“Evangelical” is a term that describes a branch of a branch of Christianity, encompassing many denominations and traditions, over hundreds of years. Today, there is a group of ex-evangelicals, calling themselves “Exvangelicals”, whose goal is to undermine this historic tradition of the Church.
Their dispute with evangelicalism is that it is not only false, but harmful. Following their Twitter hashtag, #Exvangelicals, reveals many stories of those who say they have been harmed by the teachings and actions done within evangelical churches and homes.
CBS Religion recently did a story on the movement. The video is only about a half an hour, but paints a fairly clear picture of the Exvangelicals’ gripes with evangelicalism. When you get a moment, go ahead and watch it; its part of a series titled “Deconstructing My Religion” .
Now before we get into the details of this movement, let me just start by saying that this stuff is important because if our youth and children leave the faith, it will be from ideas and attitudes of movements like these. This is not because their arguments are succinct or even logical; but only because they know how to speak the persuasive language of the day. Older people are not swayed by these ridiculous sob stories, but younger people are taught that anyone who claims to be oppressed are indeed victims; victims that society should avenge.
They use words like “shame”, the most egregious sin in our culture. They promote sexual freedom, the most prized idea in our era. And they connect evangelicalism to conservative politics, the most polarizing topic since 2016. The modern Christian would do well to become acquainted with these rhetorical devices of popular culture. If you pay attention, you will see these tactics everywhere.
The Case Against Evangelicalism
The Exvangelicals follow the cultural playbook to demonize Evangelicalism. We start with the “shame” angle. The Exvangelicals bemoan the “shame” and anxiety they experienced in evangelical settings. As we will see, their shame is typically regarding Christian sexual morals.
Most people realize the benefits of shame — for instructing children, maintaining civility in culture, or to just convict someone of their guilt (I assume we would want a pedophile, for example, to feel shame about his feelings). And most of us understand the inherent nature of shame — that it is part of the human psyche to experience a break from positive feelings in response to one’s actions. Being unable to understand and respond to the consequences of your actions is the legal definition of insanity.
But today, to “shame” someone by disagreeing with their lifestyle is xenophobic, intolerant, and damaging to their mental well-being. You are supposed to accept everyone and every lifestyle as though all are good.
It is obvious why these people take such offense to evangelical Christianity. The evangelical tradition was born in the 17th century as a movement against nominal Christians who were only affiliated with the Church through family or region. The early evangelicals implored Christians to seek a “true religion”, where one’s lifestyle is deeply affected by one’s beliefs, and vice versa. The very essence of Christ’s evangelism was to “turn from your sin”1, even at the expense of one’s shame.
The Exvangelicals will cry “the shame I experienced is hurtful and damaging!” Well, I would agree that shame never feels good. And I am sure that there are a number of Christians who utilize shame in a tyrannical way. But this is not Christianity. The Christian view of shame is that it is indeed a teacher, but that we are imparted with the righteousness of Christ2 and therefore our value and worth as individuals is not diminished by our failure to keep moral standards.
Now I don’t imagine that the Exvangelicals felt shameful because they told a lie, or stole a pencil, or said a bad word. We know what they feel shame about: sexual morals. Stage two of the cultural playbook is to appeal to sexual freedom, and how oppressive it is to be told you should only have sex in a marriage relationship. Here is a description from Exvangelical Linda Kay Klein:
NARRATOR: While not all women raised in the evangelical movement find “purity culture” problematic, Klein found the culture toxic. Even after she left (Evangelicalism), she felt intense shame when it came to sex.
KLEIN: This manifested, for me, most poignantly, when I was in my early 20s, and I was with a boyfriend who I really loved, and I was ready to express my love for him in a physical way. And yet every time we got even close to having sex, I would break down into tears; I would end up — I have eczema, and my eczema comes out when I get stressed, so my eczema would be coming out, and I would be scratching myself until I bled, and I would end up in a ball in the corner of the bed.
It seems as though Exvangelicals wished their parents and pastors had made them feel good about sleeping around with people that are not their spouses. They probably wished their churches were more hip to modern sexual norms. They would probably re-enroll themselves in evangelicalism if only Christianity were on board with a sexual revolution that has led to lowering rates of marriage and high rates of STDs (costing the US $17 billion a year); a sexual revolution that aborts 2000 children daily (mostly for convenience), has made single parent homes prevalent, and porn use that accounts for 30% of all Internet traffic. But alas, Christians have too prudish an outlook on human sexuality for these enlightened souls. And this is the Church’s downfall at the moment. A culture that values sexual freedom above all else will never acquire a taste for Christian chastity.
Lastly, these activists employ the tactic of connecting evangelicalism with President Trump, perhaps the most hated man on earth. Its no secret that many evangelicals are the reason that Donald Trump was voted into office. The Exvangelicals would have you believe we voted for him so we can implement some sort of theocracy; or perpetuate white patriarchal society. But this shows just how uninformed these people are regarding Christians and Donald Trump. Here is Exvangelical, Blake Chastain, on how Christians voting for Trump hurt them…again!
