Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Agency, Authority, and the Bible: What Has Happened to Evangelicals? | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His seventh book,  Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has recently been published. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear in April

Donald Trump stands outside of St. John’s Church in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020. Image via CNN.

A group of PhD students at the University of Dayton are wrestling this semester with the question of whether evangelicals have surrendered their agency – their reading of the Bible – to pastoral authorities. Since I’ve never known a PhD seminar that I didn’t want to join, I am going to barge into this class and offer a single argument: Loss of agency means the rise of authoritarianism in church and in democracy. 

My contention that people are reading the world’s best-selling book less deserves some warrant. Paul Combs, in an article on the Bible, says, “90% of people don’t read the Bible, and the other 10% lie about it.” Articles on American “biblical illiteracy” are too numerous to list. The point is that agency among evangelicals is pulling a disappearing act. 

Hebrew scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has written a book called The Disappearance of God, in which he chronicles divine recession in the Hebrew Bible. Analogically, I am convinced that a book waits to be written titled The Disappearance of the Bible

An Autobiographical Prelude 

On an autobiographical note, in the 1950’s and 1960’s Southern Baptists had not surrendered agency. Not only was Bible reading a primary act of faith, but it was also encouraged in multiple ways. We were expected to read our Bibles daily. As youth we participated in Bible Memory Drill and Sword Drill. Baptist deacons were often biblically astute and informed. There was an expectation that reading the Bible gave us the right to disagree with one another and with the pastor. And this dissent was an honored trope in Baptist life. 

By the 1980’s this agency was disappearing. The Word of God went into the age of declension. 

First, Baptist laity put the interpretation of the Bible into the hands of the pastor. Then dissent was disallowed at the local church level, and at the denominational level. After two decades of Southern Baptist control by fundamentalists, like agency, had disappeared. Once the Pattersons and the Mohler’s took control, the period of a priesthood of the believer and the agency of church members began to come to an end. As the 21st century enters its third decade, dissent continues to retreat. 

The Bible has virtually retired, leaving only clergy as the keepers of knowledge. The acts of dissent are over. The authority of the preacher prevails. The evangelical church is no longer a place where a gathered people discerned the will of God, but a place where the preacher telss people what to think and do.

When Agency Became Authority 

I would argue that the evangelical opposition to science has damaged evangelicals by taking away the necessary elements of agency, dissent, and a free search for truth. 

There’s something about the evangelical disdain for science that irritates me. The blatant disregard for new truths, new discoveries, and new theories turns me cold. But the most irritating of all is the refusal of evangelicals to apply the hard work of science to our study and preaching of the Bible. 

What we lose sight of is how much science and faith have in common – the pursuit of truth. The two are not identical twins, but they share a God-given desire for truth. If faith would allow science into the church, and if science would be more open to alternative explanations that are not physical, we could have an alliance in search of truth. 

For example, with the aid of science, we could stop debating about the age of the earth. The “age of the earth” is not a question Christians even need to ask. The argument is as harebrained as the debates about how many angels would fit on the head of a needle. Arguing about the age of the earth resembles the comedic question, “How many clowns can you put in a Volkswagen ‘Bug’”? There’s not really any biblical evidence and certainly no scientific evidence for a young earth, but the debate still attracts many Christians. It’s a cottage industry gone mega at the Creation Museum and The Ark Encounter. 

The Baptist churches prior to the fundamentalist takeover produced a wealth of godly, righteous, and faithful Christians. The healthy mixture of agency, dissent, disagreement without anger, discernment, and prayer helped maintain the “unity” of brothers and sisters. As the psalmist puts it, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). And this unity didn’t require allegiance to an inerrant Bible, a double-edged predestination, or a substitutionary atonement theory. Nor did it involve the intrusion of the denomination on the freedom and autonomy of the local church. 

What, in other words, has been gained in the move from agency to authority? In a word, “Nothing.” Even more telling, much has been lost. The loss of agency has resulted in an array of toxic tropes that undermine the traditional politics of Baptist life. The fundamentalists among us have managed to construct their usual cathedrals to certainty and infected the baptist spirit with political alienation, demagoguery, and advancing authoritarianism. These “godly” men have turned the evangelical movement into a “total war” rather than the deliberation and mediation of differences. 

The evangelicals haven’t advanced Christian faith or American politics. Instead, they now define an oppositional movement dismissive of democratic norms. Their promises of “saving the faith from liberals” has turned out to be a sort of salvation by demolition. They have created mistrust and animosity that “ravages democratic norms and values, undermines civic culture, and inhibits deliberation,” say rhetorical theorist, Robert L. Ivie. 

I want to make a radical suggestion that I believe would have a chance to save evangelicalism and our nation from authoritarianism.  Agency needs to be recovered among evangelicals. These closed-to-the truth institutions would benefit from a few deacons dispersed here and there who are stubborn, dissenting, argumentative, disagreeing, and godly men and women. Their preachers would be blessed by church members who quietly, reverently, and truthfully say, “Pastor, I don’t think that is what the Bible says.” Or saying, “I’m tired of all this secular politics in the church. I think it is poisoning the church.” 

The evangelical demagogues need exposing. They have not been advancing the gospel; they have been shutting it down by scapegoating and oversimplifying complex issues. Demagoguery has aligned with authoritarianism as a propaganda that takes advantage of congregations already predisposed to such “fear” messages because of the fear and hatred that exists in their midst. 

An Anabaptist Guide 

A return to “agency” requires a guide. In this case, we have the best guide possible in the Anabaptist theologian James McClendon. 

