Evangelicals Shouldn’t Criticize Evangelicalism (Unless the Evangel Really Matters)


This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

A year or so ago, my friend David French and I were speaking to a group of young congressional staffers on Capitol Hill when one young man, a Republican and an evangelical Christian, asked us why we would criticize what’s happening right now on the Right.

“With all the hostility coming toward Christians from secularism and progressive ideology,” he asked, “why not punch Left instead of Right?”

Quite often, one will hear this sort of complaint from professing evangelical Christians—often in response to some conversation-generating book, such as Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne or Tim Alberta’s new work The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory. These objections are often couched in terms of maintaining the “unity of the church,” usually picturing those evangelicals who dissent from Christian nationalism or white identity politics as betrayers, with an unspoken subtext: “The first rule of Born-Again Club is that we don’t talk about Born-Again Club.”

Sometimes this critique will extend all the way to the series of scandals issuing from American evangelical Christianity, at times with the argument that evangelicals “attacking our own side” on such matters will only cause unbelievers to hate us more and Christians to trust their leaders less.

This argument is akin to the “No Enemies to the Left” policy of some sectors of American progressivism in the middle of the last century toward the Soviet Union and Communist totalitarianism. One might whisper that Joseph Stalin is awful, but saying so publicly would only make the case for authoritarian anti-Communists. One might recognize that figures such as Alger Hiss sure seem to be KGB assets, but one could never say so. After all, with McCarthyism at a fever pitch and riddled with false accusations about Communist infiltrators, why would one acknowledge that there actually might be some?

The strategy kind of makes sense in Darwinian terms if a group—whether a labor union, a political party, or a church—is a tribal unit evolved to huddle together around the fire, no matter what, for fear of the saber-toothed tigers in the dark. And yet, even if one were to accept that premise, the strategy doesn’t hold together. That’s especially true in a context of avowed commitment to Christian orthodoxy.

First of all, the talking points are self-refuting. If Christians who criticize other Christians—especially in the hearing of unbelievers—are wrongfully attacking the unity of the church and should instead be speaking mostly of “all the good things we do,” then why is it not wrong for Christians to criticize Christians who criticize Christians? At the root of that argument is the very sort of deconstructionist moral relativism we were taught to reject.

More importantly, though, the “just punch Left” argument is, at best, a revelation of unfamiliarity with the actual text of the Bible and, at worst, a disavowal of the authority of the Bible. Moreover, such an argument reveals an agreement with the enemies of the Christian church—that the church is just another partisan tribe.

Which is worse in Scripture: the pagan idols of the nations around Israel or the golden calves that Jeroboam placed at Bethel and Dan? Throughout the Scriptures, God denounces and ridicules the false gods of the nations—but almost always as a warning to his own people not to do likewise.

The golden calves of Jeroboam, like the golden calf of Aaron before him, are not just wrong; they are also blasphemous. Jeroboam, the king of Israel, used the name of God to carry out a political agenda—to keep people from traveling to Judah for worship—as though he were speaking with the authority of God (1 Kings 12:25–33). The Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures denounces this in the harshest possible terms: “And this thing became a sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth” (1 Kings 13:34, ESV).

Jeroboam’s action is perfectly rational in starkly political terms. Every nation in the world, after all, was united around its gods, around its worship. That’s why treaties and alliances and intermarriages almost always included an importation of someone else’s gods.

All that is bad enough, but it was far worse because God actually exists, because he had actually spoken. Jeroboam was not just personally sinning, nor was he just leading a community to sin. He was leading the covenant people of God to idolatry while telling them it was the worship of God.

This is why the apostle Paul wrote that the hypocrisies of his own people were even worse than the basest rebellion of the pagans. Of those who are to instruct the nations as a “light for those who are in the dark,” who then are committing the very sins they denounce, Paul wrote, “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:19, 24).

Theologically, Jesus had far more in common with the scribes and the Pharisees than with the tax collectors or even the Sadducees. His harshest denunciations, though, are directed toward the Pharisees. Why? It is precisely because these religious leaders “sit in Moses’ seat” (Matt. 23:2). As Jesus’ brother would later write, those who claim the teaching authority of the church “will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

In the big scheme of world politics, which matters more: an entire empire given over to sexual and cultural immorality as well as the worship of a whole pantheon of false gods—or one tiny gathering of Christians in a seaport town ignoring their own member’s misbehavior? The apostle Paul wrote that it was the latter.

In fact, he wrote that he was not telling people to disassociate from unbelievers—even the most fornicating, defrauding, idolatrous kind. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12–13, ESV).

With all the persecutions facing the church, why didn’t Paul “just punch pagan”? It’s not because he takes the church less seriously than he did the world but because he took it more seriously. The church is, he was told by Jesus, the body of Christ himself.

When a generation is more enamored with Values Voter Summits than with Vacation Bible School, the arguments for the prophets who denounced the “enemy” and spoke reassurance to God’s people seem plausible.

To say to Israel, “Behold, the vessels of the Lord’s house will now shortly be brought back from Babylon” (Jer. 27:16, ESV) can sound like building up the unity of the people. After all, isn’t that how confidence is maintained—by focusing on the “good things” and telling us everything is about to get better? Jeremiah, though, said that was a lie. And when he did, they said he was betraying his own people—that he was siding with the Babylonians (vv. 16–22).

Hananiah would have seemed a more loyal “evangelical” than Jeremiah. He punched at Nebuchadnezzar and cheered up those on “our side.” And God said through Jeremiah, “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies” (Jer. 28:15). In fact, Jeremiah said, Hananiah’s “unity” was “rebellion against the Lord” (v. 16).

Even at an infinitely less serious level than that of politics, for those of us who actually care about conservatism, the equation of “conservatism” with authoritarian demagoguery or sexual predation is actually the greatest possible victory for the Left. It leaves the country without principled conservatism and lets an entire generation equate conservatism with white nationalism, anti-constitutional illiberalism, or base misogyny. It makes progressivism, in many people’s minds, the only perceived alternative to insanity or cruelty.

Maybe that doesn’t matter much—unless conservative principles are really true. Even more so, the theological and moral credibility from the inside of evangelical Christianity—of the church that claims to be (imperfectly) the “light of the world,” offering a word of “thus saith the Lord” in an age of deconstructed authority and a call to repentance and faith in an era of relativized morality—is of crucial importance. Evangelical Christianity can only offer to the world what it has not given up on itself.

Baal, Artemis, and Odin will always be better tribal mascots than Christ and him crucified. “Punch at the other side” is always better advice for hacks and pundits than “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” will ever be. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” will always sound more like bad news than good to a faction wanting to win. That’s all self-evidently the case—unless there’s really a heaven, really a hell, really a gospel, really a God.

The gospel does not come with a gag order. The moment we believe it has is the moment we’ve given up on the words, You must be born again.

Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.





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