Issues and Concerns with the Theology and Practices of the American Evangelical Churches

For many of the last 18 years, I attended or was a member of churches that were part of or could be associated with the American Evangelical movement.  For a lot of that time where I was both spiritually and politically may have kept me from noticing all of these issues and concerns that I now see, they are now very obvious to me.  However, many of them bothered me even then.

At least for much of that time, the churches I was in were not overtly political most of the time.  However, the fact that most or all of the visible and prominent leadership of the American Evangelical movement has seemingly shed the last of its Christian message for one of pure politics, and politics that are opposed to what I can support, and what I believe aligns with the teachings of Christ, I do not foresee my being a regular attendee or member of any church that is part of this movement anytime in the near future.

But politics is far from the only issue I have with the American Evangelical movement – or, I’ll have to admit – the mostly English speaking, white dominated parts of the American Evangelical movement that I’ve been exposed to.  The African/Black and Spanish speaking parts of the American Evangelical Church may have few or none of the features I object to, but I’ve not been exposed to them.

Armenian Salvation Theology

After reviewing the Wikipedia entry on Arminianism,  I’m not sure that what I object to is, strictly speaking, Arminianism, but it is closely related.  I have, and to some extent have always had,  issues with the Evangelical Church’s idea that salvation comes only and exclusively through an individual accepting Christ as a Personal savior, and doing so by saying (usually silently) a magic incantation, err prayer.  While the exact wording of this prayer differs from time to time, and individual to individual, it is usually presented as more important than any actual decision.

I have several problems with this:

    • This causes doubt.  This is especially true for persons who were raised in churches that do not believe in and teach this kind of salvation.I regularly in the years I was in Evangelical churches would find myself doubting my salvation simply because I did not have a “moment” when I had made that decision. Worse, if I would attempt to confirm that decision, I felt no change.At times, this would actually cause me to at best doubt my salvation, and at worst, doubt the basis for my faith at all. Had there been more reasons for me to doubt my faith at some of those times, this alone could have been enough to drive me away from the church, God, and Christ altogether.
    • It creates an “us” versus “them” mentality on who is and isn’t saved.  This isn’t just used against non-Christians.  Far too often it is used to say that Christians from churches that do not teach this model of salvation, such as the Roman Catholic Church, many Presbyterian Churches, Anglican Churches, and I suspect/believe many Congregational (United Church of  Christ), Lutheran, and other of the so-called “mainline” denominations.  It probably even gets used against the Methodists, even though (at least according to the Wikipedia entry linked above they are theologically Armenian.
    • It leads to “seeker focused” mega churches and mini-mega churches.  Far too many of the Evangelical churches in this country are so focused on reaching the “unsaved” that they have nothing left for believing Christians.  Every service, every sermon is a message directed at those who have yet to “hear the good news.”  At every, or nearly every, service there is an offer to those who haven’t been saved to make the commitment and say the magic prayer.Yet once someone believes, there is little to help them grow deeper in their faith. The better versions of these churches will have small groups, adult classes, weekday services, and other venues to help with growth. But when our culture often limits the time an individual has for Church to Sunday morning, and a Christian is expected to spend Sunday in Church, having Church be for the non-Christians, it just isn’t a good model for spiritual growth.
    • It leads to conversion focused missions.  Far to many of the mission and outreach efforts from Evangelical Churches are so focused on conversion that they miss the far more important part of helping the very people that they are there to serve.In Matthew 25:34-36, Jesus never mentions that those who came to him shared “the good news.” No, they fed him, clothed him, and visited him in prison.
      Yet, far too many of the missions from Evangelical churches will only feed, clothe, or visit people as an excuse to preach at them. Admittedly, some missions from other churches may go a bit to far the other way and almost hide that they are doing their works in Jesus name, but that probably isn’t as bad.

