You’ve likely seen some of these stories on your social media feed: “Union Seminary President Denies Resurrection!”, or “Ex-Evangelicals reaching new audiences with edgy podcast,” or “Mega Church Pastor claims Old Testament is true ‘like Star Wars’ is true.” While some of this might be clickbait, there is a trend in a certain brand of self-conscious, center-left, modern evangelicalism. The trend in pushing the boundaries of evangelical orthodoxies has some calling for a modern-day inquisition against these so-called “Christian Deconstructionists,” others have hailed them as saviors to a dying fundamentalism.
How does a Reformational, Gospel-centered approach to handling bad teaching look? We claim faith in a Gospel that was delivered to us, not discovered or figured out by ourselves, but given by grace so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:9). So why are we so fast to condemn others when we think that which they received is defective or miscommunicated?
How does a Reformational, Gospel-centered approach to handling bad teaching look?
This isn’t a call for relativism, but rather a call to chill. I am not secure in my beliefs because I am more clever or had a better education, or was born during the internet age. It is that God was gracious to me. And if my arguing is for anything other than the proclamation and hope that God’s graciousness is big enough for all of us, I might want to close my mouth.
Read Romans 14 and focus on these lines at the end of the discussion of how to deal with doctrinal and practical issues in the church:
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves” (vv. 17-22).
Eating and drinking, in this case, was not for nourishment or leisure, but intimately tied up with doctrine. When it came to eating meat sacrificed to idols, St. Paul connected this to freedom in the Gospel, and the Gospel itself, and yet still, this text does not work as a “proof-text” to overturn the teaching in Titus 3:9-11:
“But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”
Instead, Titus 3 serves as another anchor point from which to get a hold on whatever the situation is at hand. These two texts are not “contradictory,” but rather both are a part of discerning when to call out wrong teaching and when to keep it between yourself and God.
What about those Deconstructionists?
But, you may ask, what is the difference between someone who has openly rejected teachings, and those who would willfully subvert from the inside? What of these “deconstructionists” who are exchanging the Gospel inheritance for modern, accommodationist gruel?
As a Reformational Christian, I would like to remind all the modern “deconstructors” and critics of “the Man” and “the establishment” that those who follow in the footsteps of Reformers like Luther are no strangers to kicking at authority and blasting traditions; we’ve been doing it for 500 years.
When orthodoxy becomes a Law, heterodoxy can feel like the Gospel.
There’s a scene in a famous movie from 1953, “The Wild One,” starring Marlon Brando as a young motorcycle thug and head of a gang of ne'er do wells. A memorable scene occurs when Brando’s character, Johnny, is asked: “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” To which Brando replied, “Whaddya got?” In other words, the kid was rebelling to rebel. He was young, and angry, and looking for a fight. The modern deconstructionists can look like they are rebelling against whatever the church has. I understand the anger. When orthodoxy becomes a Law, heterodoxy can feel like the Gospel. The Pharisaical demands for graduate degree level understanding of doctrines and metaphysical categories can wear thin, even to the most intellectually keen. Whatever kind of rigid orthodoxy, whether of the evangelical fundamentalism or slavish confessionalism sort, a new generation is kicking against the goads.
The modern “deconstructionists” are often poking at an authority they have found to be overbearing. From podcasts to ex-Evangelical blogs, their cases against the system are often compelling, but the modern deconstructionist is a rebel with seemingly too many causes. Rather than simply criticize, however, let me give what might be a helpful parallel from lessons learned in our past.
When the Reformation churches fought its best fights, it did so for the Gospel and for its pastoral implications. And it did so on a solid foundation of Sola Scriptura, proclaiming the all-sufficiency of Christ. When Luther threw bricks at the Papal glass house, he did so standing firmly on the belief that the Gospel was big enough to forgive his sins, even the sins he might be committing in attacking the church. Despite the risk of overusing the cliche, when Luther advised Melanchthon to “sin boldly” it wasn’t a call to licentiousness but rather to not let perfectionism be the enemy of the good.
Fundamentalisms of any sort, including that of the deconstructionist type, puts a roadblock between the believer and the Cross.
The Reformation tradition fought because “Scripture alone” and resultantly, “Christ Alone,” were under attack, leaving the consciences of believers without assurance of the forgiveness of sins. Fundamentalism of any sort, including that of the deconstructionist type, puts a roadblock between the believer and the Cross. Today, the law offered might not be the burden of the decalogue, but of being sincere, authentic, or having the right experience. I understand the liberation is thrilling, but it will ultimately suffocate you unless it is giving you the only thing needful.
Christians in the Reformation tradition do not need to pile the law on any movement, but rather, can live within the tension provided by the text from both Romans 14 and Titus 3. We can assess the individual situation and respond pastorally, with Law and Gospel as needed. We can set ourselves on the foundation of Sola Scriptura with an emphasis on the Gospel, and proclaim this freedom to others. If the “Deconstructionists” or any new group have lasting contributions to the larger conversation, time will tell. In the meantime, Jesus died for the sins of bad doctrine and our sometimes overeager attempt to correct others, too.