The modern evangelical church is obsessed with systems. The evangelical scholars who gain accolades write systematic theologies, they write papers “refuting” the “logic” of “unbelievers,” and they have a confidence in their own interpretations that long ago turned into certainty. Apologetics that try to expose the views of others as stupid and illogical are a booming business among evangelicals.
This is what I mean by systems. Evangelicals construct doctrines that are mutually dependent and feed into each other. The result is a fragile balancing act of almost equation-like precision in which evangelicals must walk a tightrope of correct beliefs that themselves must be further correctly defined in order to be a real Christian. Any breach in the syllogism has catastrophic effects and can send people spiraling away from the brittle orthodoxy, or so it is claimed.
Because of this, there must be CONSTANT VIGILANCE to preserve the borders, guard the fortifications, and remain on constant alert for any possible threat. This is the reason for the protectionism and fear of everything outside of the evangelical circle. A lot of evangelicals would protest that they’ve opened their borders on a lot of stuff, that the people who are really afraid are the fundamentalists. But they can’t deny the same kind of gatekeeping doesn’t go on in the evangelical world. And when looking at a figure like John Piper – patriarchalist, literalist, premillennialist, strict infernalist, penal substitutionist, retributionist – I’m left wondering what the real difference is between an evangelical and a fundamentalist. He claims the term evangelical for himself, but his behavior is no different from the hellfire preachers of yore.
Anyway, when every piece in the theological system is necessary, it is like building a house in which every single wall is a supporting wall. Take that wall away and the whole thing comes crashing down. You can understand their jumpiness a little more when you realize they’re really just trying to stop the roof falling in on their heads. But the logical consequence is that every little doctrinal niggle becomes a hill necessary to die upon. And this forces evangelicals into a number of consequences just out of necessity.
First of all, it means they have to deny scholarship when it contradicts their reading. For example, there’s no evidence there was ever a wall at Jericho, speaking archaeologically. This becomes a huge battleground for polemics in the evangelical wing of the church because any single error in the text, any hyperbole, any literary convention, and by their own claims the whole thing is untrustworthy. So if they’re wrong about Jericho’s wall, the only other option is atheism. This leads them to feeling the need to win, regardless of what sort of claims this leads them to make. The most popular response among a number of evangelical circles is to claim the archeological timeline is wrong; the reason those sneaky secularists can’t find a wall is they’re looking in the wrong historical period. Which leads to conspiracy thinking about academia and scholarship – they must be stupid or lying intentionally.
I believed in the system for my entire childhood, adolescence, and college years. That’s right, even college couldn’t crack this intensely ingrained system. I finally broke when I saw what it did to people firsthand, what it did to me. The system is a meatgrinder. It chews you up and spits you out again. And it manufactures as many atheists as it does true believers.
And there’s a certain sense in which they’re right. Their system does depend upon every single point being as important as all the others. But their system is not Scriptural. It is an invention of man by which we bind God. But when we break free of the system, we realize that there are other options out there. We can live perfectly happy and fulfilling lives without the system. When it is finally grasped that God is in charge and He can do as he pleases regardless of whatever systems we might want to put into place, once we see that God is love, does not hate, does not give up, and will bear with us to the end, we escape the various pieces of the religious system. In this new world, Jesus becomes the most important thing, not the system. Not everything needs the same weight put upon it. My faith in Jesus no longer depends on whether there really was a wall around Jericho, or whether Genesis is to be taken literally. The sky doesn’t fall. Wrath doesn’t come. We are not smote. There is life outside the system, outside the nervous, paranoid life in the factory.
Join us in the sun.