Illustration Credit: Timothy R. Butler/Various AI Models

Cleaning Up One’s Own House

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 9:11 PM

We’ve gotten bad (worse?) about cleaning up our own messes. Sure the other side is a mess, but it’s time to care more about doing what’s right than playing for loyalty or ephemeral victories.

The context of this could be applied to secular society, though my starting point in this particular set of musings was church politics. The problem with in-church politics is a microcosm of the broader issue that makes us all unhealthy, church-affiliated or not.

Twitter/X is an interesting showcase of the issues. “Exvangelicals,” disillusioned former Evangelicals, frequently lob attacks on the secular political inclinations of those remaining in more theologically conservative circles. Surprising this is not, given that in the Trump era, we’ve seen many theological conservatives willing to bend well-wrought principles to gain secular political wins.

Whether one supports the former president or not, any time the church starts to feel subsumed into political currents, that is a recipe for disaster. “Christian Nationalism,” as the MAGA-Church complex is referred to, shows time and again that if theology and politics point in different directions, politics will win. The once hailed queen of the sciences, Theology, is now assigned corresponding acrobatics to affect contorted knee bending, instead of telling us when to stand firm.

On this, the Exvangelicals are right. I’m much more aligned with in my beliefs with their Evangelical opponents, but I’ve said many of the same things they do, because I believe they are right about those observations.

Recently, though, pushback against their trendy critique of Christian Nationalism has emerged from thoughtful commentators of a right leaning theological bent, ones who are unmistakably Christians first and observers of secular politics second. Ones who certainly aren’t on the Christian Nationalist bandwagon or inclined to make the queen kneel before the tyrant of politics.

That pushback is simple and is also true: those eager to critique the Christian Nationalists — rightly, so even! — are busy with their own syncretistic political-theological complex, just the liberal mirror image version. If any group within the church has been worse at keeping politics from being the controller of theology than the present Evangelicals, it is the present progressives, Exvangelicals included.

Progressive Christianity has spent decades promoting what have often been far more liberal positions than their corresponding secular counterparts.

This fits: the Exvangelicals I read eagerly promote the latest progressive political talking points as if they were straight from Scripture, even on matters with no clear, Scriptural position. The handwringing over Trump supporters conflating theology and political preference is a wringing over “the other guys” doing it. The home team does it? No problemo.

This drama has been playing out for decades. When I was in seminary, it was fashionable to critique the failed project of the Moral Majority. We can fairly call it failed because almost every cultural trend they tried to stop won in “the court of public opinion.” The Moral Majority, if anything, accelerated the movement away from the values it tried to defend. That doesn’t mean their values were wrong, just that the project didn’t achieve its goals.

What it did do, like more recent church-MAGA fusions also do, is alienate a certain segment of people from even considering attending an otherwise faithful church that gets itself involved. I heard this from many professors during my mid-2000s days in seminary and found it refreshing that they were arguing for establishing that faithful Biblical doctrine, not politics, was our focus.

Until it wasn’t.

Turns out they were just on the other team and several of the voices who best espoused the problems of the Moral Majority later hosted a campus event endorsing then Sen. Obama for president. Politics was still king, just different politics.

The problem is our attitudes, of which political approaches are merely a revealing symptom, and that means this home team bias shows up well beyond the purely political realm. As I was writing this column, I was sent a quote from megachurch pastor John MacArthur attacking the Catholic Church as hollow ritual covering up all its flaws. No doubt many faithful Christians will share the quote and think how much better they are for aligning themselves with MacArthur.

What won’t get coverage from those same folks is how MacArthur’s church has been exposed as covering up decades of abusive behavior and the pastor’s complicity in that. Remove the gold gilding and replace it with megachurch auditorium-style decor instead and you see the same show, with a different host. Everything in MacArthur’s attack on the Roman church could be leveled against his own ministry accurately.

Like the political polemics outlined above, people shout back and forth — with valid points in the mix — but little gets done, because no one looks at their own team’s problems.

If anything, we refrain from criticizing our own because the others on our team will criticize us for being disloyal or missing the “much bigger problem on the other side.” Faithful, theologically conservative writers get blasted as liberals when they report on the problems of MacArthur or Trump. Once darlings of liberal elites, such as Jon Stewart or Bill Maher, now regularly get slammed for disloyalty when they question the left’s agenda.

(A somewhat crude, but spot-on monologue from Stewart last week managed to respond to this absurdity on his own side and show the idiocy of Tucker Carlson in a masterstroke. I don’t condone some of his language and innuendo, but the segment is so on the money it is worth watching if you can stomach it.)

Here’s the thing that bothers me as a pastor: Stewart, for all his crudeness, gets what many Christians don’t. Wrong is wrong. What’s wrong if “AOC” does it is wrong if Donald Trump does it. What’s wrong if Pope Francis does it is wrong if John MacArthur does it.

Wrong is wrong.

Christians should get this more clearly as those who confess to follow the Lord who is the truth (John 14:6). My calling is not to be faithful to an organization or political movement, my calling is to be faithful to Jesus and His Word. Faithfulness keeps me from feeling at home in either American political party (or likely any party anywhere). Faithfulness means I have to speak up when my regions of the church commit abuse or fail to love, not just when those across political or theological aisles do so.

We shouldn’t gleefully fire our verbal weapons at anyone, including “our own,” but we should stand for truth and righteous behavior across the board. However, we can only legitimately stand up against the wrongful acts of those on the “opposition” if we first stand up against them amongst the home team ranks. Until we do, all our words are hallow partisanship, not the righteous indignation we often think they are.

As long as everyone lines up to rah-rah attack “the other” while being on Team Sweep-Under-the-Rug for ideologically nearer neighbors, we don’t grow more faithful or moral, we only grow division and anger.

It’s time to drop the wrongful home team-ism. Truth is too important for these games.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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