Sunday, August 24, 2008

Frank Schaeffer's "Evangelicals Strike . . ." vs. Reality

I haven't "fisked" anything for a while - and I originally was going to ignore this. Looking around, folks I respect have either ignored it or not even noticed it - Huffington Post isn't a big read for them - and so perhaps my first inclination was right. However - I am not going to leave it alone because it raises some theological points - and some common misconceptions - about Evangelicalism (whatever that is). It also allows me to give some folks some means to research the movement a bit deeper and gain some insight.

The article is "God Against Obama: Dobson, Osteen, Corsi, [sic] the Evangelicals Strike Again" by Frank Schaeffer. In going through the article, I will try to stay out of the sewer Frank dives into whole-heartedly by ignoring these admonishments by Paul:

Ephesians 4:29 You must let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for the building up of the one in need, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 You must put away every kind of bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling, and evil, slanderous talk. 32 Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.

Romans 2:1 Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things. 3 And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment? 4 Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?
First though, what section (yep, there are sections) of Evangelicalism were Frank, and his father Francis, a part of when they were leaders in the Evangelical movement (and Dobson, Osteen, Corsi ,etc. for that matter). These two analyses help dissect that:
  1. Scot McKnight:
    Three groups today threaten to destroy the fabric of historic American evangelicalism:
    • The Religious Right, which seems to think all evangelicals have the same political views [a disease the critics of Evangelicalism often display];
    • The Neo-Reformed, who think Calvinism is the only faithful form of evangelicalism [this is where Frank Schaeffer "lived"]; and
    • The Political Progressives, who like the Religious Right think the faithful form of evangelicalism will be politically progressive.

    . . . Now a few words of explanation: Evangelicalism is essentially “gospel ecumenism” instead of “theological conformity.” Evangelicals unite around the gospel but tolerate all kinds of diversity theologically . . . evangelicalism has agreed to agree on the basics — the gospel — but has been willing to let theological confessions be what they are: church confessions for local congregations. Instead of haggling over theological confessions, evangelicals have agreed to agree on the gospel.
  2. The Moody Handbook of Theology:
    These fundamentalists shunned Billy Graham, not because he was a liberal but because he talked to liberals. Billy Graham was accused of destroying Scriptural mass evangelism through his "spirit of inclusivism."

    The neo-evangelical label on people, schools, or organizations meant disassociation; thus, neo-fundamentalists refused to cooperate with Billy Graham in his evangelistic campaigns, rejected the journal Christianity Today, and excoriated schools like Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary for inviting certain evangelical speakers.

