Sometimes you leave before you know you’ve gone.
Sometimes you’re still there, and you think you’ve left.
I’ve spent a lot of time this summer processing “being evangelical,” and being “ex-evangelical” or “post-evangelical.” I’ve gnawed on the evangelical church like you gnaw on any break-up – your brain flipping back and forth between rose colored glasses and imagining TPing their apartment.
I’ll probably always have strong feelings about the evangelical church. Some losses are like broken bones that never really totally heal – they set improperly, and you learn to walk with a bit of a limp and feel the ache when a thunderstorm is coming in.
I’ve gnawed on that grief this summer, mourning Eugene Peterson and raging at the Nashville Statement. I’ve processed the loss of trust, the hypocrisy of a Church that told me that only the Gospel mattered, and then snuck in a bunch of fine-print clauses at the end. I’ve wrestled with being betrayed by a community that talked a big talk about saved-by-grace-alone, and then tacked sloppy works-righteousness on to their statements of faith. I thought I was leaving evangelicalism this summer.
But I think I left awhile ago.
I think I left in March 2014.
In March 2014, World Vision changed their policy to one that accepted committed gay Christians couples as employees. And then 48 hours later, they changed it back.
I think that was the day something broke for me. I think that was when I left.
Three years ago, Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision, released a statement about the decision hire gay folk. It’s worth reading this whole article from Christianity Today again. Stearns announced that the decision wasn’t a theological statement supporting gay marriage, just an acknowledgment that good Christians theologically disagree, and that it was best left to churches under the authority of their denomination, not a inter-denominational non-profit like World Vision claimed to be.
“This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We’re an operational arm of the global church, we’re not a theological arm of the church.”
Stearns was wrestling with the big ecumenical question – when we disagree, can we still love the world together? Can we unite around the Table, brothers and sisters with intense theological disagreements, and affirm that orthodox Christianity is not defined by ethics or our differences on issues of bodies and eating and drinking but by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? If our differences are so extreme that we can’t worship together in one church building, can we at least serve together as the global Church united by Christ and Christ alone?
Richard Stearns thought so.
“Denominations disagree on many, many things: on divorce and remarriage, modes of baptism, women in leadership roles in the church, beliefs on evolution, etc. So our practice has always been to defer to the authority and autonomy of local churches and denominational bodies on matters of doctrine that go beyond the Apostles’ Creed and our statement of faith. We unite around our [Trinitarian beliefs], and we have always deferred to the local church on these other matters.”¹
In March 2014, I was thrilled. I posted on Facebook about my delight that another organization had decided to emphasize unity over division. I was so positive, so excited, so hopeful about the future of evangelicalism that World Vision was leading us towards.
“The issue is not whether this is right or wrong, but how we as a Church live into unity and ecumenical practice when large portions of the Church are in disagreement about really important issues of morality… We don’t need to agree to do Kingdom work together in the world.“
Laura-From-2014 was real hopeful.
What happened next, y’all know. Thousands of evangelicals (approximately 3,500) began to call in and withdraw their support of their sponsored kid. People with pictures of little kids on their fridge, who had been sending money and letters and support for years – called and cancelled their relationship with a child, because somewhere in a California office, a financial manager at World Vision might be gay.
Stearn had said that he hoped we could put aside our differences on ethical issues and put aside the culture wars so that we could serve the poor together.
White American Evangelicals decisively said that they had no interest in putting aside the culture wars in order to love the least of these.
White American Evangelicals would literally allow children to starve, kids that they knew the name of, kids that they had written letters to, before they’d stop hating gay folk.
That was the day that we should have seen Trump coming.
World Vision changed their policy back to non-affirming, 2 days later.
They lost too many sponsors.
Too many kids lost their funding.
Too many kids were going to die, because white evangelicals in America couldn’t work side by side with Christian brothers and sisters that they disagreed with.
I was making a stir-fry in my new kitchen in Atlanta, chopping mushrooms and onions, computer opened on the counter for music and Facebook and news sites. I think I saw the news of the reversal on Rachel Held Evans’ page first.
It felt like something broke. I remember having to sit down on the floor in the kitchen, back up against the cabinets, holding on to my laptop. I cried so hard that my throat hurt the next day.
It’s only when I look back that I know what happened – that this was going to be the last time I would cry for my evangelicals. I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know that after that, I would always be a little bit cynical about the church that raised me.
