Trevin Wax

3 Surprises from New Research on “Progressive” and “Conservative” Christians

It’s progressives who rarely defy political orthodoxy and who harbor disdain for conservatives. And the hardening lines between these two groups add weight to the thesis of J. Gresham Machen a century ago: when it comes to Christianity and theological liberalism, we really are talking about two different religions.

Are conservative Christians prone to politicizing their faith, conflating Republican Party politics with biblical fidelity?
Some are, and we could point to plenty of examples. But the bigger, underreported story is that conservative Christians are not uniquely prone to such errors, and in fact, “progressive” Christians outpace their conservative counterparts in succumbing to politicization.
One Faith No Longer
George Yancey and Ashlee Quosigk’s new book, One Faith No Longer: the Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America, published by NYU Press earlier this year, has a provocative thesis. Based on new research and extensive interviews, the authors claim current progressive-conservative divisions among Christians in the U.S. (descending from the modernist-fundamentalist battles a century ago) are manifestations of fundamentally different belief systems.
Yancey and Quosigk believe we are not dealing with minor alterations in doctrine and values, but belief systems that have grown so drastically different that each side’s “goals” become oppositional, thereby “interfering with one another’s ability to accomplish their desired purposes” (209).
In defining conservative and progressive Christians, the authors use theological rather than political criteria. Individuals who believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and say Jesus is the only path to salvation are conservative Christians. Those who do not believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and do not see Jesus as the only path to salvation are progressive Christians.
The decision to define these groups by theological rather than political criteria is itself one of the areas where the differences between progressives and conservatives are most starkly represented. Everywhere we turn, we hear that conservative evangelicalism has become overly politicized and partisan, unable to speak to power prophetically. And we can certainly point to people and places where this has been the case. But we’re wrong to assume that the answer to this politicization will be found by turning to the Christian left. On the contrary, progressive Christians who fit this description are more, not less, politically minded than the conservative Christians.
Here are three surprises from Yancey and Quosigk’s research.
1. Progressive Christians are more likely to establish their identity through politics, while conservative Christians find their identity in theology.
Put simply, progressive Christians see the world through a political lens; conservative Christians, through a religious lens (155). This doesn’t mean that progressives are atheological and conservatives apolitical, but only that the emphasis is wildly disparate between the groups.
For example, progressive Christians…

…emphasize political values relating to social justice issues as they determine who is part of their in-group; they tend to be less concerned about theological agreement. Conservative Christians, however, do not put strong emphasis on political agreement in order to determine if you are one of them—their major concern is whether you agree with them on core theological points…(4)

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3 Surprises from New Research on “Progressive” and “Conservative” Christians

It’s progressives who rarely defy political orthodoxy and who harbor disdain for conservatives. And the hardening lines between these two groups add weight to the thesis of J. Gresham Machen a century ago: when it comes to Christianity and theological liberalism, we really are talking about two different religions.

Are conservative Christians prone to politicizing their faith, conflating Republican Party politics with biblical fidelity?
Some are, and we could point to plenty of examples. But the bigger, underreported story is that conservative Christians are not uniquely prone to such errors, and in fact, “progressive” Christians outpace their conservative counterparts in succumbing to politicization.
One Faith No Longer
George Yancey and Ashlee Quosigk’s new book, One Faith No Longer: the Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America, published by NYU Press earlier this year, has a provocative thesis. Based on new research and extensive interviews, the authors claim current progressive-conservative divisions among Christians in the U.S. (descending from the modernist-fundamentalist battles a century ago) are manifestations of fundamentally different belief systems.
Yancey and Quosigk believe we are not dealing with minor alterations in doctrine and values, but belief systems that have grown so drastically different that each side’s “goals” become oppositional, thereby “interfering with one another’s ability to accomplish their desired purposes” (209).
In defining conservative and progressive Christians, the authors use theological rather than political criteria. Individuals who believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and say Jesus is the only path to salvation are conservative Christians. Those who do not believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and do not see Jesus as the only path to salvation are progressive Christians.
The decision to define these groups by theological rather than political criteria is itself one of the areas where the differences between progressives and conservatives are most starkly represented. Everywhere we turn, we hear that conservative evangelicalism has become overly politicized and partisan, unable to speak to power prophetically. And we can certainly point to people and places where this has been the case. But we’re wrong to assume that the answer to this politicization will be found by turning to the Christian left. On the contrary, progressive Christians who fit this description are more, not less, politically minded than the conservative Christians.
Here are three surprises from Yancey and Quosigk’s research.
1. Progressive Christians are more likely to establish their identity through politics, while conservative Christians find their identity in theology.
Put simply, progressive Christians see the world through a political lens; conservative Christians, through a religious lens (155). This doesn’t mean that progressives are atheological and conservatives apolitical, but only that the emphasis is wildly disparate between the groups.
For example, progressive Christians…

