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Five Fundamental Questions Conservative Evangelicals Must Address

July 29th, 2013 | 7 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

We've been told often in recent years that conservative evangelicals must adapt to changing social conditions or find themselves consigned to irrelevance.  On matters of both style and substance, many evangelicals have been motivated by an anxiety that they simply aren't keeping up.

And the concern is understandable.  If we do in fact enter into a "post-Christian culture," then traditional Christian teaching won't even rise to the level of "wrong"; it will simply be weird.  The challenge before us is not that people will disagree with Christianity; it's that they won't understand it at all.  Which is why conservative Christian concerns right now about being marginalized on account of our moral teachings are totally misplaced.  As long as we are being actively marginalized, we are still being taken seriously.  It's indifference from a surrounding culture that ought to concern Christians.

Yet whether conservative evangelicals have the internal resources or fortitude to maintain faithfulness in the face of cultural pressures is the great unknown.  The most heartening movements--the emphasis on mission, the emphasis on the Gospel, and yes, even the struggle with the relationship between economic prosperity and Christianity--have appropriately challenged many conservative Christians to rethink what faithfulness looks like.

But my concern is that conservative evangelicals have not yet grappled with the fundamental questions that determine the plausibility of our witness.  With that in mind, here's my best attempt at five of the most pressing questions facing conservative Christians.

What is the nature of experience and its limits?  

What is experience, and what role does it play in moral reflection?  What can be gained from it, and what are its limits?  Many younger evangelicals have spent a good deal of time affirming the validity of their own "stories," yet in doing so have raised fundamental questions about the meaning and content of their experiences and their relationship to Scripture.  Some careful work has been done on the area, but our "story" is only one form our "experience" takes.  The phenomenon of sexual desire, for instance, doesn't quite fit the category of "story" but it too is a form of experience that needs careful sorting.

The emotive, memoir-based writing style that has taken hold of many younger evangelicals only makes the challenge more difficult.  It is difficult to evaluate the role experience should play in an ethos dominated by rhetoric formed by experience and by the particularities of people's perspectives.  It is hard to question the value of stories or experience when our diet largely consists of prose that must find its roots there to be treated as "authentic" or "real" or what have you.

What do institutions do?

I don't mean here the institution of the church, as conservative evangelicals have worn out the printing presses making the case that younger Christians oughta love the church along with Jesus.  Nor do I mean the obviously visible institution of the government.  Seriously, of the writing of books on evangelicals and politics there needs to be an end, or at least a very lengthy moratorium.

The problem, I think, extends beyond those:  what do other, non-governmental institutions do, like the "soft institutions" of family or marriage or the economy?  And what is the relationship between institutions and the form of particular, individual lives and experiences?

One way of distilling my concern with the "radical" movement is that its emphases don't take shape within a robust appreciation for the culture-transmitting role that institutions play.  Andy Crouch has recently written smart thoughts about the need for institutions:  but conservative Christians need to go further, to wrestle more particularly with how institutional forms affect individual lives and vice versa.

Consider marriage, for instance:  the debate over gay marriage is a debate over how a cultural institution is shaped by the people who make it up and the acts and pursuits they engage in, and how that institution reciprocally forms them and even those who do not enter it.  There's been lots of talk among conservatives about how to improve the traditionalist case for marriage.  Yet all the talk of narrative and persuasion will come to nothing as long as the logic of how institutions work remains ambiguous and undefined.

How can we root out our low expectations?  

Where to start?  How about the classroom.  Private Christian schools ought to be much more than simply cloistered communities where students get the same education they'd get elsewhere with a Bible gloss put on it.  Standards matter, which many  private Christian high schools apparently forget.  It's almost as though we all believe that as long as we're saying Bible stuff, that's enough, regardless of how hard we are working or how rigorously we are thinking.  When I taught high school, helping my students that they were capable of far more than anyone had ever asked of them was my first priority.   (Want a refreshing contrast for high schoolers?  Try Wheatstone Academy, Biola's Torrey Academy, or Houston Baptist's new Academy.)

There's a financial dimension to our low expectations for people, I'll grant.  Many youth pastors and Christian educators have their bills paid by the number of people they can retain.  Making things difficult is a sure-fire way to not succeed, they think, and so standards drop to keep paying people around.  But the paradox is that if you hold students to a higher standard, they respond and like it.  

But while I started at education, it's not the only realm where we don't expect much from people.  In our preaching, in small group discipleship, in our leadership circles, there is a widespread presumption that because people are so busy they simply want to be told what to do.  It's pragmatism of the most pernicious sort: a pragmatism that postures as a genuine concern for people while simply placating their felt needs.  And when that pragmatic impulse is aligned with an emphasis on maintaining our numbers or an audience, it has the appearance of making a difference without the substance.  It's an unholy concoction, but one that pervades our evangelical culture.

Or take our sexual ethics.  The call to holiness must be accompanied and encompassed by the reminder of the reality of grace, but fundamentally it is a call to perfection, the pronouncement of moral expectations that are far more rigorous than any of us could meet at any given moment.  To give you a sense of how much things have changed, the early Christians debated about whether it was better to commit suicide than commit a sin.  That discussion had its own problems, but the point is pretty clear:  They were willing to die rather than commit a moral wrong.  By way of contrast, many of our leading writers are interested in finding ways to sanction masturbation and distributing contraception to single Christians because we apparently cannot imagine calling single people to a life without sexual gratification.

And if you think young evangelicals offer any sort of hope (at the moment) on this score, remember this:  We talk a good game about being more educated than our parents and being less pragmatically driven, but our most popular writing happens in one-sentence paragraphs with lots of bold font.

What role do the affections play in education and formation?  

When Rod Dreher describes the case for traditional marriage as depending on a "cosmology," he's on to something.  Traditional Christian teaching has a cluster of assumptions and stances that are mutually reinforcing.  And one of the most important is that the emotional life--our affections--needs to be formed and reformed in accordance with an external, normative standard of goods. Certain ways of feeling are inappropriate responses to the world, and certain feelings fit it.  If you can see that and are convinced of it, then it reorders the questions:  our affections and emotions become interesting but not finally determinative of our lives, as they stand in need of evaluation in light of that order of goods.

It was once the case that the educative process included this sort of formation and was geared toward it.  But no longer, which means that many young people don't share the basic framework that makes Christianity plausible.  It's hard to make the case for a traditional sexual ethics plausible as long as our affections and emotions are removed from beneath the shadow of doubt.

What is authority?  

Conservative Christians in the 20th century invested a massive amount of time and energy defending the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, largely because it was being called into question.  Yet they have sometimes presumed that the doctrine of authority would simply flow from those other two positions.  But the nature of Scripture's authority, it's limits, its purpose, its relationship to the church and other authorities, its role in moral deliberation--these are difficult questions that have not received the attention that they deserve, nor does affirming Scripture's inerrancy and infallibility provide much guidance for them.

Only the authority of Scripture isn't the only locus of authority that needs clarifying.  What is the authority of the church?  What sort of authority does the pastor have, and what are its limits?  What can parents command or counsel, and on what grounds?  What is political authority, and what are the conditions for obedience and disobedience?  Is such authority unique?  The notions of authority at work in the various realms of life have something in common with each other, yet authority takes unique forms within the institutions (see the question above) that bears it.  But in all, there is a fundamental question about the form authority takes and its relationship to reality that deserves close consideration.

I realize the above has more questions than answers.  It's something of a prolegomena.  Think of it as the outlines of where I would want evangelicals to devote their intellectual (and monetary!) capital for the next few years.  Because the more I think about the challenges we face, the more these five areas keep reasserting themselves.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.