White Evangelicalism Does Not Want to Be Reformed.
A response to the CT article stating “The Church Needs Reformation, Not Deconstruction.”
Earlier this week, Tish Harrison Warren published an article for Christianity Today called “The Church Needs Reformation, Not Deconstruction.” It is billed as “a short guide to the exvangelical movement.” While it does not quote from any well-known exvangelical figures, it does link to Brad Onishi’s (disclosure: my friend and fellow Irreverent Media Group podcaster) 2019 write-up of the movement.
Let’s start with what I agree with in this piece: I also think the church needs to be reformed. Crucially, I don’t think the white evangelical church wants to be reformed. Let’s look at what Warren writes.
Harrison Warren begins by framing ‘deconstruction’ as buzzword, and the term ‘exvangelical’ as an identity marker and and activist movement. She then pivots toward advising her readers how to engage with exvangelicals and ‘deconstructors.’
Still, we have a responsibility as a church to thoughtfully engage wider cultural conversations around deconstruction. Jesus is the truth that sets us free. Asking hard questions about faith is normal. It’s a necessary part of Christian maturity. But there are better and worse ways to critically assess claims to truth. So take these as helpful guidelines:
First, distinguish between deconstruction and reform. The church is a Christ-made institution, but it is also a sinful institution. It always needs reform. If a person’s frustration with the church arises from the biblical vision of community, that’s not deconstruction. It’s calling the church back to the gospel. (Emphasis mine.)
Name-checking reform, pursuing separation
From the outset, Harrison Warren is conflating the personal process of deconstruction one’s personal faith with the corporate process of reforming institutions. This is an important distinction, and by conflating deconstruction with reform, she is able to bypass the critical role of power dynamics inherent to cultural & institutional reform. She writes:
There have always been reformers in the church, and we did not call them deconstructors. This is not merely semantics. To call something to reform (as opposed to simply destroying it) is to implicitly recognize the integrity of its original design.
As an example, I am often dismayed by the misogyny I see in the church. But I also recognize that the notion of women’s intrinsic dignity is given to me by the church itself. Compared to the pagan world around it, the early church elevated the status of women. The idea of innate human equality emerges out of the best of Christian thought. We can’t deconstruct the church while drawing from its very logic, beliefs, and tradition.
This framing omits many important details.
First: today’s exvangelicals, post-evangelicals, deconstructors, and decolonizers are yesterday’s reformers. Many of our own stories reflect a desire for our own communities to hear us when we raised concerns & need for reform in our churches. Many exvangelicals leave their church as a matter of last resort and self-preservation after fighting tooth and nail against church leadership that has hardened its heart.
Second, this framing overlooks how white evangelical institutions intentionally overlook, omit, and co-opt discussions about reform. One example is the 2018 GC2 Summit on #ChurchToo, which declined to invite the queer woman who started the movement, Emily Joy Allison. A more recent example is Christianity Today’s own hit podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, which has been criticized for not centering survivors of Mark Driscoll’s abuse, among other things. (Read Jessica Johnson’s write-up of the podcast on Religion Dispatches for much greater detail & context.)
Third & finally, when given the option to “reform,” churches choose time and again to split. In this era, this is most evident in church splits around human sexuality and the affirmation of LGBTQ+ persons. Tish Harrison Warren herself is part of an Anglican splinter group, the Anglican Church in America, that is not part of the Anglican Communion. The motivating factor for this split? The ACNA’s member churches did not want to affirm LGBTQ+ Christians or perform marriages for them. This story repeats itself in the Lutheran tradition (with the NALC forming after the ELCA moved toward LGBTQ+ affirmation), the United Methodist tradition, and just this month, the Reformed Church in America.
This isn’t specific to historical & mainline denominations. For their part, white evangelical churches & megachurches are so evasive about their true stances on LGBTQ+ affirmation and the status of women in their congregation that a service like Church Clarity is necessary. The inevitable request from church leaders to “grab a coffee” to discuss these “complicated issues” is so common that it has become an instant 🚩 and source of trauma for queer people and their allies.
I’ll return to the ideas about “innate human quality” and that “we can’t deconstruct the church while drawing from its very logic, beliefs, and tradition” later.
Staying in your lane vs. staying complicit with white supremacy
Harrison Warren continues:
Second, avoid inadvertently centering white, Western voices. Often, when white Christians deconstruct their faith due to racism and injustice in the church, they don’t then learn from or join Black, Latino, or immigrant churches. We need to listen more to evangelical people of color who have a legacy of holding together a commitment to both orthodoxy and justice.
I agree that white evangelicals need to listen to and learn from non-white voices. I also agree that those white people who leave white evangelicalism must do so as well, no matter the term they use to describe themselves. For my part, as a cis white man, that means always being receptive to correction, funding the work of others who speak with greater authority to those issues, and working alongside people whose lived experiences are different than mine.
It also means that over the course of the last few years, I have become more specific with my language and critique. My work is focused on white evangelicalism, particularly in the US; I cannot speak to other forms of evangelicalism. For instance, the Black evangelical church in the US has its own distinct history—in part due to the white evangelical church’s racism, such as the complete absence of black evangelical denominations invited to join the National Association of Evangelicals when it formed. As Anthea Butler writes in White Evangelical Racism1:
“At the NAE’s founding, no Black denominations were represented, even though major Black denominations such as the National Baptist Convention and the Church of God in Christ could have easily signed the statement of belief. Segregation was not just for housing or buses but for churches as well.”
I encourage all white evangelicals and white exvangelicals to interrogate their personal whiteness and find ways in their own lives to contribute to the flourishing of BIPOC people without appropriation. I also encourage them o interrogate the histories of their traditions with open eyes. This is increasingly difficult for white evangelicals to do when influential leaders in their communities like Owen Strachan (who wrote extensively for Christianity Today in the past) deride and demonize critical race theory, and large groups like Cru are divided over it.
