Evangelical Resistance to the Gospels: How & Why

A few days ago, I wrote that Christian people, evangelicals included, have developed the terribly unfortunate habit of misreading the Gospels.

It goes beyond unintentionally cultivated habits.  I think that reading the Gospels for what they’re really saying threatens to upset and destabilize our church community dynamics that have become predictable and comfortable.  Contemporary Christians—evangelicals included—are too threatened by the Gospels to read them for what they’re actually saying.

Resistance to the Gospels takes many forms and happens for various reasons.  We’ve noted in the comments some of the forms resistance takes over the last few days (e.g., older premillennial dispensationalism, some forms of a Law/Gospel contrast). 

Here are a few more.

I can recall our Gospels-resistance reading strategies from Bible studies in high school and college.  We would encounter a challenging statement of Jesus, such as that in Luke 14:12-15:

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Realizing that Jesus very clearly says to invite the poor and those of shameful social status, we would fall silent and then ask, “what do you think Jesus means by this?”

Inevitably, someone would say, “I think Jesus is referring to our hearts—that we should have willing hearts in case we’re ever called to serve.”

This is a familiar strategy, one I’ve encountered (and used myself) many times.  We stare at the clear words of Jesus that challenge our well-established social patterns and community dynamics, and we flinch.  We relegate Jesus’ commands to motive-purification, ignoring that he’s calling for purposeful transformation of actual social practices.

N. T. Wright is dead-on when he says that evangelicals are Bultmannian when it comes to the Gospels (How God Became King, pp. 22-23).  Bultmann sought to strip away the “husk” of the historical details of the Gospels in order to get to the “kernel” of theological truth the Gospels writers were really communicating.

We strip away the “husk” of Jesus’ clear words to find the spiritual “kernel” that we apply to our hearts and motives. 

This is a reading strategy whereby we keep Jesus safely tucked away in our hearts, self-satisfied with our piety.  But we intentionally avoid doing what he says with our bodies, social practices, and community dynamics.

It’s too threatening.  If we actually did the things Jesus says to do, we’d have to change, and we just don’t want to.

Another example, not so much of why Gospel-resistance happens, but how.  Several years ago, a senior colleague confronted me angrily about something I had written.  He quoted to me the following passage from a paper I had presented on racial reconciliation:

[The gospel is] the announcement of the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God—the announcement that God has come in Jesus to begin his work of reclaiming and redeeming the world, which begins with a redeemed people—a holy people who will manifest, in their social practices, the very life of God on earth.

He demanded to know where I could have gotten such a statement.  I thought he was joking.  He wasn’t.

I told him I got it from reading the Gospels.  He brushed that aside, insisting that this was a sign that I was “emergent.”

I’ve had a number of conversations like that more recently.  I spoke to one person about the church embodying Kingdom life through transforming corporate practices.  He told me that was the “social gospel,” a distraction from the mission of the church.

I said to another that based on a certain text in Mark, Jesus calls the church to take uncomfortable steps of faith—to go beyond what is familiar—in order to enact the Kingdom of God.  He asked me for a few examples, so I suggested that he and a few of his friends initiate a church-based urban mentoring program, looking after some junior high boys who don’t have fathers.

He told me that “sounded emergent.”

I asked him if he thought a more effective demonstration of faith would be getting together with his friends and praying for impossible things.  He nodded. 

After a brief pause, he smiled and said that he may have been speaking out of his theological conditioning, admitting that he doesn’t want to be pushed out of his comfort zone.

We could go on for quite some time giving examples from a variety of theological perspectives and Christian traditions of ways we manage to resist hearing what the Gospels are saying.  My sense is that many of us feel deep-down that there’s too much at stake–our comfort, the predictability of our church community life, our positions of influence, our entrenched interests. 

All of those are threatened by taking the Gospels seriously and letting them radically sift, reorder, and transform the community dynamics and social patterns of our churches.

