The Desperate Decay of Doctrine in American Evangelicalism

What One Generation Assumes, The Next Loses

In recent years, several enlightening reports have detailed what Americans think about Jesus Christ, the Bible, truth and ethics. These reports demonstrate a precipitous decline in biblical knowledge and Christian living in American culture. 

One such survey is Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research’s Bi-Annual “State of Theology” Report. In their 2020 report, Statement #7 disclosed 52% of American respondents agreed, while only 36% disagreed with the statement “Jesus Christ was a great teacher, but he was not God.” 

In Statement # 11 (“On Human Nature”) 65% of respondents agreed or mostly agreed and only 28% disagreed that “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.” Among self-professing Evangelical Christians, 46% agreed with this statement. This means that 46% of Evangelicals deny that, post-fall, human beings are sinners by nature and by choice. In other words, nearly half of Evangelicals are theologically in conflict with Genesis 3, Psalm 51; Jeremiah 17:9; Mark 7; and Romans 5. The most recent 2022 “State of Theology” Report found that 65% of Evangelicals agree that “Everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God.”  This indicates that most Evangelicals deny the foundational Christian doctrine of original sin. 

On the question of truth and authority, the 2020 “State of Theology” report evidenced “a profound unfamiliarity with core teachings of Christian orthodoxy and a confusion about the objective nature of truth” among Evangelicals. And it identified “the most consistent and concerning trend is the increasing rejection of the literal truth of Scripture among the U.S. population.”

Basic Christian doctrine is not the only casualty in our day. Christian living that is consistent with Biblical teaching is also under assault. Christian doctrine and life are being redefined both within and without the church.

For example, regarding basic and foundational matters of Christan living, the 2020 State of Theology Report showed 38% agree that “Gender Identity is a Matter of Choice” (Statement 29), with 40% also agreeing that “The Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today” (Statement 30). Evangelicals were more orthodox on these survey responses but reports suggest a disturbing decay among Christians in the area of Biblical ethics across the board. 

One national survey in 2015 showed that 70% of women who have had abortions identify as Christians. The same report disclosed that 43% of women who have had abortions were attending a Christian church regularly at the time they chose abortion.  The abortion numbers among conservative Evangelical denominations are also alarming. A 2018 Pew Research study found among the largest conservative Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)), 54% of congregants are abortion-affirming, 39% life-affirming and 7% “Don’t Know”. One former New York state representative and congregant of a prominent PCA church, Yuh-Line Niou is a pro-abortion politician, endorsed by Planned Parenthood.  

Similarly, within the largest conservative Lutheran denomination (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod-LCMS), 46% support abortion. Among the largest evangelical denomination in the U.S., the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), a 2021 report found “the majority of Southern Baptists agree that abortion should be legal in at least a few circumstances, with only a third saying it should be totally illegal”. Tragically, this inconsistency and confusion appears to be far more normal in the SBC even at the highest levels of those elected to govern in national office. This amounts to a denial of the sanctity of life and promotes unequal protection.  These numbers suggest massive confusion over very basic matters God’s Word addresses from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. 

There has been a clear consensus among Christians for 2000 years on matters of sexuality and abortion. Even when some Christians have been inconsistent and hypocritical, God’s Word has always been clear. Similar to the immorality of chattel slavery (Exod. 21:16;1 Tim. 1:10) or the holocaust (Deut. 5:17; Lk. 18:20), God’s Word is sufficiently clear in its condemnation of these abominable sins. So how did we get here?   

We believe that this decay is due to at least two factors. First, far too many leaders in the church have been largely silent for decades on these foundational Christian truths. They have failed to clearly teach and lead their congregants in these areas according to the whole counsel of God’s Word. Second, when the silence was broken, influential Christian leaders often promoted confusion, compromise and outright error.

A  2018 Public Religion Research Institute report discovered that less than half of white evangelicals (48%) and only 39% of non-white evangelicals had heard teaching on abortion from the pulpit. This is not surprising when one considers that when addressing the question “How do you reach people who think church is the problem, not the answer?”, the late very popular PCA Pastor Timothy Keller claimed, “Pushing moral behaviors before we lift up Christ is religion.” This wrongly implies religion is always a bad thing (but see James 1:27) and with this affirmation, Keller clearly placed God’s law (including thou shall not murder) and preaching the gospel at odds with one another.  Keller advocated for silence on the slaughter of the helpless and weak through abortion when he shared the following story:

“A woman who had been attending our church for several months came to see me. “Do you think abortion is wrong?” she asked. I said that I did. “I’m coming now to see that maybe there is something wrong with it,” she replied, “now that I have become a Christian here and have started studying the faith in the classes.” As we spoke, I discovered that she was an Ivy League graduate, a lawyer, a long-time Manhattan resident, and an active member of the ACLU. She volunteered that she had experienced three abortions. “I want you to know,” she said, “that if I had seen any literature or reference to the ‘pro-life’ movement, I would not have stayed through the first service. But I did stay, and I found faith in Christ. If abortion is wrong, you should certainly speak out against it, but I’m glad about the order in which you do it.” 

