10 Things Evangelicals Aren’t Supposed to Say

We need to dialogue about common doubts evangelicals often feel they’re not allowed to express.

I grew up a conservative evangelical in the 1980s. At four, I was enthralled by Sunday School flannelgraphs of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, and David and Goliath. At the ripe age of 11, I made a personal decision to follow Jesus while watching Billy Graham. As an evangelical teenager, I coolly strutted to the Christian section of the record store to buy DC Talk’s Jesus Freak. My teenage political views were informed by Pat Robertson. I followed Kirk Cameron’s career after the end of Growing Pains. You get the picture.

Then, about 12 years ago, I had a crisis of faith. For the first time, I began asking questions about the religion I had been taught as a child. Rethinking my beliefs was a long, emotionally difficult experience for me, partly because I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone in my evangelical social network about my doubts. I felt a sense of shame, like I was betraying my church . . . or maybe even God.

Because I kept my questions a secret, the journey to a more intellectually honest faith was lonely — and probably more painful than it would have been otherwise. Now that I’m the pastor of a progressive evangelical church, people regularly come to me to talk about doubts they feel like they can’t admit to anyone else. Here are 10 common thoughts evangelicals often don’t feel they’re allowed to express:

1. The Bible was influenced by the various cultures in which it was written.

The various books of the Bible were written at different times, in different cultures, and in the various languages of their human authors — Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. When writing in the same language, the authors use differing vocabularies and write with different levels of grammatical skill. We also find differing cultural assumptions, political perspectives, concepts of salvation and justice, names for God, and views of God’s own character.

After all, God is the true authority. As N.T. Wright observes in Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, “All Scripture is culturally conditioned.” Evangelicals can hold to the inspiration of scripture while acknowledging that the Bible must be interpreted in the light of its cultural context. Recognizing this frees us to ask questions of the Bible without feeling like we’re betraying God.

2. Genesis 1-3 are likely two separate creation accounts.

The first three chapters of Genesis, often cited by evangelical creationists to argue against evolution, seem to present two separate creation accounts that were juxtaposed by a later editor. Genesis 2:4 — “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens — is the not-so-subtle hint. Even the name for God changes in 2:4 from Elohim (God) to Adonai-Elohim (Lord God).

The first creation account found in Genesis 1:1-2:3 is cosmic in perspective and either Hebrew poetry or high prose, complete with alliteration, rhyme, and artful numerical patterns. The second creation account (Genesis 2:4-25) is down-to-earth and intimately relational. Instead of addressing scientific origins, the two creation accounts are like looking into a mirror. Perhaps a closer reading of the Genesis creation accounts would grant evangelicals a more comfortable relationship with science.

3. Sometimes the God of the Bible and Jesus don’t seem to match up.

Joshua 11 and Deuteronomy 7, among other passages, seem to indicate that God commanded the extermination of an entire ethnic group — the Canaanites. In stark contrast, Jesus instructs his disciples to turn the other cheek and pray for those who persecute them. Seeming contradictions like this demand that thinking Christians interpret the Bible responsibly. While evangelicals will attempt to reconcile these passages differently, simply acknowledging the difficulty will provide space to ask questions and wrestle with the text.

4. Almost no Christian obeys all that the New Testament commands.

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul cites six reasons women should wear head coverings in worship gatherings. Of course, very few American Christians do so. In this passage, however, it seems that women are permitted to pray and prophesy in worship, while in 1 Corinthians 14:34, women are commanded to remain silent. Again, this raises questions about biblical authority and how to thoughtfully interpret the Bible consistently.

5. Nowhere does the Bible condemn to hell followers of other religions.

Passages cited by Christian exclusivists — such as John 14:6 and Romans 10:9 — are not blanket statements condemning religions other than Christianity. Christianity was not even an established religion when these verses were written. Instead, both were written in the context of a discussion between Jewish and Gentile Christians about the role of Jesus as the Messiah. If we are confident that Jesus is the truth (John 14:6), then perhaps we are free to view all spiritual seekers as equals and explore truth wherever we find it.

6. The Gospels were not meant to be historical documents.

The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke contain striking differences. The Gospel of John presents Jesus as cleansing the Jerusalem Temple near the beginning of his public ministry, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke (more plausibly) have Jesus cleansing the Temple near the end of his ministry. Matthew and Luke borrow heavily from Mark, but clean up the Greek grammar and leave out episodes of Jesus’ ministry they might consider embarrassing (for example, Mark 3:21). The Gospel writers intended to persuade their audiences to follow Jesus as the Messiah, not to record history in the modern sense.

