Saturday, November 29, 2014

What will and will not get you "farewelled" from Evangelicalism - A Primer

My title and post are a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it was inspired by a rather heated conversation online I was involved in about a month ago. Christian writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece on why she would not sacrifice her child as Abraham (but for Divine intervention) did. 

This caused a great bit of uproar around the Evangelical world, and led to some highly critical posts about her. I personally found a lot to identify with in her post - particularly her honesty about the fact that, throughout recorded history, Christians have always brought baggage to our interpretation of Scripture. As she put it:

“It is intellectually dishonest to say Christians make moral judgment calls based on Scripture alone. Conscience, instinct, experience, culture, relationships—all of these things (and more) play important roles in how we assess right from wrong.”

It doesn’t take much study of Church history to see that things do and have changed as our understanding of the world and of ethics change. Still, this was an unforgivable error to many within Evangelicalism.

In any case, one blogger, who I had never heard of previously, wrote a post entitled “Farewell, Rachel Held Evans.” (The post was later removed, and the author apologised for its tone, particular the use of “girl” to describe RHE.) A friend of mine posted the “farewell,” and a rather heated discussion ensued. In fact, some people said some things that weren’t exactly civil, and some friendships were terminated as a result.

This is obviously serious business in my tribe, and one that - to be blunt - has a significant generational divide. (At least in this discussion.)

What’s up with this “farewell” business? What does it mean? And what gets you “farewelled”?

Here is a bit of background:

John Piper and “Farewell”

Unless one has been inside the Evangelical “compound,” it is a bit hard to explain the nuances of a “farewell.”

The term was popularized by Calvinist luminary John Piper, and seems to have been picked up by others within the neo-Calvinist movement. (Not knocking all Calvinists. Most Calvinist laymen are decent people. My relative-by-marriage Todd Billings is a professor and Calvinist theologian. He also lacks the arrogance and empathy deficit that seem endemic to the most visible neo-Calvinists. You can read some of his stuff in Christianity Today - or buy one of his books. If more Calvinist luminaries were like him, the world would be a better place.)

Although Calvinists seem the most fond of “farewelling,” it seems to be something picked up by many in the conservative wing of Evangelicalism.

So, what is it? The best definition I found is on The Dictionary of Christianese, which is a useful site for understanding the Evangelical lexicon.

“To publicly declare that someone no longer adheres to orthodox Christian doctrine; to publicly declare that someone is no longer part of the church or is no longer part of the evangelical community.”

So, basically, it is - whatever people may claim when they defend it - is a declaration that a person is a heretic (in the loose sense) and that their salvation is in great doubt. Do not believe someone when they try to sugarcoat it. This isn’t a statement of disagreement, but as close as one can get in Protestantism to an ex-communication. Or perhaps, it is the christianese way of saying "go to hell." Literally. (Hey, it rhymes...)

To “farewell” is to indicate that the person is no longer in the faith.

John Piper - more about him later - got it started, but it has now become fashionable to use the term. I would submit that the blogger “farewelling” RHE very clearly intended to imitate Piper. And also that he clearly intended to dismiss her from the faith.

“Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Authority of the Scriptures”

This is the corollary. These exact words were used by one of the defenders of the “farewell” blogger’s position in our heated facebook discussion.

A person like RHE is accused of denying the “inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the Scriptures” for taking certain theological positions.

The issue isn’t - for the farewellers - a matter of interpretation. The other person hasn’t gotten a disputed issue wrong. Rather, in the fareweller’s view, the Bible is crystal clear about whatever it is, and the other person just wants to disobey God and thus is rejecting the plain teaching of the scripture.

One would think, therefore, that “farewells” would involve undisputed, core doctrines of the faith, such as the deity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, or one of the other doctrines contained in our oldest creeds. One would particularly expect that a “farewell” wouldn’t be used on a secondary issue, about which Christians have historically disagreed. But not so much. 

Therefore, here is my Primer on what will and will not get you “farewelled.”

Throughout, I am focusing on the statements of leadership, not the rank and file, and I have cherry picked the best examples (in my opinion) on each side.

What WILL Get You Farewelled

  1. Be open to postmortem repentance (Rob Bell)

This was the original, the granddaddy of them all. Rob Bell wrote a book (disclosure: I haven’t read it) entitled Love Wins, wherein he expressed a belief different from the Fundamentalist view of eternal damnation. Among other things, he opined that one may have the opportunity to repent after death, and flirted with a universalist view of eternity.

