On Disrespectable Christianity

Tish Harrison Warren, whose writing I admire a great deal, has an excellent piece over at Christianity Today on Vanderbilt University’s lamentable decision to prohibit campus groups from setting their own standards for student leadership.  Harrison Warren was part of Intervarsity’s leadership during that season, and so had a seat on the front row.  Thankfully, though, she writes with a reflective calm:

I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space.

The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.

It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.

Harrison Warren’s reflections are, I think, indicative of the kind of realization that many of the younger-set of evangelicals are going to have to face in the years to come.  Many of the most hopeful and best parts of evangelicalism the past fifteen years have been encompassed by an incipient desire for respectability.  The resurgent apologetics-evangelicals have sought to demonstrate the faith’s intellectual credibility, while the artistic evangelicals have made it quite clear you can still love Jesus and watch House of Cards, thank you very much.  The politically-reformist evangelicals have put a hole in the “not like those Republicans” drum, while the social justice evangelicals have made everyone forget about the Four Spiritual Laws.  And some of us—ahem—have pounded on about how we can read the old stuff, too, which can be its own form of “not like them folks there” attitude.

Those movements for reform and expansion of the evangelical footprint are worthy enough in their own right, maybe.  But Reform has often been laced with the promise of Respectability, and many of us—me included—have swallowed the poison.  I have a vague, half-articulated notion that those King James only communities who have been the butt of so many evangelical jokes will be, when it’s all said and done, some of the only Protestant communities still standing:  they gave up their respectability a long time ago and don’t seem to have missed it since.

Harrison Warren, indeed, mentions the Amish as one plausible path forward for “cultural engagement.”  Few young evangelicals will seriously take that path, though perhaps many more should.  But the vast majority of us will, I suspect, continue to fight and plead for a kind of respectability out of the earnest, good-hearted desire to see our neighbors convinced of our ideas—or if not of our ideas, at the very least of our sanity.  Arguments for ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ and ‘respect’ are coming fast and furious these days, after all, even though they are fifteen years (at least) too late.

I have had another general impression—and the reader will rightly accuse me at this point of having far too many of those in this post—that what evangelicals, young and old, most desperately need is a political manifestation of joy.  Harrison Warren sounds the martyrs note, without overstriking it:  “Throughout history and even now, Christians in many parts of the world face not only rejection but violent brutality. What they face is incomparably worse than anything we experience on U.S. college campuses, yet they tutor us in compassion, courage, and subversive faithfulness.”  Yet if we do not grasp the joy of the martyrs, we do not understand them at all.

I was accused recently, in talking about these sorts of things with students, of being something of a pessimist.  “We ought to keep fighting,” the argument went, “because the world we’re handing down to our children matters.”  Fair enough, and Lord knows that I am not yet perfected in my joy.  But Christians need a flagrant disregard for the coming wave of disrepute, a disregard which quickly turns the pathetic instruments of stigmatization into jewelry and art.  Without that, and without Jove’s presence among us, whatever “argument” we have will come to no effect.  Pessimism and the joy of the martyr may look almost the same, but as Chesterton noted, the one dies for the sake of dying while the other for the sake of living.

Addendum:  While thinking further about this, it occurred to me that “respectability” as a temptation is most likely limited to those pursuing white, upper-middle class lifestyles, for whom ‘respectability’ is a kind of currency that gets things done.  How this plays in to the above I leave to readers to determine.

  • Thursday1

    Yes, there is one meme going round that people are leaving the churches because we weren’t nice enough, and if we were just super dooper nice, people would like us and maybe even come back. Now, one could argue, correctly I would say, that being polite and charitable to people is a good thing, but that’s because it’s a good in itself, not because it is the reason the Western church is in decline.

    • Yes, that’s right….though within that defense of being ‘charitable,’ we also need a defense of responding to some people with sarcasm and dismissiveness, as I sometimes do on Twitter.

      • Harrison Lemke

        if Christ is the model of charity (and he is), then sometimes harshness is called for – in fact, sometimes it is the only thing that can make any impact. But harshness that springs from love is easily confused (especially by its practitioners) for harshness that springs from something else. Definitely a distinction I don’t quite have down.

        • FoxFBI

          I think I know your intended meaning, but have trouble with the concept of “harshness” and how it is often applied by many in the church. Obviously this would require more elaboration, but I believe all our responses must fall under the power of love, that we are called to exhibit to God and neighbors. I am uncomfortable with the notion that “harshness” is at times the only way that we can make a difference. I spent my career teaching at a reformed evangelical college and regularly had to counter my students eagerness to exercise judgments often in a harsh way toward those who did not agree with them I suspect you would agree that this is more often likely to be counterproductive, and MUST be done in both a manner and spirit of Love.

