The Naughty Boy of Evangelicalism

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One of the things I learned from the late Gary North was the three-fold division regarding different kinds of religion. There were, according to his taxonomy, these three: power religion, escape religion, and dominion religion.

This grid can be applied to all religions, which means it can also be applied to the evangelical subsets that exist within the broader religious realm.

Evangelicals also divide up neatly into these three categories, but before we get to that, we need to survey the current state of affairs. This is because the three evangelical subsets can best be evaluated against the backdrop of the prevailing faith of our culture, which would be the . . .

Power Monkeys

The dominant religion of our day is most emphatically a power religion. They are after control, nothing but control, and with no remainder. You, the people, are a saddled horse, and they are standing by, booted, spurred, and ready to ride.

They want to control everything. They have claimed authority over how much water comes out of your shower head. They want control over whether your car will start or not. They want to be able to define any and all dissent as hate speech. No lovers of liberty here. No sons of liberty will be welcome in the suffocating world they are building.

Having rejected the bedrock faith that lay underneath America’s founding—that faith being an evangelical Calvinism—this means that our elites have abandoned a belief in a predestining God. They have not abandoned a belief in predestination however, for they still believe in that—ardently they believe in that. Whenever divine predestination goes, some people like to assume that it will somehow be replaced with fluffy marshmallow clouds, bendy bright rainbows, unicorns, and free will for everybody. But when a sovereign God goes, these are the kind of johnnies who immediately see a job opening. They want to replace the sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of man, and by “man” they mean some men. And by “some men” they mean them.

I mean, they want to build smart toilets so they can monitor your poo. That way, if you have been eating too many fatty foods, something can be done about you as a pressing social problem. “That boy over on Maple Avenue needs to have his social credit score lowered.”

That is the backdrop. That is the current climate. And if that is the current climate, then the pressing need of the hour is a different sort of climate change. But not all evangelicals think so.

Three Kinds of Evangelicals

So my interest in this post has  to do with these three categories—power, escape, dominion—as they apply to professing evangelical believers. I divide them up this way. 

First, those believers who have a yen for power may be called friends-of-the-regime. They do not make claims of control over your life directly, but they certainly want to be on the good side of those who do. They want to be fully cooperative with them, believing that helping the tyrants forge your chains should be called something like “loving your neighbor.” These are the pastors and elders who want to assume the very best about the latest contradictory fog bank from the CDC, and who assume the very worst about the consciences of their own most faithful parishioners.

Second, those believers who are keeping their head down until the rapture are seeking a way of escape. Or, if dispensational theology is not their bag, this kind of person might retreat into pietism or confessionalism. The pietist wants to keep his own personal nose clean until God sees fit to take him out of this dirty world, and so he wants to escape unnoticed in this world until he can escape unnoticed to a better world. And the escapist confessionalist wants to sit in the red sports car of the historic Reformed tradition, fire that baby up, put the clutch all the way in, all the way to the floor, and, together with R. Scott Clark, make vroom vroom noises.

And then, third, we have those with a mind for dominion. These are the believers who seek to labor under the grace of God, seeking to have God load those labors up with what I call Deuteronomic blessings in this life, and in the life to come, all of Christ. This third group is the historic Reformed position. It was held by John Calvin, Pierre Viret, Martin Bucer, John Knox, the Westminster divines, Jonathan Edwards, Abraham Kuyper, and, quite humbled to be included in such an august listing, and not quite sure how I came to be added to it, me.

Another Pass

In the first category, I would place all professing evangelicals who are woke, or semi-woke—these are transformationalists, but they want (wittingly or not) the kind of transformations that are being sought by the commies and the cool kids, the devil and all his minions. They reject transformations that are sought in obedience to the Great Commission, but accept any transformations demanded by the progressive agenda, to which, after the fact, they are willing to attach a Bible verse. They attach Bible verses the way a junior high kid in a Christian school attaches them to his science fair project, long after the research is done. I believe the word I am looking for instead of attaches is festoons.

