully realized, fully free, and fully satisfied. And it all hinges on losing our independence, becoming completely dependent on the person of Jesus Christ. Not on an institution. Not on a system of theology. We must be purely defined by the Jesus of the Bible.
Sadly, that is impossible for a heart that is "so arrogant [it doesn't] need God anymore or so burned out [it doesn't] care about God anymore."
Let each of us carefully and humbly examine our own hearts so that this description of self-righteousness never defines us.