God Has No Grandchildren: Evangelical Lessons For Liberal Christians

Image by Paul M. Walsh

It’s been an interesting year for me as I’ve consciously completed a theological shift that began almost a decade ago.  In many ways, it feels a lot like a return to a trajectory I was on before I immersed myself in the subculture of fundamentalism during high school and college.  As I’ve stated elsewhere, the years I spent in that subculture pretty much ruined me for evangelicalism, even in its more moderate, intelligent, and compassionate expressions.  This blog represents one attempt on my part to think out loud and publicly about the theological implications of my current trajectory.

The past few weeks have presented me with an unbelievable diversity of reactions from folks in the evangelical camp.  At one point, things got so bad that my wife asked me if I was “a lightning rod for angry fundamentalists.”  At another point, I was being thanked for my words by evangelical members of my own denomination.

[Side note: Before I continue, it bears noting that I do not use the related terms evangelical and fundamentalist synonymously.  All (Protestant) fundamentalists are evangelical, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.  I would once again recommend the many fine books of folks like Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, N.T. Wright, and Tony Campolo.  I would describe all of the above authors as non-fundamentalist evangelicals.  And this list is by no means exhaustive.  Most of my evangelical friends tend to identify themselves with Martin Luther and John Wesley rather than William Jennings Bryan and John Gresham Machen.  End side note.]

With all of this activity going on, it seems like a good time for me to list the things that I value from my evangelical upbringing.  These are the gifts of this tradition that I hope to carry with me and use to “brighten the [theological] corner” where I now find myself.  There are three such gifts, which I will label as follows: Spirituality, Bible, and Mission.  The first two I came up with through my own reflection but later found in Jack Rogers’ book, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality (WJK: 2006).  The third gift is one that Rogers listed and I missed in my initial assessment.  These gifts are not unique to evangelicalism, but represent distinct theological emphases that the movement has embodied and enacted in a particularly effective way.  I will discuss each of these gifts in separate blog posts.


“God has no grandchildren.”

This particular turn of phrase came to me from my mother and I love it.  To me, it speaks of taking personal ownership of one’s spirituality.  In an effort to respect diversity in church, liberal Christians have too often shied away from being very public about their personal relationship with God.  Such reticence has led many unsympathetic outsiders to presume that we don’t have one (which is not true).  We tend to do such a bad job at this that our own children can grow up in our churches and leave without coming to an awareness of the spiritual depth that is there.  A few of them find their way to evangelical churches but most simply abandon church altogether.

The necessity for taking personal ownership of one’s spirituality is one thing that evangelicals do extremely well.  They intentionally provide an access portal to the divine that allows their adherents to engage with faith and grow in a way that is energetic and dynamic.  While I hate it when people bash the term religion (a beautiful word that needs rescuing these days), I can appreciate what evangelicals mean when they say that, for them, Christianity is “a relationship, not a religion.”

I think it’s high time that liberal Christians got more vocal about our personal relationship with God.  We need to build one another up with the stories of our encounters with the divine.  We need to let our children (and the world) know that there is a vast and deep reservoir of power and love in which we live, move, and have our being.  This reservoir is available to any and all who desire to drink from its living waters.  Respecting diversity does not mean watering down our spirituality to the lowest common denominator.  Consciously embracing the life of the spirit does not necessarily make us into fanatics.  In fact, it has the effect of empowering us in our ministries of compassion and justice.  Too often, I’ve seen well-meaning activists burn out and lose hope in the struggle for justice.  They have a desperate need for enthusiasm in its most literal sense (“God-full-ness“).

I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s famous “kitchen table” experience where he found himself exhausted and at the end of his rope late one night after a threatening phone call.  He sat with a cup of coffee at his kitchen table and contemplated giving up the fight for justice and equality.  In prayer, he confessed his weakness and asked for help.  And, just then, he felt like he heard an inner voice saying to him (I paraphrase), “Stand up for righteousness and I will be with you.”

Liberal Christians need to start sharing stories like this one with one another.  Too many folks inside and outside our churches assume that, because we don’t talk about our relationship with God, we don’t have one.  Many (unfairly and erroneously) call us “dead churches.”  It’s time to show them how wrong they are.  Gone are they days when speaking openly about spirituality was taboo.  Provided that we maintain respect for those whose spiritual experience is different from our own, we carry within ourselves the capacity to feed ourselves and one another with our stories.  The light that is within us can help to illumine the path for those around us.  Let’s not hide that light under a bushel!  Liberal Christians, let it shine!

Other Voices on the Quest for a Better Gospel


As many of you superfriends and blogofans already know, my personal spiritual journey is one of constant searching for alternatives to the Bad Old Good News that is typically propagated by most traditional expressions of western Christianity (i.e. Roman Catholicism and Fundamentalist Protestantism).

One of the stops on this journey was with my former roommate from seminary (If you thought of Dark Helmet as soon as I said “former roommate,” you get 3 extra points).