Keller’s words above betray that he was silent within his church on one of the most important civil and human rights issues of our day. He gave no indication that he taught on abortion with any clarity and even promoted confusion in what abortion is when he referred to it as “she had experienced three abortions”. Keller removed the woman’s agency and culpability. He offered no clear law and no clear hope of the gospel or invitation to repent for the sin of abortion. Keller’s words here suggest that pastors and Christians remain silent about God’s righteous and holy law concerning murder and assume that speaking directly would somehow be counter to the gospel. And yet it would be hard to imagine a pastor today arguing that pastors in 1850s America should have remained silent regarding slavery to help the spread of the gospel.

Another glaring example of publicly promoting confusion and error occurred in 2008 at Columbia University.  There Pastor Timothy Keller was asked the very straightforward questions by Professor David Eisenbach: “Is homosexuality a sin? Are homosexuals going to hell?”  Keller’s response included stating: “It is very misleading to say homosexuality is a sin…You don’t go to hell for being a homosexual…Heterosexuality does not get you to heaven so how in the world could homosexuality send you to hell?” When you watch the exchange, Professor Eisenbach—who is not a Christian– is clearly confused about what Keller believes and what Christianity teaches. Yet when he asked Keller for clarity, Keller repeatedly obfuscated.  

In recent years, there have been growing critiques of Keller.  For example, James Woods has argued against Tim Keller’s winsomeness approach in the present culture. However, the above examples of Keller sowing public confusion and compromise demonstrate a far deeper error on Keller’s part (and they were strangely overlooked entirely by Woods). The issue is not one of pragmatic effectiveness. Rather it is one of theological error. These sins are sins which are exceedingly evil in the eyes of God. Scripture is clear on them. Homosexuality is a sin and abortion is murder. Both should be preached against clearly and have been historically by the church. Yet rather than preaching clearly against these sins with grace and truth, many including Keller, have downplayed the seriousness of these sins and the abhorrent desire for them.  Preaching against sin is not in conflict with the gospel and never has been. What is clearly in conflict with God and His gospel is downplaying God’s holiness, marginalizing the righteous law and the liberating truth God has revealed and doing so for the sake of “strategy” or because of who is in the audience. This is unacceptable for true Christians much less prominent pastors (Titus 1:9). Christians are called by God to “refuse to practice cunning or tamper with God’s word” (2 Cor. 4:2; 2 Tim. 4:2).  Rather, by the clear speaking of truth, we “commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). The message of the gospel includes repentance for the forgiveness of sins and is the power of God for salvation (Rom.1:16) as well as folly to those who are perishing (1 Cor. 1:18). 

But it’s not only a PCA pastor and public figure like the late Timothy Keller who has sown this confusion and promoted these gross errors. Former presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention J.D. Greear and Ed Litton both used Keller’s words in Sunday sermons stating “heterosexuality does not get you to heaven so how in the world could homosexuality send you to hell?”. Again the Scriptures and the church are clearly against this statement (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Rev. 21:8, 22:15).

Other recent examples of self-professing Christians promoting serious error, compromise and confusion include:

  • Evangelical mega-church pastor Andy Stanley’s recent Unconditional conference where he and others were clearly anti-biblical truth and pro-sexual immorality.
  • The Revoice movement founded by leaders educated in the conservative evangelical PCA and SBC seminaries attempting to undermine biblical views of sexual morality.

Examples like these compromises and the confusion they sow on basic biblical matters abound. It is difficult, if not impossible, to read all of the above and not see them as anything but denials of basic Christian orthodoxy being ashamed of the gospel in the public square. Yet as New Testament scholar and theologian D.A. Carson rightly observed, public sins that have done public damage need to be undone in an equally public manner.

Is it any surprise that such confusion is found in the church among Christians when so many church leaders get it so wrong or are at least afraid to declare the truth boldly? These are some of the main points Christians in the West are being greatly pressured to compromise on. Christians need to be equipped by the Word of God and pastors who preach and teach the Word of God must do so with clarity and without shame. A sobering reality is that churches who are faithfully preaching, teaching and equipping the saints on these matters are clearly in the minority. 

