Most pastors don't see it coming. Most church-goers do not see it yet. Denominational and movement leaders might be more aware than most, but many of them think that things will come back together. But, it is bubbling up and will hit like a velvet hammer, shattering the post-WWII consensus that has been built around politics, race, church growth, some theology, and pursuing our best “way of life” through our religion. In the summer of 2014, I could see it growing again – a rift in the Evangelical church that will be far reaching, but not readily noticed – at least not right away. On the surface, there appears to be a form of unity. But, beneath that veneer is a boiling cauldron of division that threatens to split the movement into dozens of disparate parts. Political conflict during this election season will not cause the divide – it will only reveal what is already there.
An Evangelical Civil War?
I put a question mark at the end of that statement because nothing is certain. People could wake up and recognize the peril. They might read their Bibles afresh and encounter the life and teachings of Jesus in a way that changes them and their churches and forges real unity out of division. But, apart from that, a break up of the Evangelical movement is inevitable. Let me state my reasons why.
First, the conflict won't necessarily be about theology, or at least not in the way that we have come to discuss theology as a set of beliefs and propositions. Evangelicalism is a big tent with a limited number of hard-line doctrinal belief systems that are apparent to those who read the Bible through an Evangelical grid. Minimalist theological unity for Evangelicals has not been that hard to come by overall. Plus, few really care enough about theology to split over it – again, at least theology in the way that we have come to understand it. We continue to agree on the nature of God, salvation, the Gospel, the Bible and the things that have made Evangelicalism a “thing” for quite some time now. Basic agreement on the necessity of the Great Commission (preach the gospel to all nations – evangelize) will continue to exist, whatever we mean by that and whether or not we actually participate in it.
But, the conflict will be about theology in a way that we have never really had agreement on and do not often raise in level of importance to the place where division is ever even considered. But, events are driving us to consider not just our orthodoxy (right teaching), but also our orthopraxy (right practice). How does our Evangelical theology cause us to love God and love people (the Great Commandment)? How does our theology cause us to see other people? How does it cause us to see ourselves? To see our churches? To see America? Will we be people of the Cross or people seeking glory? Will we see the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross as our hope and salvation that then causes us to love and sacrifice for others, even our enemies? Or, will we see the Cross as the means to and end of us being safe and secure and receiving our “best life now”?
This conflict also won't be because people do not love each other or do not want unity in their churches. There will be a lot of grief over this and many will choose to just get along rather than having any conflict because they don't want to anger anyone or have any problems. While some of that is commendable and while love is good, this approach will not enable us to follow Christ to those He loves on the margins. It will keep us with those who love us and it will ultimately become an idol. We must love one another and love covers a multitude of sins. But, loving one another in the church so we can stay together and not standing for and affirming God's love for people is not the way to go.
This conflict is not new. It is as old as the Republic – and goes all the way back to the beginning of human experience, actually. But, for our purposes, questions arise. Is America a Christian nation uniquely called and blessed by God to be a shining city on a hill to the rest of the world through the example of the incredible blessings that we have for ourselves? Or, are we a nation that is a refuge for the poor, huddled masses yearning to be free? Are we blessed by God so we can be great and powerful and gain more blessings for ourselves? Or, are we blessed to be a blessing to others and set the captive free? Or, can those two impulses combine?
Loving your neighbor sacrificially is not a political move. But, it is a Biblical command and implication of the gospel that has far-reaching political and social effects. Love never fails.
The nation is not the church and the church is not the nation. God's promises are for the church not for America. But, in a Democratic Republic, the Evangelical Church has seen itself intertwined with the Nation because we have a voice and an influence and even a responsibility. We are to be prophetic and be salt and light in our culture, but if the salt loses its saltiness . . . Which way will our influence go now? Toward self preservation so we can promote, protect, and defend our own “way of life” over and above others? Or, toward self-sacrifice so we can lay down our lives for others and live and love sacrificially? The first way falls along the lines of the Theology of Glory and manifests itself in a hundred prosperity gospels that declares that might makes right and God's favor is demonstrated through wealth, power, happiness, and personal satisfaction. The second way involves the Theology of the Cross and says that God is shown to be strong through weakness, that Jesus turned all of the equations upside-down, and that if you want to follow Christ, you must lay down your life and your self-interest and then look after the interests of others (Phil. 2:1-11).
The first Way of Glory led to Manifest Destiny in a theological sense, horrible treatment of Native Americans, a theological defense of slavery and racism, and the greed and grasping for power and self-interest that has marked much of our American experience. The second Way of the Cross led to generosity, personal sacrifice, promoting freedom for captives, care for the poor and those in need, and human dignity and value for all people that has spread all over the world. We have often tended to live in the Way of Glory for ourselves in the moment and then celebrated those who live in the Way of the Cross after the fact. Until now.
Now, we are seeing a massive shift in value-orientation. Instead of struggling with living for our own glory (power, prominence, provision) while recognizing that the Cross is the better, more noble way, and aspiring to live accordingly, we now see Evangelicals blatantly throwing off restraint and supporting those who promise them greatness and power in the here and now. We want our reward now. We are tired of not being on top. We want to fight back at the thought of being persecuted for anything. We once controlled the culture and have now lost that prominent place. So, we grab hold of any thing or person who promises to protect us and promote us and ennable favor to shine on us again. We prove that we did not actually care as much about values or virtue in the past as we claimed. What we always cared most about was safety, security, and prosperity and promoting and defending our own way of life, even at the expense of others. This is all quite natural, of course, and I am not condemning it, per se, from a human perspective. I get it. It is the natural bent of Mankind apart from any kind of supernatural intervention.