…emphasize political values relating to social justice issues as they determine who is part of their in-group; they tend to be less concerned about theological agreement. Conservative Christians, however, do not put strong emphasis on political agreement in order to determine if you are one of them—their major concern is whether you agree with them on core theological points…(4)

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The Wrong Way to Listen to “Mars Hill”

If we close out The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill having only been entertained, feeling confirmed in our correctness, excused in our evangelistic apathy, or justified in our critical and overly suspicious spirit toward other churches and leaders, we will have missed a God-given opportunity to follow the apostle Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 10:12: If you think you are standing firm, take heed lest you fall.

As The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, a podcast that tells the story of the rapid rise and fall of pastor Mark Driscoll and the influence of his church in Seattle, draws to a close, evangelicals who love the church and care about the future will take away lessons related to leadership, both good and bad, and implement measures designed to prevent abuses in the future.
In previous columns, we considered the potential spiritual effect of this podcast on the souls of those listening, the place of “father hunger” in the rise of the Reformed movement (a dynamic at work in Driscoll’s “How dare you!” sermon), and the need to respond to the abuse of authority with good authority, not the abdication of pastoral responsibility.
Today, we wrap up this series by considering one of the unintended consequences this podcast could have, unless we commit to listening with care and wisdom. We may become instantly suspicious of another ministry model.
The “Real” Problem . . . Out There
Some listeners to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill might assume the real problem is the megachurch, as if the size of a congregation and the “celebrity” status that anoints the pastor is the root of all kinds of evil. The problem is the “attractional church” with its focus on numerical growth. Once a church grows too big and successful, we should expect all sorts of shenanigans behind the scenes. Surely something nefarious must be going on for a church to gain this kind of traction.
Raising an eyebrow toward churches that follow a different ministry model is not a new phenomenon. Many large-church pastors privately sneer at the small church without a full array of programs, or quietly judge the small-church pastor who just doesn’t have “what it takes” to influence the power brokers in the congregation and “make things happen.”
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The Answer to Bad Authority is Good Authority

If a pastor abdicates rightful authority, that absence of guidance still exerts massive influence. A gaping hole is left in the church, and the congregation is likely to be swayed by various factions grappling for power.

A podcast as popular as The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill—a journalistic-style narrative chronicling the demise of an influential pastor and megachurch—is going to have cultural ramifications. No way around it. The cautionary tale of Mark Driscoll and the lessons from Mars Hill Church will affect the thousands of pastors and church leaders listening each week.
Some of the influence will be good. I hope future pastors develop a strong distaste for “the pastoral strut,” that air of a leader who sees himself as a big deal. Maybe The Rise and Fall will inoculate the next generation from some of the excesses of evangelicalism’s celebrity culture.
Other good results?

The podcast provides an opportunity for people who have been bruised and burned in toxic environments to speak out, to join with others, to find healing and regain their love for the church.
Driscoll’s downfall sounds the warning to pastors who, for the sake of the “movement,” might abuse their authority and bully the sheep they’re called to serve.
The Rise and Fall could jumpstart important conversations about the misuse of authority, how an anti-establishment ethos can itself turn into a behemoth of oppressive power, and the ways that a reaction to feminist ideology can drift far afield of what the Bible teaches about the differences between men and women.

If The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill leads to internal examination among churches and leaders, and if that self-reflection results in an aversion to the kind of ruling and authority Jesus said was the way of the world, the next generation will be better off.
But some of the cultural influence from this podcast could be bad.
Pastoral Passivity
One area stands out. Younger pastors and church leaders listening to the podcast may be vulnerable to the lie that the exercise of pastoral authority itself is wrong and dangerous. Some may assume that any kind of church hierarchy is suspect, even if explicitly spelled out in Scripture, where the apostles urge Christians to “obey the elders” (Heb. 13:17). Reacting against the abusive overreach of authority in the case of Mars Hill, a future generation of pastors may drift into a pool of passivity.
It’s not hard to picture future church planters and pastors who, out of deference to every church member—constantly concerned about offending the flock or hurting the feelings of someone in the congregation—refrain from making tough calls for the good of the church. What if an unintended consequence of these recent leadership debacles is a pendulum swing, so that our rightful concern about the abuse of authority leads us to abandon authority?
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Mark Driscoll and the Power of “Father Hunger”

It’s no surprise the lingo of “boot camp” spread into evangelicalism through Acts 29’s church planter gatherings. The atmosphere of “telling it like it is,” being “confronted by the truth” and “doing whatever it takes for the kingdom” had massive appeal to a generation of young men who came from homes where fathers were hooked on porn before the sons discovered it themselves, where the meaning of manhood and the pathway toward character development was left undefined.