McClendon calls our reading strategy the “baptist vision,” or the prophetic vision. Two traditional elements of this reading strategy are the centrality of Jesus Christ and the “this is that” of the baptist vision. The role of Scripture is the clue to the baptist vision. Scripture forges a link between the church of the apostles and our own. McClendon expresses the baptist vision in this way: “Shared awareness of the present Christian community as the primitive community and the eschatological community.” In a motto, “the church now is the primitive church and the church on judgment day.”  

McClendon asserts that 

the baptist vision sees that the narrative the Bible reflects, the story of Israel, of Jesus, and of the church, is intimately related to the narrative we ourselves live. Thus that vision functions as an interpretative grid. Construing our experience by way of Scripture, it shows how the two are properly joined. Scripture + Experience. For Baptists this is the way of Christian existence. A reading of the Bible as interpreting the present situation is characteristic of the baptist vision. 

Consider the following as baptist distinctives:

  1. The biblical story as our story.
  2. Liberty as the duty to obey God without state help or hindrance.
  3. Discipleship as life transformed into obedience to Jesus’ lordship
  4. Community as the daily sharing in the vision.
  5. Mission as responsibility for costly witness. 

A Scientific Guide 

The second guide that I offer may seem an odd match for an anabaptist, but I am convinced that the scientific community has a methodology of truth-searching that offers a way back to agency. The study and preaching of the Bible need the benefit of the scientific method of research and theory. 

There is humility in the heart of scientists. Kenneth Miller says, 

Scientific explanations are always, to some extent, incomplete. For all of their apparent precision, even gravitational theory and atomic theory are incomplete in their descriptions of the mechanics of nature.” 

When a scientist refuses to take a stance of certainty toward something as elemental as “gravity,” the certainty claims about the inerrancy of the Bible or the authority of the pastor stands on sinking sands. 

Good science has a streak of disrespect for authority that evangelicals have evaporated into authoritarianism. Young scientists are expected to challenge the theories of their teachers. They are required to be innovative, creative, rebellious, outside the box. An embracing of the scientific paradigm of research and the search for truth holds the key to a recovery of agency. 

This work has been ongoing in our universities and seminaries, as our brightest biblical scholars have used the research techniques of science to provide alternative readings and challenge us with radical ideas. Yet there seems to exist a wide gulf between the academy and the congregation. 

Biblical scholars have been bringing us “gifts from God” for centuries. But even among progressives, there’s been a tendency to leave behind all that scholarship at the seminary. In our churches we are reluctant to disturb our people with new ideas, with innovative readings of the Bible. We are afraid we may disrupt their faith. 

Jesus commands us to ask, seek, and knock. Where are the young preachers ready to slay the dragons of close-minded intolerance? The young preachers have been bold on social issues and ethical issues, but where is our boldness with it comes to the Bible and theology? 

I am suggesting that preachers learn the lessons of scientific research and experience the freedom of scientists seeking to improve or overturn existing paradigms of science. In the crucible of searching, asking, and questioning, we will discover the “newness” of God’s Word. 

A Rhetorical Guide 

Historically, there’s a dispute over whether Jews, Anabaptists, or Baptists are the most argumentative. I grew up with the truism, “Where two or three Baptists are gathered, there’s bound to be at least four opinions.” 

Perhaps no one loves to argue as much as the Jews. Even more important, the Jews have maintained a detailed written account of all their arguments. Ellen Davis reminds us that Christians have no material even remotely related to the written history of the “sayings of the rabbis.” Davis has argued eloquently for these “arguments” as already embedded in the transmission of the Scripture. She names this process “critical traditioning.” 

For instance, Davis helps readers interpret Leviticus 19. In the chapter there is a definition of “neighbor” as fellow Jew. Also, there is a command that the “alien” is the neighbor of the Jews. The two seem to contradict one another, but both remain in the book of Leviticus. The reason, according to Davis, is so that each new generation can keep arguing about what it means to be “the neighbor.” 

The introduction of argument to this discussion opens the door for an appearance of the tropes of my own academic discipline: Rhetoric. Argument and persuasion are essential elements in theology and politics. The Greek word, for faith, in ancient Greek, means “probability.” Aristotle defined rhetoric and persuasion as the use of all the available possibilities. 

Theological work has always been premised on deliberation, pluralism, multiple meanings, and reciprocity. Now we face advocates who insist on, as James Kloppenberg puts it, as “framing disagreements as all-or-nothing struggles between good and evil, between freedom and oppression,” instead of seeing that theology involves endless arguments and openness to competing values and worldviews. 

The closed fist approach of evangelicals to truth harms evangelicals as it harms the rest of us. I challenge the “zero-sum” story of evangelicals that “a voice for liberals and progressives” is a loss for evangelicals and the truth. It would be better for faith and democracy if we were not exploited by the cult of certainty sowing the seeds of division and mistrust. We need to invest in a larger perspective and in more diverse voices. 

I am fully aware that the multidimensional work of providing multiple readings of the Bible and faith cannot be undertaken without the rowdiness of democratic give and take. But it is the price we must pay to embrace diversity as a benefit and not a curse. 

In summary: There isn’t a reason in the world to be distrustful of new knowledge. Some new knowledge turns out to be a dead end and is discarded. The process of knowing what to keep and what to discard is the very heart of biblical work. 

I have argued for dissent as an affirming gesture for faith that will allow the potential for new truth to emerge. This, in my view, provides a constructive starting point for restoring agency and resisting the demagogic regression from mating with authoritarianism. The bridge from pastoral authority to political authoritarianism is a walking bridge – a very short one. An authoritarian government will destroy democracy and impose control that Americans would need to resist with all our minds, hearts, and bodies.