The Man Who Converts Evangelicals into Christians

It's one thing to turn an atheist into a Christian. But sometimes it takes a miracle to turn a die-hard Christian into a real Christian. Yet that's the work that Gregory A. Boyd (himself a former atheist) is about. And I increasingly find myself cheering him on.

Pastor Boyd could have taken the easy way out in recent years, as religion and politics began intermingling in freshly toxic ways. Like so many of his evangelical peers, Boyd could have felt he fulfilled his responsibilities -- while avoiding enraging his flock -- by offering a few vague admonitions about not being overly attached to worldly power.

Instead, Boyd decided to speak out boldly, at the impassioned height of the 2004 presidential elections. Boyd began preaching to his mega-church congregation that their beloved Gospels demand that they take seriously the notion that, in a fallen world, there are no divinely favored nations or cosmic battles between good nations and evil ones.

Congregants voted with their feet. And their wallets. Some 1,000 members walked away as a result of Boyd's eloquent articulations of what their faith required. And although another 4,000 remained, consider what an earthquake a sudden 20% decline represents for any organization.

Boyd persevered. Numbers no longer mattered to him, even though most pastors rate themselves on whether they have a "growing" ministry. "I don't see anywhere in the Gospels where things have to be big, or where you have to have the 'wow factor'" that's associated with mega-churches, Boyd told me last week by telephone. "The Lord only calls us to be faithful."

For God chose the world's foolish things to shame the wise. God chose the world's weak things to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things, to nullify the mighty things, so that all would be humble before him. -1Corinthians 1:27-29

Whoever wants to be first among men must willing to be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man himself didn't come to be served, but to serve all." -Mark 10:44-45

They tell you, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies as though they were yourself. Pray for those who seek your ruin. In this way you are children of your Father in heaven. -Mathew 5:43-45

Faithfulness, to Boyd, meant reminding all who would listen that the Gospels represent an upside-down kingdom which stood conventional values on their head. Boyd calls it a "kingdom under" approach, a humble and life-affirming alternative to the "kingdom over" approach. The latter represents conventional authority, while the former represents true spiritual authority. And Boyd is not shy about criticizing a blending of the two kingdoms as idolatry. Boyd seems to appreciate fully the paradox of living within both kingdoms, but his concern is about which kingdom Christians most eagerly invest their hearts and treasure in.

To Boyd and virtually all classical theologians, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth use entirely different laws of physics and different logic. The Gospels offered a tantalizing new physics, with a different mission and different desired outcomes.

Why, then, do believers typically favor conventional logic to that which they are told is divine? And when C.S. Lewis noted that heaven is an "acquired taste," and that it is our business in this lifetime to acquire it, why do most believers mock that sort of palate as naïve, unrealistic, and silly? In short, why might someone who most fervently champions Jesus also most fervently mock his commands?

Those sorts of conundrums drove me away from a fifteen-year stint as an evangelical and away from organized religion altogether, a journey described in greater detail in my Lessons from the Holy Wars book.

No, it wasn't anyone's "hypocrisy" that drove me away. It was the growing sense that religion really didn't make people better; it merely made them more so.

But Boyd, again, remains intriguingly faithful. He hangs tough to a notion that the authentic demands of the New Testament are dramatically distinct from -- and infinitely more nourishing than -- those of generic monotheism or civil religion or secular materialism.

Most church authorities rationalize their flocks' thirst for violence and materialism as a little innocent sinfulness that's to be expected from fallen humans. Yet these authorities huff that other teapot tempests -- over the ordination of gays or the definition of marriage or governmental policy on abortion -- are hills of Biblical authority on which true believers must be willing to die.

"People don't realize how much they're co-opted by the culture," Boyd told me, "in how they can justify hoarding resources and greed and gluttony. If there's anything the Gospels criticize, it's that. But it's normalized in our culture. People think, maybe a Mercedes isn't a big deal but being homosexual is a big deal. Jesus does the opposite, telling us to consider others' sins to be dust particles, and our own to be tree trunks."

Boyd feels that church-and-state bed-mating results in unattractive offspring, especially for the church. "Opinions are cheap, he said. "Anyone can cast their vote for what Caesar should do. The real issue is, how is my life going to be different?"

He says the Christian's call isn't to boss around government, even in a democracy, but to figure out how he or she will work with her church brothers and sisters to serve the poor, bless their enemies, and stand for the "kingdom under" worldview of the Gospels. He isn't at all against voting, but he appears decidedly against getting attached in any way to the fallen machinery of secular politics.

Boyd penned a landmark 2007 book, Myth of A Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church. In it, he traced much of the church's power addictions to its first taste of power in the fourth century: "We have become intoxicated with the Constantinian, nationalistic, violent mindset of imperialistic Christendom. The evidence is all around but nowhere clearer than in the simple, oft-repeated slogan that we Christians are going to 'take America back for God.'"

Yet it would be wrong to portray Boyd as one who has only criticized the right's co-opting of Christianity. He has good friends among Christian progressives who rue his failing to stand behind their efforts to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth via healthcare schemes or social-justice campaigns. Boyd's message is the same for these well-meaning persons: don't confuse the two kingdoms, and be leery of the mess that arises when you try to use the Gospels as a cudgel for a secular, pluralistic society.

By now, I imagine we've more than established that Greg Boyd can "preach it." But does anyone listen? And does anyone respond? Boyd is optimistic. He said he is cheered whenever he can "hear the coin fall into the slot" -- whenever a well-meaning, devout person of faith begins to understand what is most distinctive about her faith, and understands how this is different from the general assumptions of our culture.

Boyd said more of his peers - those crucial men and women with actual theological and ecclesiastic influence -- are growing willing to express the sorts of views publicly that he, at great personal and professional cost, has expressed. "Some pastors are finding it easier to see idolatry of christening one party" as the good guys, he added.

"I'm encouraged to see more people gravitating toward a 'third way' where we're not going to unambiguously translate the Gospels into political categories," he said. "The political climate has gotten so divisive and nasty. There is no partisanship. Voices on both sides are getting more acrimonious, and we're losing the capacity to agree." Count me among those who feel that the nastiness is fueled partly by devout Christians who export their good-versus-evil zeal to mundane tax and budget debates.

Bear in mind that Boyd isn't attempting to reform the political system. He's attempting to work with others to reform the church, convinced that, if they succeed in putting first things first, they will bring the sort of "salt and light" to the rest of the world that will advance the Kingdom of Heaven in the manner that counts.

I mentioned to Boyd that, if there were a thousand other Greg Boyds out there, I'd probably still be serving communion each Sunday as a church elder in Los Angeles.

Yet again, Boyd doesn't measure success in numbers. "I don't worry about the big picture as much as I used to," he told me. "It's not about who's wining or who's gaining ground. It's just about being faithful to what God's calling me to."

Perhaps then we don't need a thousand Boyds, then. But we can appreciate how Boyd is calling his fellow Christians to all be the persons they need to be to let their best light shine before others.