In a radio interview a couple years ago, long after the implosion of Mars Hill Church and his departure from Seattle, Mark Driscoll attributed the resurgence of Reformed theology among evangelicals to “father wounds.”

That whole Young, Restless Reformed—God is father but he’s distant, he’s mean, he’s cruel, he’s non-relational, he’s far away. That’s their view of their earthly father. So, then they pick dead mentors: Spurgeon, Calvin, Luther. These are little boys with father wounds who are looking for spiritual fathers, so they pick dead guys who are not actually going to get to know them or correct them. And then they join networks run by other young men so that they can all be brothers. There’s no fathers. And they love, love, love Jesus because they love the story where the son is the hero because they’re the sons with father wounds.

I was surprised by this interview, primarily because Mark went on to repudiate Calvinism after painting Reformed theology with a broad brush. But also because, while making a valid point about how father wounds can influence one’s theology, Mark didn’t address the ways his ministry benefited from the phenomenon of absentee and passive fathers. It would be much easier to connect fatherlessness to Driscoll-fanhood than to make the case that all Reformed theology is really about a distant, angry, “non-relational” God.
Mark’s persona—the dude who, unlike your wimpy father, will get in your face and tell you the truth—was compelling to younger men confused about the meaning and purpose of manhood. That’s why the infamous “How dare you!” sermon took off. More on that in a moment.
Fatherhood and Reformed Theology
First, let’s acknowledge the kernel of truth in Mark’s assessment (if you can look past his caricature of Reformed theology): one reason for the recent rise of Reformed theology can be attributed to a hunger for healthy, assertive, promise-keeping, full-of-character fathers who reflect the fatherhood of God.
Collin Hansen touched on this desire in his 2008 book Young, Restless, and Reformed, when he described younger Calvinists referring to John Piper as a father figure. One young lady talked about Piper as being like “a dad” to her, although they’d never met.
At the time, I wrote about the strangeness of that phenomenon and the implications for a new generation’s vision of God’s fatherhood. What does it say about God as Father if young people think “father” is the appropriate term for a prominent preacher with whom they have no relationship? This is how I put it then:

Fathers image God. To reach for descriptions of spiritual fatherhood in relation to a powerful preacher, disconnected from a young person relationally, demonstrates a skewed vision of who God is: far off, transcendent, distant, thundering. If fatherhood can take place without ever meeting, then something has gone sideways regarding a more balanced view of fatherhood, one that includes transcendent authority combined with relational immanence, expressed most clearly in God’s gracious condescension to us in Christ.

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On “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”—Surveying Our Souls

There is nothing godly or unifying about ignoring character flaws and dismissing complaints from people wounded within toxic leadership environments as “distractions.” If the example of Mars Hill has taught us anything, it’s that we need more conversations about good and bad leadership, not less.

Today, I’m kicking off a series of articles on the extraordinarily popular podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, hosted by my friend Mike Cosper and produced by Christianity Today. The show follows the story of Mars Hill Church, founded in Seattle in 1996 by Mark Driscoll. The episodes chronicle the rise of Driscoll and his church’s influence within conservative evangelicalism, describing patterns of unhealthy leadership that resulted in the diminishment of Driscoll’s credibility and the dissolution of the church (in its original form).
A Word About Quality
Whenever The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill comes up in conversation, people mention the production quality. There has never been a narrative-style Christian podcast that matches the quality of this one. Mike Cosper’s skills as host, writer, and storyteller are on full display. For years to come, Christian podcasts in the journalism genre will stand in the shadow of this one, much like Serial changed the game for narrative podcasts nationwide. Kudos to Cosper and the team at CT for raising the bar and setting a new standard!
Critiques of Rise and Fall 
Through social media and on various blogs, people have offered constructive critiques of the storytelling decisions and the interview format Cosper has employed throughout the series.

Some worry that the critique of the distinctive culture of Mars Hill will be conflated with the theological positions Driscoll held: a complementarian view of gender roles, Reformed theology, a high view of Scriptural authority, the reality of the demonic, etc. Will podcast listeners be able to untangle the unhealthy leadership culture of Mars Hill from the mainstream Christian beliefs professed by its leaders?
Others express frustration at the inclusion of guests whose doctrinal and ethical views put them outside the boundaries of evangelicalism. Does the podcast’s occasional reliance on voices from outside traditional Christian orthodoxy imply that the answers to concerns about Mars Hill will be found in progressive or post-evangelical theology and practice?
Still others criticize the podcast for centering on Driscoll, making him “the star,” a move that pushes the testimonies of the wounded to the periphery. Does the show, because of its framing, unwittingly reinforce our focus on the “gifted, charismatic leader” at center stage?

