When it comes to evangelicalism, is separation the only option?
Last year my aunt died at age 98. It was a Monday, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. She had been very significant in my life, so I decided to fly in and out for the funeral the following Saturday.
The service was at the church I attended as a child, and besides close family members I saw people I had not seen in many years, both church members and relatives. After the burial, many of my relatives went to my aunt’s house. While there I not only had a variety of conversations but also observed the many paths of life and lifestyle choices among my relatives. While nothing was unfamiliar, it brought to the surface a truth that had been more prominent in my life while growing up: In my family, like any other, there are those whose way of life has greater and lesser resonance with mine. Some relatives have perspectives and priorities quite different from my own, even some I find lamentable. The specifics are not important; the greater point is that while I was aware of our variety of lifestyles, I was equally aware that we are also part of the same family.
This observation has come to mind recently when thinking about another family: the church. The blood of Christ has created a “forever family” of those reconciled to God. This is a family across time, generations, economic classes, races, ethnicities, geography, and a range of traditions and denominations. Many of us have had moments when we have been among this family and observed significant differences. Sometimes we find the differences intriguing, sometimes “interesting,” and sometimes perplexing or frustrating. And sometimes what we experience are not simply “differences” but actual encounters with the family’s “dark side.”
Whether it is due to the differences, great disappointments, traumatic experiences, disillusionment, or just plain weirdness, sometimes the desire arises to seek a permanent separation from the family. This desire can perhaps be strongest when we have been in communities or part of a larger tradition or denomination in which the aspirations for faithful Christian living are high.
Let’s bring it close: As one who still embraces the designation evangelical, I, like many others, am aware of this Bible-centric movement’s high aspirations as well as the multiple ways it has failed to meet—and has even contradicted—the aim to be completely faithful in word and deed to God’s self-revelation. While there is a cottage industry of books, blog posts, articles, and social media that unveil the many failings of the evangelical movement, from a more personal vantage point I freely admit to moments of great anguish, frustration, exasperation, and even the occasional temptation to run down a hallway screaming. Let the reader understand: While I have also had numerous great experiences with my tribe, here I want to acknowledge my personal resonance with familial disappointment. Whether it is in the evangelical context or another community (because every community has members who experience the temptation to seek separation in some manner), we are challenged by the great shortcomings of God’s forever family.
I myself contend with the disappointments by first acknowledging that the church is God’s people and not a family created by my own highest ideals. God is the one who decided to have a people for Himself through the redemptive work of Christ. When we consider the narrative of God’s people across the Bible, we find before and after the time of Christ a people that sometimes does amazing things by God’s power but also has great failings and lingering challenges; we do not see a people that has been perfected.
One example that recently came to mind is the Corinthian church. I sometimes tell my students that the church in Corinth is the “dysfunctional family of the New Testament” and that if reality television programs had existed in the first century, the Corinthians surely would fit the bill. Yet what I cannot escape is that Paul’s letters to this church not only expose their many crises, divisions, scandals, and failings—they also convey a commitment to see this wild church become a people tamed and redirected by the Holy Spirit. This makes me turn the inquiry toward myself and ask whether I have the same desire for change in the contemporary church—or whether I am more inclined to ask God to pass a sentence of summary excommunication on those I find most exasperating.
Another way I have thought of this is to consider the various familial failings as open or undiscovered vistas of sanctification, and in turn to consider what vistas I may need to discover if I wish to live more like one who belongs to God. The church always has people at various levels of maturity. They range from messy spiritual babies to the older folks who have experienced great transformation but who also have those moments of stubbornness that reveal their ongoing need for spiritual refinement. If we are a family in which no one has yet fully arrived, we are likely to encounter the praise and the blame, the glory and shame of a church properly labeled “under construction.”
Our family the church is full of deficiencies, including those that make us wish for separation. But the church is our forever family, and we are going to be together on the other side forever. Permanent separation is not our prerogative. This does not mean we may never leave a church or denomination. But it does mean part of our response to the darkest stories is the opportunity to consider our own need while asking God to bring justice, mercy, and light to all of our terrible shadows. And in the meantime, we do our part as we walk with our imperfect family toward the day we truly and completely become God’s holy people.
Vincent Bacote is Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College (IL). His most recent book is Reckoning with Race and Performing the Good News: In Search of a Better Evangelical Theology.