February 25, 2024

Op: Moving the Church Forward in the Free World 

Josh Peters '23

Growing up in the church, it was difficult to get through a Sunday without hearing about Tim Keller. Tim Keller is an American pastor and writer, and a famous one. Millions of Christians have read some book of his. My church was a big fan. Fan, but not so much critic; after all, he is a distinguished and well-known leader of the church who is very “in-tune” with God. What he says is bound to be good, right? 

That bugged me. 

It’s not just Tim Keller; it’s Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, it’s John Mark Comer, it’s Joel Osteen, it’s well-known worship leaders. It’s this tendency to place a high emphasis on what these leaders say and do. It’s the tendency of pastors to quote them in their sermons, of young people to anticipate their next book with incredible devotion, of parents in the church to assume their words ought to be relayed to their kids as good instruction. 

The problem that I’ve observed, in short, is a sort of idolization of Christian figures in Christian popular culture. Certain modern-day Christians are spoken of more often and with more appreciation than those heroes of the faith of which Paul in Hebrews 11. This problem does not permeate the whole American church, but it certainly has spread through it. It’s what young people loathe in the older generation, but end up doing themselves, thus perpetuating the problem unintentionally. 

And why is this a problem anyways? We’re allowed to have role models, right? But not ones that we never really criticize. Indeed, it seems like the American church receives more answers than they ask questions— a very, very dangerous lifestyle.  

To continue this discussion, I would like to take a sidetrack to Immanuel Kant and his notion of enlightenment. Kant was a philosopher in the 18th century who declared that man has an inherent immaturity which he defined as inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. Enlightenment is the escape from that immaturity. Kant proposed two principles: first, that within the private sphere individuals can be restrained to the roles in which they exist, and second, that individuals must have freedom in the public sphere to voice criticism to the public literate audience. An example of these principles as play is that a citizen ought to pay his taxes in the role of a citizen, but that he also is free to decry the taxes as a scholar using reason. 

The requirement, of course, is that citizens be free to voice their mind. In America, both citizens and Christians are free in their public spheres. So why is there so little criticism of these leaders who so alter the trajectory of the church? My thought is that having total freedom to practice public criticism can result in one of two issues. 

First, it can be so overwhelming for individuals to consider the prospect of criticizing every leader in relation to the Bible that they instead settle with a more “go with the flow” approach: following leaders with few questions because it’s expedient. After all, in a capitalism-soaked atmosphere, Americans value expedience quite a bit, and there is a natural appeal to settling, given our wider cultural conditioning. Kant writes about this: laziness and cowardice, he says, are the biggest reasons why enlightenment never takes place. 

Second, we think we really are being critical in our reception of leaders’ assertions. This response is less easy to see. But it is the natural response to my claim that the church is not as critical as they ought to be; who wants to hear that we are like sheep uncritically idolizing R.C. Sproul or the latest CCM artists, that we blindly follow their example and doctrine without question? But part of criticism is self-criticism, and if our visceral response to an alleged lack of criticism is an uncritical denial, we have partially proved the point. 

It’s difficult to pursue criticism of the church. Of course it’s difficult. It’s not fun to raise an issue with a figure that everyone else enjoys. It’s not easy to say something that the rest of the church will condemn. But this is the process of enlightenment that has moved the church forward through the ages. For example, Galileo faced backlash by the church for his criticism of geocentrism, but eventually the church did ease off heliocentrism, and today the church does not try as much to authoritatively dictate scientific interpretation. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses is another good example, and if it had not been for him, the American church would be incredibly different from what it is today. 

Sadly, in my generation many have just left the church in response to this general lack of criticism. Evangelicalism as a movement has brought failure upon failure, and those critical thinkers who do practice public scrutiny have been met by strong and hostile rejection that the church has exemplified over the ages. One of the saddest things I’ve seen is that such hostility to criticism has drained the optimism of the next generation, and instead of seeking to move the church ever forward, they just leave: millions leave, and they never fall in love with God again. That has broken my heart as often as I’ve thought about it.  

As the church, then, we absolutely must be two things: more malleable, and more critical. The church must be able to adapt, which Kant likewise noted was imperative. And we must be more critical: no more allowing any leader to rise up and decide where Christians are going and what they believe, especially not given how ironic that is for the Protestant church. It’s time for us to embrace forward progress as we seek to better do the things God has commanded for the church. 

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