Now, I know this is a serious disagreement with traditional Evangelical doctrine - particularly with Fundamentalist doctrine - which isn’t quite the same thing. However, it is disingenuous to claim that it is out of line with the mainstream of Christian thought throughout the last two millennia.

At minimum, one might mention the history of Christianity before the Protestant Reformation, and the doctrine of purgatory. I’m not a Catholic, so I don’t share this belief, but it bears mentioning. I would also note that it has been a significant area of dispute throughout church history, and that our conception of it draws not so much from the limited mentions in scripture, but from the Greek myths and Dante’s great work. [insert link]. An analysis of this is beyond the scope of this post, but I would highly recommend researching the different views and the history of the belief. At minimum, it reveals that this isn’t one of the core, undisputed, fundamentals of the faith.

However, there is perhaps an even better example. C. S. Lewis is generally beloved by Evangelicals (and others), and most people I know would never consider him a heretic. And yet, he was a borderline universalist. I read The Great Divorce in my teens, and it shaped some of my own thinking. Even before that, though, the great questions had been discussed in my family. What happens to babies who die before they can convert? What about a person who has never heard of Christ? What about the person whose only experience of Christianity was an abuser?

I’m not a Rob Bell fan, and I’m not making an argument that the Doctrine of Hell as taught in Evangelicalism is necessarily wrong, but that other views are neither unusual nor out of the pell of Christian orthodoxy.

  1. Believe in “open theism.” (Greg Boyd)

This is another one that almost requires a whole post. In a greatly oversimplified version, Open Theism believes in a significant degree of free will such that human action can determine the future. This is a huge disagreement with hard-core Calvinists, who believe that even evil is caused by the will of God. (Again, an oversimplification, but it is indisputably in Calvin’s Institutes.)

Disclosure: I’m an Arminian, although that belief is out of style these days in Evangelicalism. So I lean this direction anyway. However, I wasn’t all that familiar with Open Theism until Piper decided to “farewell” Greg Boyd for this belief

I should point out that C. S. Lewis would be considered an Open Theist.

Again, I am not trying to argue in favor of Open Theism, but merely point out that it is, at most, a secondary issue of the faith, and one over which there is much historical disagreement - as well as denominational disagreement.  

I also want to point out that the particular view of the sovereignty of God at issue is a huge deal for Calvinists. This leads to one of my observations. In general, I have not found Arminians or Molinists like my own pastor to believe that Calvinists are heretics or otherwise to be dismissed from the faith. The reverse is not true. There are many Calvinists - including visible leaders - who are all too eager to proclaim that Arminianism is a heresy, and that Calvinists are the only “true” Christians. I believe that is a contributing factor to Piper choosing (or was he predestined?) to “farewell” Greg Boyd.

In this case, I believe this is a symptom of confusing Calvinism with Christianity - essentially coming out as a believer that non-Calvinists aren’t really Christians at all.

  1. Believe in an old earth rather than a literal 6 day creation 6000 years ago (Gungor)

The Christian Band Gungor created some serious controversy recently when they indicated that they did not believe in Young Earth Creationism

Evangelical news magazine World (behind a paywall, or I would link it) gave their own version of a “farewell” to Gungor, stating in an article that they had drifted from the orthodox faith.

Although I have respect for World as being devoted to actual journalism and research, and being willing to take on the sacred cows of Evangelicalism from time to time, I believe they really dropped the ball on this one.

In truth, historical Christianity has been less than wedded to a literalist view of Genesis. As I pointed out in my extended blog post on the subject, none other than St. Augustine castigated those who ignored scientific evidence in favor of a blind literalism. Unless we are willing to dismiss Augustine and many of the other church fathers from the faith, perhaps we need to admit that this is not an issue of Christian orthodoxy.

  1. Deal with homosexuals in any way except confront, then excommunicate. (Hillsong)

I’ve discussed this a bit at length in two posts. (Part 1, Part 2)

The Evangelical approach has been one where homosexuals are first confronted, then excommunicated if they choose any path but celibacy. (See John MacArthur’s recent video advocating cutting off all contact with gay children.)
Hillsong’s Brian Houston made waves with a statement on this matter. While (as he clarified later) adhering to an opposition to Gay Marriage and a traditional view of homosexuality, he opined that the Evangelical Church’s approach has been harmful and alienating, to the point where gay teens know they will be rejected by church and family. This, as he notes, has been a contributing factor to a troublingly high suicide rate among gay teens.

