Over the past few years, there has been a growing movement of people who are leaving the evangelical church as a result of deconstructing their faith—a process that involves reflecting on which of their beliefs have been shaped by cultural, political or socio-economic values rather than the values of the kingdom of God. Through this process, many find their beliefs no longer align with those of their evangelical churches. In a previous Salvationist article, I examined this “ex-vangelical” movement through the lens of the Psalms, which captures the complexity of the Christian journey in prayers of orientation, disorientation and new orientation.
Many ex-vangelicals are not leaving the church because they don’t believe in the good news. Rather, they are reacting to a general drift of evangelicalism toward Christian fundamentalism. They often find community and solidarity among similarly minded people online as they grieve the inadequacy of their churches in supporting them through their process of deconstructing and reconstructing their faith. Without support, many of them do not get to the “reconstructing” phase and simply “deconvert.”
Why are these ex-vangelicals not finding adequate support in their evangelical churches? Most evangelical church leaders see deconstruction and reconstruction as hazardous to both personal faith and church authority. But instead of being defensive, can we recover the biblical tradition of wrestling with God?
Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism
People looking in from the outside have synonymized evangelicals and fundamentalists. They hear Christians making polarizing claims about politics, science, racialized people and people who are gender or sexually diverse. There may be differences in levels of militancy between evangelicals and fundamentalists. Such differences, however, don’t get covered in the news and on social media platforms.
As to the view from the inside, it can be hard to find an evangelical Christian who can describe evangelical Christianity and what makes it distinct as part of the body of Christ. A basic definition of evangelicalism, as described by British historian David Bebbington, includes four features: 1. The Bible is inspired by God. 2. The atoning work of Jesus Christ is central for faith. 3. Salvation involves having a personal relationship with God that leads one away from sin and toward discipleship and holiness. And finally, 4. Christians are called to participate in God’s work by living in ways that pursue the kingdom of God in creation. This can include partnering with others pursuing social justice who identify as Christian, religious and secular. As they do so, evangelicals share God’s good news.
None of this precludes the processes of deconstruction and reconstruction. But fundamentalism does.
Fundamentalists understand the Bible as not only inspired by God but also inerrant and infallible. This means biblical criticism (analyzing Scripture in terms of authorship, audience and other contextual factors) is viewed as unnecessary and even threatening to its truth and the Christian faith. So, Christians who want to dig deeper into Scripture’s meaning are also threats. This is only one example of the narrowness of fundamentalist culture. When it comes to participating in God’s work in creation, fundamentalists turn inward, condemning most of what comes from outside their communities. This narrow-mindedness inherent to fundamentalism is creeping into evangelical communities.
Perhaps because evangelical Christians don’t have a strong sense of evangelical identity, and perhaps because we live in a time that accepts extremes and rejects nuance, people who identify as evangelical are difficult to distinguish from people who identify as fundamentalist. I can understand why ex-vangelicals leave.
The Salvation Army and Evangelicalism
The Salvation Army, an evangelical part of the universal Christian church, is in decline in this territory. Part of the decline, I believe, is due to evangelicalism’s drift toward fundamentalism. We are drifting away from the openness of good news and hunkering down to wait out the storm. I encourage you to reflect on this matter and decide whether you agree. If you do, how can we become people of good news again?
If we believe that God remains willing to work through The Salvation Army, and if we can commit to actively responding to God’s Spirit, let us be more receptive to the claims made by people who leave us behind.
Consider the following suggestions. They are given in the interest of welcoming and keeping people who undergo orientation, disorientation and new orientation. They also put us back in alignment with the good news expressed in the identity, mission and doctrines of The Salvation Army.
Salvation Across a Lifetime
According to Doctrine 7, salvation requires a person to repent, claim faith in Jesus and accept the Holy Spirit’s regeneration. We often consider personal salvation as the first step along a straight and narrow path of faith. But our doctrines don’t limit salvation to a first step.
Doctrine 9 maintains salvation happens throughout our journey. As Christians, we repent, explore what it means to be faithful and pray for the Spirit’s regeneration not just once but over and over. This opens us to the idea that the journey of faith is not narrow and not for the narrow-minded. We traverse a thorny path that takes us to places of disorientation and reorientation. Our journey is fraught with unexpected challenges but blessed with undeserved grace. We are always being saved by God.
