The Corinthianization of American Evangelicalism

Mickey Maudlin, Rob Bell’s editor for his book, Love Wins, wrote about his experience with Bell and his thoughts on the responses to its publication.

He states that:

As a young evangelical, I was socialized to see the biggest threat to the church as theological liberalism. But now I think the biggest threat is Christian tribalism, where God’s interests are reduced to and measured by those sharing your history, tradition, and beliefs, and where one needs an “enemy” in order for you to feel “right with God.”

I think Maudlin is spot-on.  Evangelicalism has come to resemble the Corinthian church.  They had broken into factions and were squabbling among themselves.  Paul says this in 1 Cor. 1:10-13:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

The message of the cross rebukes such tribalizing practices.  It is because of God’s own mercy that they are in Christ:

It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:30-31).

They ought to celebrate their renewed identity in Christ rather than break up into factions oriented around the big “personalities” in the early church.  Paul says that this is worldliness in 1 Cor. 2:1-4:

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

He also warns them that tribalism is eschatologically precarious.  God takes the unity of his people seriously and will destroy the divisive person:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17).

Paul concludes this section condemning tribalism:

So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

They are to make use of all available teachers to grow in Christ, but their boast is to be in God alone who has snatched them out of darkness and united them to Christ.

This very same dynamic thrives among evangelicals today and it is a sign of evangelicalism’s worldliness.  We identify ourselves as “fans” of our favorite authors and play them off against each other.  According to Paul, such practices are only found among immature, worldly, fleshly people who do not understand the mind of Christ.

There’s much more to say about tribalism, but in looking for a Pauline precedent, this dynamic can only be associated with the worldliness of the Corinthian church.

14 thoughts on “The Corinthianization of American Evangelicalism

  1. Linda Mortensen

    One of my son’s friends who was a regular (but fairly good-natured) participant in this kind of evangelical tribalism went to China for a year. When he came home, he told my son that he understood now what my son had been trying to tell him about not participating in such pettiness. “In China,” he said, “It doesn’t matter what you are (denominationally), just that you are (a Christian).” A lesson well-learned at a fairly tender age, I’d say.

  2. S Wu

    Well said, Tim. I especially like the fact that you stick with the Scriptures, rather than appealing to a particular doctrine. I am often saddened by the tribalism both in the West and in the non-Western churches (yes, including the Asian churches!). But at the same time I know that I need to be careful that I do not create my own “tribe” by opposing all the other “tribes”.

    My own journey of faith in Christ started with worshiping God in non-denominational churches. That was really helpful.

  3. Scott C

    This rings a little hollow to me since I believe the first, most credible and sustained response to Bell’s book came precisely from quarters of Evangelicalism known for their commitments to the centrality of the gospel message regardless of denominational and confessional proclivities. Since Bell’s book challenged that faith long accepted historically by all stripes of Evangelicalism, the response was appropriate in my mind. Truth central to the gospel must be clearly defined and defended when detractors seek to undermine it even if it comes from those who purport to be within the fold (Galatians 2 seems rather clear about this).

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Scott. I’m not sure as to what you’re referring by “this,” however–the tribalizing of evangelicalism or Maudlin’s post.

      Evaluating quarters of evangelicalism based on fidelity to the gospel is a fairly precarious enterprise, frankly. Further, I don’t agree that Bell’s book challenged long-held faith commitments. In fact, I think many folks didn’t actually read him to get what he was saying. That’s unfortunate. Finally, I don’t agree that he is a detractor who sought to undermine anything but a inadequate grasp of the gospel. Galatians 2 has little to do with this discussion unless you’re referring to people who want to put others in camps viz. Rob Bell or other Christian figures.

      1. Scott C

        Would you agree that to be truly Christian that there needs to be a set of common denominators marking the boundaries of the gospel that all Christians should agree upon? Not necessarily that everyone articulates those marks in exactly the same way, but that there is at least some coherence between different traditions within true Christianity? If so, how would you personally articulate those boundaries?

        BTW, I just picked up your book on Ephesians and hope to use it profitably in preaching through that book.

      2. timgombis

        Yes, there definitely are circumscribing boundaries for being Christian. It’s just that for Paul the boundaries are quite wide. For some evangelicals who want to draw tight lines and identify who’s in and who’s out, Paul can be quite frustrating, as can Jesus! But a few passages in Paul point up whom he considers in:

        1 Cor. 12:3, anyone who says “Jesus is Lord” has the Holy Spirit–they’re in. In Rom. 8:17, it is those who suffer along with Jesus who will share in Jesus’ exaltation. In Gal. 5:6 and 6:15, Paul speaks to a community wanting to draw tight boundary lines around the people of God. For him, what makes one part of the people of God is “new creation,” and “faith working through love.” He then calls this “the new rule.”