And, as was predictable, the “farewells” came fast and thick. I saw a bit of a Facebook discussion (which I stayed out of) on an article about it, and noted the usual “Christianese” statement. “God is winnowing his church on this issue.” Yup, God is making it clear who the “real” Christians are. Those who confront, then excommunicate - and who do their best to starve and marginalize homosexuals politically - are the “real” Christians. Those who do anything less - and I mean anything - aren’t “true” Christians, but heretics.

I’m not going to go any further with the issue at this time, but I do feel I need to make the following statement:

I firmly believe that most, although not all, of the controversy and accusations over biblical “inspiration, infallibility, and authority” are a proxy for the fight over homosexuality.

The reason that RHE’s analysis of the Abraham and Isaac story is controversial is that she refuses to condemn homosexual relationships. That is the bottom line.

  1. Believe that the gift of tongues is active today (John MacArthur)

This is a long-standing dispute. I remember it from my childhood. Let me share a bit of my own history in a nutshell.

From the first memories of church I have until around age 11 or so, my family attended John MacArthur’s church in the Los Angeles area. After that, we spent a couple of years at a smaller church in the area with essentially identical doctrinal views.

At age 13 or so, my parents began to explore the Charismatic movement, starting with a Catholic small group, and eventually leading us to spend the next decade in Charismatic churches. I have particularly fond memories of our time at Osborne Neighborhood Church, and would list the late Pastor Jack Stiles as one of my most significant influences. (I interviewed him as part of a school project, and will never forget how open and real he was with me.)

I have been involved with Church worship music since my elementary school years, back when I was an alto. Music has always been important to me, and a significant part of my religious experience. Sometime in my late teens, I had the opportunity to attend a conference at the Vineyard Church in Anaheim along with my mother and paternal grandfather. There, in addition to gathering many musical ideas that I still utilize today - and meeting Andy Park - my inspiration for life as an introverted, nerdy worship musician; I got to hear the late John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard church.

All that to say that I have some experience with both principals in this dispute.

MacArthur was and is rabidly anti-Charismatic. Back in the day, he wrote a whole book about the issue, calling out Wimber by name, and making some accusations which weren’t really supported about his teachings. (A bit of the strawman, shall we say.) More recently, MacArthur hosted the “Strange Fire” conference, wherein pretty much all of the Charismatic movement was condemned.

Now, I agree with plenty of what MacArthur says about the abuses of the Charismatic movement. I am adamantly opposed to the “word faith” and “prosperity gospel” movements for reasons theological and logical.

The problem is that MacArthur, and other cessationists, have decided that the gifts such as the gift of tongues have ceased - and that this is a cardinal doctrine of the faith.

Now, I understand the position. It has some evidence and logic behind it, but one thing it is not is a failure to take the “inspiration, infallibility, and authority of the scripture” seriously. If anything, belief in the gift of tongues comes from a very literalist approach to the New Testament.

I would note, although it is at best anecdotal evidence, that my experience of MacArthur and Wimber reflects the divide. MacArthur is absolutely, unshakably certain that he is right. About everything. And that everyone who disagrees is wrong, and may well not be in the faith. Hence the proto- “farewell” to Wimber in the 1980s. Wimber, on the other hand, seemed humble and unassuming. (Not that this is the norm in either Word Faith or Charismatic circles - plenty of showmen and megalomaniacs there too…)

The point is that an issue on which the scripture - if anything - leans in the other direction became an occasion for dismissal of others from the faith.

What Will NOT Get You Farewelled

For me, every bit as important as what will get you farewelled is what will not get you farewelled. Because I believe that what is tolerated shows one’s ethics as much as what isn’t.

Again, keep in mind that this is - for the farewellers - about the “inspiration, inerrancy, and authority” of the scriptures. So, if you follow the logic, these are the teachings that the farewellers do NOT believe misuse scripture.