One of things that I’ve seen in our community is, people, sort of — even if they left a long time ago, even if the left evangelicalism a long time ago, they were shocked, and in a lot of ways hurt again, by feeling like they were betrayed by a group of people and a society that helped form their moral ethic in a very profound way.
To see them sacrifice all of that supposed moralism for such a blatant power grab is devastating, and it made me very, very angry. It made me angry because, here I am trying to piece things together, one way or another, and trying to understand what’s my background and where I’m going from here.
First of all, I can’t tell exactly what he is trying to say, so I am going to have to construe a bit. It sounds like he is saying that Christians voting for Donald Trump hurt the former evangelicals because somehow evangelicalism still holds a place in their heart and that place was betrayed because Trump is such a bad guy???
The part I did understand is that Blake believes Christians voted for Trump because we want power. Again, they obviously do not understand the political dynamic within most Christians regarding Donald Trump. There are many things that President Trump does that embarrasses a Christian who voted for him in 2016. But it is not enough to keep us from voting for him again in 2020. That’s because he is demonstrably for religious freedom. He has been the most firm president in reacting to the gender identity nonsense that poisons our culture. And he has shown a commitment to protecting the unborn. Did you actually think that a Christian could vote for the party that is infatuated with killing unborn children at all costs? A party that uses tax-payer money to push transgenderism on children? A party that wants Christians to deny their deeply held moral convictions? You must be joking.
The evangelical movement is one born out of deep conviction, and its obvious that these ex-evangelicals do not have that conviction. That’s good for them. But do not be misled by their admission that they are a “support group” for those who have been hurt by the Church. These folks are activists, through and through, who want to bring shame to Christianity (ironic, isn’t it?). Chris Stroop, an Exvangelical that also complains about Christian schools, created an additional hashtag that makes it clear what their goal is: #EmptyThePews
There may be patterns of abuse in certain evangelical circles, which is awful. Religion has often been used with immoral intentions. True evangelicalism has always been a call for Christian devotion to Christ and his teachings. The Evangelical movement, starting in roughly the 17th century, is a broad collection of denominations and Church traditions that aimed to strengthen personal commitments to Christ by a definitive conversion, holy living, and a reverence for Scripture. Starting with English movements like Pietism and Puritanism, and following the likes of John Wesley and George Whitefield, evangelicalism called Christians to use their individual abilities to do God’s work, even as the world was quickly operating at larger commercial and political scales.
In an article for Christianity Today, Bruce Hindmarsh expounds on the spread of evangelicalism throughout the centuries:
The new “evangelicalism” (though this word was not yet used) evident in this spiritual awakening was international and interdenominational, characterized by focus on “true religion” over against nominal affiliation to church establishments and a religion of law and custom. Moreover, the evangelical movement had the mobility and democratic appeal of its modernizing context, gaining many adherents through itinerant preaching in open public spaces. Across this whole region, evangelical devotion centered on Christ’s atoning death and the necessity of personal conversion, drawing laypeople into practices of Bible reading, small-group fellowship, extempore prayer, personal testimony and hymn singing—all of which have remained central to evangelicalism throughout its history.
He quotes J.I. Packer and David Bebbington’s description of the tenets of evangelicalism:
Is there a doctrinal core to evangelicalism? Historians and theologians have sought to bring some sharper definition by trying to determine distinctive, universally shared characteristics. This can be done from inside, as it were, by an evangelical theologian such as J. I. Packer, who writes from conviction about what evangelicalism ought to be, or from outside, by a historian such as David Bebbington, who though a self-identified evangelical describes from a more empirical point of view what it seems the movement is. Packer identifies a syllabus of ten doctrinal convictions that ought to characterize evangelicals, such as Scripture’s authority, Christ’s supremacy as Savior and Lord, humans ruined and lost state in sin, and the necessity of faith and holiness; these convictions overlap considerably with what the historian observes. In practice, Bebbington argues, four particulars have distinctively characterized evangelicals throughout their history: emphasis on personal conversion, the Bible, the cross of Christ, and active Christian service. While evangelicals are orthodox, Nicene Christians with a Protestant heritage like that of many other Christians, these four characteristics together set them apart and hold them together as a movement through time and change.
It’s a great article on this history of the Evangelical movement; read the whole thing.
These characteristics of Evangelicalism are perhaps a concise definition of what is needed in modern Christianity. In contrast to the Exvangelicals point of view, we need more of evangelicalism. We need communities that are dedicated to Christ, his mission, and his way of life. We don’t need spiritually passive people who will give up on holy living and then cry about it on national television.
If you are reading this, I implore you to dig deeper into your community of faith. Bind more tightly to the people and the practices of your church. Live out your faith more expressly. Witness and serve those of your church, family, and friends first. If you are willing, able, and called to be a street evangelizer, by all means, pound the pavement. But if not, pour your life into the lives of your brothers and sisters. Serve the people of your local Christian community with fervency.