The Crunchy Con Manifesto - A Proposal for Actual Conservation of Something

Conservativism is in crisis in the U.S. The term has become altogether too closely aligned with a form of political populism that has little to do with conserving anything of value. For many people on the political left and the political right, conservativism has become largely about listening to angry men in cowboy hats and pretty women in tight t-shirts rail against immigrants, gender revisionists, and “liberals.” Often there is also implicit support for large businesses which are always good for America (especially when they support grifters on the right), except when they lobby for socially progressive policies and for one of the groups that the cowboy hats and tight shirts are angry at. Other than moving society in the United States back to some apparently great condition that is never defined, only reminisced about, there does not seem to be a coherent theme to what passes for conservativism.

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In truth, both conservativism and liberalism, as they are used (but rarely defined) in popular discourse are forms of social progressivism. “Liberalism” focuses on achieving atomistic individual freedom to enable people to pursue whatever sexual goals they have and free them from the economic need to do work that aids society. This is often, seemingly paradoxically, pitched as part of the goal of economic collectivism (e.g., socialism) and moral totalitarianism (e.g., attempts to outlaw Christian sexual ethics). On the other hand, “conservativism” tends to be focused progress toward individual freedom to pursue economic goals and social structures that more closely relate to some earlier ideal, which are rarely defined beyond a desire for neighborliness. The progress of conservativism is achieved through lack of government regulation on the economy and fighting against social outgroups that themselves feel as if they are fighting for a place to exist.

Of these two forms of progressivism, I have a decided preference for the “conservative” form. There are obviously destructive elements in contemporary political liberalism that only willful ignorance of economics, history, and basic philosophical anthropology can overlook. However, similarly obvious blind spots exist on the political right, as well. My chief grievance against political “conservativism” as it is often presented is that there is nothing that it is trying to conserve. It is just progress in a different direction toward a goal that is just as undefined as the goals of the left.

As I’ve been exploring this dilemma of political homelessness, in part through the work of Patrick Deneen, though there are others, I discovered a book that Rod Dreher wrote in 2006 that presents a better vision of conservativism, in my opinion. At least, it forms a different starting place for dialogue about what conservativism ought to be aiming at. His book, Crunchy Cons, is a valuable book for those dissatisfied with where the GOP has gone, but completely appalled at the corrosive politics of the DNC, as well.

There are ten articles in Dreher’s “Crunchy-Con Manifesto” that I will quote in their entirety here. (After all, Dreher is the king of block-quoting other articles online, so he can’t mind too much if I take a couple of pages from his book.)

A Crunchy–Con Manifesto

1.       We are conservatives who stand outside the contemporary conservative mainstream. We like it here; the view is better, for we can see things that matter more clearly.

2.       We believe that modern conservativism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

3.       We affirm the superiority of the free market as an economic organizing principle, but believe the economy must be made to serve humanity’s best interests, not the other way around. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4.       We believe that culture is more important than politics, and that neither America’s wealth nor our liberties will long survive a culture that no longer lives by what Russell Kirk identified as “The Permanent Things”––those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life, and which are taught by all the world’s great wisdom traditions.

5.       A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.

6.       A good rule of thumb: Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global and New and Abstract.

7.       Appreciation of aesthetic quality––that is, beauty––is not a luxury, but key to the good life.

8.       The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.

9.       We share Kirk’s conviction that “the best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o’ evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. . . . The institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

10.   Politics and economics will not save us. If we are to be saved at all, it will be through living faithfully by the Permanent Things, preserving these ancient truths in the choices we make in everyday life. In this sense, to conserve it create anew.

Having sent a salvo against mainstream “conservativism” on the beginning pages of his book, Dreher goes on to journalistically explore people living out particular aspects of this manifesto. They tend to be (but are not exclusively) theologically conservative within their faith tradition, live within a large nuclear family, and community focused. Most significantly, the people Dreher interviews are focused on achieving a positive goal, not simply attempting to escape some negative restriction.