Limited Role of Women in Ministry (and Society)

Another area which has bothered me more and less over the years is the way a woman’s role in many Evangelical churches is limited, especially in ministry and leadership.  In many or most of these churches, women are excluded from both ministerial and leadership roles entirely, except for roles over women’s ministry and children’s ministry.  And, even then they are rarely given the title “pastor.”

In fact, the only times I’ve seen – and never in any Evangelical Church I’ve been part of – a Woman with the title “Pastor” they were either a Co-Pastor with their husband, or possibly were a Worship Pastor, but were clearly subordinate to a male “Senior Pastor” or “Teaching Pastor.”

Further, women are often excluded from other lay leadership roles, namely they are excluded from the church government, the board of elders, deacons, or whatever other lay leadership the church may have.

I grew up in the United Presbyterian Church until the mid-1980s when we finally ended the Civil War and reunited with the southern church and became the Presbyterian Church USA.  For most or all of my lifetime, women were allowed to be called as “Pastors of Word and Sacrament” and appointed to any pastoral role in any church.  Now I didn’t actually have a woman pastor until I was an adult.

Women were also allowed to serve as both elders (the elected representatives who governed the church) and deacons (the elected body who provided service to the congregation).  When I was in middle school, my mother served as an elder of our church, and by the traditions of the Presbyterian denomination still is considered a non-serving Elder.  (By those same traditions, I’m a non-serving Deacon, even though I’ve not been a member of a Presbyterian church for nearly two decades).

This subjugation of women goes further.  I suspect that it is why the Evangelical movement was so willing to embrace the anti-abortion cause in the early 1970s (see The ‘biblical view’ that’s younger than the Happy Meal for background). As long as the idea that women were a second-class part of the church already was ingrained in the mindset of the (male) leadership, adding doctrine that limits women’s medical choices and imprisons them in unwanted pregnancies isn’t much of stretch.

Too Much Eschatology – Especially One Flavor

While not nearly as universal as my first two problems, much of the American Evangelical Church has a serious Eschatology problem.  They are obsessed with it; and more specifically they are obsessed with (if I’m getting my theologically terminology right) Premelinial Dispenationalism – See the Left Behind series, etc.

This idea that the end is coming soon has probably helped fuel some of their dive into misguided politics – and certainly explains, or helps explain, why so many have totally abandoned any pretense of stewardship over creation: “If God is going to take me and my family to heaven in my lifetime, and then destroy the Earth as we know it 7 years later, why should I care about it anymore?”

But it also impacts how and what these churches teach, serve, and try to do.

Other Theological Problems – Especially Picking and Choosing from the Old Testiment

Related to my issue with how the Evangelical Churches treat women is how they will pick and choose parts of the Old Testament law, and say “this verse still applies” and then totally ignore another passage a few verses later.

And, yes, I’m largely talking about their treatment of homosexuals.

Far too many evangelicals are obsessed with a few verses in the old testament laws related to homosexuality, and use it to deny people rights.  Yet they will ignore other parts of the same law when it comes to how they treat immigrants and refugees – or their own bodies.

Christ came to fulfill the old testament law.  To free us from it.  To save us from it.  In his time he saw the Jewish authorities using it as a tool to suppress their people.  In our time the Evangelicals are trying to use it the same way.

But, Jesus said that the two most important commandments were to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  I contend that this is how, and where he fulfilled and saved us from the law.  As long as we do these, we are obeying the spirit of those laws.  And it is more loving if I support the marriage of  my loving friends who happen to be gay, then if I deny them the rights to be who they are based on some ancient Jewish law  – which was probably written down long after God had actually given it to Moses, quite probably with years of edits and additions first.

Biblical Literalism

Which leads me into another one.  While I believe that there is truth in the Bible, I also believe that it is – and words are important here – the inspired word of God.  I also believe that the inspiration God gave to those early authors happened long before the text we have today.

