The calendar has turned over to 2023, and it is time for the obligatory look forward into the future of American Christianity. I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet (to paraphrase Amos). And, since I’m a Christian, I don’t believe in crystal balls. So, take everything you read below with a grain—or pillar—of salt.
In all seriousness, it feels to many observers like we are at a pivotal moment in the history of Christianity in the United States. Some things need to change in order for the church to heal its own wounds and bear faithful witness to a culture gone insane. But will we take advantage of the moment that Christ has given us?
The End of the Egalitarian-Complementarian Divide?
The first place for us to look forward is suggested by Russell Moore, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. On “The Bulletin,” a weekly news and comment podcast hosted by Mike Cosper, Moore asserted that 2023 may signal the end of complementarianism as we have known it in the past. What sounds like a controversial statement is actually an expression of hope.
Moore, who describes himself as a complementarian “of a sort,” went on to explain how he sees evidence of a rising tide of orthodoxy among egalitarians—one which affirms the validity of biblical descriptions of the Trinity and which posits genuine, meaningful distinctions between men and women. Likewise, Moore detects a burgeoning realization among some complementarians that their perspective has often been used to exclude and subjugate women.
I hope Moore is right. If the trends he detects are real, and if they can be nurtured, they will not only make each of these two parties within evangelicalism more spiritually healthy, but they will also make dialogue between the two parties more productive. These trends might even open up the possibility of healing old institutional rifts, or they might at least make the formation of new institutions possible.
I fear, however, that Moore’s observations may be a mirage. Granted, he is far more plugged in to American Christianity than I am, and I tend towards pessimism in how I evaluate political and social trends. But, for reasons we will discuss below, I fear the combatants will ultimately retreat into the safety of their echo chambers and not do the hard work of confronting their own shortcomings. Let’s pray I’m wrong.
Greater Moral Clarity about Politics and Power?
It should be clear to everyone by now that the Trumpification of the Republican Party is not good for the United States, is not good for the Republican Party, and is not good for the witness of the church. Just as progressivism led liberal Christianity away from orthodoxy, and thus stripped it of any opportunity to rein in the excesses of that ideology, so also populism has been a powerful temptation for those on the right who are angry about where the United States is going and who want to use political power to arrest those cultural trends.
Evangelicals have an opportunity to re-examine their political convictions and their relationship to power. They have an opportunity to demonstrate they are not captive to worldly ways of thinking and are able to clean out the garbage in their own ranks. That doesn’t mean they have to create political, economic, social, and legal theories out of whole cloth; as, in my view, the American Enterprise Institute has demonstrated, theories of secular origins can be used to facilitate the good of humanity. But it does require evangelicals to be honest about the evidence presented to them and to refuse to be enslaved by structures and institutions which only have the propagation of their own welfare at heart.
I hope we will take advantage of this opportunity. But we need to be honest about the fact that there are many political, social, and cultural factors working against this kind of honest engagement in civic life. Indeed, social identity theory, self-categorization theory, and schism theory would suggest our very psychology is working against us. It is easier to double down on power and fight for our own than it is to be honest about the complex and difficult nature of the problems we face as a nation. It is easier to feed polarization than it is to step into the gap between warring parties and make peace. And this is especially true when we feel peace can only be won at the cost of our own conscience.
Denominational Destruction or Denominational Reform?
One of the things I am most curious about is the future of denominations. A lot of the data I am seeing suggests denominations are in trouble, and it is not hard to understand why. Institutional mistrust has been growing in the United States for decades, and that mistrust has (in the minds of many) been proven wise by the revelations of abusive behavior and rampant cover-ups in the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and other prominent religious groups.
Moreover, David Brooks has rightly observed that individuals are becoming increasingly idiosyncratic in how they form their religious convictions. Accountability to any structure larger than their own local religious community—which, it should be noted, they chose themselves—seems to be more than most Americans (including me, if I’m honest) are willing to accept.
Still, I’m not ready to give up on denominations. For one thing, we need larger forums for community and accountability than can be provided by a single congregation. For another, denominations provide local churches with resources and opportunities for ministry they would not otherwise have. I worry, in particular, that a turn away from these larger fellowships would also signal a turn away from worldwide missions. Large congregations can afford to support their own missionaries, but small ones cannot.
My hope is that we will see a renaissance in denominational life. For this to happen, many of the institutions we now have will need to change. Perhaps new ones will need to be created. But we as Christian leaders will also have to prioritize denominational life. And that is hard to do when you are already stretched to the limit by the demands of your local congregation, your family, and your own spiritual life.