Martin Luther stood in peril of his earthly life and possibly his eternal soul. The energetic Wittenberg firebrand challenged more than he realized when he issued debating points to the popular indulgence seller Johann Tetzel. Tetzel’s cavalier theatrics crafted to better sell indulgences and his gross exaggerations of their benefits for the buyer enraged Luther. Luther himself struggled with obsessive feelings of inadequacy and sinful imperfection that were gradually being eased by a renewed appreciation for the grace of God. Contrary to images of Luther as a revolutionary iconoclast tearing at the foundations of the church from the beginning, the Luther who drafted The Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 saw himself as a loyal son of a corrupted church seeking to bring it back into line with scriptural principles. He failed to grasp the degree to which Pope Leo X endorsed the actions of men like Albert of Mainz and Tetzel. Luther’s naivete led him to dedicate his further explanation and clarification of his Theses to Leo, an honor the Pope had no desire to receive. Pushback from the Roman Catholic hierarchy banished Luther’s hopes that his work would result in the reformation of the old church. Instead, Luther along with other emerging Protestants would create their own networks and affiliations. They found their status as loyal insiders insufficient to prompt reform in the church that they had dedicated themselves to serve in the name of Christ. These early Protestants separated from the structures that resisted their call to reform only to realize that now, labeled as “heretics,” the same structures equally disqualified them from offering acceptable critiques as outsiders.
Journalist Emma Green began her Atlantic article featuring an interview with former National Religious Broadcaster’s employee Dan Darling with the sentence, “Dan Darling was the consummate evangelical insider, until he wasn’t.” Darling provoked the ire of his employers with comments he made in support of receiving Covid-19 vaccinations, comments the NRB interpreted as violating their policy on maintaining neutrality on the issue. Darling’s evangelical and conservative credentials run as strong as they come. His insider status radiated from his own comments throughout the article. Despite his treatment by the NRB, he refused to frame the issues as antagonistic, instead characterizing the whole episode as a “misunderstanding” among “friends.” Darling still wants to be included in the circle and tempers his language throughout the interviews to keep that possibility open. Alongside his reticence to criticize, Darling’s comments contained a sense of bewilderment that what he views as a basic conclusion any Christian should reach has rendered him unacceptable to those he once labored alongside.
Covenant College Historian Jay Green started a heated exchange earlier the same week with an article he published through the online platform Current. Green’s article, “Current and the #Exvangelical Dilemma,” focused on concerns that Current’s sometimes critical commentary on conservative evangelicalism could be mistaken for lockstep solidarity with evangelicalism. In his efforts to distinguish Current contributors’ perspectives from those of exvangelicals, Green took several swings at exvangelicals with particular references to exvangelical hashtag founder and social media influencer Blake Chastain. While Green attempted to seed his critique with conciliatory language, his use of words like “embittered” and his attribution of exvangelicals’ paradigm shifts as “more concerned with cultural claims than metaphysical ones” were not received well by some exvangelicals. One questions whether the best way to approach people suffering the scars of a lifetime of abusive treatment from evangelical power structures was to employ loaded language from an evangelical authority figure against them.
Chastain responded with “Evangelicals: You’re still not really listening to what exvangelicals are saying,” published in the Washington Post. He bristled at Green and other writers’ dismissal of exvangelical concerns as not motivated by theology while himself missing an opportunity to give examples of how theological concerns do inform many exvangelical critiques. Chastain cited the Protestant Reform movements as an example of critical insiders who became critical outsiders in pursuit of constructive ends. He described exvangelicalism as a “starting point” rather than an end in itself for those reassessing or, in exvangelical language, “deconstructing” their previous faith experience in light of new perspectives.
Debates over who occupies the center and who perches on the edge of the periphery long predate the origins of Christianity. They appear in every ideological movement in human history at some point. Still, Christians enjoy a particular talent for creating such divides in part due to the exclusive nature of Christian belief and the high premium placed on orthodoxies of various kinds in Christian communities. Doctrinal, ethical, liturgical, and organizational divides tear at the fabric of Christian unity over and over again.
Who are the insiders, and who are the outliers? What is the norm, and what are the exceptions? What advantage, if any, do “insiders” enjoy when seeking to create healthy change in dysfunctional organizations, particularly religious and political ones? Luther’s story illustrated that being part of the tribe has never guaranteed the benefit of the doubt when one pushed the boundaries of received orthodoxies. Such claims to insider authority seem even more vulnerable in our current climate where rational discourse so often suffers rejection in favor of raw partisan allegiance.
Jay Green’s characterization of exvangelicals as immature persons with little theological or biblical depth breaks down in the face of actual examples. Even discounting some of the celebrity cases such as former homeschool dating guru Joshua Harris or Christian singer Kevin Max, many exvangelicals can claim strong evangelical pedigrees and a serious engagement with scriptural texts. Like Paul, they know the terrain well because they themselves were once “Jews of Jews” and “Pharisees of the Pharisees.” In other words, one can make a solid case that these people were consummate evangelical insiders. Until they weren’t.
