How American Christendom Weakens American Christianity

An age of scandals reveals how institutions of the faith can fundamentally oppose the faith.

I’m going to share a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot—especially in the years since the rise of Trump and the months since I’ve been diving deep into the sex abuse scandals that have corrupted powerful and important American Christian institutions. The question is simply this: Is American Christendom increasingly incompatible with American Christianity?

The root of the question comes from Soren Kierkegaard’s Attack on Christendom, a series of searing essays aimed directly at the established Danish church, a church that was deeply entangled with the Danish state. In Kierkegaard’s formulation, “Christendom” refers both to the legal institutions of the church and to the culture those institutions create. 

Think of the distinctions roughly like this—Christianity is the faith, Christians are believers in the faith, and Christendom is the collective culture and institutions (universities, ministries) of the faith.

As Whitman College professor Matt McManus explains, Kierkegaard believed Christendom is dangerous to Christianity:

For Kierkegaard, the middling and enforced homogeneity of Christendom was the greatest danger facing genuine Christianity. In many ways, it was far better to see Christendom shrunk down to a few genuine believers than to see it ballooned and enforced into a parody of itself. It was designed, in his famous phrase, to “make the way [to Christianity] easier” when, in fact, the genuinely faithful must always make the way harder.

As I’ve written before, America doesn’t have a state-established church, but it certainly possesses a version of the Christendom Kierkegaard despised. America possesses immensely powerful, immensely wealthy Christian institutions that may not be part of the state but in many places are strong enough to exercise power over the state. And they certainly create their own culture, a culture that shapes the daily lives of millions of Americans.

Kierkegaard, however, would look to those institutions and see not the triumph of Christianity, but rather the risk of its what he called Christianity’s “abolition.” Here’s how.

The University of Chicago’s Russell Johnson has argued that “for Kierkegaard, an essential part of the Christian life is self-examination and imitation, finding oneself confronted by Christ and beckoned to follow.” But as Kierkegaard himself wrote, “the imitation of Christ is really the point from which the human race shrinks.” In that sense, he was profoundly pessimistic. “If there is emphasis on this point,” he wrote, “the stronger the emphasis the fewer the Christians.” 

If, on the other hand, “there is a scaling down of this point”—on the imitation of Christ—“so that Christianity becomes, intellectually, a doctrine,” then Christianity may well grow. But regardless of numbers, the more the imitation of Christ is lost, the more the actual faith is diminished. This is the “abolition” Kierkegaard feared, the end of the faith regardless of the power of its institutions or the numbers of its members. 

Ok, that’s a lot. But let’s make this concrete. Anybody can believe in (or profess) a doctrine, even a countercultural doctrine. In fact, in the present age, there is a great deal of money and fame to be gained by directly and “courageously” attacking secular ideas like, say, critical race theory or so-called “cultural Marxism.” 

You can stand strong for solid teaching and sound doctrine on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. You can boldly venture into hostile territory in the academy or Hollywood. You can build immense churches and ministries. You can form powerful political movements—all without compromising one inch on the orthodox theological truths of the Christian faith. In America at least, Christendom thrives. There is a market for what it sells.

But Kierkegaard’s fear was that as Christendom waxes, Christianity wanes. The true imitation of Christ becomes not wisdom, but folly. Many people may choose doctrine. Few people choose the cross. For who would really choose the cross when their ministry does such good, when it reaches so many people, and when it’s so very important to the soul of a nation?

Here is where the upside-down truths of the imitation of Christ become so difficult, including one of the most foundational, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” 

In other words, to live I must die. Yet our death, unlike Christ’s, isn’t innocent. We sin, we repent, we’re symbolically buried with Christ, and then we’re reborn by his power alone. Or, in the words of Paul in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Or, elsewhere, in Romans, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

As we’ve watched Christian abuse scandals unfold, we’ve seen Christendom enact the exact reverse of this message—for it to live, someone else may have to die. When a girl or a boy, a woman or a man, comes forward, fearful and trembling, with a story of abuse, it is simply remarkable how often American Christian institutions adopt, entirely, the godless playbook of secular corporate self-defense. 

And in fact all too many American Christian institutions are corporations first. They’re perpetually-existing legal entities who confront each and every scandal with a single prime directive: This ministry must endure. It is too important to fail. It cannot die. 