It’s easier to relegate their clear message to the “safe zone” of our hearts and label calls to actually obey them as “liberal,” “emergent,” or “social gospel.” 

Or, here’s a new one: “That’s something N. T. Wright would say.”

49 thoughts on “Evangelical Resistance to the Gospels: How & Why

  1. Thomas

    “I spoke to one person about the church embodying Kingdom life through transforming corporate practices. He told me that was the ‘social gospel,’ a distraction from the mission of the church.”

    Fascinating. These push backs are real and ruthless at times. I’m a pastor who recently got let go by a church for this very reason. Your post reminds me I’m not crazy.

  2. greekUNorthodox

    Brilliant! You’ve hit the nail on the head! This is exactly the reason why the Church is so impotent in today’s society – we’re all talk. I think this is also most pronounced in societies that are the most economically successful. Those with the most to lose will resist this “clear message” of Jesus more often than those who are oppressed. We’re out of touch, isolated, and happy to stay that way.

    This reminds me of Rob Bell’s book “Jesus Wants to Save Christians” in which he draws parallels between America and Solomon’s Israel – two nations who were so successful that they stopped looking to God to lead them and eventually fell apart and went into exile…

    1. timgombis

      That’s a huge factor–when claiming loyalty to Jesus doesn’t cost anything, and when we can turn our churches into social clubs, we buttress that already-chosen way of life by purposefully misreading the Gospels, muffling what they so clearly say.

  3. joey

    Good piece, Tim.
    It IS important to stress, which I know you would, that it is not merely being nice people that is being proposed – I know many, socially-responsible, just, nice non-believers. Believers live CHRIST-IMAGING lives.

    1. timgombis

      Yep, that should go without saying, but I gotta say, for some people who claim Christ, being nice, refusing to gossip, and doing justice would be huge works of God’s grace!

    2. timgombis

      Just returning to this, Joey, I’ve heard this before in response to saying that Jesus calls us to be communities of justice, people who do good and serve, seeking the relief of suffering, etc. In response, some have said, “well, there are plenty of non-believers doing that, so that’s not enough.”

      I have to say, that’s always bothered me. Is it a good thing to say, in response to Jesus’ clear commands to do these things, “well, there are other people who are doing things like this already?”

      If seeking genuine justice (i.e., righteousness) in the world, reconciliation, etc., and taking purposeful steps to become communities that foster and enact these kinds of dynamics is what God wants from us, how should we respond when we run into non-Christians who do these things

      1. joey

        1) When we see non-believers doing these things, we should commend them. To ourselves, we need to acknowledge that God IS working through them, though they don’t know it or acknowledge it themselves.
        2) What distinguishes our good deeds from “theirs” is our Story. Except for our Story, our deeds are no different qualitatively than theirs. We are not morally or socially superior. Our deeds, however, are connected to a very specific Story, though that’s not precise enough. Rather, our deeds are (part of) our Story. Or, maybe: we do our deeds as a way of living out our Story.
        3) Our Christ-imaging good deeds are an essential part of the Story. We are the living embodiment of the New Creation. If we aren’t living out the New Creation Story, we aren’t being what we are supposed to be.
        4) Another way of saying all this…
        No! Those non-believers who are “doing things like this already” are manifestly NOT doing the things we are doing because they are not doing them in connection to the Story. These good deeds are not ends in and of themselves. The Story is essential.

  4. Jerry Costolo

    Hey Tim, Great Post!

    This is an honest question/request (not a shot across the bow, because I’m standing on the same ship as you)

    Can you put some flesh on what you are driving us toward?

    “the church embodying Kingdom life through transforming corporate practice”;
    “a holy people who will manifest, in their social practices, the very life of God on earth”

    What does that look like? Every attempt to ‘establish’ the Kingdom of God on earth has been an abysmal failure (e.g. the Roman Church; Calvin and Zwingli’s post-reformation attempts at government; New England Puritans; Jonestown (just kidding)).

    Are we talking about our Christian communities (churches) BECOMING communities embodying Kingdom life (pray that they would)? Are we talking about political endeavor to reform our greater society to Kingdom living? Do we ‘join forces’ with the kingdoms of this world that espouse an agenda that we can appreciate?

    Or is it as simple as each one of us coming to grips with the radically uncomfortable call of our Lord Jesus and taking Him at His word, exercising ‘Kingdom life’ in my sphere of influence, tangibly meeting the needs of those right in front of me?

    Help me, please.

    1. timgombis

      Great questions, Jerry! A great illustration of what this looks like, I think, can be found in Bruce Longenecker’s book, Lost Letters of Pergamum. That books introduces us to a community that reads Luke’s Gospel together and then talks about how to become the kind of community of justice, mutual care, service toward one another and others that Jesus is talking about.

      Wright actually gets at a lot of this in his book. It does not have to do with forming power alliances with earthly political parties to gain power.

      It has much more to do with churches praying to gain wisdom to become these sorts of Jesus-oriented communities. And then consulting Scripture to find patterns in the Gospels for how their community should look and behave. Then, examining aspects of existing community life that run counter to those patterns in the Gospels–where are we unjust? In what ways are we becoming a community like the world? Is our leadership worldly? Are we fostering power relationships of inequality so that new creation life is being stifled? Each community needs to ask all those sorts of questions?

      Then, they need to think creatively about how to become the kind of community that reflects the character of the Kingdom as described in the Gospels, cultivating habits of forgiveness, care for the poor and marginalized, sharing possessions, confronting selfishness, reconciling with enemies, etc., all in the name of Jesus. Of course, we never reach perfection, but how can we set courses and trajectories so that we’re getting there?

      1. Jerry Costolo

        Thanks, Brother! See, now that has legs!!

        So this “embodying of Kingdom life” is primarily a ‘church’ thing — a creating of a community that intentionally seeks to do and display our King’s “will, on earth as it is in heaven”? Social justice in the ‘land of our sojourn’ would not be outside of our concern, but our focus remains primarily closer to home (the communities my community lives in)?

        Could we say it is the Kingdom of God filling Kingdom communities of Kingdom citizens til His Kingdom Life spills out onto the kingdoms of this world – even the kingdoms of our King’s enemies — to their blessing and benefit — even at the cost of our own lives (and comfort) which we have already counted as lost for the sake of His kingdom?

        (I love Lost Letters of Pergamum — I need to read it again with this focus.)

      2. timgombis

        Yes, totally, except that our focus is both internally doing good and doing good beyond the borders of our church communities. I don’t know that I’d prioritize them too distinctly. Returning to the point of the last week or so, that’s all in fulfillment of God’s vision for Israel–reading the Gospels in that light.

  5. Don Ekstrand

    Thank you for having the guts to say this. Another excuse, and one I’m living out right now, is “I have a family, and I need to look out for what’s best for them.” In other words, I can’t make the choice to live radically because it will mean my kids won’t go to this nice, comfortable church or live a safe neighborhood with safe friends. The reality is my kids will develop a faith that is as weak or more weak than my own.

  6. Ray S.

    I wholeheartely agree with you, Tim. Great article. And since we’re talking about things that make people uncomfortable that we see referenced to in the gospels, here’s a statement Jesus made that I always find interesting how that people read and quickly ‘interpret away’: Jn.14:12 Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to my Father.

    Now clearly, the gospels identify Jesus’ “works” as varied, but three of the major areas were performing miracles, healings, and casting out demons. Jesus told the Jews Jn.10:32 …Many good works have I have shown you from my Father…

    So now, what are we going to do with this? Does our theology nullify Jesus’ words? Can we not fulfill what he said because our ‘training’ has told us these things “don’t happen anymore”? Hmm.

    We easily talk about ‘love’, ‘mercy’, and the other various qualities that we should be demonstrating to the world around us in concrete ways, but what about demonstrating them, as Jesus did, by believing that we can do what he said we would do? Or, is this just another area we’re going to forego in lieu of others?

    1. timgombis

      I don’t see why not, Ray. But I’d want to point out that Jesus does rebuke people who are eager for spectacular signs out of fascination. He doesn’t rebuke people who are eager to do good, love others, and show mercy.

      1. Ray S.

        Without a doubt, ‘signs’ for the sake of ‘signs’ is condemned. But, these supernatural acts were also acts of mercy and love. The greatest act of love that Peter and John could show toward for the lame man at the gate wasn’t to give him money, it was to impart healing to his body.

        I ran across something by an older Pentecostal writer: (Harold Horton) But, say some very dear and highly esteemed Christians, the Gifts of the Spirit in any case are surely optional; you can live without them. Agreed. You can live without eyes and ears and speech. Spiritual Gifts are as optional as eyesight; you can walk without eyes, but you cannot see without them. You can be holy without Gifts, but you cannot be mighty in God without them. It is power, not holiness, that heals the sick– the power that the Gifts supply…Does not holiness consist in obedience to EVERY holy command of our most holy God– even the command to “desire spiritual gifts”?

        I appreciate what he wrote because he makes the distinctions between Christian character and the function of God’s power within the Body of Christ. One doesn’t substitute for the other. It’s hard to imagine a ‘Jesus’ that demonstrated godly traits, but never performed a miracle or healed sick bodies. The gospels present us with a picture of both. Therefore, we as a Body should, as Mr. Horton said, “desire spiritual gifts.” Not for the sake of ‘signs’ alone, but as demonstrations of God’s love and mercy to a hurting world. That’s the Jesus of the gospels.

        Now, here’s the rub: It’s easy to write/talk about this ‘power’, but where is the manifestation of it in our lives? Yes, there’s the anointed Word that we preach/teach– just like our Master preached/teached– but the gospels put a tag on the end of Jesus’ works by saying that he also “healed all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.” Those weren’t metaphorical healings, they were literal. We need to demonstrate literal Kingdom power.

        I realize that talking about such things is uncomfortable for some; but to ignore it is to continue on in a “form of godlness and denying the power thereof.” Not just the power of our personally changed life, but the outflow from us to change other’s lives– supernaturally.

        I don’t mean to wander too far away from your original post (perhaps I already have), but I just wanted to bring out a point that’s often overlooked.

  7. Haddon Anderson

    I really appreciated this, thank you.

    Honestly, this whole commonality of labeling the “social gospel,” “emergent church,” or “that sounds sooo N.T. Wright” is wearing on me. When I look at American Christianity, I feel like I have a bevy of different “versions” of Christianity to choose from, and they all have have their biblical support stamped onto them. In that, I see Jesus’ words constantly being taken in various routes (as you alluded to).

    My yearning is to know the gospel in a holistic way, which sounds so simple but suddenly seems so tricky. Why does it feel like we’re all sitting in our Christian “camps,” presuming to know the “right” way to follow Jesus? Not only does this seep arrogance over the various “versions” of Christianity, but it clouds, distorts, and resists much of which Jesus actually said.

    It just seems that things are much more hazy than they need to be, and it can easily leave a seminary student like me puzzled.

    1. timgombis

      Sadly, we forget that it takes all parts to make a body, and all global parts of Christ’s body make up the singular worldwide church. So, even if our ‘camp’ has emphasis ‘x’, we ought to appreciate and cheer on that ‘camp’ that has emphasis ‘y’. There’s no point in being destructively competitive, which only damages Christ’s reputation and grieves him deeply.

      1. Haddon Anderson

        Yeah, it just seems like the ‘camp’ emphasizing ‘X’ views the camp emphasizing ‘Y’ as a “threat,” which is obviously very damaging and certainly a major hindrance to the worldwide church.

      2. timgombis

        It’s one thing to have various groups and camps, but another thing entirely when they’re mutually competitive and destructive. Far too common, though. Especially as one of our core tasks is to maintain unity!