All of this must make every Christian in every local church ask: 

-“What do my pastors personally believe and teach about these biblical matters?” 

-“How is my church actively discipling our church on these foundational issues?” 

-“Who are the voices shaping my church leaders?”

For many, these issues are written off as “political” and not the business of the church. Yet this is wrong-headed. Even worse, it exposes a prominent neighbor-love paradigm that is deeply flawed and unbiblical. These issues are not primarily political but are spiritual and moral.  They are also vitally connected to how we love the Lord and love our neighbor. Walking in the wisdom that embraces God’s revelation builds churches, schools, hospitals, as well as other community institutions, and even nations.

These are foundational matters that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ must prioritize and faithfully disciple their people in. Every pastor is communicating what he believes about these matters, even if he is silent. When the world is continually and effectively making their own disciples, it is not sufficient or wise for Christian leaders to preach and teach on these foundational matters once or twice a year. It is not sufficient or wise to simply say, “In the past, we have spoken on our position on this matter”. It is not sufficient or wise to direct someone who asks you about these matters to your church’s statement of faith- however orthodox it may be. As a shepherd, pastors are called by God to care for, feed and protect their flocks with the Word of God. Many Christians today are looking for clarity and strength to stand but are helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). Thankfully there have been some very encouraging recent developments and resources made available to help pastors wisely think on matters of Christian ethics in the public square. 

Over half a century ago, eminent theologian Harold O.J. Brown* (1933-2007) warned of the doctrinal and ethical decline in his own day. He wisely sounded the alarm then:  

“Christians can and must indeed protest against theological error and moral evil, especially within their own ranks. They must be willing to be negative about doctrinal errors, for false teachings poison and destroy those who are looking for truth.”

Today, Christians seeking faithfulness and boldness from their church leaders on doctrine and ethics may be accused of being divisive or schismatic. Yet it honors God when church members desire much-needed clarity on doctrine and Christian living. The schismatic is the one who swerves away from or obfuscates the truth. A Christian is not being divisive if he is humbly holding to the truth of God’s Word—the deposit of truth delivered once for all to the saints (2 Timothy 1:14; Jude 3)— and wants to see his church, family, institution, neighbor or nation honor God by promoting the truth, especially truths as fundamental as the ones surveyed above.  As we seek to love God and neighbor in our day, faithfulness to Scripture and historic doctrine demands we live courageously. Some will erroneously find this offensive or divisive but such are the times and such is the call of Christians.

“Be watchful; stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14).


Image Credit: Unsplash

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Brandon D. Myers

Brandon D. Myers is the Senior Pastor of Christ The King Reformed Baptist Church in Niles IL. He is a PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and co-author with Ben Crenshaw of a 2019 article In Defense of Pence: Commencement Controversies in an Outraged World. You can follow him on Twitter/X @brandon_myers.

Scott Polender

Scott Polender works in education, with a special emphasis in starting classical Christian schools. He has served as a leader in the pro-life movement, as the Director of Training at the Charles Simeon Trust and as a missionary, church planter and pastor at churches in multiple hemispheres, most recently in Wheaton, IL. You can follow him on Twitter/X @SPolender

11 thoughts on “The Desperate Decay of Doctrine in American Evangelicalism

  1. Amen, gentlemen!

    Thank you for “contend[ing] for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” This article should see wide distribution, so Jude3 will publish a link to it in our weekly newsletter. Hopefully, others will do the same.

    More articles, please.

    Bruce Kirby
    Executive Director, Jude3 & the PCA

    1. Bruce, thank you! I’ve had very close PCA ties in Illinois and Wisconsin. It’s good to know about your ministry.

      1. Scott (Brandon and Josh),

        This reply after sending our newsletter today:

        Good afternoon Bruce,

        I hope you are well and wanted to thank you for the articles you are sending out in your newsletter! They are strong and encouraging. Today’s letter from the American Reformer is especially great!

        Thanks for standing in the gap. What a wonderful ministry!”

        Of course, we have simply republished what you have written and published. So, this encouragement belongs to you and AR more than Jude3. Your work is appreciated!

        Bruce

  2. Good to hear from you Brandon. I think this study reveals a disturbing lack of fidelity to the Christian faith among self-proclaimed evangelicals. Though this has been evident ever since Donald Trump started winning primaries against superior candidates via the evangelical vote.

    I will push back though, on your point on homosexuality. That term needs to be defined explicitly. I would wager that Keller and his audience are using the dictionary definition of the word whereas you are using the English translation of the Greek word. Those two are not necessarily the same thing and in my study there is size-able consensus that they differ substantially. You can’t have this discussion without properly defining terms and you should not criticize unless you have done so.

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