Iwas raised, as perhaps you were, in a hard-edged reli- gion. Right was right, wrong was wrong. “Comprom- ise” was an evil word, and “liberal” was applied, well,
liberally to everything and everyone we weren’t.
As Sunday School tots we cheerily announced our bi-
nary view of the world. “One door and only one / And yet
its sides are two. / I’m on the inside, / On which side are
you?” As youth, we learned sex was strictly for married life
(thus launching all of us into casuistry, a word we never
heard, regarding “how far was too far”). As Bible school
students we learned the Four Spiritual Laws, or Steps to
Peace with God, or the Bridge illustration, each of which
made it starkly clear that you were either “saved or lost.”
If you were lost, you had better come to Jesus, “the Way,
the Truth, and the Life.”
And – oh, yes – we knew the scriptural reference: John
14: 6. We knew lots of Bible verses, and lots of Scripture
references, and the books of the Bible in the correct order,
and the Ten Commandments, and the Beatitudes, and
much, much more. Over yonder among the Christian Re-
formed and the serious Lutherans and Presbyterians, they
also knew their catechisms. (We Brethren didn’t know
what a catechism was, but it sounded Catholic and was
The jokes and ironies abounded about “growing up born
again.” We would avoid sex because it might lead to social
dancing. We wouldn’t use the devil’s playing cards, or sing
the devil’s music, but we would play Rook and support
the many Christian knockoffs of rock and pop. And so on.
So silly. So extreme. And now, outside a few tiny enclaves, it’s all gone with the wind.
Now we have kids growing up in evangelical churches
– the best churches, not just the worst – who would have
trouble confidently providing a reference for any biblical
quotation at all. Now we have many (most?) of our youth
not conferring secretly about how far is too far, but about
whether to have an abortion or how to tell their fiancé(e)s
about their sexual history.
And we have churches full of adults who couldn’t
present the gospel coherently and briefly to a friend or
neighbour if they had a gun to their head or a willing soul
at the kitchen table.
Those nice people in those other religions, or my
friends who profess no religion at all but call themselves
How Firm a Foundation?
evangelicals used to be notoriously hard.
have we become inoffensively soft?
“spiritual” – surely they’re not going to hell. How can there
even be a hell, really, given the goodness of God? So there
Those nice people having sex outside marriage. Surely
they love each other, and God’s all about love, right? So
that’s that. Welcome aboard!
After all, doesn’t it say in the Bible – somewhere – that
God is love, and we shouldn’t judge, and justice and compassion are what really matters, and we’re all forgiven anyway?
So church discipline now smacks of mere social control. Bible memorization is as passé as any other kind
of memorization. Evangelistic formulas are mocked as
simplistic, while even more reductionistic propositions
(such as, “We’re all children of God” or “God made me,
and He doesn’t make junk”) take their place.
We’ve seen all this before – liberal Christianity in the
mainline denominations a half-century or so ago. They
reacted against what they saw to be the excessive hardness of their tradition by opting for increasingly flexible
softness. And we contemporary Evangelicals are following
nicely in their train.
The right response to rigidity is not pliancy. The right
response is firmness. And variable firmness, exercising
good judgement about what can be cheerfully enjoyed as
creative diversity, or prudently tolerated as legitimate difference of opinion, or fervently proclaimed as the gospel,
or fiercely opposed as sin.
We all, of course, think we’re already making just the
right judgements about what belongs in what category.
We’re all in favour of appropriate firmness.
The evidence against us Evangelicals, however, is growing as core teachings – the reality of hell, the narrow scope
of legitimate sex, the exclusivity of salvation through Jesus
Christ – are all in play.
We need better teaching and preaching to help us discern what belongs in what category. We need a greater
determination to seek God to do what He wants, rather
than just to get Him to do what we want Him to. We need
to decide whether we actually are sinners who can be
deeply wrong even about our strongest moral and intellectual intuitions. Or if, like liberals, we think the best of
contemporary reason and experience can be relied upon
to guide our religion.
We needed to escape our excessive hardness, yes. But
we’ve come a long way fast – too far, in fact, and now
should pause to reconsider our path. FT
JOHn STACKHOUSe teaches at Regent College. his
latest book is Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of
Christian Epistemology (Oxford, 2014).
Christ&CultureInCanada n BY JOhn G. s TACKhOUse JR.