For those seeking an alternative response to contemporary political options, Crunch Cons may be the beginning point for future exploration. This is the book in which Dreher introduces the concept of the Benedict Option (I have not yet read his book), which he explored more fully in the hotly debated volume by that name. Although some of the content is dated, this book remains a good counterpoint for the GOP/DNC binary we seem to be stuck with, and may inspire a positive shift toward a conservative movement seeking to actually conserve something important.

Why Liberalism Failed - A Review

I think there are probably a half dozen people in the world that think things are about as good as they could be. They are probably either in a coma or eating ice cream at the moment. For the rest of us, it is pretty obvious that something stinks in the kingdom of Denmark.

In the United States and across the Western world, liberal democracies are teetering on the edge of populism. The levels of misery are climbing in areas of the United States as more and more people are dying “deaths of despair,” often by overdosing on opioids in an attempt to dull the ache inside.

Where did we go wrong? What happened to the home of the free and the brave?

For some, the growing sense of dis-ease fuels a call to return to some earlier state of supposed greatness. This is a call to turn back the clock to halcyon days when contentment was higher (in some circles) and the stressful influences of social isolation were much less prevalent. For others, the same conditions are cause for increasing centralized government control, increasing redistribution of wealth, and passing laws to make people conform to the sort of behaviors that are deemed beneficial by the people that really know. Both of these call for variations of a sort of social liberalism (distinct from progressivism). Patrick Deneen argues that the best remedy for what ails us is moving away from liberalism, because the populism and dis-ease we are experiencing is a feature, not a bug, of the liberal political order.

Although the meaning of the term “liberal” or “liberalism” has changed over the years and is often used to denote progressivism, liberalism is a broader political philosophy that includes both classical liberals (i.e., conservatives) and progressive liberals (i.e., progressives). As a definition of the term, Deneen writes, “Liberalism was premised upon the limitation of government and the liberation of the individual from arbitrary political control.” This led, in its early application, to a representative democracy in the United States with assurance of free speech, the freedom of religion, and robust property rights. In its early implementations, liberalism was supported by the premodern political order that still believed in virtue as a necessary and worthy human ideal.

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For all the benefits of liberalism (and there are many), it has within it the seeds of its own demise. Liberalism lacks the ability to reproduce virtue, because its foundation lacks substance. Liberalism is something of a content-free philosophy. It functions more as an organizing framework for other substantive philosophies. However, this contentlessness quickly becomes its own content, much like Seinfeld, a show about nothing, had a strong satirical message that tended to deconstruct social norms. Just as Seinfeld worked because it borrowed the substance from the world and made it appear irrelevant, so liberalism has worked borrowing from the substance of other philosophies.

That’s all fine and well until there are no other philosophies broadly held by a culture that are strong enough to support liberalism. According to Deneen, that is what we are experiencing. Thus, we have an anti-culture that really serves as a reaction to whatever came before. We have a progression toward dis-integration of social structures to the point that even obvious realities like maleness and femaleness are up for debate, or, in truth, considered to be forms of violent oppression by an elite, but culturally powerful minority.

Deneen’s book is a bit jarring in its pessimism, but there were few points that I could find strong counter arguments. If anything, I think he may simply be a bit more negative about our chances of maintaining the goods of liberalism than is really warranted. Time will tell. I still think that Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West may be the better path, where we push toward a more beneficent version of liberalism. It is, as Goldberg argues, very hard work, but I think it may still be the way to go.

Still, Deneen’s proposed path forward, which he does not bring up until the conclusion of the volume, is worth considering. He argues that we need to move away from liberalism to something new. He proposes three initial steps:

1.       First, acknowledge the legitimate achievements of liberalism. There is no question that our material condition has benefited greatly from the advancement of philosophical liberalism, with the ability to move, to innovate, and to retain more of what we produce.

2.       Second, he argues we must “outgrow the age of ideology.” This will require us to “focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.” I think what this means in context is focus more on people than on big ideas and grand restructuring of the world.

