For the past twenty odd years (and some of them have been very odd), I have been writing and lecturing about the tragedy, futility and sheer insanity of the broad evangelical church in America. My doctoral dissertation, while on the surface a treatise on the sociological effects of Puritan theology on the formation of distinctive American cultural values, was in reality an attempt to examine academically what I saw personally every Sunday morning: the failure of modern American Evangelicalism.
My Great Miscalculation
Throughout this study, and all the years of ministering in various churches and organizations, I made a serious, but understandable miscalculation I assumed that the real problem was ignorance; i.e., that my poor brothers suffered from a truncated and distorted view of the Christian life. If only they could be exposed to a consistent, coherent and fully Biblical worldview, then they would abandon the irrelevant mush they had been fed all their lives and adopt a more Biblical form of the Faith! Personal lives would be transformed, families reformed, the church invigorated, and maybe, just maybe, God might grant us true reformation for the nation.
And, for the past fifteen years, I have tried to find ways around the buzzwords that offend so many, to break down difficult intellectual concepts into bite-sized chunks that someone without a Ph.D. could understand, and to give people a taste for the ebb and flow of Christian history so they could get a feel for what our Reformed ancestors had accomplished. My hope was that once broad evangelical Christians discovered the power of a fully orbed Christian Faith, they would abandon their defeatist compromises with humanism and join the battle to restore Christian civilization.
And it seems, I failed as often as I succeeded. Oh, many people loved the academics, flocked to my lectures, and really seemed to love a complete Christian worldview, until they realized that something more than simply adopting a new theoretical paradigm was required. It seems that the minute that many Christians understood that this new worldview actually required them to change in one area or another, I went from being a hero to a bum! And lest anyone think this is just my problem, please sit down and talk with your favorite pastor, elder, writer or speaker. Repeatedly, the same message comes through: people not only hate, but will actively persecute, men who insist that we have to live in conformity with the Scriptures.
The Real Problem
I suspect, that the real problem facing the American church is not a lack of intellectual ammunition, but rather something far deeper and more serious; a lack of regenerate hearts. It is quite possible that the reason why so many Christians hate and fear the truth, adopt deviant theology, practice heterodox ethics and mire themselves in subjective religious experiences, is because, at rock bottom, their hearts have never been regenerated.
Think with me for a moment. Social scientists have been studying the mechanics of conversion for well over a century. Men are converted all the time; cults and pagan groups convert men to their godless religions regularly. Other men convert to the Communist or Nazi parties, still others to various humanistic philosophies like Darwinism or Naturalism. Men regularly convert from a religious worldview to a secular one: according to some studies, about 70% or more broad evangelical Christian children will do so by the age of 25. One can scientifically study the process wherein a person undergoes a life-changing experience, adopts a new worldview and develops the values, beliefs and behaviors associated with it.
Social scientists, of course, rule out a priori the supernatural; therefore, they attempt to study genuine conversions by the same methodology as they do naturalistic ones. Therefore, few Christians have found much interest in examining their research studies because we assume, a priori, that God does supernaturally regenerate wicked hearts. Therefore, the naturalistic mechanics are simply irrelevant because only God can convert a sinner.
However, in effect, the Christian theologian, and the secular social scientist are both correct (from a certain perspective), because they are talking about two different things. Regeneration is a change of heart, while conversion, psychologically speaking, is simply a change of the mind.
Admittedly, conversion of the heart should result in the mind's being changed, or in Scriptural terms, renewed (cf. Eph 4: 23). From the heart of a man flows every other aspect of His being. Therefore, if a man's heart is changed, so also should his beliefs, values and behaviors (cf. Eph 4:18ff). Therefore, we can and should speak about a converted life. But there are conversions, and there are conversions!
