This article originally appeared at Baptist News Global on November 1, 2023.
One of the most dismissive and hurtful statements ex-evangelicals hear from our conservative evangelical family and friends after we deconstruct their walls is: “You must have never been saved to begin with.”
Another way they say it is, “You must have had a head knowledge, but not a heart knowledge.”
The most recent public example of this has been conservative evangelical reaction to Shannon Harris, who shared her story of leaving conservative evangelicalism in her book The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife. The audible version of her story released yesterday.
These blanket dismissals of our spiritual sincerity are made by people who knew us for decades, who served alongside us, who dreamed with us about advancing the gospel. They raised us, walked with us through our struggle into adulthood, held our hearts when we limped through the valley of the shadow of death, and celebrated with us as we experienced the joys of new birth.
Our bodies ached together as we stayed up late or woke up early to serve the least of these in the name of Jesus. Our hearts were filled with wonder together as we explored the depths of our sinfulness and what we believed was the deeper reach of grace through penal substitutionary atonement.
“It’s mind boggling to hear them so easily characterize our faithfulness and sincerity during those years as fake.”
It’s mind boggling to hear them so easily characterize our faithfulness and sincerity during those years as fake.
Their assumptions often point to 1 John 2:19 as a proof text: “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us, for if they had belonged to us they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.”
While their claim based on this isolated text may make sense to them, it fails to acknowledge the deeper complexities of our lives, of the culturally influenced development of Christian theology over the centuries and even of the human nature of the Bible itself.
Categorizing ex-evangelicals as needing correction
In one of The Gospel Coalition’s many attempts to explain those who walk away from their theology, Michael Patton offers four ways evangelicals categorize those who turn away.
- Baptists: They are still saved, no matter where their doubts take them. They just need renewed assurance.
- Calvinists: They never were saved to begin with. They need to hear the gospel.
- Charismatics: They are demon possessed. They need an exorcism.
- Arminians: They are in the process of losing their salvation. They need to stop sinning or be argued back into the faith.
Patton advocates an approach that is more humane than many evangelical ways of responding. He recommends being merciful, recognizing that doubt can be a deepening of faith, refraining from manufacturing cliche answers, being patient and assuming the best.
But he also encourages ex-evangelicals to live as if they still were conservative evangelicals. And he warns them to make sure they aren’t trying to justify being gay. In the case of LGBTQ people trying to “justify” their sexuality, he says, “The mental task of trying to re-interpret the Bible will not remain isolated to this incident. Sooner or later, the mental paradigm that you set up to make your sin viable will corrupt everything else.”
Condemning ex-evangelicals as apostates
John MacArthur offers an even more condemning approach, devoid of any practical or pastoral overtures: “Apostates are those who fall away from the true faith, abandoning what they formerly professed to believe. The term describes those whose beliefs are so deficient as to place them outside the pale of true Christianity.”
MacArthur applies the same logic to churches. “For example, a liberal denomination that denies the authority of Scripture or the deity of Christ is an apostate denomination,” he claims.
Then as if on cue, referencing 1 John 2:19, he concludes: “True Christians do not apostatize. Those who fall away into apostasy demonstrate that their faith was never real to begin with.”
Calling ex-evangelicals non-committal
J.D. Greear, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, questions the commitment of ex-evangelicals.