Evangelicalism: Beyond the Culture Wars

Preston Sprinkle —  April 7, 2014 — 5 Comments

The evangelical world has flown into turbulent skies over the last few months. From Phil Robertson to bakeries in Arizona, and more recently the World Vision debacle. Evangelicals are facing a potential fork in the road in how they think through homosexuality. Then there’s the never dying debates about spiritual gifts, women in ministry, and the timing of future things. Worship wars. Doctrinal disputes. Young leaders improving on old methods; old leaders suspicious of new methods. House churches ditching the whole “institutional” church. An unforeseen flight of young Protestants to the Orthodox and Catholic churches. And the massive growth of Christianity in the majority world.

If I were a prophet, I’d predict a major divide in evangelicalism in the near future, one which would rival the split between fundamentalists and moderates in the early 20th century. In the one corner, we have a millennial, internet-savvy, social media driven, post-9/11 brand of Christianity that’s seeking authenticity, justice, and community. In the other corner, we have baby boomer Christian leaders, whose theology was forged in the caldrons of the Cold War era, where debates about the rapture, sign-gifts, and the rise of post-modernism formed a church’s identity.

One version of evangelicals define themselves by what they’re against; the other by what they are for. One group elevates truth; the other, love. One seeks authenticity and community; the other races to Bible studies and marriage seminars. One will divide over eschatology; the other over homosexuality.

We are facing a split. A growing chasm that will spawn two distinct versions of evangelical thought.

As I reflect on this inevitable divide, here’s my challenge to both sides:

1. Be Biblical. Don’t just blindly rehearse inherited presuppositions, and don’t base your theology as a reaction to your inherited presuppositions. Neither inherited theology nor reactionary theology is good enough. We are Protestants; we believe in the authority of the text. We value fresh exegesis and letting the text critique our theology. We don’t bend the text around our theology, but our theology around the text—even if we don’t like it. Head in SandWe cannot debate this doctrine or critique that theology with a closed Bible. We desperately need to root, and re-root, our 21st century theology in the actual text, and not some vague inherited notion of being biblical—without knowing the relevant chapter and verse, and being able to identity and articulate the strongest argument against our view. Search it out. Study with blood, sweat, and calloused knees. Be biblical. Root your theology in the actual text of Scripture.

2. Be humble. We believe in absolute truth. Absolutely! But such truth is harnessed and understood through fallible human interpretation. So be humble. Work your exegetical minds to the skull, but be humble in your conclusions. You may be right. You probably are (if your conclusions are backed by solid exegetical evidence). But recognize that you are human and you therefore might be wrong. And that’s okay. God is right. God is mysterious. God is beyond us, and He is always right. We are sometimes wrong. We are wrong more than we think. Much more. Our beliefs are clouded by presuppositions, cultural baggage, unexamined assumptions, and experiences that fog up our interpretive lenses. So be humble.

3. Seek truth and practice. That is, seek to live out and love out the truth you say you believe in. The world—and the evangelical left—is passionately unimpressed with unpracticed doctrines. Truth is validated and confirmed through doing it. So be biblical. Stay humble. And do it. Live out what you say you believe. For example, more than 2,000 passages in the Bible lambast the misuse of wealth, and only 6 address homosexuality. Align your values accordingly. Don’t be a stingy gay-hater, for this is not Christian. Become a Jesus follower who serves people who are attracted to the same sex. God served you when you when you were serving yourself—and idols. I don’t care if you are pre-millenial, post-millenial, or amillenial. Do you love the poor? Are you radically generous? Are you submissive, humble, and eager to love your enemies? Do these, and then I will know that you are a follower of the crucified and risen Lamb.

4. Study hard. I don’t say this because I’m an educator, but because the next generation of seekers are also thinkers. They ask hard questions and they get irritated at pre-packaged answers. With the rise (or world domination of) the internet, people have access to piles and piles of information. The anti-intellectual, Jesus-and-me, don’t-think-but-only-obey version of Christianity isn’t going to work with the 21st century generation. We need to think deeply and critically about sexuality, epistemology, science, and ethics. And if you don’t know what epistemology means, you need to. We need to think. We need to pull our heads from the sand and shed the stereotype that Christians have their heads in the sand. We need to think, interact, debate, and believe with our God-given minds the beautiful story about a God born in a manger. Millennials are asking very hard questions; recycled answers won’t work any longer. And we need to prove the truth we believe in not only with logical arguments—though we will always need these—but with an unarguable life that lives out the truth we say we believe in.