In other words, you can change a man's mind, without necessarily changing his heart. Many well-known, time-tested and effective means of changing a person's beliefs and behaviors have nothing to do with changing his inner nature; the Chinese proved that to Allied POW's during the Korean War. Numerous 10-step programs out there do have a remarkable success record. Furthermore, over the past 150 years since the rise of revivalism, there has been a tremendous amount of practical experimentation going on inside the evangelical church to sell the gospel; i.e., to get men to make a profession of faith. Then, using principles of conformity behavior, modeling, etc., the church can then shape and mold a person's external behaviors to resemble some aspects of Biblical character.
Such a convert may well look much like the real thing on the outside. He is a person whose social habits will mirror those of his peers. He is likely to find great personal peace and comfort from his private religious experience. He will normally live a self-controlled and respectable life just so long as the social support structures remain to keep him on the straight and narrow.
But, he is not really converted, because his heart has not been changed. He still thinks from a godless and Christless presuppositional perspective. He does not really value the things of God, nor desire the things of God, because his heart is still spiritually dead. I acknowledge that, for the most part, such a man is better off than his self-consciously consistent pagan peers. He is apt to refrain from drunkenness, immorality and vice. He is likely to hold down a job and provide for his family. Often, he is a nice guy (which many people confuse with being godly). But the essence of his life is still his own subjective, religious experience, not submission to Almighty God.
The Reason for the Apostasy
Now, here is the hypothesis for investigation: what if over the past 150 years, especially since the great Baptist and Methodist revivals overturned the Reformed consensus in this country, legions of these unregenerate men have entered the church? Disguised as sheep, they are really goats. Would this not help greatly to understand the widespread apostasy so common in broad Evangelicalism? Think about this: in the opening decades of the twentieth century, every mainline denomination apostatized into heresy by adopting theological liberalism. How could so many different churches, from so many different backgrounds and theological perspectives all go wrong within just a short time, unless their members were in fact largely unregenerate?
While we cannot read a man's heart, we can read his fruit; Jesus was quite specific here bad trees produce bad fruit (Mt. 7:17-22). Good trees produce good fruit. Therefore, by their fruits you will know them. And sadly, the modern American evangelical church has produced some fairly nasty fruit over the past 100 years. The most successful churches seem to be the ones most willing to compromise on Biblical truth by offering a threat-free gospel. Immorality runs rampant through many evangelical churches (quietly covered up or ignored by most evangelicals). Many, many, Christians hate and fear the Law of God with an unholy passion and are willing to lie, cheat, pervert justice, slander and destroy those with whom they disagree. Too many Christian men are spiritual wimps dominated by shrill, acerbic and vicious women, who tear churches apart with frightening regularity.
Let me suggest that these people are not Christians, no matter how orthodox their profession may be. They are pod people, like in those cheesy old 50's movies, where aliens look like, talk like and act like human beings, but are really something nasty and sinister. They are among us, they fellowship with us, sometimes they preach from our pulpits, teach in our seminaries and serve on our elder boards. And the pod people threaten the stability, prosperity and future of the church.
I would argue that the key to spotting pod people is whether they really love and obey God's Law (cf. Jn 14:15, 21, 1 Jn 3:24, etc.). For example, social pressure may keep a man from adultery, theft or murder; but how about those sins that are almost universally practiced in the average church? What about those who gossip, slander, backbite, whisper and bear false witness? Scripture says that they are just as likely to be pod people, as the humanist, the fornicator and the apostate (cf. Rom. 1:28-32, 2 Tim. 3:1-5, etc.). Of course, all Christians sin, but if the Spirit of God has regenerated a person's heart, then he will repent of that sin. He will not justify, rationalize or deny; he will repent and take the proper corrective action. But these sins go unrebuked, every day, in churches all across America.
And thus, the pod people continue to tear apart the Church of Christ with lies, slander, innuendo, creating divisions, factions and schisms. We are so busy dealing with the mess they make of the church that we have no time left for evangelism, discipleship, restoring marriages and families, and doing the work of the ministry. If the church is to survive, flourish and disciple the nations, we will have to start by cleaning out the pod people.
- Brian M. Abshire
Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.