For a long time, let’s just say for more than a century, certain Church historians have told a story: from Jerusalem to Antioch to Ephesus to Rome, then from Rome to Wittenberg and Geneva then to London then to the colonies and Revivals and revivals , then to Princeton and, for the more evangelical types, to Grand Rapids and Wheaton and Nashville and Colorado Springs. It was the story of Great Men and Great Events that mattered, let’s be honest, to those who wrote history. Who weren’t so much independent agents as they were agents of a place in history that held power, almost all white power. That doesn’t make it all wrong. No, that makes it unbearably narrow and biased.
I’m skipping lanes outside of my discipline, so I may need to be corrected about that. But that’s what I think. I welcome your comments. There are huge gaps in my reading. Forgive them. This sketch concerns the recent failure of some to welcome constructive criticism of the way the history of the Church and the Gospel are told.
This “standard” story of church history for many in my world told, not the history of the church and not the history of the world church, but the history of evangelism in the States States – red, white and blue. In this newsletter, I will keep an eye primarily on the American church, but I do so with a constant smirk that there is a story of much larger church history that does not concern the United States. . Gary Dorrien has done so much good work on the history of American liberal Christianity.
When Al Mohler recently claimed that American evangelicalism is the heir of the Reformation – wow, what a claim – he is telling a very narrow story. One who, at best, is a smidgeon of truth. What about German and Scandinavian Lutherans or Dutch or South African Reformed and Irish Presbyterians and South Korean Presbyterians and South and Central American Charismatics and Pentecostals? Aren’t they heirs? some are, some are not. It is beyond narrowness to think that American evangelicals, especially conservatives, are the heir. Canada is also part of this story. I’ll drop the need to expand the story for a moment, but more will be added below.
The story of this story was written by authors like Mark Noll and David Bebbington. Their books are both numerous and highly influential.
This history, which is only part of the history of the church, has classically eschewed the Arminian and holiness wings of the church, the restoration movement, and the Anabaptist/Neo-Anabaptist wing. Scholars like Donald Dayton have told the Holiness/Charismatic story well but have often been intentionally ignored. John Stackhouse added a new (non-denominational) element to the mix, and some ignored his specific reminder. Many urge us today to consider the Orthodox Church in all its varieties.
But more than other theological wings of the church have been ignored, and here I refer only to the American experience. Church history for the most part, but ignores the African American church (the black church) and the Latin American church (the brown church), and can be read about in Raphael Warnock and Robert Chao Romero. To include the excluded others in church history, many today turn to Justo Gonzalez’s wonderful books on church history and the history of theology. And what about the Asian American church? You can read Sharon Kim’s study.
Now add that women have been ignored, and recent studies of Church history have placed women where they need to be: in the middle of the mix. They weren’t considered the “Great Men” of the past and often didn’t have the power to create the Great Events, but they were there. One scientific study after another has pointed the finger at women in the church, and I’m thinking of Lynn Cohick and Amy Hughes to name just one study (see below). The literature of feminists and women on American church history and wider church history is immense. Much of it features showy reviews and deserves careful listening.
And the slaves too. They were a vibrant part of (mostly ignored) American church history, but one study after another has opened the door to the vicious treatment of “new” world slaves as well as their powerful spiritual visions. . Read Lisa Bowens and Emerson Powery.
Women’s studies over the past two years have turned the apple basket upside down in a new way. It’s because they are women, but because what they wrote is frankly not entirely new. Yes, very fresh and engaging prose and very well-researched stories, mostly of things that a lot of irritated grew up with. So Kristin Kobes Du Mez showed the inextricable connection between evangelicalism and masculinism and militarism, and Beth Allison Barr kicked down a few doors and threw a few bricks through some windows on what’s really going on with complementarism. What they did was show that these ideological tendencies of evangelicalism were exactly what George Marsden showed: linked to culture and not just to the Bible and theology. The very valuable doctrines of the complementarians and the obviously fragile egos of some of their most vocal supporters have had enough and are now saying that these authors don’t like the church.
A big hooey on that! If I knew how to do a poo emoji, I would.
Was it because they were women?