Let’s press on and obey and imitate the crucified and risen King, who pulled us into a beautiful story about a loving God who sought and saved the lost.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Phyte_On

    I’m no prophet either but here’s my prediction:

    1) Evangelicalism is cracking up. That’s for sure. But I’m not sure it will divide into 2 camps. I think it will become more tribal, smaller multiple communities.

    2) Evangelicalism will be marginalized by significant loss of 1st Amendment liberties over the next 5 to 10 years. The public square will not allow openness of Christian faith. Christianity will be increasingly seen as pathological (some of it self-inflicted by the church) in American culture. This will contribute to more tribal, smaller communities.

    3) I do think many Evangelicals will drop out of the political arena and culture war. This may be a good thing. (many evangelical baby-boomers will give up and recognize that politics is a lost cause – they lost the culture war – and will abandon the battle, tired and weary).

    4) The future leadership and governance will be handed over to the millennial generation a lot sooner than they expected. Evangelical boomers will cut bait and enter into their retirement years recognizing that their paradigm failed. They will accept this and move on with their lives.

    5) There are some economic realities that will accelerate #4 above.

    Save this in a time capsule and open up in about 5 years. It won’t take long for this paradigm shift to take place.

    That is my prediction.

  • Matthew Halsted

    “Our beliefs are clouded by presuppositions, cultural baggage, unexamined assumptions, and experiences that fog up our interpretive lenses.”

    Word. Sometimes when you look at distant planets through telescopes, you’ll see a land feature–only to discover it was a smudge on your lense. We do this with car wrecks and texts. You can’t read a text without doing so from a particular vantage point anymore than you can witness a car wreck without seeing it from some particular angle. Nobody has a “god’s-eye-view” of reality (except God, of course). We earthlings need hermeneutical humility, since we only “know in part”… but for a bag of bones, we sure can be an arrogant bunch.

  • Shawn Matthew

    First off, thanks for your many posts on homosexuality. They have challenged me to love better. I also appreciate the way you have been going about tackling the topic and discovering what Scripture says (and does not say).

    I hope this post isn’t too long. I rarely comment on blog posts, but for some reason this morning I felt like writing my thoughts.

    Okay—so, I definitely see how a new divide could be coming to evangelicalism. I’m only 21, and have only been a Christian for five years, but I have been on quite a theological/tribe roller coaster in these short years. From reading books by Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, etc. to getting caught up in the kingdom-now Bill Johnson/Bethel Church/signs and wonders movement, to now a Calvinist understanding (soteriology), along with a strong commitment to continuationism and in regards to eschatology, historic premillenialism (not dispensationalism). Labels aside (they stink, but are so useful sometimes), I like to think that I got serious about taking the Bible serious and have found myself within historic orthodoxy. I recognize Arminianism, cessationism, and pre, post, and a-millenialism, as within orthodoxy. I can find common ground with people ranging from IHOP-KC (in regards to eschatology and gifts) to Doug Wilson, Al Mohler, etc. etc. in regards to soteriology. I feel like Sam Storms sometimes, who has expressed that his two closest friends are Mike Bickle and John Piper. Neither side of the spectrum really thinks I fully belong. And that’s okay.

    All of that to say that I’ve experienced different tribes and theologies. And I guess my main misunderstanding with this post (or disagreement), is separating by generation/age/etc. From what I’ve witnessed, I don’t see a clear generational divide. When I think of the millenials who desire community and justice… I see one side, like A29 church planters, Mars Hill, Radical Network, Multiply, etc. who look up to many baby boomers like Al Mohler and John Piper. I also see another side of millenials who desire community and justice, like Rachel Held Evans and Shane Claiborne, who look up to baby boomers like Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren.

    Alls to say, I see the divide over the issues—not generations, and yes, it is apparent with a lot of recent events that homosexuality is one of the major issues. But I think deeper than the divide over homosexuality, is really the divide over interpretation and authority of Scripture. Perhaps my friends and I just have a not so common view, and we are an anomaly in the millennial generation. But that hasn’t been my experience. I’ve had to navigate through my own generation’s divide over these issues.

    • Preston

      Really quick, you’re right. It’s not purely generational, even if it is largely, or mostly, generational. I was going to adjust this as I was editing the blog, but I ran out of bandwidth and just decided to post it as it.

      So, thanks for pointing it out! I’d still say that the “ways of thinking” were forged by different generations, even if those who hold to the different ways of thinking aren’t necessarily from those generations.

      Make sense?

      • Shawn Matthew

        Yup! Thanks for the response.