7. Both Jesus and Paul held progressive views regarding women.

In the cultures of Jesus and Paul, men were not even supposed to speak to a woman in public. The fact that Jesus included women among his followers was nothing less than scandalous. While scholars disagree on Paul’s view of women overall, Paul clearly credits women as leaders within the church (see Romans 16).

Paul seems to have permitted women to participate in worship (1 Corinthians 11:5), and he was assisted by a husband and wife named Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18). It’s noteworthy that in four of the six mentions of the couple, Priscilla’s name is listed first. Noticing that both Jesus and Paul held progressive views toward women in their time should allow evangelicals to reexamine our views of women’s rights.

8. The majority of Christians in the world practice infant baptism.

Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, and various other denominations make up a majority of Christians worldwide. Each of these Christian expressions practices infant baptism. Christians who hold to believer baptism represent about 25 percent of Christians worldwide. While the minority is certainly entitled to their views, the percentages call for humble reflection.

9. New Testament passages that command wives submit to their husbands also assume slavery.

The role of women is still a difficult subject for many evangelicals. Four passages in the New Testament that address the role of women also contain directions for the relationship between slaves and their masters (see Colossians 3:18-4:1, Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Titus 2:1-10, and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7). The passages, called Greco-Roman Household Codes, are lists of commonly accepted “family values” in the Roman Empire. Christians who quote these passages to support female submission to men must realize that these passages also instruct slaves to obey their masters and were used by slaveholders in the South to keep slaves in line. The obvious question is, “Since we no longer believe the Bible requires slaves to obey their masters, should we still require wives to submit to their husbands?”

10. The Bible says shockingly little about same-sex relationships.

There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible — only six or seven of those appear to condemn same-sex relationships. Sometimes referred to as the “clobber passages” because of their unfortunate misuse, these passages were influenced by ancient culture, as was the whole of the Bible (see #1). While evangelicals disagree on whether the Bible condemns same-sex relationships, we would do well to consider whether the cultural context of these few passages should cause us to question traditional interpretations.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Ryan Gear
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  • Steven McDade

    You forget that right after the wives submit to husbands it says for husbands to submit to wives. Bumpersticker theology and the numbering of the passages line by line have made it really easy to miss the next line.

    • Ryan Gear

      Steven, I didn’t forget. Ephesians 5:23-24 is ignored by many evangelicals in an attempt to make the female submission instructions more palatable in the 21st century developed world. How do you deal with the instructions to slaves in chapter 6? These household codes enshrine ancient value systems, and they require thoughtful interpretation to keep from promoting institutions now considered unjust in the developed world.

    • Dave Price

      No, it doesn’t. It says husbands love (agape) your wives, in Ephesians and in Colossians. If you wanted to make a decent (but probably wrong) argument, you might have pointed out the word for submit is not in v 22, where it says, “wives, to your own husbands, but borrows the word from v 21, “submitting to one another.” People desiring to make submit reciprocal enjoy using this, saying, “See, it goes both ways.” However, to be consistent, then, it must go both ways for children and parents, and for servants and masters. It doesn’t. Submitting to one another in v 21 is followed by examples of submission in 3 realms, marriage (wives to husbands), parenting (children to parents), and service (slaves to master). It is not bumpersticker theology, it is what it says. That’s where you begin, then you work out what it means and how it is applied. But you start by getting the words right in the first place.

  • Kurt Jaros

    #10 The Bible says shockingly little about man-boy relationships.

    … therefore they are okay. #not

    • http://www.landrethonline.com gnlmiami

      That’s the best you can do? Man-boy relationships? What about Man/dog? Woman/donkey? You’re going to have to step it up if you want to have an intelligent discussion.

  • Kurt Jaros

    #6 is such a blatantly false statement.

    Did you receive this bad rhetoric from a religious studies professor? You’d be better off actually reading what historians say on the matter.

    • Brian Vinson

      The author is not saying that the Gospels are not historically accurate. The author is saying that the *purpose* of the Gospels was not to be history. The purpose of the Gospels were varied, and the authors ordered the accounts to suit their purposes. This is why you can find the rhetorical elements within their writing! This is not to say that the information is false whatsoever. It is just to say that the authors organized the Gospels in such a way as to point to their purposes.

