Progressive Infiltration and Christian Conviction
The Tale of a Tweet
On March 8, 2023, I was fired from my job as a lecturer and programme lead at an evangelical Methodist Bible college. I had worked in this role for seven years and had never faced any formal disciplinary action previously. I was dismissed on the charge of “bringing the college into disrepute” due to a tweet I posted on February 19, 2023.
Here is what I said that was deemed so disreputable to so many:
“Homosexuality is invading the Church. Evangelicals no longer see the severity of this because they’re busy apologising for their apparently barbaric homophobia, whether or not it’s true. This is a ‘Gospel issue’, by the way. If sin is no longer sin, we no longer need a Saviour.”
The tweet went viral. I was routinely Twitter-mobbed before being publicly denounced by the college on Twitter, who called my tweet “unacceptable” and “inappropriate.” They also posted the following remarkable sentence:
Cliff College is committed to being a safe and hospitable place where those with differing convictions are welcomed and encouraged to live and learn together as faithful disciples of Christ.
The following day, after I had said I could not take down the tweet in good conscience, I was suspended, instructed to leave the college site within half an hour, and banned from all contact with fellow staff or students. Following a disciplinary hearing two weeks later, I was dismissed for misconduct.
The Investigation Report compiled about that single tweet was 17 pages long. It itemized a selection of the many public and private complaints made against me, and the many institutional and reputational risks incurred by the college as a result. Most of the complainants characterized the tweet (incorrectly) as homophobic, whilst some pro-LGBT+ students declared they would now feel “unsafe” in any classroom where I was teaching. The report further noted that the college was reviewing whether the tweet should be reported under the college’s “Prevent” duty (the UK government’s anti-terrorism and hate speech programme).
Cultural Pressure and Ecclesial Compromise
The wider context of my tweet was the recent Church of England decision to offer official blessings for same-sex couples. Even whilst refraining from fully accepting same-sex marriage (for now), the event was disturbing enough to cause ten global Anglican dioceses to publicly break communion with the Church of England. In the weeks prior to my tweet, I had been debating various pro-LGBT+ ministers and theologians on social media, each of whom were speaking as though the affirmation of homosexuality within the Church was inevitable and that sooner or later the Church simply had to “catch up.” Even prominent evangelical bishops like Steven Croft began declaring how sorry he was for all the harm and distress the Church’s position had caused the LGBT+ community, leading him to make a dramatic public u-turn to affirm same-sex marriage. Croft, like many, believed that now was the time to take the brave stand of solidarity with the powerless: by siding with the majority within secular Western society who were already standing precisely there and had been for some time.
It almost goes without saying that the shifting of the Overton Window on homosexuality in the west has been one of the most successful marketing campaigns of the last thirty years. As shown by the tactics employed in Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen’s book, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer its Fear & Hatred of Gays in the ‘90s, this was a concerted campaign to present the for/against narrative at its most extreme in order to enact a dramatic shift in public opinion towards the progressive view. As a result of these determined efforts, the LGBT+ movement today has effectively gained not mere cult status but major religious status.
What I found especially reprehensible about the Anglican situation was that these many pro-LGBT+ vicars, bishops, and theologians refused to admit that their theological position on marriage was determinatively influenced by those shifting cultural currents. They were adamant that their view was simply the fruit of diligent Biblical exegesis and prayer. Apparently, it had nothing at all to do with the pressures exerted upon the Church by secular society, nor any burning desire to keep in step with public opinion on LGBT+. Apparently, God’s sheer delight in homosexuality was in the Bible all along, just sitting there in the text, waiting to be exegeted.
Such disingenuity in defense of the recent shifts is precisely why I used the language of “invasion” (the term which seemed to cause most of the trouble, especially for “winsome” evangelicals). If the affirmation of homosexuality did not come from Biblical exegesis then it came from the world, and if it came from the world then it did not come in peace.