Who enjoys the greater advantage when calling for cultural or institutional change, the insider or the outsider? The insider does enjoy a number of theoretical advantages. The insider was formed by the community and enjoys the status of being “one of us.” If they have served the community faithfully over time, a proven track record glitters in support of the critiques they offer as representatives of a friendly opposition. The insider knows the power structures of the faith community, its history, and the people themselves. Conventional wisdom insists that the insider stands a stronger chance of influencing their communities for the better.
Twenty-first century America became the place where conventional wisdom goes to die. All the advantages of insider status have been tempered by our changing religious, cultural, and political landscapes. Community belonging has been subordinated to ideological identification. Proven track records carry less weight than recent party affiliations, and the notion of a friendly opposition seems a charming relic from a distant past. All the advantages of insider status have been blunted while the most glaring disadvantage remains. Insiders are subject to the rule, restrictions, and censure of the community. They live under the authority of the community and often self-censor to preserve their place there.
The outsider enjoys the freedom to speak and act without fear of the immediate censure of their former communities. Free of the repressive structures that once restrained them, outsiders can offer their critiques freely, forcefully, and sometimes, as Jay Green noted, aggressively. Participants in the community who at one time were told “if you don’t like it just leave” do just that. Then they discover that new refrains have been adopted once they become outsiders. “You’re not one of us now, so mind your own business.” “Those people only saw the worst things that happen among us. Their experiences are marginal.” “They were never REAL (insert faith community label) in the first place.”
Such objections are disingenuous, dishonest, and discouraging. They may sometimes be true for some former insider critics, but increasingly they are typical responses issuing from Christian groups who do not want to address their own internal dysfunctions. The most disheartening moments are when those same talking points are picked up by fellow critics of the community, in this case, conservative evangelicalism, who share the critical assessment of the outsider group while wanting to protect their insider status. These critical insiders are all too ready to throw the newly minted outsiders under the bus to secure change while protecting their status. And it almost never works. Inevitably, the critical insider will find the rolling tides of repression catch up with them too. They may secure change, but it’s more likely they will soon become outsiders themselves. They join the ranks of outsiders having neither changed their former community for good nor protected their position. Amazingly, they also often never acknowledge the human cost of their efforts to distance themselves from those who went before them.
Examples of this sick cycle abound. Christianity Today’s recent podcast series on Mars Hill has exposed horrific fissures in conservative evangelicalism. Yet, as Chastain pointed out in his article, some of the interviews in that series designed to expose the very problems exvangelicals raised expressed clueless commentary about why exvangelicals were so “angry” and “bitter.” Many critics would argue that Christianity Today has engaged in constant enablement of unhealthy evangelical cultures and platforms since the magazine’s inception in the mid-1950s. While Christianity Today aspires to be part of the answer, the execution of their attempt raises important questions about how deeply they’ve considered the role they and other Christian media outlets have played in maintaining these dysfunctions. Charity should characterize our critiques, and Christian critiques should always be seasoned with grace. But where is the line between charity and pulling our punches to protect a religious brand? Can you equate protecting one particular religious brand with “defending the gospel” without cheapening both the brand and the gospel?
Other examples include pushback against authors such as Jemar Tisby when he raises concerns about racial justice or historians such as Kristin Kobes DuMez and Beth Alison Barr when they expose the damage patriarchal structures have done to women in the church. Critics contend that their claims rest on extreme examples and that their views are “marginal” despite the overwhelming number of people, including committed evangelicals, who have attested to the validity of their assertions. The recent debacle at Bethlehem Church and Seminary in Minneapolis illustrates the ironies inherent in these conversations. Former Bethlehem Church pastor Jason Meyer resigned due to resistance from the congregation to his attempts to bridge racial divides in a racially fractured city. For the sake of full disclosure, I know Meyer personally and served with him as a faculty colleague at Louisiana College for four years. Congregants contended that Meyer and his fellow pastors were trading “wokeness” for the gospel. Meyer expressed concerns that Bethlehem was succumbing to “Neo-Fundamentalism.” Many critics of Desiring God and John Piper would argue that Bethlehem has been a “Neo-Fundamentalist” entity for some time and that both Piper’s and Meyer’s more progressive stances on racial issues were a welcome deviation from form. Meyer and his fellow pastors who resigned once stood as consummate insiders at both Bethlehem and within the Reformed wing of the Southern Baptist Convention. Do they now find common cause with the outsiders who preceded them, or will they seek to find realignment with their former communities in some other capacity? Will there be an examination of their former theological and institutional commitments to weigh whether those positions undergird or undermine their commitment to racial equality and integration of social ministry with evangelism? Time alone will tell in this situation as in all the other examples cited above.
All these debates and transitions are happening at a time when western culture has returned to a vibrant syncretism in which people are mixing and matching the buffet of available religious options to create hybrids suitable to their needs and preferences. Evangelicalism, however one defines it, has always been a fluid hybrid of preferences and predispositions loosely organized around a few basic doctrinal commitments and cultural tendencies. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that exvangelicalism enjoys a similar complexity nor should anyone, especially evangelicals, make monolithic assumptions about who they are. Maybe the takeaway is that we resist making monolithic assumptions period. And that we be kind to the outsiders who used to be insiders because someday they may be us. We are all insiders at some point. Until we’re not.
This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today or can be easily updated. This piece was first published on September 20, 2021, and has been lightly edited and updated.