Even modern linguistics and the biblical stories cast doubt on the tradition that the pentateuch (Torah) was penned by Moses in its current Hebrew form.  Moses, or the character described in Exodus was raised as an Egyptian prince.  The written language he would have known probably would have been Egyptian hieroglyphics, not the more recent Hebrew phonetic system.  So, if he did record the stories of Genesis and Exodus  he would have recorded them in that writing system, or a version of it.  So, the more recent Hebrew version was a translation.

My guess is that in fact what we have in those books, and possibly much of the History books of the Old Testament, come from the oral histories of the Hebrew/Jewish people which were written down at some point after their contact with the Phoenicians and subsequent development and adaptation of a phonetic writing system.  Some older written records may have also been incorporated.

God inspired these early oral histories, infusing them with both poetic explanations of creation – the Hebrew creation myth in many ways is one of the most scientifically sound ones if taken as a poetic explanation  –  and important spiritual truths.  However, they passed through the hands and minds of fallen man, who introduced their own corruption into them.

Even after the codification of the Old Testament and the New Testament this has continued to happen.  I’ve heard, and have no reason to doubt, that James I/V influenced some of the English translation of the bible to make sure that it helped support some of his ideas.  (In this case, the claim was that he insisted that parts were translated to ensure that “Witchcraft” was used to help in his fight against the remaining non-Christian Pagans in Britain at that time, but I suspect that there may have been other things done too).

This continues today – which is why we have the situation where Evangelicals will prefer the NIV, New King James or King James,  and most other Protestants prefer the RSV or NRSV translations.  Both groups are suspicious of hidden motives in the translators behind the other versions.

However, the problem I have is that many, if not most, Evangelicals treat the bible as literal truth.  Many (too many) even treat it as scientific truth ignoring what God has left in plain sight in the universe over what man has written in the bible (Cat Faber’s response – which pretty much covers my thoughts).

“We Have to Reject Anything That Looks High Church”

My last issue may seem the least, but in some ways Sunday to Sunday it has sometimes bothered me more.  At least in the churches I’ve attended – both regularly and irregularly – Evangelical churches seem to want to reject anything that might connect them with the old high church traditions one would find in a Roman Catholic or Anglican church.

My first example is the so-called traditional services at one church I attended.  The only difference, and I mean the ONLY difference, between the traditional service and the contemporary service was the music.  In the traditional service, the choir and organ (and occasionally orchestra) backed the worship leader, and the songs were mostly from the printed Hymnal.  Beyond that, there was no difference.  It was 4-6 songs, take an offering, preach a sermon, and sometimes take communion.

To me – having grown up and spent several years as an adult in Presbyterian churches – a traditional service had at least a subset of: A prelude, A Call to Worship, A Coral Introit, Opening Hymn, Readings from the Bible,  Children’s Message, Prayer of Confession, Assurance of Pardon, Second Hymn, Corporate Prayer – including the Lord’s Prayer (debtors version, we are Scots after all), Offering and Receipt of offering, Responsive Reading, Statement of Faith, Message, Communion, and Benediction (and maybe a couple of others I missed).   Those elements made up a traditional service – not singing traditional hymns.  The few Lutheran and Methodist services I’d been too made me see similar elements in their services also.

But there was more than that.  Which Christmas and Easter – and often Palm Sunday – were acknowledged the only other part of the church calendar that might get acknowledgement was Advent.  But it might just be December.  I’ll bet that at least a few people reading this who have never attended any non-Evangelical church didn’t know that Resurrection Sunday is only the first Sunday of Easter?  A few more probably know that Christmas last 12 days, so covers at least one Sunday as well as Christmas Eve.

I missed having a church that acknowledged Advent and Lent properly as times of preparation.  Especially Lent.  I was never a Roman Catholic, so Lenten fasting is not something I’ve ever practiced.  But, having five or six Sundays of services to get ready for Easter, where the service has a darker tone and is preparing for Good Friday just sets Easter up better than rolling through late winter and early spring until suddenly “Hey its Palm/Passion Sunday” followed by Good Friday and Easter/Resurrection Sunday, then back to business as usual.