The United States is in a messy, some might say baffling, political season. Canada has just gone through one, although with less bewilderment. Many are rejecting the political establishment and looking for a new kind of leader. Some look for a charismatic business leader who trumpets his success and wealth. Others cruise to an obstructionist ideologue who advocates states’ rights and freedom from government restrictions. Commentators say these two are fighting for the Evangelical vote.
What is this evangelical vote? I have just read the prepublication manuscript of The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity by Dr. Keith Sewell (used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers). He traces the history, theology and practice of Evangelical Christianity that truncates the Gospel and is problematic for the church today. Evangelicalism focuses on the individual with its stress on personal conversion, personal salvation, personal forgiveness through Christ’s death, personal Scripture reading, personal morality and personal evangelism. Salvation is defined as a right relationship (“righteousness”) with God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that will lead to a future, soon-to-come, heavenly life.
This theology has much that is right, but it is inadequate with significant negative consequences. It leads to individualism, the fragmentation of the church and the rejection of leadership. The Reformation ideas of the priesthood of all believers and the perspicuity of Scripture become Bible “studies” of “what I feel it means to me.” Experts are no longer needed.
In this setting, leadership in the church becomes about self-help messages on becoming a better person, management of resources and optimistic funerals. Denominations and churches hire counselors, managers and chaplains. Pastors are afraid to lead and address tough issues, because they are viewed as just another opinion. “Everyone is a theologian,” after all. In a market-driven individualistic environment with tight resources, one cannot afford to offend customers.
This problem is not unique to the Western world. A Korean graduate student said that Korean Protestantism is “hated” (his word) by the majority of the Korean population because of the limitation of its evangelical theology and abusive leadership. Chinese students have shared mixed reactions to the Chinese Christian church. Some see it as a closed cult mainly for the poor and disadvantaged promising magical help now but primarily a heavenly afterlife. Others hope that it might be able to bring trust, charity and moral values to Chinese society.
Much of this comes down to how we define “salvation.” Salvation means a way out of sin, but into what? We can learn much from the Book of Exodus. Exodus is the “way out” of slavery in the first part of the book. After the Passover Exodus, the people journeyed to Sinai to enter into a new covenant relationship with God and each other. That is the middle of the book.
Then things get messier. There are contrasting instructions for the Tabernacle and worshipping the Golden Calf. There is Moses in the presence of God on the mountain and Aaron appeasing the weakness of the people. Yet the book ends with the building of the Tabernacle and God’s presence coming to journey with his people.
Through all this there is the leadership of Moses. God’s people need godly leadership, leadership that experiences the call of God; leadership that risks challenging the forces of enslavement; leadership that calls people to trust God’s deliverance; leadership that organizes the people; leadership that mediates the covenant; leadership that judges disputes; leadership that pleads with and for the people; leadership that delegates tasks; leadership that suffers with the people and does not give up.
We are still on this messy journey together. Salvation is not just personal. It is communal. Salvation is not just about getting to the “promised land of heaven.” It is about being God’s servants here. It is about living as God’s delivered covenant people reflecting God’s presence into the messiness of the journey.
Leadership is messy, yet desperately needed. We need theological and godly leadership. We need to heed the encouragements of Hebrews 13.
“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (Heb. 13:17 NIV).