In this construct, the truth is a threat. If people knew what really happened, then they might not support the ministry, or listen to its teaching. Its good work would cease. And so it seeks silence.

Justice, similarly, is a threat. True and fair compensation for the immense amount of pain and suffering inflicted on innocent boys and girls might strain and tax the treasury of the ministry to the point of liquidation. Its good work would cease. And so it resists true restitution.

And if truth and justice are threats, then the victim is a threat and must be treated as such. We saw this when Ravi Zacharias actually sued Lori Anne Thompson when she came forward after he groomed her and abused her. We saw this when Kanakuk Kamp tried so aggressively to force an abused child to execute a nondisparagement agreement that it attempted to fine his family for failure to sign. 

The most poignant part of our Kanakuk investigation was reading an obituary of a Kanakuk abuse survivor. “For years,” it said, he “fought valiantly against the trauma he suffered.” And when he fought, he had to fight against the very institution that inflicted such harm. That young man is gone, but Kanakuk lives, and it still fights to live today. 

Yet the institutions of Christendom should model the way of the cross if they’re going to preach the way of the cross.

What if an institution like Kanakuk decided to die? What if it decided that its continued existence was irrelevant compared to the necessity of repentance and justice, and it should close before it denied truth and restitution to the children who were so terribly victimized on its grounds? That institution of Christendom might wither away, but would such a profound act of humility and obedience harm the faith? 

I have written time and again about the immense amount of Christian fear that motivated support for Donald Trump. Christians voted, it was said, in self-defense. Faced with an avalanche of fearmongering that falsely proclaimed an existential threat to Christian institutions if the Democrats won just one more presidential race, Christendom responded—we must live.

And so the mighty power of tens of millions of American Christians was exerted on behalf of a cruel, incompetent man—a man whose vanity and ignorance contributed to the deaths of countless thousands of his fellow citizens. Even now, when other options for leaders abound (and we are far beyond the days of “binary choice”) most of those same tens of millions still cling to him for the same reason. He is their champion as Christendom allegedly fights for its life. 

What if white Evangelical Christendom had said no? What if the institutions of the faith had opted to lay down their political arms rather than wield the weapon of Trump? What if they had said they would rather risk persecution than inflict pain? That they would rather lose their power than defend lies?

In this instance the sacrifice would have been small. It’s hard to identify a single Christian institution that would have died in response to such a stand. The cost would have been so very slight, with an ability to contest all those same issues again, soon, through far more virtuous means. Would that sacrifice have harmed the faith?

I first read Kierkegaard in college and thought he was too pessimistic. He was way too dark. After all, during my youth, it was the orthodox churches that were growing, and they demanded far more of their congregants than the shrinking progressive churches that, I believed, conformed their teachings to the fickle demands of a hostile world.

Now my perspective has changed. I can’t tell you how many I speak to who are deeply shaken by the events above. They face crises of faith that they’ve never confronted before. In my friend Russell Moore’s powerful and anguished words, “What happens when people reject the church because they think we reject Jesus and the gospel?” He continued, “What if people don’t leave the church because they disapprove of Jesus, but because they’ve read the Bible and have come to the conclusion that the church itself would disapprove of Jesus?”

And why would they come to that conclusion? Because the institutions of Christendom are rejecting the example of the cross. “That,” Moore says, “is a crisis.” And he’s right. 

As Kierkegaard reminds us, it’s an old crisis. There are times when the great enemy of Christianity is Christendom itself. But Christendom isn’t Christianity. Indeed, the collapse of the institutions of Christendom does not mean the collapse of Christianity. And their collapse may be necessary for people to see through doctrine, through celebrity, and through politics to catch at last a glimpse of the man who is the faith, the man who carried a cross and now commands us to do the same. 

One last thing …

I can’t think of a better song for the week than “Give Me Jesus,” a song that we would play each evening when our children would fall asleep. It’s simple and beautiful, and so is this version. 

Making Prophecy Great Again

How a band of brave Pentecostals are seeking to rescue a movement in crisis.

Today I’m going to write about an important effort underway that could—if successful—help lower the temperature of American political and cultural discourse and introduce a greater degree of humility into American religious engagement. 

I’m talking about prophecy reform. Yes, prophecy reform.