There are absolutely evangelicals of color who maintain their association with evangelicalism. There are also campaigns like #LeaveLOUD. There is more than one way to pursue justice as well as a “commitment to orthodoxy” - but who is determining what ‘orthodoxy’ means, and what does justice look like? And what has today’s white evangelical church done to earn its place at the table—any table—in those discussions?
Oh Capitalism, My Capitalism!
Tish Harrison Warren then turns her attention to “gimmicks and manipulation:”
Third, steer clear of gimmicks or manipulation. Josh Harris, of I Kissed Dating Goodbye fame, recently received jeers from across the theological spectrum for his $275 course on deconstruction, which he later canceled. But the phenomenon isn’t limited to him. A month ago, I was greeted by a Facebook ad for a deconstruction coach. There is now an industry dedicated to monetizing deconstruction.
Parts of the exvangelical movement drop the doctrinal commitments of evangelicalism but retain the incessant faddishness and marketing gimmickry endemic to it. But the consumeristic shallowness of contemporary evangelicalism needs to be deconstructed—taken apart and subverted—not duplicated.
Given white evangelicalism’s historical role in transitioning the American economy from producerism to consumerism, this is a short-sighted critique. Books like Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America by Daniel Vaca, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism by Timothy Gloege, and One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse are just a few examples of deeply researched books that explore the consumerism inherent to white evangelicalism and its role in creating the very problem she bemoans.
Today’s evangelicalism is no exception. Here’s what CT’s website looks like, with admonitions to give and ads running to monetize their views:
Further, the tools of “the creator economy” are essentially secular versions of direct support that churches have used for centuries. As a result, people making content for those audiences must be aware of the trauma they may activate when asking for money.2
That today’s creators talking about issues related to ‘deconstruction’ must resort to funding tactics speaks volumes about how American society and governance does not meet the needs of its people. Until plans like universal basic income (in addition to reparations) and common-sense issues like universal health care are achieved here, such things will be necessary. And while there may be disingenuous actors who are looking to profit—or conversely, make enough to earn a living from their labor—on the popularity of deconstruction & exvangelical content, this is a broad social issue that is not unique to this corner of the internet.
That a deconstruction coach is necessary at all reflects poorly on the white evangelical church, not that the coach requires payment for their services or advertises them. To put it in capitalistic terms, they are just meeting a market need. On that note:
Invoke Steelmen, Engage Strawmen
Harrison Warren’s last point:
Last, engage steelmen—the strongest versions of an argument—not strawmen. Many of those who most vocally deconstruct Christianity jettison a thin version of American fundamentalism and mistake it for the whole tradition. But much of what bothers us about certain parts of the evangelical community—for instance, anti-intellectualism, a lack of compassion or concern for justice, enmeshment with political conservatism, a suspicion of mystery—are largely absent in, say, Christian patristic thought.
There has never been a pure, perfect moment in the church. Still, if you look at the broad swath of Christian faith as represented in Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant thought, a shared tradition emerges—one that offers profound hope in our particular moment.
There’s many problems with this. First, it assumes that exvangelicals have not deeply consider the claims and histories of modern white evangelicalism, the larger Protestant traditions, and the full breadth of Christianity. It essentially assumes laziness - a laziness that is not mirrored in the constant deluge of content shared using things like the #exvangelical hashtag available online.
It also distracts from the current issues plaguing today’s white American churches (evangelical and otherwise) by making broad appeals to the entirety of Christian history. It loses sight of the fact that what exvangelicals and other former evangelicals are pushing back against is due to their experience in the white evangelical tradition specifically. Whether they decide to reject all of Christianity or reconstruct a healthier form of faith in another branch of Christian practice or another belief system is their own personal choice - but their starting point is evangelicalism.
Which brings me back to her earlier statement that “the idea of innate human equality emerges out of the best of Christian thought. We can’t deconstruct the church while drawing from its very logic, beliefs, and tradition.”
I disagree. We have to deconstruct white evangelicalism while drawing upon it, because we were formed by it. Even if people reject belief in presuppositional worldviews that are so common in white evangelical circles, the first vision of the world you inherit from your family and community has an indelible, inescapable impact. My New Testament professor used this analogy: when people are asked to look out a window and say what they see, they’ll describe the scenery—the trees, the birds, the cars—but very few will say “I see glass, I see window panes, I see the framing of the window.” He then mixed metaphors and said that it is difficult to change our first vision of our selves, the world, and big things like God, but we can adapt with new lenses that correct our vision. That we use the tools given to us is no way to seek to discredit the legitimacy of the critiques leveled with them.
The idea of innate human equality emerging from the best of Christian thought elides the idea of total human depravity emerging from the worst of it. Original sin, predestination, and other noxious orthodoxies corrode the soul and its sense of worth. In the tug-of-war between total depravity and the vision of humanity bearing the image of God, total depravity has won out in white evangelicalism, which avers that humanity’s default condition is sinfulness, and sole worth is in a violent redemption to avoid our justified damnation.
Identity is not static and it is not singular. Neither is faith, or a lack thereof. Exvangelical is one identity marker and helpful tool, but it need not define your entire life, as white evangelicalism seeks to do. Use it for as long as you see fit. But I do expect more nuanced presentations of exvangelical perspectives from white evangelical institutions. They have the power, influence, capital, and a legacy stretching back over a hundred years, and are pushing back against those who were not convinced to carry their version of faith into the future.
The white evangelical church has had ample chance to reform. It’s demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t want to.