The Apology Complex
My tweet, in essence, was not actually aimed at homosexuals, nor even at pro-LGBT+ Christians. It was aimed towards the safe centrist evangelicals who are not pro-LGBT+ but do not speak up because they find themselves stuck in the endless spiral of apologizing for their beliefs rather than proclaiming them. I had already observed far too often how evangelical leaders could no longer simply declare their non-affirming view on homosexuality without marinating it with lashings of heartfelt woe over just how much hurt the LGBT+ community has suffered at the hands of churches just like theirs.
I am not saying there is never a reason to repent of sinful discrimination against homosexuals, if warranted. But many of the mainstream apologies were exhibitions of reputational safeguarding, stemming more from fear of the world than fear of the Lord. And in any case, just how far back in one’s ecclesial history are these apologies supposed to stretch? If even the nice conscientious evangelicals are guilty of systemic homophobia, then who isn’t? What would be the systemic pastoral and theological implications of that? Surely if we now think that most Christian churches have been actively suppressing homosexual people for most of their history, this would have to be one of the greatest oversights of sin in church history, would it not? Given the lack of any historic precedent for explicit homosexual affirmation in the history of Christendom before the (post)modern west, one does wonder: why did God permit all his people to get it wrong for quite so long? Either God’s people really have no ears to hear after all, or else God has a very serious communication problem.
One of the reasons it was so easy for the college to dismiss me for my tweet and its effects was just how performatively concerned they, like many colleges, had become about making the right public signals to the right people. (Needless to say: the “right” people are never to the “Right”). In one sense, as Scott Yenor pointed out in “Are There Trustworthy Protestant Universities?,” this is simply the fruit of “the ideology of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion…presently conquering Christian universities.” Institutions of Christian higher education will always find it difficult to resist the powers of whatever secular institutions they’re plugged into.
However, the issue can be as much about ecclesiastical infiltration as academic infiltration. It is common to observe the gradual disconnect between theological colleges and church denominations, as in James Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches. But in the case of Cliff, the problem was reversed. The erosion happened first in the denomination and then gradually infiltrated the College. This is a great irony given that colleges of this variety were invented in the nineteenth century in order to maintain a defense against worldly ideological infiltration into the Church from progressive modernity.
William C. Ringenberg reflects on this in his chapter in Joel A. Carpenter and Kenneth W. Shipps’ Making Higher Education Christian: The History and Mission of Evangelical Colleges in America. Following the Second Great Awakening in the US, in which Methodism was a main player, Bible colleges were set up partly to solidify the spiritual revival, “to train future ministers and to indoctrinate the aspiring leaders of society with the evangelical verities.” Safe to say, the indoctrination now tends to run in the opposite direction.
Money, Emotion, Power
Much of the pressure is backed up by money. In my case, many of the higher-ups within British Methodism wrote directly to the principal condemning my tweet as homophobic, and making gestures that they may now need to “reconsider the relationship” with the college as a result. Indeed, one of the very highest authorities in the Methodist Church said: “Many will be puzzled that someone who holds the views that Aaron Edwards articulates has been employed in one of our colleges.” This highlights the official infiltration of progressivism within that denomination in ways that even many evangelicals may not have previously realized.
When the Methodist Church in Britain finally voted to affirm same-sex marriage in 2021, they did not exclude the evangelical view, nor even did they make the progressive view primary. Their argument was to affirm two “contradictory convictions” about marriage and to allow those who hold either conviction to have the freedom and respect to hold and express their view. This is how they convinced many of the evangelicals to vote for it. In reality, only once an evangelical actually expresses the view, do you see how serious they really are about freedom of expression and theological “diversity.”
There is a prominent movement within the Methodist Church called Dignity and Worth. Its website is adorned with all the usual rainbow furnishings and describes them as a co-operative “where no-one is made to feel ashamed or second-class because of who they are or who they love.” This movement is one of the reasons same-sex marriage made its way into the hearts of Methodism. Once you claim that you are on the side of giving “dignity and worth” to gay people by celebrating same-sex marriage, those opposing it can be made to imply that they do not believe gay people can have dignity or worth. It is at once clever, deceptive, and effective.