This week, with virtually no mainstream media fanfare, two prominent Evangelicals—radio host and revivalist Dr. Michael Brown and author and minister Bishop Joseph Mattera—published a document, signed by a number of Pentecostal leaders, calling for the implementation of “prophetic standards” in the operation of the “gift of prophecy” in the church.

I know that many of you are already confused. I’ve written about Pentecostal Christianity at length before, but it’s worth a brief refresher. After all, we’re talking about one of the largest and fastest-growing—and most poorly understood—branches of American and worldwide Christianity. Here’s how I described Pentecostalism in a previous newsletter:

The modern incarnation of Pentecostal (also sometimes referred to as charismatic) Christianity was born at the so-called Azusa Street Revival in 1906 in Los Angeles. Led by an African-American pastor named William Seymour, the revival was marked by exuberant, hours-long worship services. 

American revivals featuring hours-long services are nothing new, but this revival featured the “gifts of the spirit.” Pentecostals reject a Protestant doctrine called cessationism, which holds that God has withdrawn most of the supernatural gifts that the apostles exercised in the early church, including prophecy, tongues, and gifts of healing. Those gifts, they argue existed for a time and a purpose. They exist no longer, at least not in the common practice of the church. 

Pentecostal Christians utterly reject this idea. They believe that believers aren’t just baptized by water; they are at a distinct moment baptized by the Holy Spirit, and that spirit-baptism can endow believers with all of the spiritual power and spiritual gifts of the early church. 

How big is Pentecostalism? How fast is it growing? What began in 1906 with hundreds of worshipers grew to half a billion worldwide believers by 2020.

Prophecy is very important in Pentecostal Christianity. At the risk of oversimplifying the theological analysis, most Christian denominations recognize the role of a prophet as someone who speaks biblical truth to the church and to the culture. This is the type of “prophet” I referenced in a post last December, when I argued that the church wants lawyers but needs prophets

In that context, a “prophet” is a person who boldly seeks justice and seeks to turn Christians and the church, individually and institutionally, from sin. The biblical examples of this form of prophetic voice are numerous, especially in the Old Testament, and the words of ancient prophets resonate with us today as they decry the disobedience of God’s people and, among many other things, injustice and lack of compassion for the poor. 

But there’s another form of biblical prophecy: foretelling. Defining it bluntly, foretelling refers to the ability of the prophet, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to quite literally see and/or predict future events. Sometimes these predictions are conditional (“if you don’t repent, then expect the following things to unfold”) and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they’re flat declarations of what is to come.

The church is split on whether God has granted the gift of foretelling to any believers today. Many millions of Christians are cessationists. As stated above, Pentecostals are not. 

For the record, I’m not a cessationist either. In fact, my wife became a Christian in a Pentecostal church in New York City (Times Square Church), and she returns to worship at Times Square every time she can. Early in our marriage, I served as a deacon in an Assembly of God church in Kentucky. We were predestined to become Presbyterian, but we disagree with many of our Presbyterian brothers and sisters about the operation of the gifts of the spirit. 

But there is a difference between believing that God can provide a person with insight into the future and believing that God has spoken to any given self-proclaimed prophet. There is also a danger that people who are desperate for certainty in an uncertain world will fall under the sway of grifters and charlatans. 

That brings us to the present day. You wouldn’t know it from the Christian debates on Twitter or the dueling Christian op-eds in most of the media, but many millions of Americans spent the Trump era deeply loyal to Trump not because of policy arguments or political debate, but in large part because “prophets” told them he was specifically and specially anointed by God for this moment. These Americans were resistant to the election outcome because they were told—again and again—by voices they trusted that God promised Trump would win. 

Put simply, when a person believed these prophecies, arguments over the election had little to do with the details of absentee ballots or the nuances of state law. They had everything to do with the (presumed) revealed will of God.

To observe this form of “prophecy,” watch the 2018 YouTube video below. Note how the pastor describes himself as being in direct communication with the Holy Spirit. Note the deep connection to Donald Trump. Note how he weaves in scriptural references that are vague enough to capture any number of potential outcomes. And also note the audience’s enthusiastic response. 

Well, 2020 and 2021 have turned out to be a disaster for American prophecy. It was also a disaster for segments of the American Pentecostal church. Many, many prophets predicted Trump would win. He lost. And while virtually no prophets predicted the coronavirus catastrophe, many of them predicted a quick end to the pandemic. They were wrong. 