3.       Third, we must implement the first two steps, by building on and not abandoning the good things that have come before. This is the least clear of the three steps, but I think Deneen is calling for progress that does not try to begin de novo, as the Enlightenment project of liberalism. The hope is that we can use the positives of liberalism in combination with the treasures of ancient wisdom to forge a more humane future.

Why Liberalism Failed deserves to be read and the ongoing discussion that has spawned from Deneen’s work is worth the attention it has received. Nearly everyone agrees that something is wrong. The two main answers we have in the US in the DNC and GOP do not seem have anything like a realistic vision for future flourishing. A healthy conversation about what society ought to be and how it ought to be shaped is a necessary and worthy endeavor.

Christianity or Nationalism

In 1923, J. Gresham Machen wrote a significant and influential book, Christianity and Liberalism. In the midst of a knockdown, drag-out fight between modernist revisionists and orthodox Christians, Machen was a persistent and often forceful voice arguing, among other things, that the revisionists of his day were actually creating a new religion that could not properly be called Christianity. Not surprisingly, the revisionist did not agree and continue to claim to be Christians despite often having little association with traditional Christian belief.

Setting that debate aside for the moment, there is another assault on orthodox Christianity underway. In this case, rather than being an assault from the left, it is an assault from the right. In this case, instead of directly modifying Christian doctrines to make them more palatable, there is a move to substitute the good of the nation. The question is now whether the church will be most attracted by authentic Christianity or nationalism.

Nationalism Defined

As with any critical debate, definitions are important.

Nationalism is the preference of one’s country above all others and the belief that the nation’s interest is (if not ultimate) among the highest goods available to motivate political action. In the most extreme cases, nationalism espouses the idea that what is beneficial (typically economically) for the nation is good without exception. Such nationalism can justify taking over neighboring countries by force, barring refugees, and making policies that recklessly harm minority communities that are not properly considered part of the national identity.

The specter of nationalism is typically a politically right magnet. It often is accompanied by enthocentrism and identity politics. It is on the rise in the United States and throughout Europe especially. Presently, it is being demonstrated by animus toward people of color, especially refugees and immigrants.

Even among non-racist strains of nationalism, there are problematic elements. Nationalism is often summarized in the U.S. by the slogan “America First.” Notably, the government of a territory exists primarily to serve the interests of its people. This is not really debatable. What is often neglected by nationalists is that some actions or policies that privilege American people and businesses may, in fact, unjustly harm people in other nations. For example, protectionist economic policies are often supported by “America First” rhetoric. In some cases, they can be extremely harmful businesses and workers in other nations. When that is deemed either a good thing or simply a consequence not worth considering, a government and a people may well have crossed from healthy self-interest to nationalism.

To be clear, there is a love for country that is healthy and good. This would better be called patriotism. It is a good thing to cherish the positive events in our nation’s history. It is a good thing to feel a desire to defend our nation against harm. It is reasonable to expect that the government will enact economic policies that serve to correct injustices in another nation’s trade policies.

The difference between patriotism and nationalism is often presented as one of degree. However, it is better understood as one of ends. In other words, for nationalism the primary goal is the good of the nation, for a healthy patriotism, the primary goal is the good, with the expectation that one’s nation will pursue that both internally and externally.

Nationalism and Christianity

There is room for a healthy level of patriotism and Christianity to coexist. Though we are ultimately sojourners in every nation, state, and town we inhabit, Christians are also residents charged with seeking the good of the city. (Jer 29:7)

However, when the good of the nation becomes the summum bonum, it usurps the place of God in the heart of Christians. Nationalism, as I have defined it, is not compatible with orthodox Christianity, it is a replacement for orthodox Christianity.

Evidence for this abounds in our present political context. A few particularly egregious examples will be sufficient to demonstrate the nature of the problem.

