The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

A review of Molly Worthen’s “Apostles of Reason.”

Evangelical Christianity has settled into a volatile synthesis of self-reliant spiritual autonomy and reliance on self-made spiritual gurus. Evangelicals acclaim the Bible as the only infallible authority for Christian truth, and tend to be scornful of churches that place a high value on tradition; while at the same time they are often quick to take offense when others criticize the teachings or behavior of popular teachers and movement leaders.

In Apostles of Reason historian Molly Worthen presents a powerfully-written, scholarly, entertaining, enlightening exploration of American evangelicalism, entering the field on a par with Mark Noll and George Marsden, whom she credits with reading and commenting on her book prior to publication.

Worthen’s coherence and clarity of vision shows in the way she is able to explore the history and personalities of a broad range of evangelical movements, including Reformed, Fundamentalist, Wesleyan, and even Mennonite streams, without ever losing sight of her central theme: the continual problem and paradox that authority represents to evangelicals.

This word “authority” raises before many minds the specter of authoritarian leaders who abuse the trust placed in by them by their followers. In certain evangelical subcultures authoritarianism thrives, and this is where I personally encountered the problem with authority. When I was growing up, my parents enrolled in Bill Gothard’s homeschool program for a number of years. Gothard’s teachings are justly characterized as legalistic, controlling, and extremely manipulative, and my coming-of-age in faith as a teenager involved basically a complete rejection of Gothard’s system in favor of the comparatively gracious and liberating theology of Reformed Christianity.

Apostles1_largeAuthority is a central element of Gothard’s system. His particular brand emerged, like its counterpart, the shepherding movement, in the 1970. The basic idea of these systems is that every Christian should locate himself under a “covering” of spiritual authority or accountability. Gothard’s teaching connects this idea with the “patriarchal” notion that fathers maintain spiritual authority over their wives and children.

Oddly enough, the church movement in which I grew up (People of Destiny, later called Sovereign Grace Ministries) also subscribed to a shepherding-influenced view of spiritual authority, with patriarchal overtones in some corners. In trying to behave like a “New Testament church,” it organized itself with a kind of pseudo-episcopal hierarchy of “apostolic” leaders, regional overseers, and pastor/elders. Unlike a more traditional church, though, its leaders did not have the benefit of being bound by thousands of years of tradition, and they would alter the denomination’s doctrine and polity with a free hand of which Renaissance popes might be jealous. Most of their followers, knowing no better, had little idea how these self-appointed apostles abused their position . . .

But when Worthen refers to a problem with authority, she isn’t mainly referring to authoritarianism or leaders who misuse positions of trust. For her, the basic problem goes deeper, and she even defends evangelicalism against critics who characterize evangelicals as closed-minded Christian Taliban. “Contrary to the insinuations of many who have chronicled the fortunes of American evangelicals,” she writes, “[their] anti-intellectualism is not, primarily due to ‘a potent and disturbing set of [authoritarian] tendencies’ in conservative evangelical culture.” Rather:

The central source of anti-intellectualism in evangelical life is the antithesis of “authoritarianism.” It is evangelicals’ ongoing crisis of authority—their struggle to reconcile reason with revelation, heart with head, and private piety with the public square—that best explains their anxiety and their animosity toward intellectual life. (2)

For Worthen, the evangelical authority problem manifests most strikingly in the ongoing debate over Biblical “inerrancy,” which became a theological shibboleth in evangelical seminaries even as many admitted that the term was never clearly and satisfactorily defined. Inerrancy means that whatever the Bible says is literally true, but this definition only gives rise to subsequent questions which are difficult to answer: Which Bible? True in what sense? Anyone can affirm “inerrancy” while hedging that affirmation in significant and even heterodox ways. So while the doctrine of inerrancy was intended as a hedge against modernistic, sceptical Bible-deniers, it only submerged and did not permanently solve evangelicals’ problem with being able to authoritatively define Christian belief.

In search of authenticity, some evangelicals borrow elements from older Christian traditions in an attempt to appropriate, hipsterlike, practices that seem to give these older traditions weight. Worthen describes the “emergent church” movement’s selective appropriation of older practices and forms in a postmodern “ancient-future” synthesis that is, by definition and design, non-authoritative. “Skeptics note,” she writes, “that the Emergent Church is a movement of quintessentially evangelical individualists.” This movement ends up displaying the same evangelical authority problem through another lens:

The limitations of the Emergent Church follow the pattern apparent throughout American evangelical history: the dilemma of a community that extols individualism but ensnares every individual in a web of clashing authorities. (257)

The “emergent” movement is only one recent foray in a century of evangelical attempts to find firm footing. Worthen also comments on the tendency among intellectual evangelicals to gravitate toward authoritative traditions such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches—even as many of the rank and file within these ancient churches continue to lapse or be enticed by aggressively-marketed evangelical churches. (Evangelicals have reinvented church as entrepreneurial venture, and franchise models even exist!)

For me and others who have in some way been casualties of the dark side of the evangelical authority problem, the appeal of settled authority with established structures, centuries of historical precedents, and a claim of universal catholicity is strong; hence the number of evangelicals who have “walked the Canterbury trail,” and “swum the Tiber” (or the Bosporus) in the past few decades. There is, no doubt, an irony in being individuals who choose to adhere to churches that place much less emphasis on the ability of individuals to discern the truth on their own.

On the other hand, it may not be possible for evangelicals or former evangelicals to escape ecclesiastical irony. Worthen concludes her book by embracing the authority problem. The American evangelical movement, she writes, “owes more to its fractures and clashes, its anxieties and doubts, than to any political pronouncement or point of doctrine.” This turbulent state of being, she indicates, is the evangelical “imagination,” “a sphere of discourse . . . framed by abiding questions about how humans know themselves, their world, and their God . . . a source of energy . . . that propels evangelism, institution-building, activism, care for the suffering, and a sincere passion for intellectual inquiry.” Does evangelicalism’s weakness in the area of authority, as she suggests, ultimately reveal its strength as an ecclesial environment in which Christian activity may flourish, willy-nilly? One may just as easily observe corrupt institutions, misguided activism, harmful “charity,” and intellectual imbecility.

There may be a connection between the authority problem Worthen describes and the authoritarianism problem many evangelicals have experienced. As every student of politics understands, competing authority claims weaken each other and create power vacuums in which self-appointed strongmen may establish themselves. This phenomenon, no less than academic tensions over “inerrancy,” describes the history of evangelicalism. The emphasis on the sufficiency of Scripture, along with the assumption that anyone should be able to interpret its plain sense without the benefit of tradition, creates a situation where what promotes one teaching above another can be its soberness and coherence—or it can be the novelty of the interpretation, its appeal to fleshly instincts, or the forcefulness with which it is promoted.

For the most part, Worthen discreetly leaves it to her reader to judge. This review barely scratches the surface of her analysis and displays nothing at all of her abilities as a historian; the reader is expected to obtain and read the book. Worthen’s clear-eyed and charitable scholarship makes her study indispensable reading for any serious Christian intellectual.


Bibliographical information

Molly Worthen. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press 2014


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