I always kind of thought that I could be a queer progressive evangelical Christian, and there would be home for me. But in March 2014, I started to guess that there would always be a “purity test.” And that test would never simply be the Gospel.
I didn’t have any of that clarity in 2014, though. Just dull heartbreak without words. I got back up on the horse pretty quickly, and told everyone that I was recommitting to the progressive evangelical project, and that this was just a minor setback, and that the arch of history of evangelicals bends towards justice.
And then Trump happened, and my anger wasn’t because America wanted Trump, but because white evangelicals wanted Trump, and because that was when I started to know what had been true for awhile.
I wasn’t evangelical anymore.
When I go back and re-read what I wrote on Facebook about World Vision and my passion for the Church to be unified despite our differences, my heart still says amen and amen and amen.
But now I know, after World Vision, after Eugene Peterson, and after the Nashville Statement declaring that all those with different views on sexuality are simply Not Christian – I know for sure that I’ll never find that unity in the simple Gospel in the evangelical church.
But guess what, evangelicals?
What I wrote in December is still true. I still bought everything you taught me. I still am willing to stake my life on it.
I’m just doing it with with you anymore.
You told me the Gospel was worth dying for. But just because you aren’t going to die for it doesn’t mean that I think you’re wrong. You’re hypocrites, but whether through good motives or bad, Christ was preached. The Gospel is stronger than your weakness. Jesus is bigger than your failure to follow Him.
And I’m gonna find Him in the rest of the Church, because even though you want to pretend that you’re the only “true” Christians, the Christian Church is richer and more raw and more diverse. The Church is Dietrich Bonhoeffer dying in a concentration camp fighting Nazis in Germany. It’s Dorothy Day resisting Christian Empire, supporting conscientious objectors, and living with the “unworthy poor” in the city. It’s Martin Luther King Jr quoting Isaiah in the face of murder campaigns from his own government. It’s Julian of Norwich, retelling her vision that “Love is the Lord’s meaning,” and telling it even “though I am a woman.” It’s Bree Newsome reciting Psalm 27 while she climbed the flagpole to rip down the Confederate flag in South Carolina. It’s Martin Luther disinterested in impressing the gatekeepers and ones who made holiness something that could be bought and sold because his “conscience was captive to the Word of God.”
The Gospel isn’t held captive to the fundamentalists and the evangelicals and the television preachers and the white supremacists and colonialists and gentrifiers and faith healers and everyone who thinks that Jesus would drop bombs.
As the evangelicals first told me – He’s not a tame Lion.
Y’all were right.
So what does it mean to leave fundamentalism, and to leave the evangelicals, and to find Jesus? What does it look like to leave your church and stay in the Church?
How do you tend wounds from Bible verses swung like swords? Can you tend them with other Bible verses, or does your skin still crawl from remembering the blood that was drawn from those old weapons?
How do we feel the heat of Pentecost as the flames that baptize the outsiders and open the mouths that have been silenced, when you grew up learning that the Holy Spirit only came to the leaders and the organized and the ones with degrees and of course, the men, always the men.
How do we see Jesus, fierce and Outside all the kingdoms of this earth and the kingdoms of religion, even His own religion, and see Him walk into a house of worship and break everything that smacked of power, empire, money, oppression – literally breaking the tools and tables and cash registers of people who had all the right degrees but none of the heart for the Good News; how do we see that Jesus, when we grew up buying WWJD? bracelets from Christian bookstores that shut out dissenting voices while glorifying capitalism, consumerism, and Christian Empire?
Oh, my Pentecostal is showing, because I want to fall to my knees and beg the covenant God to pour down fresh wind and fresh fire on a dying Church that has put down rotten roots into the toxic soil of nationalism and legalism and made an unholy covenant with “all the kingdoms of this world and their splendor.”
But the evangelicals don’t own the Holy Spirit, either. And so I will, always, keep falling to my knees. Because I think, in the end, that’s all we can do. Because, in the end, it is His church, not ours. And the gates of Hell won’t overcome it.
So bye, y’all. To the Twitter “farewellers” who so casually shut the door on everyone who reads the Bible differently from them; to the gatekeepers standing outside the city shooing us away because our boots are muddy; to the theological kings who sit on exegetical thrones and pass down pronouncements on the people “too heavy for them to bear:” farewell back atcha, friends.
You pointed me to Jesus, and for that: thank you.
But I’m gathering up my bags and heading out.
I’ll send you a postcard from the wilderness.