Here’s why I say it: If you’ve read books on evangelism in the last forty years, and I’ve read more than my fair share as an NT teacher (and not a church historian), you will know that scholars who love the church and even have great affection for evangelism and have called it to repentance for its corruptions and theological blunders and its entanglement with culture, power and politics Americans. Here are the names, and if you don’t know them, check out some of their books:
It was the first wave of critical stories, most of which loved the church and wanted a better version of evangelism. They wrote well and spoke truths that needed to be heard.
We are now seeing a second wave of critics, and they are just as good as academics, writers, and critics, some of whom I would call prophetic. Here are some of the names, and forgive me if I don’t mention your book!
Randall Balmer, whose My eyes have seen the glory was a necessary exposition.
James Davison Hunter called it a culture war and showed that evangelicalism wasn’t so different morally than anyone else in America.
Molly Worthen, who said that there is more than the narrow Reformed branch in this evangelical movement.
Robert Wuthnow, who had the ability to connect sociology and American history with American church and evangelical history.
Christian Smith has linked American evangelical history with sociological statistics in one study after another, showing – this cannot be ignored if you want to tell the truth – the social realities of evangelicalism.
Timothy Gloege linked American evangelicalism to the market and consumerism.
David Swartz showed that there was a moral minority whose moral convictions were central to biblical moral visions for society.
Brent Gasaway has also written on progressive evangelicalism.
Aaron Griffith connected Billy Graham, American republicanism, and prison ministries in a way that, well, doesn’t always sound right.
Now add Du Mez and Beth Barr and the penny drops for some of those who think they are the guardians of evangelism. The question is whose evangelism? But there were predecessors, like that of R. Marie Griffith Daughters of God: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submissionthe now 3d edition of Discover Biblical Equality, Catherine A. Brekus and Priscilla Pope Levison. Why such vitriol for Du Mez and Barr? Did they finally hit the nerve the others were aiming for? It was a sensitive nerve called masculine identity expressed in masculinism and complementarism.
Now add Jemar Tisby and a nickel, and what do we mean by keepers? Some have the nerve to dismiss everything under the banner of critical race theory, but this trick has been tried before. Tisby and many others, like Angela Parker and Anthea Butler, have pulled back the curtain to reveal the Great White Oz behind the curtain, and he’s wearing white underwear, white socks, white pants, a white shirt, a white coat, a white hat and he walks on black shoes.
Now add Robert Chao Romero, who writes an eloquent, sad, and tragic history of the Church’s relationship with Mexican Americans in the West. Liberation theologies were at work among them in the 16th century, social justice has always been their concern. But they were helpless and their story is mostly unknown. Behind the curtain it’s the same but now the man is walking in brown shoes.
Now add Asian Americans and I’ve been paying attention lately to Raymond Chang at Wheaton who won’t let the story die that Asian American Evangelicals are too often ignored, and their voice has been removed, and their churches prosper and grow and… the white man walks on it too.
Now add the First Nations and Indigenous peoples of the United States, who have been erased not only from American history, but most importantly from the Church. I think of Richard Twiss, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, Mark Charles with Soong Chan Rah and the new version of the New Testament for the First Nations.
I now end with an invitation.
Add the mega-churches and failures of Southern Baptist and non-denominational pastors and we have a lesson. In most of these cases, churches and pastors banded together, told a story, protected the church, locked themselves behind power, and pounced on their critics. Why? For not liking the church, for criticizing their previous evangelism and church, for laying hands on the anointed, and for, well, calling out the rot and saying the emperor has no clothes.
Instead of these evangelical church historians admitting the truth about the sins – big and small – of evangelicalism, they resorted to pirouette. They want to suppress the voices from above. They make false claims about these perpetrators. I know many. Nothing to worry about here as to their faith or their love for the church. Whistleblowers, you know, stiffen up.
The irony is obvious but I will say it: those who call people to confess their sins and trust in God’s gracious forgiveness, the essence of the gospel gospel, are the very ones who are afraid to confess sins of their valuable historiography and movement.
Any claim that evangelism is sinless mocks what sin is.
Evangelicalism needs saving.
Come. Just as you are. The Lamb of God is waiting for you to come to him. Please come.