And then, compounding the disaster, when a few honest voices presented sincere apologies for failed prophecies, they were subjected to an avalanche of hate and threats:

In fact, the scale of the disaster was so great that for once a Pentecostal controversy spilled into the mainstream media. Writing in the New York Times, Ruth Graham (one of the country’s best religion reporters) examined the spiritual and political fallout from prophetic failure. She quoted Dr. Brown: 

“In my lifetime—49 years as a follower of Jesus—I’ve never seen this level of interest in prophecy,” said Michael Brown, an evangelical radio host and commentator, who believes in prophecy but has called for greater accountability when prophecies prove false. “And it’s unfortunate, because it’s an embarrassment to the movement.”

Two weeks ago I wrote an essay that argued that the greatest threats to the church came from within, not without. The church stumbles and falls because of its own sin far more than it stumbles and falls because of the cultural and political headwinds directed against the church.

I’d also argue that the great hope of reform in the church comes from within—from those who love the church and believe the Gospel—far more than it comes from even the most eloquent outside critiques. And that’s exactly why Dr. Brown’s effort is so vitally important. In a Christian Post op-ed, he explained his intentions:

It is our hope that this statement will both honor and encourage prophetic ministry while at the same time calling for greater accountability, since unaccountable prophecy has been a bane on the modern Pentecostal-charismatic movement for decades.

The statement itself might be difficult for some readers to fully decipher. It’s understandably steeped in Pentecostal/charismatic language and theology. But its themes are clear enough—humility and accountability. This segment, in particular, is key:

WE BELIEVE it is essential that all spiritual leaders, including prophetic leaders, have a presbytery of peers and seasoned spiritual leaders who can hold them accountable regarding their life and ministry. In keeping with this, we reject the notion that to judge a prophet’s words is a violation of Psalm 105:15 (where God exhorted the ancient nations not to touch the patriarchs or harm His prophets). Prophets who err must be willing to receive correction from peer leaders with whom they are in accountable relationship. Those refusing such accountability should not be welcomed for ministry.

This is also crucial, a call for believers to exercise their own discernment:

WE RECOGNIZE the unique challenges posed by the internet and social media, as anyone claiming to be a prophet can release a word to the general public without any accountability or even responsibility. While it is not possible to stop the flood of such words online, we urge all believers to check the lives and fruit of those they follow online and also see if they are part of a local church body and have true accountability for their public ministries and personal lives. We also urge prophetic ministers posting unfiltered and untested words purportedly from the Lord to first submit those words to peer leaders for evaluation.

Why quote this at length? Because these themes should echo far outside the borders of Pentecostal Christianity. If you read me much at all, you know that I’m constantly hammering on the failure of many millions of Americans to properly weigh the distinction between what you believe versus how you live. 

In Christian circles, this means that those believers who believe they are right are often scornful of dissent, cruel to dissenters, and arrogant in the face of critique. Commands such as “love kindness” or “walk humbly” are cast aside. Exhibiting the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—is deemed optional when the outcome of the culture war is on the line. 

Too many Christian leaders reject accountability. Too many Christian believers seek the voices that tell them what they want to hear and despise those who dissent. 

Yet, at its heart, this statement declares that “how you live” is at least as vital as “what you believe.” In fact, the way you live can bring shame and dishonor to your deepest beliefs. A combination of spiritual arrogance, naked partisanship, and fear of the Christian crowd led too many men and women to falsely attach a divine source to their fervent desires.

I know there are readers who will work through every word of this newsletter and simply conclude, “This is silly. These people are silly. The answer to false prophecy is to stop believing silly things.” 

Lest you mock Pentecostal Christians, I’d remind you that every single Christian believes in a series of miracles, most notably a virgin birth and a divine resurrection. Is it truly silly to believe that God still moves miraculously in the world today? 

I’d urge even the most skeptical of readers to read the statement and ask themselves, “Would a Christian community that put these principles in practice have responded to Trump, to the election, and to COVID the way they did?” The answer is obvious. 

No Christian can change the past. The future is in doubt, and if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that the maladies of any significant branch of the Christian church can’t be contained to the church. Fortunately, there are Pentecostal leaders who understand the stakes, who love the church, and are seeking to turn its heart back to scripture, to humility, and to accountability. We should all hope they succeed.

One last thing ...

I’ve ended with both these songs before, but this is a beautiful medley sung by beautiful voices. Happy Sunday.

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