In the second category, I would include all believers who think that “the world” is a place of irremediable evil. Sometimes the mask is on, and sometimes off, but nothing can be done about the essential nature of that black world. Because nothing can be done about it, the only thing for outsiders (believers) to do is to figure out how to cope. The most obvious coping mechanism is to hide out, hunker down, and to reapply the words that Jesus gave us, interpreting them as “when they persecute you in one world, flee to the next” (Matt. 10:23).

In the last category, I am talking about biblical transformationalists. They believe that the task of the church is to disciple all the nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus taught. As somebody once said (Matt. 28:18-20). These folks believe that the Christian faith is a religion of world conquest. Not to put too fine a point on it, all nations. All tribes. All languages. Every thought captive. All disciplines. Every field of study. Every square inch.

So the first category wants the world to be transformed, with that agenda of transformation being established by man. They want to be progressives, so long as progress is defined without any reference to a final and authoritative Word from God. Thus in our era progress is defined in terms that invariably increases the power of the state. The weather is going to kill us all unless we surrender all our rights to a centralized authority.

The second category is made up of people who believe that the world cannot be transformed. Our job is to survive this world, not change it.

And the last group believes that the only standard for conservatism and progressivism needs to be the holy Scriptures. We are conservatives, and what we conserve is the work the Holy Spirit has accomplished in history to date. We are biblical progressives, but what we want to progress toward is the work that the Holy Spirit has in mind for the future of our world.

Some individuals, mentioned in a moment, sometimes float between categories. But most evangelical teachers can be largely identified with one of these three groups. I will give a few more names as examples in a few minutes.

Moving the Overton Window

The Overton Window describes the range of acceptable discourse in any given age, and over time that window moves. In my lifetime, the Overton Window has moved sharply and radically to the left. Many Christians have moved right along with it, wishing that it were otherwise, and hoping for the day when they might be able to push it back a little bit. Christians in this category are generally pietists of the second category, but they are the kind of unreflecting Christians who, as my friend Jared Longshore once put it, “want good neighbors.” They think that the pagan world is fundamentally evil, but ought to have the decency to behave decently. But real paganism doesn’t function that way. What Christians in the second category are about to discover is just how influenced by Christianity the world they assumed to be thoroughly pagan was. Real paganism, without a vestige of Christian influence, is going to be a hellhole.

What they do not recognize is that the Overton Window cannot be moved from inside the window. That can only be done from outside the window, by people who are willing to say things that are outside the range of acceptable discourse. Things that will be thought to be rude, crude, and unattractive by all the respectable people. If the Overton Window is to be moved back in a more sane direction, it going to have to be done by someone very disreputable indeed.

“What counts as winsomeness in any community is determined by that community, not by those looking to be found winsome to them. In blue communities, partisan political preferences proved increasingly non-negotiable.“

Mark Devine, in a must read article forThe Federalist

And thus you see the relentless logic that drives me to continue on in my thankless but assigned role as the naughty boy of evangelicalism. You may not want to do it just yet, but you can thank me later.

As I type these words, I am on an airplane flying back to the northwest. How much will it affect my final destination if I get up out of my seat, and walk southeast toward the back of the plane? Am I really going in a direction that is any different than the other passengers? This is a metaphor for what our collective evangelical leadership been doing for the last generation or so. They have raised quite a lot of money, from many evangelicals in the donor class, in order to be able to fulfill their most urgent mission, which has been to walk to the back of the plane.

When You Get to the Binary Choice

What sometimes happens, either literally or in a metaphor, is that you have 17 different warlords, all of them shooting at each other. When it happens literally, what you have is a failed state. When it happens metaphorically, what you have is the comments thread for a random You Tube video.