    Other writers have identified the neo-fundamentalist movement with fundamentalist leaders like Jerry Falwell, Tim La Haye, Hal Lindsey, and Pat Robertson. These leaders have spoken out publicly,
    offering an answer for what many regarded as a supreme social, economic, moral, and religious crisis in America. They identified a new and more pervasive enemy, secular humanism, which they believed was responsible for eroding churches, schools, universities, the government, and above all families.They fought all enemies which they considered to be offspring of secular humanism—evolutionism, political and theological liberalism, loose personal morality, sexual perversion, socialism, communism, and any lessening of the absolute, inerrant authority of the Bible
    The Moral Majority, with its political action, is also seen as a further aspect of neo-fundamentalism. -- Enns, P. P. (1997, c1989). The Moody handbook of theology (619). Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press.
Frank was an integral part of that pressure on Evangelicalism to become theologically focused, rather than gospel focused; and the neo-fundamentalist pressure to fight - including on a political level - the inroads of secular humanism into U.S. culture. In McKnight's view, Frank has gone from being part of group #1 and #2 - to standing outside of Evangelicalism with criticisms that again fall into a mirror of group #2 and support for group #3. Let's see if that comes through in his article:
Evangelicals [all of us?] have a problem: they want to involve themselves in politics -- for instance by praying that the Obama speech at the Democratic convention is rained out, as James Dobson of Focus On the Family called for. Some evangelicals are embarrassed by such antics. What can they do? Nothing because their theology acknowledges no central authority. Evangelicals don't "do" structure. They don't do government, or bishops or tradition. They just do "me" and "I" never we [actually we do "Body of Christ" alot]. So their individualistic and narcissistic village idiots - Dobson, Robertson, Osteen etc.- are in charge by default.
The entire underlying theme of Schaeffer's piece falls apart in the introductory paragraph:
  1. Evangelicals acknowledge no authority - they do not do structure; yet
  2. Some Evangelical leaders are put in charge by default
In charge of what, and put there by who? Those are self-contradictory claims. These leaders have no authority over Evangelicalism, and are leaders of no recognized structure with authority over Evangelicalism. That they may place themselves in the public spotlight (perhaps because they are "individualistic and narcissistic") really only makes them leaders to certain groups:
  • The people who follow them because they grant them moral authority
  • The news media that seeks those with big mouths when they need a "leader"
  • The people who pick them out as a leader because they wish to bash Evangelicalism (they did have other choices after all)
He is right - as a movement we define ourselves by the Gospel - and not theological conformity; and not within a structure that requires bishops, liturgy, etc, but across denominational lines. It is the neo-Fundamentalists like Schaeffer that demanded, as the Moody article put it:
"secondary separation," — avoidance of other conservatives who associated with liberals.
Now, of course, he demands that the theological and/or political liberals within Evangelicalism engage in "secondary separation" from (at least) the political conservatives within the movement. Moving on:
. . . This is a departure from historical Christianity centered on a liturgical tradition that had to do with faith lived in community and beliefs defined by tradition,
Frank would be hard pressed to prove this contention from the life of the Apostolic 1st century church, or even the 2nd century church. Prior to the organization in the 2nd-3rd century of a structure of Bishops and the convening of whole church councils - the history of the church was indeed house-based churches focused on the Gospel with the evangelists traveling place to place attempting to keep the churches from devolving into splits based on non-Gospel liturgical and theological arguments. They were, as McKnight points out about the Evangelical movement now, focused on:
the Bible, the cross, conversion, and active Christian living.
Continuing with Frank:
Evangelicals reject all traditions and structures, other than their very own personalized interpretation of the Bible, so there is no there, there to appeal to. Evangelicals can't police themselves or call one of their own a nut . . . Each has a "personal relationship with Jesus." So maybe Jesus told that guy to put his pants on his head!
Of course, this is true to a large extent - encouraged by Jesus (he could only point to relationship with God) and then the Apostles - Paul particularly:
Romans 14:1 Now receive the one who is weak in the faith, and do not have disputes over differing opinions. 2 One person believes in eating everything, but the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not despise the one who does not, and the one who abstains must not judge the one who eats everything, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on another’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One person regards one day holier than other days, and another regards them all alike. Each must be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day does it for the Lord. The one who eats, eats for the Lord because he gives thanks to God, and the one who abstains from eating abstains for the Lord, and he gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for himself and none dies for himself. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For this reason Christ died and returned to life, so that he may be the Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But you who eat vegetables only – why do you judge your brother or sister? And you who eat everything – why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will give praise to God.” 12 Therefore, each of us will give an account of himself to God.
and is a deep part of the traditions of the church until the 3rd and 4th centuries when theological and liturgical correctness began to overcome the simple message of grace and obedience to the Spirit and Word of God. Back to Frank:
Evangelicals get direct messages from God [Darn, how did I miss out?] . So who needs tradition, let alone government? [ooh, watch this little transition . . .] That is why Evangelicals are opposed to all structure. They hate government, and they hate the idea of bishops telling them what it means to be a Christian.. They hate the idea of health care for all [. . .church government to secular government . . . as if it just naturally follows] that might involve someone (other than voices in their heads [ooh, the Holy Spirit as schizophrenia]) telling them what to do. And they want the "right" to own guns [do you trust the U.S. government enough to let it remove your right (oh those silly courts) to own guns], raise kids on myths [. . . and decide what "myths" I get to raise my kids on] and own that SUV [. . . and government mandates on size of vehicles. Of course, this couldn't be enforced without limiting family size - ever crammed 6 people (or more) into an econo-box] and believe that more drilling for oil will bring down the price of gas [supply and demand - pffft].
Incidentally, I have never heard any of that preached in any church I attended; nor has Frank given any indication on how it follows from the four anchors of Evangelicalism. All he can do is point to the political positions of some folks who call themselves Evangelicals. Now, giving the government the right to direct whether I can own a gun, what myths I can teach my kids, what kind of vehicle is best to haul my family around in, etc. are ideas I hope do not appeal to "progressives" either -- especially since they are not very enamored right now to the motives of secular government; and that kind of government power has never worked out ANYWHERE. Frank goes back to church governance:
They also want God to speak directly to them, never mind a community of faith.
The idea of hearing God's voice, and will, in one's life is probably one of the dominating themes in scripture - and the idea that "communities of faith" lay burdens on their communities that God did not ask for or desire is a principle theme of the teachings of Christ and the rest of scripture. There is a reason the Catholic Church discouraged the reading of scripture by the laity for centuries. Frank:
. . . Look how big their churches are! They measure up to the only real Evangelical creed-the ability to make money and be successful in commercial terms.
First, in examining the (I suppose) unreal creeds [start here and here as examples] there is no mention of commercial success and the ability to make money. It hasn't occurred to Frank that the size of the churches is based on the lack of rigid liturgy and burdens placed on the community by the organizational structure of the church; and by attempting to "go and make disciples . . ." (again, that Christ guy talking). Of course, the next is a danger and can occur:
Evangelicalism is a series of personality cults masquerading as religion. (As I demonstrate in detail in my book CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All -- Or Almost All--Of It Back.)
By the way, notice that phrase - "the elect" - and remember McKnight's comment about the problems to Evangelicalism from the neo-Reformed (Calvinists) that are part of the movement: "the elect" is a Calvinist concept.
That's because Evangelicals say they believe in "sola scriptura" in other words the Bible only [actually there are four "solas"] . . . Each pastor and individual becomes their own pope.
Snark aside, that is correct: the earliest traditions of the church made it the responsibility of believers (not community) indwelt by the Spirit of God to read scripture guided by the Holy Spirit. Darn that "priesthood of the believer" stuff anyway -- and that whole darned reformation thingee. Then, another leap in logic . . .
That turns pastors into nothing but glorified entertainers, wherein the hottest ones pull the biggest congregations. Success-measured in attendance and dollars-becomes the metaphor for spiritual wisdom . . .
Notice that transition -- if you think it follows naturally from the "priesthood of the believer" to "glorified entertainers" . . .
The Historic Church by contrast never held the Bible up as a magic book that could solve all your problems but rather regarded the Bible as just one element of a liturgical tradition based on community, worship and participation.
I do not think the Apostolic church got this memo - I think it was written later by a church seeking to gain control of its membership. The 1st century church, and the Apostles, were very keen on the Word of God, both written and incarnate in the form of Christ, as a guide to action. Of course, the "magic book that could solve all your problems" line is just incendiary -- only some small splinter believed that now or then. Now comes his undisguised pitch for the post-Apostolic and pre-Reformation version of the church:
It never was about grandstanding entertainment, but about a liturgy that was the same wherever you went within Christendom; up until the church split in 1054, into Western and Eastern churches and then the later fracturing of the Reformation followed by the era of Protestant chaos and lastly American-style Evangelical every-man-for-himself insanity.
ooooh, the Protestant chaos. Darn them reformers once more. Now, Frank finally at least narrows the Evangelicals he is talking about (I think):
Since the Evangelical right wing movement cannot speak with a prophetic (let alone single) voice . . .
I know theologically liberal Christians, especially the politically liberal version, like this "speaking with a prophetic voice" language a lot - but Evangelicals don't use it much. That is primarily because Christ made it doubtful there would be any more real prophets - and being a prophet implied a person (not a community) with direct connection to God (not a "community of believers") hearing God's voice ("in their head") directly (not a church hierarchy). Only the "nutcases" among us claim that; and we do not largely trust that. For instance, Evangelicals are largely not charismatic - we do not believe in the "gifts of the spirit" such as speaking in tongues and prophecy.