Paul says as much to the Corinthian church (see 1 Corinthians 1:18 and 15:1-2). And he tells Philippian Christians to work out their salvation in fear and trembling as God is at work in them (see Philippians 2:12-13). Admitting he hasn’t achieved the goal of being Christlike, Paul continues to press on and pursue Christlikeness (see Philippians 3:12-14). Salvation takes place across our lives.
How might we flex our understanding of salvation to incorporate a lifetime of orientation, disorientation and reorientation? A life that includes deconstruction and reconstruction? Let’s return to the stories of biblical figures with complex journeys. People such as Jacob who wrestled with God. People such as David who struggled with multiple faults. These people are counted in the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us (see Hebrews 11 and 12).
We are an educated people. It’s no longer enough to limit sermons and studies to the comforting verses and instructional passages we have relied on in the past. Educated evangelicals find little satisfaction in a read of Scripture that overlooks its more problematic or contradictory passages. They don’t see a critical examination of the Bible as a threat to their faith but as a way to strengthen it.
Further, a Salvationist perspective does not view Scripture as inerrant or infallible. We worship God, not the Bible. The Handbook of Doctrine indicates that our primary source of faith and practice is a “word in time” written by humans and inspired by God. In the Wesleyan way, we discern its truth with the help of God’s Spirit and the community of believers. We evaluate every portion of Scripture in light of its overarching truths. And we accept that it doesn’t speak to every matter we face.
As we preach, teach and study together, let’s look at Scripture in fresh ways. We have resources for this. Consider using one of Dr. Donald Burke’s articles in Salvationist as a guide for a Bible study.
Salvation Army Culture
I’ve used Salvation Army doctrine to explain salvation and Scripture interpretation. But sometimes doctrines can seem tired and irrelevant to our lives. Or they can be used to separate ourselves from the influence of outsiders. Both perspectives create an isolated Salvation Army culture. When Jesus fulfilled the law, he didn’t nullify it. Nor did he use it to separate his followers from outsiders. He lived out its spirit. He gave good news to the poor, freed oppressed people and proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favour. He showed the relevance of ancient law to his own age.Surely, we can determine the relevance of Salvation Army doctrine to ours. A plain-sense read of doctrine can be just as limiting as a plain-sense read of Scripture. So, let’s review the doctrines, along with the covenants we make as soldiers and officers. I recommend Major Ray Harris’ book, Convictions Matter, as a guide for small group conversations on doctrine.
The earliest Christians used their own resources to ensure unmet needs didn’t deter people from a life of enjoying God in community (see Acts 2:44-47 and 4:32-37). Likewise, The Salvation Army claims that personal faith goes hand in hand with a responsibility to serve others. We call it “social holiness.” Salvationists are poised to serve the unserved and the underserved, seeing them not merely as needy but as whole people requiring holistic care. Our territory makes the claim that we serve without discrimination, something fundamentalist Christianity does not claim. Yet, there remain people we find it hard to serve, particularly in our corps. As well, we see fewer soldiers employed or volunteering in social services ministries.
Younger people—religious, spiritual or otherwise—are increasingly interested in working toward social justice. Ex-vangelicals see other church bodies engaged in creative, faith-filled service. Perhaps we have something to learn from churches outside our organization.
God’s Good News
The very heart of evangelicalism is in the name. Good news doesn’t remove discipline from discipleship. But it does mean God’s desire to be gracious to us far outweighs our capacity to walk perfectly along the journey of faith.
Do we yearn to be as gracious? Does judgment sometimes prevent us from valuing people whose lives look different from our own? Faith-based facilitation, a Salvation Army method for sensitive conversations, can be used to explore where our judgments might be getting in the way of sharing good news. The Ethics Centre can put you in touch with someone who can facilitate a conversation.
As we seek to support people in our churches who are undergoing the deconstructing process, let’s make changes that witness to a God who so loves the world.
Dr. Aimee Patterson is a Christian ethics consultant at The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg
This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Salvationist.