Monday, January 23, 2006
American evangelicalism on the downgrade
However, with the birth of a new kind of political freedom in the nation of the United States of America came a new kind of thinking. With no king and no nobility, the USA saw itself as an egalitarian, classless society in which anyone with sufficient talent and ambition could lift himself up by his own bootstraps. Whereas past generations in the Old World had largely accepted the individual's lot in life as being ordained by God, the people of this new nation came to think of themselves as being free to choose their own destiny. They were free: free not only from the tyranny of the king, but free also from the tyrannies of class and birth.
Little wonder, then, that the 19th Century evangelicals saw an explosion in the popularity of the old doctrine of Arminianism. This doctrine had been around for centuries, first under the name of semi-Pelagianism, later under the name of its Dutch proponent Jacob Arminius, and saw growth in popularity through the influence of John Wesley and his Methodists, but it was in America that Arminianism rapidly overtook Calvinism as the "majority report" amongst evangelicals. In contrast to Calvinism's emphasis on the sovereignty of God over all aspects of man's salvation, Arminianism taught that Christ died to make salvation for all men possible, but left it up to man's free will to decide whether or not to appropriate His saving work for himself. Although God's grace was seen as essential, it was man's decision that determined whether or not he was to be saved or damned. All things considered, the teaching of Arminianism was admirably well-suited for the new American philosophy.
So, it is little wonder that Arminianism has maintained its near-total sway over American evangelicalism ever since. Whereas earlier Arminians such as John Wesley retained much of the God-centered emphasis of their Calvinist contemporaries, American Arminianism has steadily evolved into a form that places nearly total emphasis on man. In place of the Reformed and Lutheran preaching of both Law and Gospel, evangelicalism now tells the world that "God loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life," placing little or no emphasis on the minor matter of sin. Although this watered-down gospel brings countless thousands into church every Sunday, it is also true that only a small fraction of the converts won by it stick around those churches very long. The percentage of "decisions for Christ" that persevere in the Christian faith is woefully small.
What with a doctrinal foundation that's an excellent match with the prevailing world philosophy, it ought not be surprising that much of the evangelical church bears a close resemblance to the world insofar as human roles and relationships are concerned. In such churches, fewer and fewer men outside the senior pastorate seem to be motivated to take on leadership positions. In order to fill the vacuum, women are taking on many ministry roles which historically had been held by men alone. Whereas Paul exhorted Timothy to not let a woman teach a man, and taught that an elder (aka pastor) ought to be the husband of one wife, today's church is filled with women teachers and pastors. Instead of waiting to discuss theological matters with her husband at home, today's evangelical woman is not only freely participating in such discussions with men, she is also often teaching the men. The great apostle would see little resemblance between the church order he taught and the order we see today.
Although much could be said to explain how this shift towards egalitarianism in the evangelical church took place, I'd simply like to make one simple point: the church is not to be led by the philosophy of the world. Instead, the church ought to order its affairs based on one source: the Scriptures. The plain fact is this: the Scriptures do speak regarding human roles and relationships. They are far from silent! In both testaments, God took pains to reveal to us His will for His church and the Christian family, but yet American evangelicalism has persistently refused to hear what He has to say. Instead of obedience to Scripture, it has repeatedly chosen to conform itself to the world, doing this or that not because God said to do it, but because it seems to work.
My friend, pragmatism rather than Scripture has been the rule of a growing portion of American evangelicalism for over two centuries, and has nearly taken over every church that claims to be evangelical. Little wonder that some are warning that we are presently in the midst of a spiritual downgrade far worse than that which Spurgeon so eloquently preached against a century ago. If you find yourself in a church that is more beholden to the felt needs of man than the Word of God, I urge you to search the Scriptures and seek out a sound Bible-preaching church that puts the focus on God where it belongs! Even if you have to drive an hour each way to attend services, your spiritual life may depend upon it. Put aside your drive for happiness and fulfillment, and make it a priority to seek to learn and do what is pleasing to God. The downgrade which we see is severe, but yet God continues to cultivate a remnant. Do not be mistaken by the apparent success of today's megachurches: true spiritual life continues to be found only where God is central and the Scriptures are diligently preached.