  1. Teach that women need to endure domestic violence (John Piper)


 I dealt with this at extended length in this post, so I will simply summarize that the granddaddy of “farewelling” along with many others within his theological circle have taught and continue to teach that women should endure domestic violence (to say nothing of emotional abuse) because they are called to be “submissive” to men.

The public teaching that woman should allow themselves to be beaten in the name of Christ rather than get out and seek protection from the law DID NOT result in anyone being “farewelled” from the faith.

I am not saying that nobody within Evangelicalism disagreed with Piper. Plenty of the rank and file did, as did a good number of (less prominent) pastors.

However, I cannot find ONE instance in which a prominent leader “farewelled” Piper for teaching this.

Because apparently, this teaching isn’t considered a serious abuse of scripture. It doesn’t offend the “inspiration, infallibility, and authority.”

  1. Write a (plagiarized) pamphlet and book defending the institution of slavery (Doug Wilson)

I covered this one extensively in my post on the link between Christian Patriarchy, Reconstructionism, and the White Supremacist movement. 

Wilson wrote two works, Slavery as It Was, a plagiarized pamphlet written with notorious White Supremacist Steve Wilkins; and a later full length book, Black and Tan defending the institution of Confederate Slavery.

I’ve noted a few of Wilson’s other crazy - and downright dangerous - teachings, from his belief that marital sex must be about dominance and submission to his AIDS denialism to his obsession with the strawman of “feminism.” Whatever the case, his teachings certainly seem to support the rights of perpetrators over victims and the strong over the weak.

While Wilson isn’t the only person to advocate for these racist ideas, I cite him because he remains close to John Piper. In fact, the two of them appear to be great buddies. Piper is a repeat speaker at Wilson’s conferences (one of very few non-family-members to speak at these), and continues to speak highly of Wilson, and invite him to speak at his own conferences.

Put bluntly, the granddaddy of “farewellers” cannot abide Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell, or Greg Boyd.

But he sure as hell (to Piper) is fine with a man who advocates for the Confederacy. Really?

Let’s summarize:

Reject Calvinist teaching, question the meaning of the story of Abraham, and question the doctrine of hell = “you’re out of the faith!”

Excuse the enslavement of one race by another = “you can be my buddy.”

Something is wrong here.

  1. Cover up child abuse (C. J. Mahaney)

I’ll just summarize this one. You can read in excruciating detail on 

A youth leader sort at one of Mahaney’s churches got caught sexually abusing young boys. Rather than report the crimes to the police, the church encouraged victims to remain silent, and quietly send the offender on his way, allowing him to abuse others in future church positions.

Rather a mirror of the Catholic sex scandals.

In a later lawsuit, one of Mahaney’s own close friends and fellow pastor at his church admitted under oath that Mahaney and others in leadership were fully aware of the abuse and chose not to report it or advise the victims to report it.

Mahaney remains in good standing with the Evangelical world, and has attended and spoken at conferences with no repercussions.

Even worse, a man who tried to leave an affiliated church in protest over the issue found himself subject to church discipline (that is, excommunication) as a result.

Need I point out that failing to protect victims but rather protecting the perpetrators does NOT get one “farewelled”?

  1. Threaten to excommunicate stay-at-home dads (Mark Driscoll) (honorable mention to Owen Strachan and “man fails.”)

I hope to write a future post on the Mark Driscoll fiasco and how yet again we were taken in by an abusive narcissist who said the things we wished to hear. However, let me merely note one early warning sign that made it abundantly clear to me that Driscoll was a jerk.

Driscoll actually said that he would use church discipline (that is, threat of excommunication) on a dad who stayed at home with the kids while the wife worked.

I am NOT kidding. Watch the video. I may in the future discuss this in more detail, but he and others have mistaken gender essentialism for the central message of Christianity. They are quick to condemn couples who - at risk of condemnation from the greater culture - have made choices they believe are best for the family.

Again, the scriptural and cultural issues with this are beyond the point of this post. Suffice it to say that a prominent Evangelical leader threatened to throw a man out of the faith for failure to observe cultural gender roles.

And this was, somehow, NOT considered a misuse of scripture. He didn’t get “farewelled” from the faith for taking a verse out of historical and grammatical context to threaten to excommunicate someone.