          • Harrison Lemke

            Yes, I largely agree with you. We see deeply destructive behavior justified on these grounds all the time. However, I think if it were not the case that harshness is in rare cases the only (or most) effective response to something, then we would not see Christ responding to hypocrisy and spiritual pride in the way he does, which is almost universally pretty tough. Anger, and even insult, are not inherent evils, but like everything else become so if not subservient to love of God and neighbor, as you mentioned.

            I mentioned the confusion of motive because I do not trust myself to discern situations where harsh words are necessary, and in the absence of such discernment it is best to be gentle.

      • Thursday1

        A further thought. While Christians should always strive to be charitable in how they deliver the truths of the gospel, if the gospel message (or any other message, for that matter) can only be delivered by perfectly tactful and sensitive messengers, it is doomed. (In fact, one might argue that a demand that the gospel only be presented by such people, is a de facto demand that the gospel not be preached at all.)

        I thought about this during the Duck Dynasty brouhaha. Yes, there were legitimate criticisms to be aimed at how Phil Robertson delivered the gospel message on sexual morality, and he deserved to be criticized for those. But I the main point is that the point at issue wasn’t really Phil Robertson’s tactlessness, it was the gospel itself.

  • Gabriel Choo

    Good to hear your thoughts on this.

  • “A man who has faith must be prepared not only to be a martyr, but to be a fool. It is absurd to say that a man is ready to toil and die for his convictions when he is not even ready to wear a wreath round his head for them.” — G. K. Chesterton, Heretics

  • I would suggest that African-American churches, who have been practicing this sort of dancing on the line (especially in regards to matters of public justice and civil religion) for decades, are both natural allies and worthy teachers of us white folks.

  • When we see happenings like the one described above at Vanderbilt, we have first determine if is part of a pendulum swing. And if it is, before being alarmed about the future, we need to be convicted about the past.

  • Hey Matthew!

    Your concern about tipping too far towards caring about respectability is super-valid, but I’m afraid you really overstate your point here when you wonder if the KJV groups would be the only ones left standing and if the amish way of life is the way to go for some young evangelicals.

    Increasingly when people talk this way, I find they’re more concerned about how to respond to movements and cultural trends than how to respond to human beings.

    I think of my audience – both at CAPC and Gamechurch, where I am editor – as a group of individuals with their own minds to make up. Our goal has always been to break through the cultural zeitgeist, not to lash out at it or fight against it or even to more vaguely just react to it.

    When culture becomes a faceless mass, of course respectability in the face of that mass becomes inevitably impossible for Christians. we’re way past that point. But in terms of individual relationships, this is just not my experience.

    Tish’s piece is primarily about organization vs. organization. I know for a fact that one day the other shoe will drop, and I will be lambasted by some nebulous group of mainstream liberals via twitter or a website or whatever for my beliefs, but I also know for a fact that I will retain the respect of key individuals who will see my good works and glorify our Father in Heaven.

    That’s why I view respectability and civility as essential for myself personally. I’d hate to see them get lost in the shuffle as we work to figure out how to maintain a perspective of Scriptural truth.

    • Thanks for the comment, Richard. I’d happily concede I was speaking hyperbolically about the Amish, and I noted the looseness of the thesis in the piece.

      I’m all for being ‘civil’ and offering respect to “human beings.” I don’t think I’ve done anything but that. However, it’s something of an oversimplification to describe Tish’s piece as being about “organization vs. organization.” Tish sat in meetings (which she describes) with university leadership, who made judgments about policies which directly implicated their view of her.

      But, if *respectability* (which I take to be something slightly different than acting respectably toward others) is something that you want to aim for, go for it….and best of luck to you.



      • haha, thanks!

      • It’s the looseness- shall I say “whimsical”- nature of the piece that strikes a Chestertonian chord, and captures a glimmer of joy in the form as well as the content. Well done.

        Speaking as someone who went to a public university, this piece demonstrates that this is a serious issue in some places more than others, and the university is one of them. It’d be interesting to taxonomize the cultural spaces where this is an issue, where it’s becoming an issue, and where it isn’t an issue.

      • I would suggest it is probably the loose hand with which we hold either our respectability or our persecuted-minority identity which is most important in this discussion. if our obedience leads to respectability– great! It probably should in a culture that still acknowledges some truths of natural law and common grace. If our obedience leads to persecution– great! That’s God’s crucible.

  • Allison


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. After reading your piece, I went to pour myself a cup of coffee and memories came flooding back about my college days.

    I went to a state university…and this is why: I grew up in a Christian home, but by the time I graduated from a “secular” high school I didn’t have enough respect for Biblical thinking and Biblical thinkers to invest in a Christian university.

    I wanted to go to a place that was highly esteemed because I wanted to be highly esteemed. My college of choice was respected by my parents and peers and people I didn’t know. I liked that.