When everyone is free simply to opine, the choices are limitless. Nuance abounds. A thousand viewpoints bloom. There you are, an American tourist in Kiev, sitting at a sidewalk cafe, smoking a pipe, and holding forth on the problems of Eastern Europe which, in your view, go all the way back to the defenestration of Prague, and perhaps even before that. Your view isn’t exactly that of anyone else that you have ever met, and so you are smoothing out the wrinkles of your somewhat rumpled but very sophisticated take. Then the Russians invade.

All of a sudden, with a jolt, your world becomes binary. You have to hop into your rental car and decide which direction to drive. Do you take refuge with the Russians, or do you take refuge with the Ukrainians? You might want to take refuge with the cogent sentiments you were just now urging upon your compatriots, but those sentiments, as it turns out, hold no territory.

In others words, sometimes you are overtaken by events. Decisions you didn’t know you had made just show up at your front door. They barge into the living room of your heart, sit down, and put their muddy boots on your coffee table.

Take another metaphor. Please.

The now thoroughly discredited leadership of the evangelical movement has been our Neville Chamberlain, and our last two years of chaos have been Hitler’s invasion of Poland. I speak in a dark parable. But the coming leadership of evangelicalism will need to be Churchillian—or we perish.

As representing our Neville, I am speaking of the Tim Kellers and the Russell Moores. There is no need to describe them as wanting the commies to win, as some on the hard right do, but it is certainly the case that they have wanted to be winsome to the commies, and at some point they decided it would be all right to let the commies define what that winsomeness needed to look like. Such men do not believe themselves to be appeasers. They believe they are just being winsome, and they believe that winsomeness can stop or move the Overton Window from within that window. But it cannot. That thing is on wheels.

But it is never a good idea to let commies define anything. The people moving that window toward totalitarianism have already budgeted for the presence of winsome Christians. They are already factored in.

The lines between these groups are not watertight, and some people float between them. Some folks are doctrinally in the second group, but for various reasons make forays or sorties into the world of the third group, like John Piper on life issues, or John MacArthur on religious liberty issues. And Al Mohler teaches from the vantage of the third group, but whoever holds sway over hiring and firing at the seminary is in thrall to the first group.

One of the great humiliations in all of this can be seen in how the Reformed, who should have been in the forefront of cultural leadership in all of this, have abdicated in so many ways. Our doctrinal and historical heritage is ALL ABOUT THIS KIND OF THING, and yet our soi disant generals have not touched the basic issues with a barge pole. And this was not because there was no one around who was able to speak to these issues—there have been. But the Big Eva gate-keepers successfully blocked them and kept their shiny events respectable. In the great big conference called evangelicalism, the men who were actually addressing such things capably were relegated to the workshops in the back halls of the convention center—men like C.R. Wiley, George Grant, Kevin Swanson, Rod Martin, Tom Ascol, Andrew Sandlin, Peter Jones, and a number of others. They were successfully kept well away from the plenaries and the big microphones.

Rod Dreher provides good diagnosis like he is in the third group, but his lack of a solid eschatology puts him functionally in the second group.

But Kevin DeYoung is still in a position to do a lot of good.

A Torrent of Content

Around this time a critic will stand up and say something like, “I see what you are doing with all this, Wilson. You are positioning yourself to be hailed as the next great leader for our time. You want to be Bard, holding the fatal arrow, as the dragon Smaug circles overhead. You read too much.”

No, no. Not really. The leader we all need, our obscure monk from Wittenburg, will usher in a lot of surprises all around. And I assume we will be as surprised as anybody.

But I will say this much. When the moment of crisis comes, as I believe it actually has, we want to be in the thick of it. This is why you have seen, and will continue to see, a torrent of content coming out of Moscow. Evangelicals have a lot of catching up to do, and given how we have let the clock run down, the whole thing will have to now be done as a crash course.

And here in Moscow, we do have a leg up in one sense. Our endeavors have not been a crash course. We have been working on all of these issues for decades now. So learn from what Logos School has done. Learn from what New St. Andrews has done. Learn from what Canon Press has done. Learn from what Christ Church has done. Stop burning daylight, man.