One clear example is in the continued defense of sexual immorality by many nationalists. Any stream of political thought that seeks to justify supporting politicians like Roy Moore, who was credibly accused by a number of women (including those politically aligned to him), as necessary for the good of the nation has missed the point. Not only was he politically unsavory in other areas, but there were people (some who identify as Christians) who claimed that his behavior simply didn’t matter. Or, in the accusations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, those who argue that a sexual assault simply doesn’t matter have supplanted an ideological support for their preferred politics for good. (This is not to say that he did it, or that any accusations should disqualify a person, but there are people arguing that if the alleged assault happened, it simply does not matter.) In other case, President Trump is a known adulterer, has paid hush money to a porn star for an affair while married, and was caught on tape admitting to something that sounds an awful lot like sexual assault. It is one thing to hold one’s nose and vote for such a candidate, but there are Christians arguing that such rank immorality simply does not matter because the good of the nation is at stake, so they continue to vocally support him on that front.

In all of these cases, there is a demonstrated ethical relativism that has evolved. Previously, the sexual exploits of politicians were considered disqualifying for office, often by some of those now vocally supporting sexually immoral politicians. Now, there are people arguing that since David sinned and was used by God, so the most heinous immorality of a politician may be excused because it benefits the nation.

What is clear in these circumstances is that the ultimate good of these vocal supporters has shifted, or, perhaps, the ultimate good has been revealed. Instead of the ultimate good being God’s moral law, which is universally revealed, the ultimate good is whatever is supposed to best serves the nation.

Nationalism is a form of idolatry.

A Christian Nation?

A significant contributor to the subversion of orthodox Christianity and its replacement with nationalism tinged with Christian belief is the perpetuation of the myth that America is or was a fundamentally Christian nation.

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Clearly, the United States was not founded as a secular nation in the same sense that the French Revolution of the Soviet Union was. In both those cases, there is a virulent strain of anti-religious sentiment that led to unhealthy attacks against religious beliefs of various types. The ongoing harassment of Muslims by the French government is one symptom of that bigoted bias.

However, organizations like David Barton’s Wall Builders that attempt to argue that the founders were largely orthodox Christians with a view for an abashedly Judeo-Christian nation are unhelpfully imposing their desires onto the historical record. Though Barton, who has no academic credentials in history, claims to have rediscovered historical truths that others have failed to understand for centuries, the reality is that he is doing hack history that distorts the reality of the history of the United States. Inadvertently, such romanticizing about a supposedly Christian United States significantly contributes to the problem of the conflation of Christianity and nationalism, with the usual result of a nationalism that trumps Christian ethics.

When one believes that Christianity is the only fully true religion-- a reasonable belief for any orthodox Christian--and combines that with the mistaken idea that one nation in particular is a distinctly Christian nation, it can easily lead to switching the order of the old slogan “God and country” to “country and god.” Few would articulate it that way, but in light of the present secularism and cultural hostility to Christian ethics, it can be tempting to do whatever is necessary to “return” to a previous state of “greatness” in which a presumed Christian consensus existed. Though “God and country” might remain the order of the slogan, the closer one views a particular view of “country” to embody God’s own ideal for country, the more likely it is for nationalism to become the functional idol.

The Idolatry of Civil Religion

There is a popular song that embodies some of the most sentimental, but potentially dangerous attraction of the idolatry of nationalism.

Lee Greenwood’s song is played at many civic ceremonies as a tear jerker that is meant to inspire patriotism. But the lyrics of the song reflect a tendency to misunderstand the purpose of Christianity lived out in the public square. The most egregious of the saccharine lines is, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”

Human freedom is a good thing, in general. It is frequently misunderstood in our contemporary context as a freedom from all restraint rather than a freedom to do that which is good and right. However, that is an argument for another post.

However, a Christian should carefully consider what that line means. Is freedom the ultimate good? Is that, then, the main purpose of the nation? Is the United States primarily a vehicle for guaranteeing that good? And, if so, for whom?

Believers are called to seek the good of the city, even when we are not free. That is the message of Jeremiah 29. On the balance, it is better to have freedom to seek the good of the city in the way that is most consistent with one’s religiously formed conscience. However, it would be better to pursue justice and virtue as a prisoner than to promote an idolatrous quest for power in the name of Christianity, even if that power promised to promote a version of Christianity in the culture.