        For Paul, then, the “rule of faith” is much wider than we’d want to make it, and the family of God has many more members than some of us would like–sort of like a real family with lots of embarrassing relatives!

        I might be comfortable with the Apostles Creed defining those boundaries, but really I think we need to make sure that we’re not cutting out people whom Jesus considers precious siblings in the family of God. I’d be more worried about that than counting people in who really aren’t. After all, Jesus’ table throughout the Gospels includes many more people than the religious authorities were comfortable with.

        To my mind, however, how one articulates the precise contours of the final judgment do not come into play in determining whether one is in the faith.

        I do hope you enjoy the Ephesians book!

  4. Nick

    Finding your blog so refreshing.

    For a lay-person thrown into the fray of modern and ancient Christian thought, it’s a welcome start to freeing conversation. I find myself having to constantly wrestle with the various “versions of God” that were forced upon me as a child and teenager. The casualties of the modern doctrinal watchdogs may very well be the layman, caught in the middle of financially prosperous theological snares, i.e. certain viewpoints and interpretations (each espoused in a subsequent series of books) deemed fundamental to the gospel and faith. The absolute dogmatism of the authors and speakers forces the middle men to pick tribes. And when choosing the “right Jesus” and the “right Paul,” we’re often left with the queasy feeling that we may have picked wrong. At which point it becomes easier to toe the line, never really certain of anything…no authority figures, and no trustworthy voices. Just enough knowledge to feel powerless to escape your own self, culture, and time. As P.T. Anderson said, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

    Thanks for a breath of fresh thought and air…seeing Paul in a “new” and vibrant light. Thanks for opening the door for conversation with gentleness and humility.

  5. Scott C

    I appreciate your reply. I would agree that in some ways the boundaries are wide if your talking about who gets in; not in terms of numbers but in terms of the types of people – people of every race, background, socio-economic status, etc.

    In other ways, I would say the boundaries are quite tight. To say Jesus is Lord when the PC thing to do was to say Caesar was Lord has profound implications for the contemporary context. Faith working through love is a rare sight. To see professing Christians living in conscious dependence upon Christ in the way Christ loved is uncommon. The parallel here is John 13:34. The “newness” of the command seems to be the quality of love expected, that it match that of Jesus Himself for his disciples as magnified in His death. That sort of love seems impossible apart from regeneration. When you consider all the marks of regeneration in 1 John, that seems to rule out a lot of people possessing false assurance and explains why many will one day hear those horrifying words, “i never knew you, depart from Me you who practice lawlessness.”

    When I consider that Jesus said wide is the gate that leads to destruction and many will go through it and narrow is the gate that leads to life and few are those who enter it (Matt. 7:13-14) I am sobered by the urgency of seeing more come through that narrow gate. Indeed I would say God’s mercy is wide in terms of reaching to the most despised of people (I know, I just baptized one last week who killed her 8 year old child in a car wreck because she was high on Meth). But how rare it is to see anyone respond to that mercy (I know, I have been laboring for 7 years in a place that has seen little fruit).

    1. timgombis

      I see what you mean, Scott. It seems that the character of the gospel’s exclusivity (or maybe its demand) or inclusivity will come to the fore depending on the context or perspective from which it is regarded.

      Those seeking to limit the reach of God’s saving grace are reminded of its wideness. Those who are taking God’s grace lightly or who are complacent need to be reminded of the gospel’s demands and call to discipleship.

  6. Pingback: Tim Gombis: Divine Election « Jeff Figearo's Blog

  7. James

    I think that while the examples that you used from the beginning chapters of Corinthians could be used to discourage factions within the church, I believe the Rob Bell case is one case in which these particular verses simply do not apply. If Maudlin is speaking of evangelical tribalism in the sense of 1 Corinthians 1:12, then I would certainly agree; however, as John Piper once said, I don’t believe that the unity of the visible church can be the “absolute criterion for faith and action.” Paul stated that their would be differences among those who were a part of the visible body of Christ “to show which of you have God’s approval.” (1 Cor. 11:19) In more direct terms, there does seem to be some instances where our differences are there to expose doctrinal error, and I think this is the case with the Rob Bell instance.

    1. timgombis

      There are certainly some evangelicals who share your opinion, James, but there would be many others who would disagree. Rob Bell is well within the evangelical camp and is certainly an orthodox Christian. Some other Christian teachers who want to arrogate to themselves the function of naming who’s in and who’s out are perhaps over-reaching their bounds and ought to be a bit more circumspect.

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