The rest is pretty much just a politically motivated screed aimed at those Evangelicals who oppose Obama and support McCain - which is back to those two of those three forces tearing at the gospel-oriented core of Evangelicalism: folks on the political left and right who want to make the movement reflect their political ideology.


  1. I don't think it's even remotely true that Frank Schaeffer came out of a culture that treated Calvinism as the only faithful form of evangelicalism. His father was certainly Calvinist, but he was a relatively moderate one, and Frank's misrepresentations of his father reveal more about the son than the father. His book is riddled with half-truths and distorted perceptions of the movement he grew up in. The reviews of it by people who were present as adults seem to be in agreement on that.

    The primary teaching elder in my congregation was close to the very core of that group, and he isn't remotely like the definition McKnight gives of neo-Calvinism. He helped start an evangelical church in 1978. He's from a Reformed Anglican background, and the other two founding elders were a PCUSA charismatic and a United Methodist (i.e. an Arminian). If he'd just come from a movement like what McKnight describes, there's no way he would have seen either of those two men as a brother in Christ, never mind been willing to start a church with them. McKnight is dead wrong on this.

  2. McKnight wasn't talking about the whole movement - he was talking about particular pressures on the movement.

    Obviously, we all know examples of folks on the political left and right who want Evangelicalism to conform to their secular political views. Agreed?

    McKnight was saying there were folks who also want it to conform to the theology of Calvinism. He didn't mention Schaeffer - I did (probably wrongly). I have a feeling that McKnight was probably more talking about more current and well-known Calvinists and current - not historical - pressures on Evangelicalism.

  3. I'm not going to deny that there are factions like this today. I just don't think the explanation for Frank Schaeffer's limited perspective is his own background from his father belonging to one of these groups, because his father wasn't like that.

    His limited perspective is more from self-deception and closed-mindedness than ignorance based on never having been exposed to anything more balanced. He misrepresents evangelicalism in far too many ways and in ways that his own father's writings would provide a sufficient corrective for.

  4. Thank you for correcting me brother


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly