Corinthianization of American Evangelicalism

I’m about to lecture on 1 Corinthians 1-2, and I’m struck again by the parallels between the Corinthian church and American evangelical life.  A repost on this topic:

Mickey Maudlin, Rob Bell’s editor for his book, Love Winswrote 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, and 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.

7 thoughts on “Corinthianization of American Evangelicalism

  1. Dan Jr.

    I completely agree with you Tim. “Evangelicalism has come to resemble the Corinthian church. They had broken into factions and were squabbling among themselves.”

    But I’ve sadly observed the same tendency of tribalism amongst those who left the “evangelical” church. Now that I’m forging communities outside the evangelical tent I run into a more modern/hip tribalism that creates polarization and factions. No longer is it to orient around a big personality or style of worship, instead the orientation is to identify primarily by a preferred issue. The list is long with what pet-issues are parceling us apart. I call it “ideological-centering” and I feel we’ll be trying to over-correct from it in 20 years.

  2. Craig L. Adams

    Tim,

    This is just a brief note to let you know how much I appreciate your blog. I read you regularly and appreciate your insights.

  3. Adam Lorenz (@adamlorenz)

    A good word, Tim and thank you.

    I was at GRTS in the midst of the Love Wins ordeal and based on how it was handled was the final straw in having me transfer seminaries due to my affiliation with Mars.

    I agree with Dan above, tribalism is easy. Too often those who have been hurt end up just modeling the same hurt they experienced – I know I am guilty of this. Hopefully Paul’s words might humble us all in new and fresh ways today.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks, Adam. That’s a serious grief that the book caused such negative reactions in any and every way. It’s not a “conservative” phenomenon to tribalize, but a human one, and one that we all must resist actively.

  4. Matt Waymeyer

    When Maudlin accuses specific individuals of 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‘”), it appears that he has crossed the line to actually judging the motives of their hearts. Wouldn’t a more humble and charitable interpretation at least allow for the possibility that these critiques were motivated by a love for the church and a desire to protect and care for the flock, not by a need to feel right with God by attacking an enemy?

    In the conclusion of his review of Bell’s Love Wins—“God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True”—Pastor Kevin DeYoung writes: “I have not spent hours and hours on this review because I am out to get another pastor. I may be a sinner, but with four young children and a very full church schedule, I have no time for personal vendettas. No, this is not about a single author or a single church. This is about the truth, about how the rightness or wrongness of our theology can do tremendous help or tremendous harm to the people of God. This is about real people in East Lansing where I serve and real people an hour down the road in Grand Rapids where I grew up. This is about real people who have learned from Bell in the past and will be intrigued by his latest book, wondering if they should be confused, angered, or surprised to hear that hell is not what they’ve been told.”

    Isn’t it possible that Francis Chan, Mark Galli, Al Mohler, David Platt, and John Piper had a similar motivation in writing their critiques? In fairness to you, Tim, I should mention that I do recognize that you did not connect your critique of tribalism to any specific individual in the way that Maudlin did. So I guess my comment is more of a response to his article than to yours. On a separate but somewhat related note, you’ve really piqued my curiosity about what you thought of Bell’s book.

    I hope you and your family are doing well. I think we’re a bit overdue for a phone call!

    1. timgombis

      Perhaps you’re right, Matt, and Maudlin could have considered a different approach. And it does indeed seem possible that these authors were motivated by a concern for the truth.

      My main concern is not to score points for this or that side, but to note the fractured character of evangelicalism (all of it, not just this or that segment), the prevalence of in-fighting and the spirit of competition. It’s worth asking whether there are destructive dynamics at work similar to those Paul discerned among the Corinthians.

      In my opinion, there’s a serious worldliness that plagues evangelicalism and sometimes that worldliness masks itself with the rhetoric of a concern for biblical fidelity. This is especially the case where the survival of large ministry institutions is at stake through the sales of books, the constant cultivating of a constituency that motivates the critique of other figures and ministries, etc. I think that in some instances, at least, the motivations involved may require closer scrutiny.

      Life is good here — hope all’s well with you and yours!

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