An open letter to Nate Sparks on leaving evangelicalism

Dear Nate,

I wondered what I should I do when I read your recent post about your sense of lament at leaving evangelicalism. Much of what you wrote resonated with me – and yet there were differences. I wondered whether we’re seeing a slightly different problem, or the same problem from different perspectives. Even now, I’m not sure. What I do know is that I wanted to write. And I hope that this letter will be a blessing to you and others who read it.

While the debate rages about whether social media helps or hinders real connectedness between people – you’re what I’d call a ‘social media success’. By which I mean, you’re someone I’ve been able to connect to, in a way that probably wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. Mainly because I live in the UK and you live in the US.

It’s been only over the last year that I have begun to be specific about the fact that I don’t identify as an evangelical. Though evangelicalism certainly shaped my upbringing, my affiliation with evangelicalism as a teenager and adult has been rather loose. So, unsurprisingly, my emotional journey of separation seems to have been less intense than yours.

Sense of loss

You described losing evangelicalism as being like the death of a close friend – and that as time passed you realised it hadn’t been a friend. Another ex-evangelical I know described her departure as being like breaking up with someone – and then realising the person she thought she was dating was never there at all. It’s a distressing feeling, one that leaves you shaken.

Perhaps than, I shouldn’t be surprised when I say that sometimes I tremble. When I step back and look at where my theology is heading and how much it seems to diverge from the certainties of my youth. I have even found myself singing Alanis Morisette’s song “Precious Illusions” for its words:

These precious illusions in my head,
Did not let me down when I was defenceless,
And parting with them,
is like parting with a childhood best friend.

As I say, I don’t think my experience has been as emotionally distressing as yours, but in many regards that’s not the point. The point is: this is real. And you are not alone.

The causes of separation

In your post, you described the ways in which you found evangelicalism to be systemically abusive: “predicated on conformity”, exhibiting gendered oppression, antagonistic in its evangelism. I have to admit, the breadth of your statements seem to speak of an experience that I have not had – certainly not to the same degree. That said, I would also name a number of trends and characteristics that I associate with evangelicalism. I think some of these are an articulation of the same problems – others might be more causal. Or it could be that I’m looking at a slightly different problem when I look at UK evangelical churches. I’ll share them, as I believe our paths are linked, even if they’re not the same.

Idolisation of scripture

Evangelicals talk about the Bible as the “supreme” authority, forgetting the context in which this assertion was first made. Forgetting that God is the supreme Authority. The Bible is the manuscript, not the composer.

Sin/Guilt-focussed

Evangelicalism calls itself “cruciocentric” – cross-centred. Whereas I believe there is no salvation outside of the cross, I think evangelicalism views the cross through the lens of our guilt, instead of the other way round. And it gets so hung-up on justification (via penal-substitution) that it underplays hope and resurrection.

Conversionism

It’s like there is only one path to Christ: repent of your sin and believe in him, and then you are justified. Paul and the prodigal son might fit this narrative well, but it falls flat for others. When did Samuel repent of his sin? Was John-the-Baptist making an informed commitment when he kicked in the womb? Evangelicalism seems to hold a view of what it is to be in relationship with God that is shibboleth-oriented, and in-out oriented. I am certain the reality is more complex.

Gender-based violence

My experience leads me to believe that evangelicalism values virginity over consent, and the structures of marriage over and above the prophetic relationship for which marriage should be an aid and outward sign. And then there’s complementarianism. Admittedly, none of these problems is exclusive to evangelicalism, but they do give opportunity to would-be abusers and the effects are gendered.

Lack of cultural exegesis

I think evangelicalism operates from a presumption that it is correct (whatever that means) – and therefore makes little attempt to ask itself why it holds the ideas it holds. I was once chewing over an essay on Romans 10 for half an hour before I realised that the Christians in Rome had already had an understanding of salvation – and that it didn’t come from Luther.

For the last few months, those are what I have called my five reasons for why I am not an evangelical. Today, I added a sixth:

God’s authority

I feel there is something flat about evangelicalism’s concept of authority. To me it seems to be about the idea that “God’s right and you’re wrong”. This understanding of authority has become the trump card to end a squabble. It has been detached from all sense of wisdom, justice, goodness and truth. It is flat. It has no mystery. And, I dare say, it dehumanises us as beings created in his image.