      • Kurt Jaros

        “Many of undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed.” – Luke 1:1-4
        ‘narrative about the events’ ‘eyewitnesses’ ‘investigated’ etc. Luke was providing a historical account (even if ancient bioi was done differently)

        • Brian Vinson

          Yes, Luke undertook to provide a historical account. I wish the other Gospel writers had been as forthcoming as Luke was! 🙂

    • Lyn Wilson

      Perhaps you would be better off reading the Bible. The book of Mark was written first, and is a third-hand account of the life and times of Jesus written by an author who is decidedly unfamiliar with the geography, culture, and history of the region. Matthew and Luke plagiarize heavily from Mark, but attempt to correct some of the historical and geographical blunders in Mark. The account and description of Jesus and his life and death is even more different in John.

      • Kurt Jaros

        Lyn, thanks for the quick lesson in historical criticism. I disagree with your conclusions, such as there being blunders in Mark. I also think most skeptical critics fail to consider other logical possibilities such as Matthew being first and Mark compressing stories to make his gospel more accessible to non-Jewish readers. This makes better sense of the *external* evidence.

        • Jon Herrin

          The Gospels were not written as ‘historical documents’ in the sense we understand that phrase today. They were written many years after Jesus when the eyewitnesses were beginning to die off, and the need arose for a record of the life and teachings of Jesus. They capture bits and pieces of Jesus’ life and ministry…from four different perspectives, sometimes borrowing from one another, somethings remembering details differently, but capturing the truth of Jesus, his message, and providing for our response. Because of this, ‘Gospel’ is a literary genre in and of itself….

  • Dave Brown

    #6 is false–yes they were. While some aspects are poetic, they are all describing a literally true event in history.

    #10 is blatantly false. The Bible very clearly condemns same-sex sexual relationships.

  • Phil Gardner

    To require the Gospels to be historically accurate by today’s standards is to build a house of cards. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus is crucified on the first day of Passover. In John’s Gospel, He is crucified on the day of preparation before Passover, the day the lambs were slain for the Passover meal. Which is historically accurate? And, why should it matter if both understandings were given by the same Holy Spirit?

    • Lyn Wilson

      It matters a great deal, considering the symbolism of a ‘sacrificial Lamb’.

  • Daniel E. Bond

    This essay is refreshing. Some of the comments – not so much. Righteousness and self-assuredness abound. We all have our own leadership style, and those we lead have their own followership styles, but moderation and humility – please. The popular criticism genie for sacred texts has been out of the bottle for something like 5 centuries now. Your interpretive skill and authority are going to be challenged; your temperament must adjust to that. Ridicule and derision are not persuasive.

  • http://irr.org Rob Bowman

    Gee, I didn’t see #10 coming. Is it even possible for someone writing in disagreement with evangelical Christianity to make it through an article without the obligatory reference to same-sex relationships? Ryan, when writers like you do this, especially when this point is given a place of prominence in the article (in this instance, at the very end), it raises the suspicion that the rest of the article is window dressing for this particular point.

    The main premise of your article seems to be that evangelicals aren’t allowed even to ask questions about homosexuality or the other issues you raised. Perhaps in some dark corners of extreme fundamentalism this might be so, but broadly speaking evangelicals are quite tolerant of other believers asking questions and expressing doubts, as this is how one learns. Often when someone such as yourself says he felt he wasn’t allowed to express his questions or concerns, what he means is that he felt he would not be accepted within the evangelical community if he rejected its teachings and values. Well, of course. If I decide tomorrow I can’t believe in the Trinity any more, I’m naturally going to feel that this would change my relationship with evangelicals. And it should. I certainly should not expect to be viewed as an evangelical teacher or minister if I no longer hold to evangelical views.

    From the fact that the Bible says very little about same-sex unions, one cannot legitimately infer that the Bible isn’t clear about the issue. It is more likely that the issue rarely came up because homosexual activity was itself quite rare, especially among Jews. Yes, we should always consider the cultural context of statements made in the Bible. That is part of standard biblical hermeneutics and is discussed in every textbook and handbook on the interpretation of the Bible. We should also always consider the cultural context of statements made by twenty-first century writers who appear concerned to establish their progressive credentials. Unfortunately, you don’t explain what it was about the ancient cultural context you think might call the traditional interpretation of the Bible’s statements into question. Without some such specific explanation, all your comment on this point does is express a vague hypothetical possibility.

    For those who want to do some serious thinking on this subject, I highly recommend the work of Robert Gagnon, a New Testament scholar. Google his name and you’ll find his website easily.

    • Dave Price

      Exactly, Rob. Well stated. Either the force of Gear’s article was #10, or he would have been better served in its absence.