I recall watching the 2019 Methodist conference discussions on marriage and relationships online, knowing the impact this could eventually have on the college. Various people stood up to give their two-minute speech to the floor. The few evangelicals who stood up to voice their opposition tended to reiterate biblical propositions for why the tabled motion was not Scriptural, etc., but it was obvious that such speeches were irrelevant to most of the hearers. The tidal wave of the debate would be swung on the emotions of the people who stood up and declared things like: “at last, I can finally feel like a normal human being,” “finally I am being valued by my own Church.” The die was cast. And just a few years down the line and it’s now a sackable offense to disagree.
Situations like mine show not only the problems at academic and denominational levels, but for all Christians at wider societal levels too, particularly in the “Negative World.” In Rod Dreher’s Live Not By Lies: A Manifesto for Christian Dissidents (2020) we heard about Christians who once suffered for their faith under Soviet communism and now observing similar patterns of social control in the West. After news of my dismissal hit the press, I received a message of support from a Romanian pastor who said he now believes it’s worse in the “free” version of his country than when it was a Soviet country.
The most common parallel to more overtly totalitarian contexts is the fear of public expression and the rapidly narrowing parameters for what constitutes politically acceptable opinion. As Dreher notes: “You can never be sure when those in power will come after you as a villain for having said or done something that was perfectly fine the day before.” The ever-shifting rules and penalties on politically dissident speech are almost always justified as a “necessary” measure in the interests of protecting personal freedom of expression. Somehow, such measures almost always result in more people feeling less free to express their personal beliefs.
Today we have a de facto Progressive Inquisition. It does not seek to persuade you, but to disempower and destroy you if you refuse to worship the idols of our day. In the UK recently we saw this with the case of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, arrested for praying outside an abortion clinic. Not protesting, not evangelizing, just praying within the confines of her own head. Because people knew she was praying, they felt uncomfortable and reported her to the police. Although she was later acquitted of her “offense,” the UK government is now implementing “buffer zones” outside all abortion clinics which will make even silent prayer an illegal activity within 150m of an abortion clinic.
We have perhaps grown overly accustomed to making comparisons between Western progressivism and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, it is worth reflecting on Orwell’s little appendix essay to that book, called “The Principles of Newspeak”:
“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”
When one dares to speak “a heretical thought” against the protected dogmas of progressivism today, the reaction is often so vociferous precisely because the endgame is indeed “to make all other modes of thought impossible.” Those who think unthinkable thoughts will be seen – like those who pray unprayable prayers – as blasphemers against the gods.
Although we’re still a far cry from martyrdom in the West, many will need to learn how to experience what Kierkegaard called “the martyrdom of misunderstanding.” We must become more prepared to say things that we know will sound more and more “foolish” in the ears of the world. This need not mean alienating people unnecessarily or setting out to lose your job or reputation just for the sake of it. It simply means being willing to say what you believe needs to be said and incurring the inevitable incredulity such beliefs will now generate, however much you try to make them fit.
The problem with suppressed speech is that it eventually leads to suppressed belief. Christians like to pretend that they can continue holding certain convictions without ever talking about them. But when convictions are left unexpressed for too long, they tend to erode. Whilst legends abound about groups like Japan’s Kakure Kirishitan (“hidden Christians”) quietly passing on their beliefs for centuries without speaking publicly, the reality is that these small communities eventually died out. And today, only 1% of Japan is Christian.
Christians must always seek to be wise with their words, especially within increasingly hostile climates like the post-Christian West. But Christianity did not find its way to faraway places like America by Christians keeping quiet and calculated before their slanderers. They took risks, they trusted God, and they were bold to stand upon their convictions despite the immense costs incurred as a result. As Jesus said: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19). Strong words. Inappropriate words. Unacceptable words. True words.
Like the Methodist missionaries two centuries ago who risked their reputations to re-awaken America from its slumbers, many Christians today may need to relearn what it truly means to be convinced of our convictions. You must learn to speak them out, knowing that the world – and even a good deal of Methodists – may never forgive you for it. Christianity will land you in some kind of trouble one way or another. They’ll find out what you believe in the end.
Wherever we are, may it ever be said: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also…and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” (Acts 17:6-7). In this way, we will ensure that it is the Church that continues invading the world, not vice-versa.
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