  8. Peter

    “Sounded emergent”?! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. As a Brit who has spent over 30 years around American Christians, when I was introduced to Wright it was like opening a window and feeling the strong wind of the Spirit blowing straight at me. Great post, right on the button.

  9. S Wu

    For almost seven years I worked in a relief and development organization. I found myself working with Christians from a wide range of traditions. When it comes to social justice issues, here are some typical questions/comments I get:

    “Does it mean that I have to sell my house and move to a poor neighborhood?”
    “Does it mean that I can’t put my kids in Christian schools any more?”
    “What’s wrong with being middle-class?”
    “Not only that we should help the poor, we need to help the wealthy to help the poor!”

    Then there are others who say, “Forget about Paul’s letters. Just read the Gospels.”

    Obviously there are not simple answers to these questions. But I keep thinking that it comes back to whether we read the Gospels and Paul on their own terms, and whether we allow ourselves to be challenged by the Gospel that demands us to take up the cross daily. And the more I think about this, the more I believe that it is when we accept the challenge of cross-bearing that we gain a greater understanding of the amazing grace of God.

  10. S Wu

    Tim, I wholeheartedly agree with your response to Jerry above. (It has much more to do with churches praying to gain wisdom to become these sorts of Jesus-oriented communities…… Of course, we never reach perfection, but how can we set courses and trajectories so that we’re getting there?)

    This is exactly what I would have said, except that you have done a better job articulating it.

  11. fallan

    the church has to tread carefully here otherwise it could end up like the church of England where its trend of social preaching was used by the Labour Party to attack the Conservative Party.Now the church is looked upon as a voice of the occupiers of St Pauls and not what it was meant to be but a bringer of the gospel to a lost people.I agree.. to many of us have shied away from the unfortunates in our communites but not all.. many are out on the streets helping down and outs and drug addicts but their main aim is to bring them to the Lord Jesus.Yes feed and water them first as Jesus did on the Mt Of Olives but then give them the gospel the real food and water.I find that those churches who have entered the social path have included into their worship worldly things so as not to offend those who believe in such things.The light that once shone brightly is now being put out by the darkness of the world.To enter into the social side of the gospel is the right thing to do but your faith should be strong and prayerful because you know what they say about the road of good intentions.

    1. timgombis

      I think your warning is a good one in some ways. But I don’t want to urge caution when it comes to obeying Jesus. If we find areas of our community lives where we’ve come short of obeying Jesus, we should repent and make changes, full stop. Many of our evangelical churches here in the States are in no danger at all of doing too much to enact the practical aspects of obedience!

      1. S Wu

        Precisely, Tim. The warning should not be ignored, but it’s about obeying Jesus. I tend to think that it comes back to being faithful hearers of the Scripture – that is, we “hear” and “obey” (which, I understand, is the meaning of the word “hear” in the Shema in Deut 6:4, the greatest commandment).

        If we read the Book of Acts, for example, I think it is impossible not to proclaim the Risen Christ and Crucified Lord. At the same time, it is impossible not to be a community among poor and oppressed.

      2. fallan

        if you noticed I said it was right to be more committed to those whose lives are blighted by alcohol and drugs but that we should remember what the Christians prime purpose is and thats to bring those who do not believe to accept Jesus as their Saviour.A balance must be struck but winning souls for Christ is at the top of the list.Take gay marriage and the gay lifestyle its now being accepted by some churches for me this is against the Word of God and has been accepted by some as a way to attract gay people into the church in other words forgetting the sin to win the sinner.Its appears the church is now all things to all people and is like that house Jesus said was built on sand and we know how that ended up.

  12. unknown

    Thank you for sharing this Tim.
    It was one of the best reads I have come across lately.
    It leaves the nagging question, “So how do I do this?”
    For many of us, we have not really seen these words of Jesus put into action. A “disciple” is one who learns from and basically just does what he sees his Master doing, day in and day out. We hear so many say, “These are the words of Jesus and we should do what He says.” True. But I ask, who is doing that? Where, or from whom, do you learn how to put the Gospels into action, and how’s that going for you?