Aaron Blue is the founder and Director of the Charis Project, an outreach organization that supports holistic and sustainable community development through orphanages in Thailand.  Click the link above to learn more and support it.

While Aaron’s ecclesiastical roots lie in the early Vineyard movement, his is a theology that defies categorization.  What made me gravitate toward him in seminary is the fact that he doesn’t seem to live by the same rules that everyone else does.  A rather Christlike quality, if you ask me.  Aaron would describe himself as follows: “While everyone else is trying to win the Superbowl, I’m questioning the validity of the NFL.”

Aaron’s journey has taken him in some interesting directions.  We disagree on a lot, but that’s okay with us because we both believe that dogmatic conformity is probably the single worst criterion for evaluating the quality of one’s spirituality.

He keeps a blog of signposts from his metaphysical travels:

In Search of a Shameless Gospel

I recommend starting with this post:

Running from a Shameful Gospel – Part 1

This post is particularly reminiscent of conversations that Aaron and I were having about this time seven years ago.  Those conversations played a big part in helping me talk about the Bad Old Good News in terms that are as ridiculous as the theology itself.  Here’s how I like to say it:

The Bad Old Good News

You were such a horrible person that God had to torture and murder the only person in the world who didn’t deserve it.  If you don’t think this is the best idea ever, God will torture you forever along with most of the rest of the human race.

Another favorite rendition:

Telepathically tell the zombie that he’s your master and you get to live forever.

That kind of “good news” is neither good nor news.  It’s either silly, offensive, or both.  Aaron and I both set off on our separate quests for a better Gospel.  The journey has led us in very different directions, but we continue to share notes.

Aaron Blue


God’s Living Word

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is I Thessalonians 2:9-13.

Click here to listen at fpcboonville.org

This coming December, my wife Sarah and I will celebrate five wonderful years of marriage.  Five years of growing in commitment and trust for each other.  Five years of facing life’s challenges together.  Five years of blessing, closeness, and love.  Incidentally, it also happens to be our seventh wedding anniversary.  I’ll let you do the math.

Why the discrepancy?  Well, I’ll tell you.  A couple of years into our marriage, I learned the secret to wedded bliss and it’s three little words.  These are the three little words that everyone longs to hear.  The depth of their meaning transcends history, culture, and religion.  The power of these words has sustained people through the very darkest hours of life.  They should be spoken as often as possible.  Let them be the first words out of your mouth when you get up in the morning and the last words before you turn out the lamp at night.  Say them when you leave the house and when you get home.  Hold each others’ hands, gaze into each others’ eyes, and mean them when you say them.  These are the three most powerful words in the English language.  What do you think they are?

“I love you”?  No.

It’s “You’re right, dear.”

(Pause for laughter)

I’m only joking, really.  All of my nearly seven years with my wife have been fantastic.  And Sarah is a wonderfully generous person, with an open mind and an open heart, who does NOT need to be right all of the time.  However, most of us, at some point in our lives, have probably known someone who DOES need to be right (or at least feel like they’re in the right) all of the time.  These folks can be very difficult to live with or work with.

Any personal relationship involves some kind of give and take.  It also involves things like change, risk, and trust.  None of that can happen when one (or both) of the people in the relationship is bent on being (or feeling) absolutely right all of the time.  Nobody is that perfect.

Most of us already understand this truth when it comes to our interpersonal relationships.  We know how to say “I’m sorry” when we mess things up.  We know how to forgive other people when they mess things up.  We don’t expect ourselves or other people to be perfect (or right) all of the time.  We know this.  And because we know this, we’re able to stay committed to each other in healthy relationships and grow together into the kind of people we’re meant to be.

Now, it’s pretty common for people to talk about their spiritual lives as a relationship.  They talk about their “personal relationship with God”.  I know of several Christians who are keen to claim that Christianity itself is “a relationship, not a religion”.  But the funny thing is that, in this relationship, one party (God) is expected to be absolutely perfect all of the time while the other party (the person) is expected to simply acknowledge and appreciate the perfection of the first.

Now the expectation of perfection in this relationship, while based in God, is not usually restricted to God alone.  Absolute perfection usually gets projected onto something or someone else that somehow reveals God to people.  This can be some supposedly perfect person (like the Pope), a supposedly perfect institution (like the church), or a supposedly perfect book (like the Bible).

I think people tend to make these kinds of projections because they desperately long for a deep, personal relationship with God, the source of all goodness and love.  However, God is also mysterious and intangible.  This mysteriousness can cause some people a lot of anxiety, so they direct their devotion toward the Pope, the church, or the Bible as a stand-in for God.  It’s more comforting to have a relationship with something you can see, touch, and understand.  The problem is that projecting God onto someone or something that is not God is the very definition of idolatry.  It would be no different if they built a statue of a golden calf and bowed down to it.

