November 21, 2007
David Wells is the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is also a prolific writer, including his most recent volume “Above All Earthly Pow’rs.” He was interviewed on “The Frank Pastore Show.”
Frank Pastore: In a recent piece by David Kirkpatrick in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Evangelical Crack Up,” David Wells was quoted essentially as saying, “Look this is not new. We have seen liberalism encroach theologically against conservatives for a very long time, in fact through all of church history, and it follows a pretty predictable pattern….” From your perspective, is the religious right dead?
David Wells: If you look at the numbers, for example, that the Pew poll has put out, there is no question that there is significant disaffection among evangelicals with the Bush administration. I think among born again people, the support for Bush right now is about 40 percent, which is a little bit higher then the nation, but not a whole lot higher. The causes of the disaffection are different. Some, of course, don’t like the Iraq war, some are fiscal conservatives who do not like the big spending, and some are disappointed that the moral agenda that you’ve talked about and specifically abortion, and homosexual rights, and gay marriages that has not been stopped. So, I do think there is considerable disaffection with this particular administration whether or not it is justified.
However, I think you need to distinguish that from the moral commitment of real biblical believers. I don’t think that changes from week to week as the polls do.
Pastore: I’m most interested in your opinion dealing with the state of the church on issues like inerrancy, the direction that you see American Christianity going…. A lot of people are moving away from political issues and embracing what they understand to be moral issues, which ultimately are political: poverty, HIV/AIDS, raising taxes on the poor, global outreach, pacifism in our foreign policy.
Wells: I think your observation is quite right, and this is a complicated question because, I think what we are looking at, on the one hand is the slow disintegration of this great coalition of Bible-believing Christians that have been sort of together since the end of the Second World War. That now is beginning to disintegrate…
On that point, I don’t think that there is any doubt that there is a far more profound crack-up in the evangelical coalition than The New York Times talked about. What they talked about was the growing diversity of political opinion among more conservative Christians. I think the much more fundamental question is what has happened to character, our theological character as believers.
Now on that point, from my point of view, I think what we now have are three rather clear constituencies. You have the kind of classical Bible-believing evangelicalism that believes in all the cardinal truths of historic Christianity. Secondly, you have the emergence of the seeker-sensitive, market-driven kinds of churches that have sought to produce Christianity as a consumerable product while hiding its essential theological convictions on the grounds that they thought the consumer wouldn’t buy that. Then you have a third constituency which are the emergents. They are pitching—in particular to Generation X and the Millennials—a younger generation. These are the folks who are sort of clustering together. They have de-emphasized the personal dimension to believing the Gospel, a personal relationship with Christ, and in place of that they are putting in many of the social issues that you mentioned: the environment, the poor and so forth.
And again, as you said, it’s not that the classical evangelicals, like myself, are not for the poor. I go to Africa every year and am involved in building orphanages for kids left behind by AIDS. So, it is not as though people like me do not have a heart for the poor, but the important point here is that these are not substitutes for fundamental beliefs of classical Christianity.
Pastore: If you went back 30 years you would have denominational distinctions based on theology, but now you have something, it seems, even more fundamental. You have those that believe the Bible really is the Word of God and [those that believe it] is culturally conditioned, and the third group who almost doesn’t care about personal piety and personal responsibility anymore, you just have to be right on the big social issues.
Wells: I think that is exactly right. Thirty years ago the reason people found the differences—on the second coming of Christ, on baptism, on church government—the reason the people found these differences divided them from others a little bit was that they all took doctrine so seriously. This was an attempt at trying to find what the Word of God actually teaches on all subjects.
Today, these doctrinal differences are not the ones that divide us because the matter of biblical teaching actually rests very lightly on many people in the churches. Now the pollster George Barna’s numbers on this are absolutely stunning. Of the 45 percent who claim to be born again only between seven and nine percent have the faintest idea about biblical doctrine and what discipleship in biblical terms means.
So, is it really any surprise when he also finds out that at the level of ethical living—honesty, stealing, telling the truth, those kinds of things—there is virtually no difference between those who say they are secularists and those who say that they are born again? We have really lost the teaching of the Word of God. It doesn’t rest upon us consequentially, so that it wrenches around our lives. This really is the fundamental distinguishing mark in American evangelicalism. There are those who really take it seriously, and there are those who don’t.
Pastore: One of the criticisms is, “Oh, you evangelicals, you Bible thumpers, you’re only known by what you are against—homosexually and abortion—not what you’re for.” There is a reaction to that. [What is your perspective on] that, from what you see out on the East Coast?
Wells: Well, on the East Coast, we are the most secularized region in the country. I don’t think they have evangelicals in their sights very much, but to get to the point you are making, the most important thing is that the Word of God produces godly character—not only godly talk and not only avoiding certain things, but godly character which is a very affirmative, constructive, positive, wonderful, appealing thing. Everybody knows when they have met somebody who is truly authentic and honest and straightforward and godly….
When Barna did his survey, the most important ethical distinction between secularists and those who claim to be born again … was that those who claim to be born again were a little less involved in musical piracy.
That’s it—a two percent difference.
Pastore: Maybe the critics have something when they’re saying that Christianity for the last 20 years has become too identified with the Republican Party and politics, opposing abortion and homosexuality. They say, “What happened to becoming more Christ-like?”
Wells: I would actually widen the criticism a little bit. It’s not only an identification with the Republican Party, which may be there in some cases in an unwise way. I think, much more importantly, it is an identification with our culture. We are really running scared before this culture. We are beginning to think that if we don’t adapt to it we’re going be left behind. The Christian faith is going to become obsolete. There is a kind of desperation in people like Schuller in California and Hybels and some of these other folks. There is a kind of desperation to try to make Christianity appealing. Now, what they don’t understand is that Christianity is most appealing when it offers a moral and spiritual alternative to what they can already get in culture.
I travel in the world a lot, and I have sat with pastors in the third world, the developing world, and when they look at America they’re absolutely dumbfounded. Many of them have said things to me like, “If you don’t believe in truth, and if you don’t think that Christianity calls us out to be different from the world around us, morally and spiritually, you have no reason to be a Christian anymore.”
I am with them.
Frank Pastore is host of “The Frank Pastore Show,” recognized by the National Religious Broadcasters as Talk Show Host of the Year in 2006. His program is heard on KKLA in Los Angeles 4-7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact Frank at [email protected]