      • Cj Bloyer

        I disagree. Gear’s article is titled “10 Things Evangelicals Aren’t Suppose to Say.” If he had left out #10, I think there would have been a huge hole in his list.
        The question of same sex marriage is a vital one for our time and if we can’t discuss it or ask questions about it, then there’s no reason why we should be okay with asking the other 9 questions he poses either.
        Whether you agree with same sex marriage or you see it as an abomination the ability to discuss the various points of view (and the interpretations of the text that uphold those points of view) is vital to Christian dialogue. If we cannot engage in healthy debate with each other, we will remain divided and subsequently less able to engage the wider world which, by the way, asks many of these same questions.

  • Touma

    #3, 5, 6, 10 are probably covered in Heresy 101.

    I am open for conversations, but there are certainly things that are pretty well set in stone. A two sentence paragraph with no scholarly citation does not change that.

  • Russ Neal

    The author is right that evangelicals have promoted a shallow religion with little attention to theology and with inadequate (or no) dealings with the harder question. He is however, guilty of the same thing himself. His own treatment of these hard questions is equally shallow and glib. His position does, however, have the advantage of allowing him to painlessly conform to the evolving (or collapsing) standards of the world and still call himself a disciple of Jesus.

    Here’s what testimonials like this sound like to me: “When I was young, I gave into the pressure of my parents. Now that I’m all grown up, I give in to the pressure of the prevailing culture.”

    • Cj Bloyer

      I think it’s important to ask questions of our faith. I think it’s important to listen to the questions the prevailing culture has about our faith and to seek answers for them. How can we engage those who are mired in the sin-slavery of our world if we refuse to answer or even dignify the questions that are asked? How can we expect young believers to become mature if we don’t allow, and even encourage, them to ask hard questions? To wave away this type of discussion as the “testimonial” of a weak-willed person is to deny that any “true” Christian should have any hard questions at all.
      The whole of Scripture is filled with hard teachings. Understanding the Word of God is, and should be difficult. It should challenge our pre-conceived notions and our comfort. If it does not, then it is nothing but milksop and should be tossed out.

  • Ed The Oregonite

    #7. Where in Romans 16 does Paul say women were leaders in the church? Yes, women worked hard, as does the church janitor, but that is not church leadership. Phoebe is called a ‘patron’ or ‘benefactor’…most likely because she assisted the church financially, not because she was a church leader. Where does the New Testament teach that women are teachers or elders in the church? It doesn’t. Paul forbids that women speak in church. This pastor is obviously bending scripture. Not to be trusted. His church website claims, “The Bible is inspired by God and is reliable and trustworthy as our primary authority for faith and practice”. With teaching like this, I wonder what the church definition of ‘primary’ is.

  • http://theobservatorium.blogspot.com/ Nate

    #10. Question. If you live in America, do you tell people every day to make sure they drive on the right-hand side of the road? No? Well, why not? Because it’s COMMON KNOWLEDGE.

    Jesus didn’t say anything about same-sex relationships because he was speaking primarily to Jews, who – having Torah – knew by COMMON KNOWLEDGE that same-sex marriages were an abomination in the eyes of God. Paul wrote about them because he was writing to a primarily Gentile audience, which was, apparently, more open to those kinds of relationships; Paul was writing to correct that error.

  • jeffrey jenkins

    i think the author’s point is valid: in most American center set churches we are not encouraged to think critically. And evidenced by some of the comments, the internet may be an even more dangerous place to express doubt. Fortunately there are faith communities that encourage honest questions and allow for grace in discovering Jesus (as opposed to be told who he is).

  • Dust

    Pretext: I am not advocating or condoning slavery. Today, it is viewed as very wrong, yet in ancient times it was viewed as very right (Keep an open mind, as I am speaking of slavery in general, and not slavery as pertaining to a specific race). Therefore, I just wanted to mention something about slavery part from point #9: If I was a slave myself in the time the Bible was written, I very much would adhere to the teachings of ‘obey your master’. At the time, the law specified that I was obligated, as a slave, to work for my master. To disobey, I might have been hunted and destroyed. At the very least, punished with a flogging. All that to say: You can’t claim the Bible no longer requires slaves to obey their masters. Instead, you should ask, “does the cultural context of these passages include me in modern times? Do slaves still have to obey their masters, do women still have to submit to their husbands, and do any of these items depend on the laws of the specific nation you are a part of?” It would be a large discussion, but my point is the Bible doesn’t just change its views with the times. It still has written in it what was written thousands of years ago. But thousands of years ago, culture was very different than now. I believe the Bible was relevant then, and still is useful for ‘believers’, but we must be cautious when making statements from it intended for an audience that no longer exists.