I find these critiques intriguing, but I’m going to approach this series from a different angle, not focusing on the podcast or the strengths and weaknesses in how Cosper has told the story, but on the context that made Driscoll’s meteoric rise possible and the likely influence this podcast will have on evangelical church leaders in the coming years.
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The Black Death and the Ever-Present Judgment of God

Beyond the economic concerns are the religious questions that seep through the story from start to finish. Hatcher is wise to transport us to the medieval world of Christianity by making a priest the main character. Through the eyes of “Master John” and the stories of his parishioners, we learn how important it was to help a loved one experience a “good death.” We get a feel for life in a world in which everyone was alert to spirits, good and bad, where superstition and magic mixed with Christian rituals and practices—a pre-Reformation world where bad actors preyed upon the spiritual insecurities of the townsfolk….

Near the beginning of the pandemic last year, in the middle of that initial lockdown, I read John Barry’s The Great Influenza, the greatest single book on the flu that ravaged the world just over a 100 ago. Whenever I mentioned that book, people looked at me funny. Trevin, isn’t it weird to read about an older pandemic when you can just watch the news? Aren’t you overloaded with bad news already? Why revisit the tragedy of 1918–20?
I’m not the only weird one. Several people have since recommended Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, a fictional account of an epidemic in London in 1665 that captures something of the fear and isolation of the time.
I find it oddly comforting to revisit past plagues, perhaps because it gives me greater perspective so that I see through the silliness of describing our current moment with a word like “unprecedented.” When you look back to how your ancestors endured similar challenges, you find today’s tragedy less frightening. You feel a little less alone, and a little more grateful that you live in modern times.
The Black Death
That brings me to Richard Hatcher’s The Black Death: A Personal History, a book unlike anything I’ve ever read. It’s a work of fiction that comes from the pen of an historian who has devoted much of his life to researching the conditions and the results of the Bubonic plague that swept through Europe in the mid–1300s, leaving an estimated one-third to one-half of the population dead. Hatcher seeks to inhabit the world of the 1300s, and he writes as if he were a scholar of that era who sought to recount the effects of “the pestilence” in a particular English town.
As you’d expect, Hatcher’s book describes the preventive measures, the onset of symptoms, proposed treatments, and almost inevitable death that followed. But The Black Death also considers the pre- and post-pandemic lives of people in the countryside. How did they prepare? How did they cope? How did they respond when their loved ones died? How did rich and poor alike deal with fields lying fallow and cottages in disrepair? How did the town respond to the problem of whole families wiped out by the plague and the subsequent disputes over inheritance, and land, work, and wages?
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Scripture Before Phone, and Other Habits That Could Change Your Life

Properly understood, The Common Rule is not about self-denial or asceticism for its own sake; it is an expression of joyful willingness—the desire to embrace a new way of life in which we don’t sacrifice what is best for what is easiest. 

We underestimate the power of habits, especially those we adopt unconsciously, as a result of our busy and hurried lives. We like to think of ourselves as spontaneous and authentic in our worship and work, when in reality we’re enslaved to habits and patterns that dominate our waking moments. As a consequence, we are wonderless in an age of wonders. Our technology has only freed us up . . . to live like slaves.
In This Is Our Time, I tried to apply insights from each chapter to our everyday lives, so that Christian faithfulness would take shape in habits, both individually and communally. One of the recommendations I made was that we prompt ourselves to give priority to God’s Word by making our bedrooms “phone free” and by opening the Bible in the morning to read and pray before we grab the phone and check in. Out of all the practices I recommended in This Our Time, the “Scripture before phone” application has come up in conversation with readers more frequently than anything else.
A recent reader of my book, Justin Whitmel Earley, has developed a website called The Common Rule and is writing a book on the power of “habits of love for an age of chaos.” I was excited to see the “Scripture before phone” practice recommended there, as well as the daily habit of “kneeling prayer” (in which our bodies and hearts are united in inclining ourselves to God). Justin includes other habits as well, both daily and weekly, and the patterns he recommends are intentional in turning us outward to loving God and the people around us. He writes:

If we are going to live lives shaped by the love of God and neighbor, we need to think about our habits. The vast majority of our lives are governed by habit. We are not formed simply by our deepest beliefs and greatest aspirations, but also the most ordinary of habits that guide our everyday lives. We usually don’t think about these habits, and that’s why they matter so much.

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