Evangelicalism has a problem: Evangelicals.
It is not a new problem. Evangelicals have been giving evangelicalism a bad name for years. The disconnect between the gospel proclaimed by prominent evangelicals and the lifestyle exhibited by them sometimes is impossible to ignore.
The scandals associated with such names as Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Tilton, Jim and Tammy Bakker and many others follow the familiar road of greed, sex, and power. It’s not like these people didn’t know better. These are issues Jesus and his apostles addressed.
These moral failures point to an underlying problem that is not merely ethical but theological. The latest scandal involving Jerry Falwell, Jr., is a case in point.
Falwell, Jr. was, until recently, the president of Liberty University, which was founded by his famous televangelist father. During Falwell, Jr.’s tenure, Liberty saw student enrollment increase phenomenally, making it the largest school in the country. Falwell’s name recognition has also increased in recent years, in large part because of his political activism. Falwell has become one of the most familiar names in evangelicalism.
When candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign sought the highly prized support of evangelicals, the first place they turned was Liberty University. Ted Cruz launched his campaign there. Falwell allowed him to announce his candidacy from the Liberty Campus arena and even required the student body to attend.
It looked as if Cruz had the inside lane on evangelical support but then, in an unexpected move, Falwell endorsed Donald Trump. Interviews followed. Speaking engagements. Falwell called candidate Trump “a man who … can lead our country to greatness again.” Photo ops with the candidate followed. At one point, according to Falwell, Mr. Trump discussed with him the possibility of serving as the United States Secretary of Education.
All I knew about Jerry Falwell, Jr. prior to his highly publicized endorsement of Donald Trump, was that Liberty University had grown wildly in just a few years under his leadership. With regard to the academic health of the university, this seemed reckless to me. Then began the trickle of reports of questionable behavior, which grew into a stream, and then a cataract.
Mr. Falwell insists that he has been targeted by the Left because of his support of President Trump. I don’t doubt that he is right. He painted the target on his own back when he threw his support to Mr. Trump in 2016. But he has no call to complain. He is the one who gave his opponents their ammunition.
I sensed there was a problem when Falwell defended himself against accusations of hypocrisy by saying, “I have never been a pastor.” He seemed to suggest that only pastors are expected to live by biblical standards of holiness. He has repeated this kind of thing a number of times, most recently around the time of his resignation.
Falwell’s misunderstanding exposes a theological fault that runs through evangelicalism: the false idea, as Christopher Wright puts it, that “there can be a belief of faith separate from the life of faith; that people can be saved by something that goes on in their heads without worrying too much about what happens in their lives.”
This belief persists in evangelicalism despite the abundance of biblical teaching against it, in both Old and New Testaments. St. Paul himself, who never budged from his insistence that people are saved by grace through faith, absolutely refused to divide faith from life. He characterized his life work as bringing about “the obedience of faith .. among all the nations.”
The divide between faith and life – whether in Jerry Falwell, Jr. or in any of us – is one reason so many people find it hard to take seriously the claims of Jesus Christ. As Wright said, “the moral state of those who claim to be God’s people … is a major hindrance to the mission we claim to have on [Christ’s] behalf.”
“The obedience of faith” in not a matter for pastors only, as Mr. Falwell implied, but for everyone who claims to belong to Christ. The world will not judge the church on the basis of its statement of faith, but on the quality of its life.
(First published by Gatehouse Media.)