Civil religion is attractive, because it can be useful for generating cohesion and, especially in the West, often has a strong connection to the language of historical Christianity. The difficulty here is that civil religion in the United States often sounds an awful lot like Christianity. Like theological liberalism, such terminological similarity is simply a means of hiding doctrinal revision under the cloak of traditionalism.

However, civil religion is often merely the ideology that enables nationalism.

When one views one’s nation as divinely ordained, then the defense of that nation becomes an ultimate good. The logic runs something like this: America is a Christian nation. God has particularly blessed the United States to be a testimony of his goodness in the world. Therefore, whatever is good for the nation is glorifying for God. This is idolatry, even when it is pursued in more oblique language.

Christianity or Nationalism

American Christians, particularly those on the political right, are faced with a pretty clear decision: Will be put our faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ or in our nation?

In Machen’s day the split occurred on the left, with the revisionist Christians attempting to make the United States into the Kingdom of God through comprehensive welfare policies. There was often an unnecessary conflation between a view of a welfare state as the Christian ideal and a Christianity that had little connection to the orthodox faith.

Now, the decision is on the political right, with people that go to congregations with orthodox faith statements needing to decide whether the ultimate good of the nation is synonymous with the goodness and justice intrinsic to God’s nature. In other words, will we be American Christians or Christians who reside in America? There is a fundamental difference that cannot be overlooked.

For those who desire to remain authentically Christian, we must remember that our allegiance is ultimately to the King of Kings and not to a political party. Good should be judged not by an upward trend in GDP or the number of cabinet members who attend evangelical churches, but by the unchanging Word of God.

The choice is clear, and our decision should be reflected in how we live our lives. Will we pursue holiness in the Christian tradition or a form of nationalistic idolatry?

Numerical Statistics and the Path to Liberalism

There is no question that mainline Protestant denominations are in numerical decline in the United States. Year by year, those denominations that have affirmed the tenets of theological liberalism are dying off.

Many theologically conservative Protestants tend to highlight the numerical decline of liberal denominations as proof of their rightness in standing for truth. Some of the less combative theological conservatives occasionally use the decline narrative as a basis for not being combative: let it go, the false religion will die out one day.

The argument that numerical decline is a necessary result of bad doctrine is, however, a bad one. In fact, it is one that has tended to enable doctrinal distortions and sociological abuses among some of those most active in theologically conservative circles.

Explaining the Decline

There is little doubt that the lack of vitality in theological liberalism is a part of reason for the decline of denominations characterized by it. In simplistic terms, the main project of theological liberalism is to strip away objectional parts of Christian orthodoxy until the end result can be accepted by someone without abandoning any important cultural beliefs.

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This has been the project from the beginning. Friedrich Schleiermacher, often called the father of theological liberalism, was earnest in his desire to remove barriers to modern humans to convert to Christianity. As a result, he engaged in the process of redefinition of difficult ideas and excision of theological truths that conflicted with naturalistic, minimally supernatural worldview.

His project has continued, with scholars and pastors in the liberal tradition arguing against central Christian truths, like the resurrection of Christ, his divinity, and the possibility of his miracles. In the end, there are some members and leaders in mainline Protestant denominations who believe so little that is vital to orthodox Christian doctrine, they have no business calling themselves Christians.

Theological liberalism is, when it is lived authentically, an entirely different religion than Christianity. It may use some of the symbols and share some vocabulary, but when the core meaning of these signs is stripped away, it is hard to say that they are the same things.

When one takes away the power of the cross to bring about redemption, for example, then the entire power of the gospel has been denied. It is the gospel that makes the Church and not the Church that makes the gospel.

Historically, the Christian churches around the world have been animated by the power of the gospel. It is what enables Christians to not simply endure persecutions, but to thrive in hostile environments. It is the power of the gospel that has grown the church throughout history.

When theological liberalism is sufficiently advanced (which is not in all cases), it alienates itself from the very thing that makes the Church a coherent and vital reality. At that point, especially when everything that is uniquely Christian and differentiates believers from the culture around them has been stripped away, there is little reason to remain in a church. In fact, there are many more reasons not to abandon the hassle of the local congregation when the gospel is absent.

