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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

I think we should stop shrinking back.

May 30th, 2023 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

There’s an old Hauerwas quote that a Mennonite friend of mine never tires of sharing:

Christians are often tempted, particularly in this time called modern, to say more than we know. We are so tempted because we fear we do not believe what we say we believe. So we try to assure ourselves that we believe what we say we believe by convincing those who do not believe what we believe that they really believe what we believe once what we believe is properly explained.

As a result we end up saying more than we know because what we believe—or better, what we do—cannot be explained but only shown. The word we have been given for such a showing is “witness.”

I am not sure about everything in that quote. But one sentence in particular strikes me as increasingly essential for understanding one of the foremost temptations set before anyone who cares about evangelization: “So we try to assure ourselves that we believe what we say we believe by convincing those who do not believe what we believe that they really believe what we believe once what we believe is properly explained.”

Two examples of this phenomenon spring immediately to mind.

First, amongst a certain sort of neo-evangelical, missionally engaged Christian there can be a tendency to subtly shift their evangelistic appeal in ways that obscure the demands of Christian discipleship. Effectively, the play is to convince progressive neighbors that actually the best version of all the things they care about—inclusivity, liberation, justice, etc.—is found in Christianity.

The ultimate appeal then becomes “so if you really want to be inclusive, you’ll be a Christian.” This is right, of course, in one very particular sense: Because the truest, best sort of inclusion is inclusive of virtue in a truly catholic, universal way and exclusive of vice, then yes, to be Christian is to be inclusive in the best sense of the term. But we need to be precise and careful here.

If you aren’t explicit about this point, then what your audience will hear is, “Oh, I can have all my politics unscathed and unchanged and be a Christian.” This is a kind of twisted, upside-down version of Tim Keller’s evangelistic model, in fact, since Tim’s whole model works by destabilizing how people understand certain terms and values and then subjecting those terms to a Christian moral critique.

Oddly enough, both the evangelical center left and the neo-fundamentalist reactionary right commit this error. To cite one recent example, Christian Winter recently argued for “Christian vitalism,” in an essay that never once so much as names any distinctively Christian virtues that ought to shape our understanding of “vitality” or “life.” It is a perfect mirror of the very thing many associated with the site which hosted the article routinely accuse men like Russell Moore of doing.

The problem in both cases remains the same: It offers the hearers cheap grace. There is truth, of course, in the notion that the church is an inclusive community just as there is truth in the idea that God calls us to live life to the full, to have dominion, to use our strength to accomplish glorious things.

Yet there is a subtle missiological problem here that can prove disastrous if it isn’t addressed. Terms and concepts are not value-neutral. Your conception of “inclusivity” doesn’t exist in a cordoned off zone that renders it immune to Christian critique. Once you have submitted your life to Christ and been baptized, Jesus tells you what is and isn’t inclusive. If you encounter Jesus, your idea of “inclusive” has to change, for your conception of inclusivity must now come from Jesus, not from 21st century western progressivism.

Likewise, if you encounter Jesus, your idea of embracing “life” or pursuing glory and honor must change, for your conception of that must now come from Jesus. And Jesus once said that the greatest in his kingdom are servants and that those who seek the place of honor and glory will lose it and those who embrace humility and meekness will have honor. This, of course, is precisely why the vitalists, following their lord Nietzsche, don’t like Christianity. In both cases, there is a conflict between the stated values of the hearer and the teachings of Jesus. If that conflict is not recognized and named, we will deceive our listeners and even ourselves.

To get more concrete, at some point you have to talk to the progressive about sex and gender. At some point that progressive individual is going to have to recognize that they’ve made an idol out of a very modern conception of “inclusivity,” and that part of following Jesus means turning away from that idol.

Charlie Dates explained this well in his Mother’s Day sermon last year, saying that,

Listen my brother or my sister, God put in your bones who you are. And you will never experience the goodness and the greatness of God till you surrender to what God made you.

Likewise, at some point you’re going to have to break it to your BAP-loving vitalist friend that Jesus says greatness is service, that the first will be last, and that the meek will inherit the earth, and that our dignity is not grounded in our accomplishments or strength, and that Paul lists gentleness and kindness and patience amongst the fruit produced by God’s spirit indwelling his followers. Oh, and you’ll have to tell them that they’re now required to be chaste. Yet virtually none of this showed up in Winter’s essay.

I have become concerned that as Christians we have lost our nerve. Evangelicals certainly have. We are so cognizant of our outsider status that we spend enormous amounts of mental and emotional energy lusting after various sorts of inner rings. Much of the evangelical fracturing story is, in fact, the story of the wildly different inner rings we are lusting after. The neo-evangelicals lust after the approval of blue state progressives and so shrink back from conflict with them—which, again, is actually a sharp departure from the witness of the most successful missionary to blue state progressives of the past 25 years.

And yet there is an irony here in as much as the people most apt to make this observation over the past several years—anti-winsome reactionaries—are now making the exact same error as they seek to address vitalism. They don’t want the blue state progressive inner ring, sure, but it is increasingly obvious that they very much desire a place in the anti-woke reactionary inner ring. These reactionaries seek the appearance of strength yet seldom seem to possess the reality; they instead meme their way to relevance with the American right in a way that bears an uncanny resemblance to the playbook of hyper-online exvangelicals with their substacks.

What I want to call us back to is not the cheap grace that the timid centrists and effeminate reactionaries seem drawn to like moth to flame. Rather, I want us to go back to a costly grace that actually forces a person to confront the shape of their own life and repent of their deepest idols. And we can do this because it is what Jesus calls us to do and because Jesus gives us what we need to do it.

Put it this way: If it seems too strange to you to imagine frankly endorsing orthodox teachings on sexuality in your blue state enclave or frankly endorsing Christ’s teachings about servant leadership in your red state reactionary scene, consider this: To be a Christian is to be a person who believes the Apostle’s Creed, prays the Lord’s Prayer, and obeys the Ten Commandments. Take those away and you’re no longer reckoning with Christianity. But if that is the case, then is there anything crazier than all that about frankly embracing the Christian sexual ethic or Christian teachings about gentleness and kindness? I think not. So why shrink back from these things in your own cultural settings? You’re already committed to “crazy,” as it were.

In other words: If you have already expressed belief in these basic elements of the faith enshrined in our creeds, why on earth would you be embarrassed by anything else the faith teaches or feel the need to try and squash Christianity into the preconceived notions of the sexual revolution or The Bronze Age Mindset? Do you believe that Jesus is God, that he suffered and died and was buried and rose again, or do you not? And if you do believe that, why on earth would you fear the arched eyebrow of the progressive or the mocking memes of the BAPist edgelord?

Ours is a moment of confusion and obfuscation, abounding in insincere speech and propaganda. In such a moment one way of following the command to love neighbor is to speak plainly. We are asking much of people when we ask them to follow Jesus. The least we can do is have some confidence that what Jesus is asking them to do is actually good.

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).