The Breakup of Christianity

Many are beginning to explore the progression of events that have led to so much fracturing in Evangelicalism.  Others wonder if this is the beginning of the breakup of Christianity.

In a recent web article titled The Six Way Fracturing of Evangelicalism, Micheal Graham traces how the recent response to the death of George Floyd, COVID-19, and the events of January 6 are revealing division in Evangelicalism that has made it impossible to find agreement around a stated set of values. Graham states:

“while many in the evangelical movement thought their bonds were primarily (or exclusively) theological or missional, many of those bonds were actually political, cultural, and socioeconomic. These political, cultural, and socioeconomic differences have always been there beneath the water line but what has occurred over the last 5-10 years has been the extent to which those values are expressed has been exposed. With the expression louder and the exposing more visible, these divergent values have rapidly created substantive wedges between various subgroups.”

Graham notes that a significant group of post-evangelicals cite abuse, corruption, and hypocrisy in church leadership as the main reason why they no longer identify as evangelical. Some call themselves “Exvangelicals” meaning they have not moved to another identifiable religious association. The values that have drawn us together in the past are no longer stronger than the differences that are pushing us apart.

Even well-established churches with exemplary pastors are struggling. John Piper is one of a group of high profile leaders who have maintained a reputation for humility and cooperation, and is largely credited with launching the the Young, Restless and Reformed movement noted above.

But Bethlehem Baptist, the church from which Piper recently retired after 33 years, as been undergoing some sharp divisions over how to respond to the events and social issues credited with the fracturing of evangelicalism.

Even the strongest churches and leaders are showing signs of strain.

The Corruptibility of Systems

I just described Christianity as a system of faith, and indeed it is.  So, how does that work with the corruptibility of systems?

The central tenets of our faith are identified as systematic theology. This means there is a logical and sequential way to understand what we believe, which is not necessarily the order in which the Bible presents the narrative of what we hold true.

But this brings us back to our undiagnosed problem. Systems are necessary and indispensable, but any system is also corruptible. That means we are constantly caught between the expediency of developing and using systems and the certainty that they will go awry and cause harm as well as good.

The systematic theology of the Christian faith is an example of this. I have loved and taught systematic theology in nearly every church I’ve served over 20 years of ministry. However, I have also seen the problems that the misapplication of systematic theology can cause.

This harm is often the result of the enthusiasm one feels when certain aspects of what you believe suddenly fit together into a more cohesive whole. But that same enthusiasm presents you with the temptation to begin to extend that logic to things that are outside of what the Bible clearly teaches. While that may not be wrong in itself, it is only one or two steps further until you are espousing something that clearly contradicts Scripture.

And this is the nub of the problem: How do we know when we are getting off track? Here again, we rely on systems to protect us. These protections are built in to safeguard the integrity of the system itself. But if the flaws in the system are deep enough, they corrupt the safeguards themselves. In such a case, the whole structure is likely to collapse.

We see an example of this in the growing area of cyber security. There’s not an aspect of our modern lives that are not in some way touched by technology, and many areas can no longer function without it. (Just look at how cashless payment and online shopping have increased during the pandemic.)

But along with this greater dependency is the awareness that our systems are inherently vulnerable. Hardly a week goes by without news of some kind of cyber attack that exploited one of these vulnerabilities. More and more, these vulnerabilities and the expense of counteracting them have simply become part of the cost of doing business in a digital age.

Ransomware and identity theft are big problems, and we are collectively spending billions of dollars to try to manage them. But they pale in comparison to the other problems we face: How will we govern ourselves? How will we face global threats? How will we ensure the future of our children?

Each one of these problems has countless proposed solutions. And each one of those solutions relies upon some form of system. But this only brings us back to our central question. How do we know when our systems have gone off track?

How do we know when the solution has become the problem? How do we maintain any hope of a solution that doesn’t simply create more and greater problems down the road?

Rising Threat Levels

rising threat levels

If anyone who isn’t like us becomes our enemy, we are asking our problems bigger. That’s what happens when we talk about problems in general terms. But what can we do here and now to solve the problems out there? Or are rising threat levels just a part of life?

Until we see these problems as ours to solve, we will expect someone else to do it. So problems get worse, and we blame others for not doing anything about them.

General Threat Response

This generalization of threats is another manifestation of the problem created by systems, and it affects the way we interact with people.

These systems magnify our sense that people want to do us harm, but they also generalize where that harm comes from. The result is that we go into many casual interactions already on guard, and suspicious of the ill intent that lies beneath that initial greeting.

Culture helps us manage our interactions with others. It creates a relational short-hand that allows us to communicate without having to establish all of the points of reference we would need to give our interaction meaning.

Culture helps us “get it” with other people, and more quickly creates a mutual experience of trust and shared perspective. But when we connect with fewer and fewer people, those outside that group are viewed with increasing mistrust and suspicion.

Problems Created by Systems

What’s the connection between these divisions and the systems underlying them? In short, these large-scale problems become large-scale because they are built on systems that expand their reach.

These are the same systems we hope will expand the reach of the message of the gospel, that God loves the world and sent his Son, Jesus, to make a way of salvation. But when something goes wrong, the harm done by these system-based programs is also multiplied.

This creates a tension. We are predisposed to trust systems, but intuitively know that no system will perform perfectly. So we compensate for this instability by relying on multiple systems in various places, and so hedge our bets against failure in one. This can lead to a contradictory and often chaotic view of the world.

Threat Levels Rising

We can keep these conflicting approaches working together for a time.  But when one fails, it can create a cascading failure in the others. Or in times of stress, we can’t keep it all straight. We end up performing for one system when we should be functioning in another.

Yet this all falls apart because of us. People don’t work as systems do, and the problems with people can’t be solved by systems.

Hope For Something Better

Hope for Something Better

In a previous post, I discussed the tension and confusion between culture and community. But there’s actually something behind that.  That something gives us a reason to hope for something better.

We hope for something better, but our hopes are constantly disappointed. Instead, as this “cycle has increased in speed and intensity” we find ourselves spending more time on less important things.

Why is that, and what can stop it?

Systems of Disfunction

We live in the golden age of systems. Everything we want to do, from financial security to weight loss, has been broken down into a system. These systems contain enormous powers of change and present themselves as a program with a simple series of steps to follow and a simple set of indicators to measure.

These systems have extended into almost every area of life. We have programs for better marriages, raising happy kids, growing as a person, and just about every other topic you can fit into the self-help section. We may approach these titles with a degree of skepticism, but approach them we do. Every time there’s a problem, we immediately wonder, who has already figured out the solution?

But beneath all that lies an undiagnosed problem. It shows up when our solutions create problems of their own, and we find ourselves dealing with the unintended consequences. Or when our proposed solutions fail, and the problem we were hoping to fix now looms even larger.

In moments like these, we may wonder if we’re up against something bigger and more cohesive than we first realized. There’s some kind of system at work that we don’t quite understand. Somehow we’ve run afoul of its process and we just want to get back in sync.

These are also the moments when we tell ourselves to “suck it up” or “get back in line.” We face the choice of giving up part of ourselves and what’s important for us just to get along. All the while, our hopes that this time it will be different are dashed as we find ourselves in the very place we were desperate to avoid.

Hope For Something Better

The alternative is to hope for something better and set out to search for it. But we carry with us the fear that whatever we find will eventually end up being more of the same. We wonder if we are the problem and wish we could just be content with what we have.

We resolve to stick it out where we are, but can’t shake the feeling that something may be dying inside us.

It feels like we’re at war, but we don’t know who the enemy is.