Consider this: the local church should be a collection of people that have no business being socially united. It should be ethnically heterogenous (or open to it, since some communities are essentially homogenous). It should represent people from various economic classes, educational backgrounds, political interests, etc. The Church is a messy community. That takes hard work, and it is only possible when the strong nuclear force of the gospel holds the nucleus together.

When you strip Christianity of the very thing that makes it distinct from culture, there is no reason to meet anymore. If the essence of Christianity becomes simply doing “good” things for the community, then that can be much more easily accomplished by joining an association with fewer social entailments. In other words, why bind yourself in community with a bunch of weirdos when you can just casually and conveniently work at the soup kitchen on occasion. You get the benefits without the inconvenience.

The power of the gospel is what animates Christian congregations and denominations. When that is stripped away, then it makes sense for the numbers to decline. The weirdness of a community with the entailments of a church is not worth it without the gospel.

Resisting the Opposite

Our desire to be justified in our own eyes often tempts us to crow over the decline of theologically liberal denominations. Often theological conservatives will try to argue that their own stagnant or rising numbers are a sign of God’s blessing on their continued faithfulness to the gospel.

Sometimes faithfulness to the gospel and to the central truths of historic Christianity is a sign of God’s blessing. Passages like Acts 2:41 are exciting. The gospel is preached and three thousand people are converted. Clearly, we might think, God is blessing the faithful preaching of his word. The numerical growth is an indicator of (1) truth and (2) faithfulness.

As exciting as Acts 2:41 is, how many of us would see the rapid shrinking of the local gathering of believers in Jerusalem, described in Acts 8, as a sign of their unfaithfulness or abandonment of the truth? To the contrary, had Stephen abandoned the truth in Acts 7, he probably would have lived, and the persecution of the church might have been forestalled at least for a while. The denial of the gospel might have extended the period of numerical growth.

In our contemporary contexts we need only look at the rapid growth of the Prosperity Gospel movement to see that abandoning the real gospel can lead to an increase in numbers. In other words, numbers don’t tell the whole story and they often don’t tell much of a story at all. Or, they don’t tell a story about the things that matter most.

All Growth is Not Healthy

Every numerical increase is not a sign of God’s blessing. It is exceedingly dangerous to use numerical growth (or stagnation) as an indicator of either truth or faithfulness.

Consider that the Church is a body. This is not a hard leap, since the Apostle Paul used the analogy in 1 Cor 12:12-31. All growth in a body is not healthy.

Ask the morbidly obese individual whether an increase in size is a healthy thing. Or, perhaps more tellingly, ask someone with cancer whether all growth is healthy. Both will tell you that size and growth is not directly tied to health.

Although there is good evidence that the abandonment of the gospel by many theologically liberal denominations and congregations has contributed to their decline, it does not follow that growth among theological conservative denominations has been healthy.

In fact, when we consider the number of people who identify in public polls as “evangelical” and yet fail to demonstrate any meaningful signs of conversion in their own lives, we begin to recognize a symptom of a deadly problem.

I have a working theory that while many theologically liberal denominations have abandoned the gospel in pursuit of cultural acceptability, many supposedly theologically conservative denominations have abandoned the entailments of the gospel in pursuit of numerical growth. I think this is an outworking of the bad logic that comes from seeing that numerical decline is often the result of the deletion of the gospel.

Numerical Growth as the Source of Liberalism

I am concerned about theological liberalism because it represents an anti-gospel masquerading as truth. I am more concerned about a conflation of gospel power with numerical expansion because (a) it is happening in my own theological tribe and (b) it is the first stage of theological liberalism.

The original intent of theological liberalism was not to abandon every truth that matters. Nor was it to reject the gospel. Rather, theological liberalism began with a belief that (1) the gospel matters a great deal, (2) that some things make the gospel harder for people to believe because it is so different than modern beliefs about the world, and (3) we can help more people get the gospel by stripping away the extras around the gospel that are holding people back. Though they typically lacked the elaborate head counts and well-analyzed statistics that we have today, liberalism began over a concern for numerical growth.