  13. Headless Unicorn Guy

    I’ve had a number of conversations like that more recently. I spoke to one person about the church embodying Kingdom life through transforming corporate practices. He told me that was the “social gospel,” a distraction from the mission of the church.

    That’s the expected reaction from an Altar Call Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation. Anything else — justice, arts, Tikkun Olam? “It’s All Gonna Burn…”

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  16. Anon.

    quote: “A few days ago, I wrote that Christian people, evangelicals included, have developed the terribly unfortunate habit of misreading the Gospels.”

    I would agree that this is true in particular ways that are definable and discernible and disagree with this, as not *all* Christian peoples are misreading the Gospels. There is a “third rail” of Christianity that is little known and even lesser understood that has exegeted and continues to exegete the Gospels correctly…especially as seen (or would that be heard? articulated?) through its hymnography.

    quote: “Another example, not so much of why Gospel-resistance happens, but how.”

    How it happens, or, rather, has happened in Western Christianity, can be historically traced back to Anselm of Canterbury’s “Cur Deus Homo” (Why God [became] Man). In this treatise, Anselm used a commonly accepted medieval legal construct to answer the question of why Jesus came to save mankind. And he was wrong, Scripturally, as well as historically as The Church had answered that question through Her consensual and Spirit-informed interpretation of the Scriptures for the previous 1000 years. We, in the West, are suffering the consequences of an innovative doctrine during an era that was a precursor to Western rationalism. We have questions, we demand answers… ;D We Westerners are uncomfortable with “I don’t know; it’s a mystery” (and I don’t mean Agathe Christie!).

    In any case, how we became resistant to the mystery (mysterion, μυστήριον) of the Gospel in the West (because, in Eastern Christianity this problem is non-existent) is hinted at in Augustine, seeded by Anselm, comes to flowering with Thomas Aquinas, and reaches it’s fruition in the Reformation. The very foundation is failed. We are reaping the harvest of that.

    Come and See…

  17. EllieAnn

    Most of what Jesus teaches is out of my safe zone. It takes such great concentration to actually obey and not write it off or rationalize my actions. thanks for this encouraging reminder to listen and obey Jesus!

  18. James


    I can relate to what you are talking about. Can I ask though, what does this look like in your life personally?

    1. timgombis

      Good question, James. I’ll try to keep it somewhat short.

      In the 90’s, my wife and I were in a doctrinally oriented church in which being Christian meant having the right mental furniture, having our doctrine sorted out right, and getting others to think the way we did.

      During my doctoral studies in the early 00’s, we became convinced that being Christian was communally-oriented and needed to be lived out through service to one another and others. When we moved back to the States in ’04, we looked for a church that exalted Christ and reached out the poor and marginalized to absorb them into a thriving community life of flourishing. We found that church, an urban church plant that served a community hammered by poverty. We read the Gospels and sought to put many of these challenging texts into practice–learning to forgive one another, invite poor people to our homes, receive invitations to enter their homes (not easy for middle class people!), share the ministry load with “others” who didn’t do it like we did, etc. Those were wonderful years–hard, but so rich. Lots of other things to add here, but that’s just a sampling…

      We recently moved to Grand Rapids and participate in a ministry that provides shelter for homeless people. We take up concrete service opportunities to participate in the ways our church proclaims the gospel and participates in it.

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  20. Rescuing Jesus

    Great insight – I too see the church explaining away by over spiritualizing. My first reaction was to your title because I miss-read it as Gospel and not Gospels. All our doing is not the Gospel – what Jesus has done is. But then I read it again and see my own proclivity to miss the point by bringing too many of my pre-conceived notions. Oops. I do, by the way, see an evangelical resistance to the Gospel also.

  21. Pingback: Participation in a community hammered by poverty: Story of a New Testament scholar | Imagine with Scripture

  22. Pingback: Another great article/blog. – Stephanie Staples

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