But, as Biblical Christians and Evangelicals, we believe that that supernatural intervention DID take place. Jesus, the Son of God, put on flesh and made His dwelling among us. The Incarnation actually happened. God came near and said, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you …” He turned everythig upside-down. He exposed the fallacy of living to promote and defend your own “way of life” and He showed us the beauty and permanency of living in the way of sacrificial love for God and others. He said that if you seek to save your life, you will lose it. But, if you give up your life for Him, you will gain it. He asked, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” The people ultimately rejected all of this and crucified Jesus. In a month, Christians all over America, including Evangelicals, will fill churches to worship the Crucified and Resurrected King. Will we even recognize Him?
When our primary desire is our own self-preservation and not the mission of Jesus to seek and save the lost, we will arrange our personal lives, our churches, our finances, our loves, our relationships, our work, and our politics around that self-preservation. Fear will replace faith because we will know deep down that we cannot really save ourselves. So, we will look to other saviors to do what we cannot do. We will worry and fret and imagine that there are threats everywhere. Peace will evaporate. We will be anxious and angry and will lash out at others. Fear, Anger, and Pride will characterize us rather than Faith, Hope, and Love. If our focus is on ourselves instead of on God and others, we will reap what we sow and will only have ourselves as a resource for living. Recognizing our inability to fix things that seem unfixable, we will then look for scapegoats to blame for our problems and look for messiahs to resuce us from them. James 4:1-10 seems applicable here.
And, it is along these lines that the Civil War will happen – or, at the very least, a separation. Many will go the way of fear and self-preservation. For some, it will look like withdrawal from the world into protective enclaves so they can save themselves. For others, it will look like fighting the world so a Christian view will prevail. They won't necessarily do this out of love for others, but rather, because they want a Christian society for themselves and their children. Some will not bother with withdrawing or fighitng, but they will align with the world because what they most cared about was their own survival and prosperity and they will find it in the larger society. Churches will continue to appeal to these three responses and will adapt to and sanctify these approaches, but they are all just Glory-grabs at self-preservation and they bear little of the Cross-shaped life of Jesus in them.
The other way is the Way of the Cross which recognizes that our life is not our own and we were bought with a price. We are not to promote, protect, or defend ourselves or our own way of life over and above others. We are to receive God's love and then love God and other people sacrificially with the love we have received. We are to see everyone as made in God's image with inherent worth, dignity, and value, and we are not to see them or God as a means to some other end of our own prosperity and happiness. Those who walk in the Way of the Cross will give their burdens and fears to God, will trust Him, and will live with open hands. They will see those in need all around them and intervene to carry their burdens and help them while they point them to Jesus. Instead of fearing others, they will embrace them and love them with the same love that they received from Jesus. Instead of seeking to defend themselves, they will seek to give their lives away for God and others no matter the cost or if it is not safe, because they can imagine no other way to follow Jesus.
This is where the dividing lines are falling, and actually, it is where they have been falling forever. Will we see God as a “means to an end” of pursuing our own success and happiness in this life, which is basically Voodoo Christianity, or will we recognize that God is the end that we seek and His Way is better and we meet Him at the Cross where Jesus was sacrificed outside the camp?
Christianity is not about gaining worldly power and greatness. It is about dying to self and the world and being transformed by the sacrificial love of Jesus so we can be His ambassadors and proclaim and demonstrate that love to the nations that are broken and in need. But, unles we see this and can recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church and the martyrs and of the global missions movement, then we might possibly regain some sense of “greatness” in this world, but we will cease to be good and will ultimately lose our souls in the process.
So, is an Evangelical Civil War coming? I think so, but it might not be violent or full of open conflict. Many leaders and laypeople will continue to call for an embrace of the Cross and the Mission of God. Many others will seek to affirm protection and prosperity. The division might just entail a recognition and splintering and going of separate ways. What is needed for this division to happen is already in place. Sides will be chosen and justifications will be given and they will all seem so appealing. “God loves us and wants us to be blessed,” the argument will go! But, pragmatic appeals to position ourselves for protection and blessing, even at the expense of others, will only serve to reveal what is already in the hearts of man. We gravitate toward what we really want and we are convinced by what we want to be convinced by.
Watch the way that the dividing lines fall over the next 6-18 months. No one wants division, but perhaps it must be this way. I pray that many more will pursue the Way of the Cross instead of the Way of Glory. One leads to life and the other to death. No one automatically walks the Way of the Cross. We are all selfish and broken and sinful and would choose to promote and benefit ourselves at every opportunity. We can only embrace the Cross when God's Spirit moves on us and reveals Himself to us and supernaturally enables us to repent and run to Jesus for the rescue and restoration that we so desperately need.
Which way will you choose? You way or God's way? Which way will the Evangelical Church in America go? We need to pray and live and love others sacrificially – even those, no especially those different from us. Time is short and the opportunity is now. We need a miracle.
For more on what has led us to this point and how we can see God restore and make us new, read When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus. NewSouth Books, 2014.
This book developed out of almost 15 years of research and pastoring in Montgomery, Alabama, the birthplace of the Confederacy and of the Civil Rights Movement. Those two revolutions – one to secure a Way of Life that enslaved a people for the benefit of those in power, and another to set a whole group of people free from oppression – provide the backdrop for the development of a Southern Missiology and social, theological, and even political treatise regarding how the local church can be a “colony of heaven in the country of death” in a way that tells a better story. This better story is of the Cross as a way of life that reconciles all people together in Jesus, no matter their background, culture, race, or nationality. And, the Cross itself ultimately becomes our basis for unity as we recognize that we are all broken and in desperate need of the salvation of Christ.