“People don’t trust their leaders anymore,” the man said to me. “I think The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is the problem.”
He was referring to the documentary podcast series by my colleague Mike Cosper. I said, “I actually agree with you, as long as we take the italics out of that statement.” The problem is the situation that led to the rise and fall of Mars Hill and other incidents like it—not those who told the story about what happened.
This man’s lament is not unreasonable. Who among us is not exhausted by the constant revelations of scandals and abuses and griftings and cover-ups within the church, especially its evangelical wing? In that weariness, some would say, “Why don’t we talk about all the good things the church does instead of the bad?” The problem with this approach is that it leaves us with no Good News left to tell.
“The church is glorious,” some might say. “Why don’t we show that glory instead of bashing the church by talking about all these bad things?” I agree that the church carries the glory of God and that we should make this known so the world might behold his glory. But the glory showing and the truth telling are one task, not two.
To the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote extensively about glory, specifically referencing Moses’ encounter with the radiance of God’s glory on the mountain. It was a glory so brilliant that Moses put a veil over his face afterward so the people wouldn’t be overwhelmed by it. What we have now in the gospel, Paul argues, is even greater: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Paul went on in that letter to say that the “light of the gospel” we carry is, in fact, “the glory of Christ” (4:4). He wrote, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (v. 6).
Now notice what Paul included right in the middle of that thread about light and glory: “We have renounced secret and shameful ways,” he wrote. “We do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (4:2).
In the middle of describing the glory of Christ, which Jesus has since entrusted to his church, the apostle renounces deceptive, “secret and shameful” ways. He contrasts these negative things—which he denounces in almost all his letters—with an open proclamation of the truth that addresses the human conscience.
Paul wrote this way because showing the glory of the church does not negate telling the truth about it. This is especially the case, as Paul tells us elsewhere, when it comes to those who manipulate God’s Word to satisfy their own appetites for power, position, or pleasure—and at the expense of vulnerable, easily silenced, and seemingly expendable people.
The task of glory-showing and truth-telling is no more contradictory than the message that brought us to Christ in the first place—a message of both judgment and mercy, a message that reveals sin and offers mercy.
Can this message be unbalanced? Undoubtedly. We all know the type of person who, after embezzling from his business or cheating on his spouse, will say, “That’s what God is here for—to forgive.” And we all know the kind of person who preaches hellfire and brimstone to such a degree that sinners cannot hear the message that God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn but to save (John 3:17).
For those of us who describe ourselves as “evangelical,” this ought to be especially clear. After all, we are the heirs of those who emphasized that the gospel of glory isn’t the rote, dead institutions into which a person is born. We must be—and really can be—“born again.” We are the people who preach a gospel emphasizing that God really does love the world and that he really will judge sin.
Over a century ago, in his bookThe Varieties of Religious Experience, the pragmatist philosopher William James contrasted the “healthy-mindedness” of the “once-born” with the “sick souls” of the “twice-born.” For years, before I read the book for myself, I thought this framing suggested that those of us who are born again are unhealthy people who need a psychic crutch. But in some ways, his point was just the opposite.
To him, the “once-born” are those who see mainly the harmony and goodness of the world and of the human heart. The “twice-born” have a darker view—both of nature and of themselves—and can’t be reassured by a simple message that the world is just a happy place and that everything will be all right in the end. They know better. Their only consolation is not to ignore the bad news of the darkness but to offer the kind of Good News that sees things as they do—and responds accordingly.
I reject, of course, James’s naturalistic concept of religion. But on this one point, he was on to something important. Nearly a generation ago, the social theorist Christopher Lasch argued that acknowledgment of the darkness is precisely what is missing.
“Having no awareness of evil, the once-born type of religious experience cannot stand up to adversity,” Lasch wrote. “It offers sustenance only so long as it does not encounter ‘poisonous humiliations.’”
In other words, as Jesus shows us in John 9, the problem lies not with the blind person crying out for sight but with those who won’t acknowledge their blindness: “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (v. 41).
For those who really pay attention—to the world, to the church, and to themselves—the portrayal of only the “good things” doesn’t do much to reassure or build trust. People for whom religion is just a vehicle for consolation and flourishing might be totally oblivious to this, but their kind of religion offers nothing for those who wonder whether anyone can see what’s killing them.
A word that doesn’t speak to that isn’t proclamation but propaganda. Propaganda might work for public relations, but it doesn’t come with the authority to drive out the darkness.
Yes, these are cynical times. The way institutions have misused power can make some people wonder whether every institution is that way. This cynicism isn’t accurate, but it’s also not crazy, given what we’ve seen.
Arguments about the facts of institutions and persons are not only legitimate but necessary. Making the case that an accused murderer wasn’t at the scene of the crime is different from saying, “Talking about murder here hurts tourism, so if you talk about it, you are being disloyal to our city.”
Russell Moore is editor in chief of Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project