This is my current list – I’ll stress that it’s a work in progress. And some of these may turn out to be subsets of bigger issues.

Sand in the oyster shell

A few months ago, I was told that I would need to be a cultural fit for an evangelical organisation if I was to work with it. Before I could even think of how I might make a case for saying how I would be a good fit, the words “sand in the oyster shell” came to me.

I then realised, quite abruptly, that I would not fit. And possibly, that God didn’t want me to fit. He wants me to be an irritant – so that a precious pearl might be formed.

I therefore feel both a connectedness and a disconnect from evangelicalism. Many of my family and friends attend evangelical churches. Sometimes when I speak with them they nod and say, “Yes, I know, I see it too.” Sometimes they say, “What you’re describing is something that I cannot in any way match to my experience.”

It’s an uncomfortable place.

It makes me ask who I am.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the film “Babe”. It’s about a pig that thinks it’s a sheep-dog. When the farmer realises how good Babe is at herding sheep, he enters Babe into a sheep-herding competition. There’s a moment in the film where the farmer is contemplating the application form. There is a line with “Name of animal”. The narrator remarks that the farmer takes comfort in reading this, for if it had said “Name of dog” he might not have entered Babe into the competition.

For myself, the idea of the “sheep-pig” is possibly the best way I can describe how I make sense of myself and what I am doing. I don’t belong – and yet I do. And I have a whole range of expectations that I will need to confound before my work is complete.

I didn’t (knowingly) ask for this and I certainly never expected it. But Jesus leads and I am following. And so far, it astounds me how he has been with me.

That doesn’t make explaining it easy. Sometimes when I’m discussing theology I feel that moment when the shibboleths come out; when the Mobius strip gets stretched out flat with two irreconcilable and opposite sides. But what I’m learning is that I’m not here to ‘win’ anyone to my view. I’m here to help them on their journey towards Christ.

And when you start talking about worship as being ‘godly play’; when you talking about looking for ‘childlike maturity’ in a Christian, the shibboleths collapse. The mouths fall silent. The ears open.

I’m not saying I haven’t fallen into the trap of self-righteousness myself when I thought I could speak with authority because I was ‘on the right side’. I have. But God is gracious.

Now I try to challenge in the gentle but small ways. When Christians say the Bible is the word of God, I say Jesus is God’s word – and the Bible is God’s word written. When they talk about the ‘flesh’, I talk about Paul’s understanding of the perishable and the imperishable. When they speak about how Jesus died to wipe away our sin, I add: “And that we might live with him.”

And I receive encouragement when I’m worshipping in an unusual place, looking at the words of “In Christ Alone” projected on a screen and read, “Til on the cross as Jesus died, the Son of God was glorified.” (No, those are not Stuart Townend’s original words.)

And I receive encouragement when I hear an evangelical pastor talking about different manuscripts of the New Testament and editorial decisions of the translators. And that Christians needn’t lose their faith over matters like this. (Though of course, what need does he perceive that he thinks it necessary to say this?)

Reconciliation in the body

As you know, I blog about hope, sexuality and consent. As I read around these topics, I find more and more the importance of people being reconciled to their bodies – and the sad reality that so many people are in conflict with their bodies. It seems it is no less with the church and, to me, all the once-dullness of 1 Corinthians comes alive with light.

Both you and I know that there are some wolves among the sheep in the church. That some parts of the body are cancerous, and destroying the life of other parts of the church. When I write about being reconciled, please do not think for a moment that I’m calling for victims of abuse to be silent for the sake of their abusers. No, I would sooner apply Matthew 5:30 than try to enforce an oppressive and stifling understanding of forgiveness.

Paul appealed for unity and reconciliation in the church because he had a vision that Christians collectively are the body of Christ. Please don’t forget this. Please don’t consider yourself cut-off from it, even if – as I do – you have a sense of dissociation. Pray to be reconciled with the other members of the church – and that I might be too, just as I will pray for you. It’s not so that we might all be conformed to the image of an ear, or to the image of a hand. But because God made us to be one.

Complicated. But one.

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