Deconstruction, an ‘oppressive’ Bible and what to do.

Vast swathes of our country do not know the gospel – we know that. The Bible Society report ‘Pass It On’ in 2014 showed that 54% of parents thought the Hunger Games plot could be in the Bible , and there is no reason to think things have improved.

Many share the atheism of public figures such as Ricky Gervais, who proclaims loudly – there is no God. His message is clear – you can be religious, live as you like, but none of it is real – there are no spiritual realities. These situations are not new. Ignorance and unbelief have existed from generation to generation. However, we are facing new expressions of unbelief as the culture wars impact the church.

The 19th century saw the gospel being attacked through the rise of liberal German theologians and the development of higher criticism. George Eliot famously renounced the Calvinism of her youth. Her novels contain both accusations about hypocrisy in the church and alternate beliefs in living a life of love without the need for religion. At that time, the church faced the challenge of humanism and liberalism. Throughout the 20th century, Christians defended the Bible’s authority; they stood up against those who denied the miraculous. They developed a confident apologetic for proclaiming the truth of the resurrection. They pointed to our creator as the source of all goodness and morality. Today we have the same challenge in a new guise, and it comes when many are feeling weary. What does the 21st century demand of us?

I was at a meeting with church leaders recently who mourned the rate at which young people were leaving the church. Deconstruction is the increasingly popular term to describe what is taking place today. There is a generation who grew up in the church rejecting the beliefs they grew up with. They are similar to the 19th-century George Eliot; they hate the thought of hypocrisy and are dismayed by some of the behaviour they have witnessed in the church. The world they inhabit places the values of equality, fairness, freedom, and care for the vulnerable as essential for society, and they suspect the church does not offer those things. Worse still, they fear that the Bible is a tool for oppression. Some are vocal about their rejection, like Joshua Harris, and Abraham Piper, who has 1.7 million followers on TikTok. There is a lot of anger around. I meet with young women who are deeply concerned about the church’s attitudes to women. Others are concerned about perceived homophobia. Others suspect institutionalised racism. Apologist Neil Shenir has described the deconstruction process in three steps:

Step 1:  A problem is identified, e.g. a sex abuse scandal, bullying, coercion, marital abuse.

Step 2:  The church has either actively endorsed or passively allowed these injustices.

Step 3:  Traditional beliefs are re-examined and rejected in the light of experience, history and sociology .

Often we can agree with the problems identified in steps one and two. Does this mean we can no longer trust the church? Does it mean we need to question some teaching we have had? We need to listen to the accusations and not be too quick to defend ourselves or accuse others. It calls for humility and an attitude of repentance. We need to constantly reform, but we must reform according to Scripture, not sociological theory. There are three things, in particular, that we must do.

1. Understand our weakness

The church has failed many times. If we learn anything from recent scandals, we must understand that the church is not yet made perfect. Pretending otherwise does nothing other than cause great harm. The Washington Post said of the Southern Baptist Convention: ‘An utter failure to prioritise abused women and children is the largest crisis of institutional religion in the United States – when the primary mission of an institution is to defend itself, it is at grave risk of losing itself.’

We need to be honest about our experience of church. There are times when church is joyful. We meet with brothers and sisters who help us grow. We are fed by the word together. We are built up in unity. We pray together; we worship together; we support one another and serve together. There are moments our church family gives us a glimpse of heaven. It is a place of safety and refuge. However, if you talk to any believer of more than a few weeks, you will know that the church, as well as being the source of our closest relationships, has at times been the cause of the most painful ones. Nothing destroys us more than the agony of damaged fellowship.

In the last few years, some of these broken relationships and mistrust of one another have been played out in public. We have not done it very well. We rarely do. Somehow we fail to call out sin when it is blatant, and yet suspect and accuse people when it is not. We are poor judges and clunky with one another. We all get things wrong. Paul was well aware of these battles within the church. There is a time to call out sin and a time to forgive. The culture wars wage around us with their spirit of accusation, self-righteousness, intolerance and lack of forgiveness. We must learn to walk in the way of the Spirit: the way of gentleness, to serve one another humbly in love, to bear with each other and forgive one another. We must not be cruel to one another. As Paul says: If you bite and devour each other, watch out, or you will be destroyed by each other. We are being watched by a world that does not trust us. We try to point people to Jesus by showing them the church, but sadly, the church has caused many to fall away. Yet when we live with the spirit of forgiveness and gentleness, it becomes a vital demonstration in this brutal world.

2. Understand our mission

One response to our culture’s concern for the oppressed has been for churches to be more actively engaged in social justice issues and to be careful to care for the vulnerable in our society. Christians from the earliest days of the church have shown the value God puts on every life, from rescuing abandoned babies in Rome, to Mary Slessor stopping the killing of twins in Calabar, to Thomas Barnardo providing education and then shelter to homeless boys in London. Compassion and care for the vulnerable are foundational in Christian practice. However, we need to take care.

Our works of mercy are an outworking of having received mercy. The church’s primary mission is to proclaim the mercy of God and make disciples of all nations. It is easy to drift away from proclamation, especially in a hostile culture. If we lose sight of this fundamental call, in the end we will be indistinguishable from other charitable groups, and ultimately people won’t hear the good news of the gospel.

Here is my warning. We must take care about the partnerships and funding sources we use for our charitable enterprises. Local authorities and charities give out grants and provide premises for some of our activities, but these come with caveats, especially in the form of equal-opportunity policies. Our public institutions have adopted critical theories regarding race, gender and sexuality. When a church is dependent on money from outside, it finds it much harder to speak boldly and with clarity due to fear of losing funding.

3. Keep steady

We find ourselves living in a time when values and beliefs we took for granted have been uprooted. Our politicians cannot even agree on the definition of a woman. It is unnerving to be out of step with our culture. It can be hard to understand the perspective of those educated and socialised in critical theory. There is a growing divide between generations, especially because language is politicised to identify and condemn those viewed as oppressive.

This divide is taking place even within our churches, and we must listen to one another carefully and with respect. It is tempting to join in the culture wars, cheer on J.K. Rowling (see photo), and become a fan of Douglas Murray, Jordan Peterson, or even Ricky Gervais when he satirises false ideologies. But we need to take care – it is Scripture that reforms us, and it is God’s voice that people need to hear.

So let us keep steady and remember that the gospel really is good news – actually, it is tremendous news. We must listen to the concerns of those who see the church’s failure or fear that the Bible is oppressive. We need to be clear in our apologetic about the goodness of God. The gospel offers so much more than critical theory. Critical theory is divisive and makes people judgmental and proud. The gospel is the great equaliser – it insists that we all fall short of the glory of God, but we can all be saved by His great mercy. So continue to point people to Jesus:

In a culture that is concerned about justice, we know the perfect Judge.

In a culture concerned about the abuse of power, we know One who came not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.

In a culture that cares about victims, we know a Saviour who came for all, including the marginalised and oppressed.

In a culture that seeks liberation, the gospel offers freedom from sin and death.

Finally: Pray for gospel workers to be raised up. We need a new generation of bold evangelists for the 21st century who, faced with criticism of the gospel, hold their nerve, don’t deconstruct and instead stand firm. We need evangelists who understand today’s culture and who can gently hold forth the truth of the gospel. If that is to happen, we all need to hold our nerve and teach God’s word clearly in our churches

(First published in Evangelicals Now in November  2022)

© 2023 Karen Soole