I’ll note as well Owen Strachan, a member in good standing with The Gospel Coalition and one of the bigwigs in The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. (I think it would be more accurately entitled The Council for Victorian Gender Roles, but whatever. It is considered fairly mainstream within Evangelicalism.) Despite his assertion that a stay at home dad was a “man fail,” and out of God’s will, he remains in good standing.

  1. Teach that women shouldn’t go to college, but should throughout their lifetimes be under the authority of a man. (Doug Phillips) (Also Kevin Swanson - who is still in World ads)

I hesitated about including this one, but decided to for one reason:

Even though I believe Phillips and Swanson were and are outside of the Evangelical mainstream, they have been permitted (and in the case of Swanson) are still permitted to run ads for their conferences in Evangelical publications such as World. In other words, the readers are allowed to assume that they are within the orthodox faith.

Phillips (now out of ministry for sexually abusing a teen girl) and Swanson (still in good standing despite a, shall we say, “creative” view of actual reality) have unequivocally taught that to send a female to college is to disobey God. (More information about Swanson and his lunacy can be found in this post.)

Not just an “inferior choice,” but actual sin.

The point of this, within the context of this post, is that making a claim like that, which is damaging to the futures of women, is apparently NOT a reason to “farewell” a leader.

Again, these things are NOT considered to be a misuse of Scripture to the extent of denying “inspiration, inerrancy, and authority.”

This is a Heart Issue

In thinking this through for myself, I have been unable to escape a conclusion:

For many within the Evangelical/Calvinist movements, the important thing is believing the right stuff. Adhering completely to the detailed theological beliefs - including Calvinism - is the thing.

Not avoiding harming others. Not being intellectually honest. Not being open to the slightest possibility that we don’t know or understand everything.

Unquestioning adherence to a detailed system of belief.

The reason I feel that this has become a generational issue is that my generation and the succeeding ones have looked at our own experiences and at the practical results of these beliefs, and have concluded that Evangelicalism has kept its orthodoxy, but has lost its heart.

Sure, we have our faith. We have our detailed faith. And our belief that WE and WE ALONE understand the meaning of scripture.

But we no longer notice or care about the damage caused to others in the real world.

When a belief in a literal 6 day creation becomes more important than stopping child abuse, we have a problem.

When we are not repulsed and offended by those who defend the enslavement of one race by another, we have a problem.

When we excuse the abuse of women and children because we are unwilling to question our gender essentialism, we have a problem.

When Rachel Held Evans’ book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood is rejected by Lifeway Christian Bookstores, while they continue to list 23 titles by Douglas Wilson, we have a problem.

When questioning the meaning of the sacrifice of Isaac is a huge controversy, leading many to conclude that RHE has departed from the faith, and yet casually asserting that women shouldn’t go to college, but should stay at home until they are married doesn’t warrant the same attention or consequences, we have a problem.

Is Faith Primarily About Believing the Right Set of Doctrines?

This is where I personally am struggling.

It seems to me that Saint James put it well when he said,

But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. (NIV)

If our faith does not express itself in standing up for the oppressed, seeking justice for the damaged, and mercy for the helpless, do we really even have a faith?

Or are we just about moralism? (Don’t answer that question.)

As I read the scriptures, there is a LOT about issues of justice and oppression. As I read it, there is the radical idea that in Christ, there IS no class, race, or gender. That all of us are equal before God, and that the Kingdom will dispense with our man-made distinctions.

I read that the key issue isn’t whether we have the “correct” belief about all issues from gender to sexuality to creation to spiritual gifts. It isn’t whether we fathom the question of free will versus sovereignty. It isn’t whether we believe right or not. It’s about how our beliefs lead us to act. Do we in fact act out of a love for God and our neighbor? Do we do unto others as we would have them do to us?

Are we quick to exclude others from the faith because they do not agree with us? Or are we concerned with whether those who name the name of Christ are, as Isaiah put it, concerned with loosing the chains of injustice, setting the oppressed free, sharing with the hungry, and avoiding wasting our religion on strife and argument over secondary issues.

When I (and others my age and younger) see that our leadership cannot tolerate the questioning of certain teachings, and yet excuses permissiveness toward the abuse of women, children, and African Americans as somehow less serious than disagreements about hell and creation, we are greatly troubled. 


This post is already long enough, but I do intend to address the story of Abraham and Isaac and explain why I am troubled by the lesson that is usually drawn from the story.