    I also wanted the best of both worlds. I didn’t believe that God either cared about or could handle all areas of study {yikes}, so I fluctuated between seeking one type of wisdom on Sunday and another type on Monday. Apple anyone?

    I also wanted to reach out to the lost. That excited me. Especially the part where they say something, then I say something, and then they say wow.

    I wanted to fight the battle on my terms, not God’s.

    He has a purpose for education, and it’s not evangelism. It’s to be intimately connected to Him and fully equipped by Him for every. good. work.

    God’s Spirit invests in Himself every time.

    For a number of reasons, this is tough for evangelicals to absorb…as well as others who see this as living like the Amish. The reality is, however, that we all choose our circles of influence…it’s just a matter of which one.

    Like our enemies, we honor with our investment the one our hearts revere the most.

    • Dave Evens

      “Especially the part where they say something, I say something and then they say wow.”

      A smile of recognition came over my face when I read that.

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  • MM

    Respectability indeed is a serious temptation. The world offers a counterfeit version of it (do as we say and we’ll respect you). Once upon a time Christians received real respectability because they were different and followed their convictions (e.g., the Puritans, the Anabaptists).
    I don’t agree with your view that upper-middle class are more susceptible to a desire for counterfeit respectability. I do agree that they have their own version of it. But the blue collar folk also suffer from wanting to be accepted in their environs, too.

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  • FoxFBI

    The actions by Vanderbilt are not based on the particular form or beliefs of Christians be they progressive or very conservative. They are based on a set of beliefs (be they Jewish, Christian, Hindu, etc.) that require compliance with a standard of behavior/practices that are based on their beliefs. This appears to those who do not consider themselves “religious” as exclusive or barring those who do not accept these standards and they define that as discriminatory.
    According to Vanderbilt, even a Republican group must allow Democrats to not only join, but also be in a leadership position. This is ludicrous because the “creedal beliefs” of the Republican Party are part of its identity which would be compromised by allowing Democrats to lead. So too if a Christian group had to endow its leadership to a non-Christian, or a Feminist group required to admit anti-feminist men who had to be allowed to lead the organization. It is the false assumption that any group can exist without a distinctive belief system that has a right to be comprised of those who share their “creedal beliefs”.

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  • LuAnn

    Addendum: While thinking further about this, it occurred to me that “respectability” as a temptation is most likely limited to those pursuing white, upper-middle class lifestyles, for whom ‘respectability’ is a kind of currency that gets things done. How this plays in to the above I leave to readers to determine. – See more at: https://mereorthodoxy.com/disrespectable-christianity/#sthash.vUYrIMmX.dpuf

    I am not sure it is respectability that is the drive (although part of the parcel)…I worked in an inner city school for 13 years…what i saw is the need to fit in ton one’s culture/neighborhood values…the drive to be a part of the whole is what we are warned of when we are told we are to be in the world but not part of the world…it is the mindset of the follower of Jesus. do we really understand what jesus said that as he suffered we would also suffer…that as He was persecuted, so would we be persecuted…that as He was hated, we will be hated…Do we really believe that this life is temporary? that what we are holding out for is eternal life? Is this life an eyeblink in time to God? and therefore to us? We are inundated by media to be like everyone else…when followwers of Jesus truly live like Him…they will be persecuted because WE then stand against the mores/morals of those around us…and they see it and are convicted. If we cannot be seen as different from the world, we need to reexamine our life to see what we are lacking…Jesus stood out for His compassion, for His love yet He never compromised who He was or what He stood for…

    Respectability today is different than 40 years ago…It is a thin veneer that covers a lifestyle of sin…as long as things look good…

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  • OUCH.

    I’ve spent the whole day trying to appear as the Respectable Christian in hostile classes. People weren’t particularly interested in the wisdom I was quick to impart, which made me rather depressed. Thanks for pointing out that, even if I’m right, it’s not really about me. After today, I needed a good dose of humility.

    Our wittiness and urbane knowledge of pop culture may be fun, but that’s not what it’s about.

    While I don’t think we should isolate ourselves from the culture – I do think your criticism aptly highlights the temptation to us modern Christian Humanists (it’s actually a thing, according to Greg Wolfe: basically, Christians interested in the humanities) – the lure of Being Respected.

    • Though, as I’ve been thinking – I don’t think KJV communities escape respectability. They don’t care about being respectable in the eyes of the world, but only in their own (they’re their own little community-within-a-community.)

      An appeal to artless, foolish joy is the best solution to any Christians obsessed with image. Thank for the reminder.

  • H B

    Perhaps, at the end of the day, the “fundies” which Ms Warren is careful to distance herself from actually share more in common with her than the “urban progressives” she gravitates towards, best exemplified in Vanderbilt University. I don’t fault VU – they are simply being consistent with their fallen creed. I admire Ms Warren for pushing back. Better to lose a place at the table than for reformists to elevate respectability to its own false creed.

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