Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

American Evangelicalism as a Controversy Generator Machine

February 6th, 2024 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

Two church situations I have witnessed during my time as a Christian, both coming during my time in a confessional reformed denomination.

First: A teaching elder (usually this means someone employed full time to pastoral ministry and who has preaching responsibilities in their church) is accused of teachings contrary to our confessional standards by another teaching elder in his geographic region (which we call a presbytery). So: What happens next? And what can happen?

Well, what can happen is that the teaching elder in question could have his credentials as a teaching elder in the church taken away and he could lose his job. That's concrete enough, I think.

What happens after that accusation is made? The Book of Church Order is the procedural rulebook. To summarize, the presbytery, which is made up of all the teaching and ruling elders in the region (ruling elders are nearly always someone employed outside of the church and whose responsibilities have to do with oversight of the church and pastoral care), will consider the charges. Often this means forming a committee of several presbytery members who will review the case. Their review will include reading or listening to whatever sermon prompted the charge in the first place, potentially looking at other sermons from the accused on related texts and topics, and also interviewing the accused, the accuser, and perhaps other relevant parties as well. When that is done, the committee will make their recommendations to the presbytery. At that point, the presbytery then has to decide whether or not to accept the committee's recommendation. Usually they do because rejecting their recommendation is effectively a vote of no confidence in the committee members, which places quite a lot of strain on the presbytery as a whole.

In the case I was close to, the outcome was that the teaching elder in question was exonerated. So he was cleared of all charges and continued in his pastoral job. This created some tension with the pastor who filed the charges as well as with two friends of his, also teaching elders in the presbytery, who agreed with him. But in the end things broadly worked themselves out; some conflicts were resolved and the relevant parties were reconciled. In other cases, people found new jobs that took them out of that presbytery, which is a less desirable but still not disastrous way of solving the problem.

Second case: A teaching elder in the presbytery is charged with engaging in sexual sin that disqualifies him from ministry. In this case, the presbytery formed a committee to review the case, determined that the accused was guilty almost immediately, and promptly "defrocked" him, which meant revoking his credentials (de-frocking, as in the removal of a frock, which is a traditional form of clerical garb) and firing him from his job with the church.

Both of these cases were exceedingly unpleasant affairs and quite painful, particularly the second. And yet something that made both cases less bad than they might have been was that both cases took place within the governing structures of a confessional denomination. So what that meant was from the beginning all the people involved in the case knew what their rulebook was—the theological rules came from our church's confessional standards and the rules governing process came from our Book of Church Order—and all parties knew what could and could not happen based on how the case was ultimately judged.

And that brings me to the Alistair Begg unpleasantness of the past several weeks. It seems to me that the entire affair, beginning to end, is one protracted indictment of American evangelicalism.

The case includes:

  • a lay Christian asking a celebrity pastor for spiritual counsel
  • the celebrity pastor freely offering his counsel instead of just saying 'you should talk to your pastor about this'
  • the celebrity pastor giving bad advice
  • the ensuing controversy playing out in a space where there is no clear rulebook for how to adjudicate the matter or, indeed, any way of enforcing such a rulebook even if one did exist

To review the specifics, Rev. Begg was asked by a podcast listener (who wrote a letter to him) whether or not it was licit for her to attend her grandchild's forthcoming wedding to a transgender individual. Begg told the listener it was OK for her to attend, saying:

And in very specific areas this comes across. I mean, you and I know that we field questions all the time that go along the lines of “My grandson is about to be married to a transgender person, and I don’t know what to do about this, and I’m calling to ask you to tell me what to do”—which is a huge responsibility.

And in a conversation like that just a few days ago—and people may not like this answer—but I asked the grandmother, “Does your grandson understand your belief in Jesus?”

“Yes.”

“Does your grandson understand that your belief in Jesus makes it such that you can’t countenance in any affirming way the choices that he has made in life?”

“Yes.”

I said, “Well then, okay. As long as he knows that, then I suggest that you do go to the ceremony. And I suggest that you buy them a gift.”

“Oh,” she said, “what?” She was caught off guard.

I said, “Well, here’s the thing: your love for them may catch them off guard, but your absence will simply reinforce the fact that they said, ‘These people are what I always thought: judgmental, critical, unprepared to countenance anything.’”