The main issue with liberalism is that when the truthfulness of Scripture is denied, or at least the truth about the hard parts of Scripture, then it really does create a slippery slope. A low point in theological liberalism was when a bunch of non-believers sitting in a room in Berkeley, California using colored beads to decide which parts of the gospels represented things the real Jesus would say. One need merely look around to see how individuals, congregations, and denominations are all finding ways to affirm and celebrate immorality in contrast to Scripture and in the name of numerical growth or cultural cache. One need also not look far to see cases where the pursuit of numbers and cultural cache have encouraged a minimization of the gospel, “unhitching” one’s faith from the documents of the faith, and the diminution of orthopraxy as a central aspect of the Christian life. All of these are ways that Scripture is diminished for a non-gospel purpose, even when they occur under the banner of a robust doctrinal statement.

To draw a general conclusion, which deserves a lengthier investigation some other time, it seems that the beginning of doctrinal decline is found when making something other than worship in spirit and truth becomes the purpose of a group of Christians. An advanced symptom of doctrinal decline is the redaction of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. The beginning of the decline, however, is when something other than the gospel of Christ becomes the animating force of a group of Christians.

Historically, it seems that the decline of doctrine often begins when numerical growth and the social clout that goes along with it become the focus.

Judge Not, But Look for Fruit

Matthew’s Gospel offers some insight that may be helpful in drawing some conclusions to this already lengthy discussion.

Within a single chapter, which by all accounts represents the core of Jesus teaching, Matthew provides two passages that are sometimes held to be contradictory, such that often only one is acknowledge at a time or by a given group. One is the key passage of much of socially progressive Christianity: “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.” (Mt. 7:1) The other is the key passage of many combative theologically conservative Christians, “Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit.” (Mt 7:15-16b).

If we are to take Scripture seriously, then we have to recognize both simultaneously and seek to obey them both. On the surface (and I have heard this argument made against the coherence of Christianity), this appears contradictory. However, it is not.

We are clearly called to be on our guard against false prophets. There are a lot of people who spew a lot of words that aren’t gospel. Sometimes they sound a lot like gospel, but they really aren’t. Jesus uses the image of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As a theological conservative, I’ve got that down. I see how theological liberals torture the historical doctrines of the faith, how they encourage their parishioners to live debauched lives, and I recognize the bad fruit.

At the same time, I have to be cautious that I am judging others by a metric that I can withstand. Therefore, I cannot judge the spiritual health of others by their numerical growth. As the tide of culture continues to reject the need for religion and see Christianity as backward and anti-social, the number of casual adherents to theologically conservative churches will decline or stagnate. The size of the Church won’t change, but the size of the congregation will change.

Therefore, we ought not to use numerical decline as the ultimate arbiter of the truthfulness of a group’s theology. Bigger or growing does not necessarily mean truer or better. Membership is a metric that can be quickly used to argue that the truth of the gospel, when it becomes socially unpopular, is not in fact true.

Work Toward Authentic Christian Character

When we shift our mission from being a true representation of Christ on earth as his body to meeting numerical statistics, we have begun the shift away from sound doctrine. It happens slowly at the beginning and ends in a crashing avalanche.

This happens when we tolerate sexual abuse in our ranks or cover it up because a leader is effective and we don’t want to ruin the brand. This happens when we accept unholy bullying in our organizational structures because someone is good at packing the house or strategic planning. This happens when we build the life of our congregations around entertaining and pacifying rather than really discipling.

Make no mistake, all of those decisions are just as doctrinal as the nature of the Trinity. None of them will make it into a confessional statement, but they reflect the deepest values of the individual or group making the decisions.

In the end, the calling of the individual Christian and the body of Christ as a whole is terribly difficult. As Jesus notes, “How narrow is the gate and difficult is the road that leads to life and few find it.” (Mt 7:14)

The best we can do is consider the nature of good works. They require us to do the right thing, in the right circumstances, and for the right reasons. It is out of the pattern of our choices that the character of the believer, the congregation, and the worldwide Church is both formed and revealed.