I think this is exactly what happened about a hundred years ago in the Presbyterian Church when a group of scholars at Princeton Theological Seminary felt their faith being threatened by developments in modern science and philosophy that called into question certain traditional Christian beliefs.  They took it upon themselves to defend what they considered to be the fundamentals of the Christian faith.  Referring to themselves as “Fundamentalists”, they developed the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.  The Bible, according to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, was to be read and interpreted as a spiritually, theologically, morally, historically, and scientifically accurate book.  Every single word of the Bible was absolutely true and came directly from the mouth of God.  Questioning a single word in the text of the Bible was tantamount to rejecting the perfect authority of God.  The absolute goodness and perfection of God was projected onto the text of the Bible.  Thus, according to the Fundamentalists, we imperfect people can relate to the perfect God through this perfect book.  But, as we’ve already noticed, worshiping the Bible in place of God is idolatry.  Also, it’s really hard to have an honest, personal relationship with someone who has to be absolutely right all of the time.

In case you couldn’t tell already, this is a big pet peeve of mine.  It really irks me.  So, I have to admit that I really struggled with I Thessalonians 2:13 in preparation for this week’s sermon.  It reads, “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”

At first glance, it seems like the Apostle Paul is setting himself up as an inerrant or infallible source of revelation, saying that his words are God’s word.  So I read over it, I thought about it, I struggled with it, and eventually I just sat with it.

What struck me after sitting with it for a while is that Paul hardly seems to be the type to set himself up as a perfect and absolute authority.  Paul is referred to elsewhere in the New Testament as the “chief of sinners”.  He calls himself, “least of the apostles”.  This strikes me as the voice of a humble person who knows he has been saved by grace.  If Paul is drawing any kind of connection between his voice and God’s, I doubt he is doing so in the spirit of an indisputable expert.

What struck me next is the language around this verse in I Thessalonians 2.  In this section, Paul is simply recounting the story of his ministry with the Thessalonians.  Paul does a lot of storytelling.  The story of his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus is told no less than three times in the book of Acts.  Paul is also a first-rate scholar who knows the stories of his Jewish heritage.  When Paul talks about delivering the “word of God” to the Thessalonian Christians in verse 13, I bet there was a lot of storytelling involved.  I bet he told them about his first encounter with Jesus in a vision (and how he walked around blind as a bat for days afterward).  I bet he told them about those early Christians, who were suspicious of him at first but eventually welcomed him with open arms.  I bet he told them how his newfound faith in Christ and assurance of God’s unconditional love changed his life forever.

If there is a word from God to be heard here, it seems that it must be found between the lines of the story of Paul’s life.  Furthermore, this word of God is not only to be heard in the lives of famous heroes like Paul, but, as Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians in verse 13, God’s word is also “at work in you believers.”  Paul is adamant in declaring that his story is not unique.  The word of God can be heard in their stories as well.

God’s word is not some dead text written on a page or carved into tablets of stone.  God’s word is a living word that sings and dances through the lives of all people.  Unlike an infallible text, the living word can lead us into an honest, personal relationship with the living God.  It can handle questions, doubt, and differing interpretations.  It allows our faith the freedom to trust, change, and grow into new forms of believing.  If we listen for it, we can hear God’s living word in the wind that blows through the trees and the river that rolls over the rocks.  We can hear it echoing between the stars and pulsing between the atoms.  Reading between the lines of the poet’s verse and the physicist’s equation we listen for God’s living word.

God’s living word can be heard in your life as well, if you know where to listen for it.  This can be tricky because life isn’t always pleasant.  I won’t go so far as to say that everything that happens to us in life is God’s will, but I will go so far as to say that there is no person and no situation that is beyond healing and redemption.  God’s living word is always present, even in the dark and chaotic times, growing us toward peace and proclaiming, “Let there be light!”

I believe God’s living word is even present in this message.  If you’re hearing this today, it’s not by accident.  Not that I am claiming to be perfect or infallible.  In fact, God’s word might not be speaking to you through me but in spite of me this morning.  Listen for whatever is going on in your mind and heart right now.  Listen for any thought or feeling of blessed assurance that inspires you to keep exploring the height, depth, length, and breadth of love in this world.  That’s the living word of God at work in you!

Finally, last but not least, lest you think I’m leading you to abandon the Bible entirely, we can and should listen for the living word of God in its pages as well.  The Bible is a sacred book.  For us Christians, it is our sacred book.  I believe it is blessed and inspired.  It holds an honored and central place in our tradition.  It can serve as a helpful guide on the spiritual journey.  We would do well to keep reading and studying it as best we can.  But it’s not a perfect book.  Everything God has to say is not contained within its pages.  Jesus himself said in John 16:12, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, [the Spirit] will guide you into all the truth”.  Personally, I like the way that comedian Gracie Allen says it, “Never put a period where God puts a comma.”  God is still speaking (as our friends in the United Church of Christ like to say).  Do we have ears to hear?