In fairness to Begg, his answer makes clear that he does not think a person should attend such a wedding if their views regarding sexuality are unknown. So Begg is not generally encouraging Christians to attend such weddings. He is advising one particular person in a unique situation to attend that one wedding. I still think he's wrong. But there is nothing here to indicate that Begg is unclear about the meaning of marriage or the importance of clearly communicating one's understanding of marriage in such situations. The controversy is over the more specific point that that when the relevant parties are aware of a Christian's views it is licit to attend such a wedding. I say that not because I agree with Begg, but simply to ensure that the specific matter at hand is stated as clearly as possible.

In the aftermath, Begg's program was removed from a major Christian radio network. He also was removed from the speaker's lineup at a forthcoming conference.

To be sure, the radio network is free to choose who to air and not to air on their network. Likewise, conference hosts can always choose to remove a previously invited speaker from the event. But here is what I want to know: What is the standard we are using to make these decisions? What is the process for how this works? What is the desired outcome? How can that outcome be achieved?

I know the answer to those questions for Presbyterians, or at least I know what the answer should be. I know what they are for Anglicans, even if the Anglican answer usually involves what is to my eyes a rather extreme dependence on the wisdom of bishops. I know the answers if you're Catholic, Lutheran, or Orthodox. Or, at least in all those cases, I know what the answers ought to be based on the theological standards of those churches and the stated rules of their respective forms of church governance.

I have no earthly idea what the answers are for "evangelicalism."

What is the equivalent for a non-denominational evangelical celebrity pastor with a huge radio audience and speaking gigs at conferences? Begg, of course, brought the UK evangelicalism question up in his own discussion of this, but with all due respect to Begg I actually think the issue here has less to do with Begg being formed in British evangelicalism and far more to do with Begg existing within the hopelessly vague and under-determined structures of American evangelicalism.

To broaden the matter, I worry that there is some sense in which "evangelicalism" is a) mostly a sociological identifier devoid of theological content, and b) mostly a vague network of conferences, podcasts, and other online platforms.

In both cases, there simply isn't any mechanism for handling theological error well, let alone the often far more arduous task of determining when a theological error has been made.

To go back to the confessional example: Suppose that first case I mentioned above goes differently. The pastor is found to be in error, at least by the standards of our confession, which for the purposes of the denomination are what matter. So he is asked to repent of his errors. He refuses. The next step likely will involve removing him from ministry, which also means he loses his job. We have mechanisms for all of that. And because we have those processes, there also isn't anything to stop the presbytery from also saying "we still recognize you as a brother in the Lord, we care about you and your family, we want to support you socially, spiritually, and financially during this time of transition," and so on. Because the structure of the institution takes a great deal of the decision out of our hands, we can engage relationally in any number of ways that won't affect the actual processes for adjudicating the case.

To be sure, this isn't always or even mostly what happens. My point here isn't to say the PCA or any other confessional denomination inherently handles these hard situations well. We often don't. My point is simpler: We have the mechanisms that allow us to handle error in a way with clear standards, protocols, and outcomes. All of that is basically sorted out for us by nature of our being a confessional denomination with a Book of Church Order. "Evangelicalism," in contrast, has none of these things. So all we are left with is basically the exact same media playbook as any other subculture: attack or defend people's platforms, discuss them on social media, and so on.

The important thing about this whole affair, then, doesn't really have anything to do with the radio network, the conference, or even necessarily Begg himself. Indeed, in this case I'm not terribly bothered by the practical outcomes or the broad disagreement with Begg's advice. What worries me is that these controversies are effectively tried via social media, which as Blake Callens noted, is often more of an industry than a ministry. So the primary rules of the game are inherently the rules of media public relations rather than anything discernibly Christian. This means that even when a controversy works itself out in mostly unobjectionable ways, there isn't really any institutional or procedural factor accounting for that. It's merely the broken clock that is right twice a day. But the larger issue is the lack of rootedness in local churches which are governed by confessions, procedural norms, and so on.

As I continue to think about Lindbeck and in particular Kirsten Sanders's engagements with him, a further question comes to mind: "Church" is the place where you and I learn to 'speak Christian' together (through the ministry of Word and Sacrament and practice of Christian discipline, I would want to specify). But "evangelicalism" is chiefly a sociological movement built around consumption patterns, political identity, and attending conferences, all of which has no essential or necessary relationship to a local church, denomination, church courts, or ecclesial authority.

If all that is true, then how exactly do evangelicals learn to 'speak Christian'?

Is it possible that the reason our media controversies are so indistinguishable from those of the world because our movement has chosen to broadly operate independent of the community that might help us to be different from the world?

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).