Does the Bible drive away would-be Christians?

Last week after World Vision announced its intention not to recognize same-sex marriages, those in the so-called progressive wing of “Christianity” were predictably unhappy. They chastised evangelicals who hold fast to traditional marriage. They said it was a mistake to hold on to the Bible’s teaching about marriage because that position is driving millennials away from the church. Implication? Those who hold the biblical line are doing damage to the church and are keeping people out who would otherwise be in.

To wit, Tony Jones:

A lot — and I mean a lot — of younger evangelicals watching this unfold on social media. Many of those already have one foot out the door of the church. They’re looking for — even hoping for — some advance on the issue of rights and love and equality for GLBT persons. That’s what will keep them in the Christian faith. Without that, they’re gone. They’re the new Nones. What WV did yesterday, on a large, public scale, pushed scores of younger people out of the church and out of the faith. Some of them for good. There are many tragedies about how this all went down, not the least of which is the message that Christianity is a faith that is run by ideological bulli

Yesterday, Rachel Held Evans argued similarly in an opinion piece for CNN:

Whether it’s over the denial of evolutionary science, continued opposition to gender equality in the church, an unhealthy alliance between religion and politics or the obsession with opposing gay marriage, evangelicalism is losing a generation to the culture wars.

A recent survey from Public Religion Research Institute revealed that nearly one-third of millennials who left their childhood faith did so because of “negative teachings” or “negative treatment” of gay and lesbian people.

Christians can disagree about what the Bible says (or doesn’t say) about same-sex marriage. This is not an issue of orthodoxy. But when we begin using child sponsorships as bargaining tools in our debates, we’ve lost the way of Jesus.

Are they right? Is it true that we are driving people away when we hold up the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and marriage?

This is an argument that may have some purchase with those in the pews. Why? Because it appeals to evangelical zeal for converts and to their desire to see as many people come into the kingdom as possible. It’s a clever tactic because it pits one evangelical priority against another: evangelism vs. the Bible. The aim is to persuade people that the two are somehow at odds with one another. The aim is to suggest that if you really care about getting people saved, you will stop insisting on those unpopular parts of Scripture.

If you have felt the pull of this argument, I am writing this essay for you. The sirens that are trying to lure you away from scripture are telling you a lie. They are manipulating your noble desire for evangelism and the growth of God’s Kingdom. They are telling you that if you really want to love sinners like Jesus does, then you will have to shrink back from some of Jesus’ words. If you really want to reach this generation for Christ, you must back off your commitment to His word.

But therein is the lie—that you can love someone by withholding from them what they need the most. The lie is that Jesus will build His church by those who suppress the unpopular parts of His word. On the contrary, Jesus Christ will not build His church by denying His own word. On the contrary, you will only see real kingdom growth where you see Christ’s word honored.

Consider the way Jesus Himself spoke about these things:

The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out. 4 When he puts forth all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 And a stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.

16 And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd.

26 But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep. 27
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand.

Jesus says that His sheep come to Him when they hear His voice. They won’t listen to others. At the end of the day, His voice—His word—is the most compelling thing to the sheep. Indeed, they show themselves to be sheep by being responsive to what He says. Those who are not His sheep show themselves by not listening or heeding Jesus’ word.

The false teachers want you to believe that Jesus’ sheep won’t hear his voice unless you suppress Jesus’ voice. Jesus is telling you that it’s Jesus’ voice that draws the sheep in. Who will you believe?

So what is your confidence in the great work of evangelism? It’s not that you cleverly figure out how to suppress Jesus’ word about sexuality and marriage. It’s that you hold all of His word up so that people can see who this Man really is—so that people can see the Father who sent Him (John 5:23).

What sinners need to hear is Jesus’ word. They don’t need someone telling them “peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14). They need to hear that God is holy and we are not. They need to hear that apart from grace, we rightly stand under the judgment of this holy God (John 3:36). They need to hear that God so loved the world that He sent His one and only son that whosoever believes in Him—and every word proceeding from His mouth—should have eternal life (John 3:16).

It may seem that the only way to reach some people will be to edit out the offensive parts of Christ’s word. But it only seems that way. The truth is that there is no place too dark and no heart too hard for the word of Christ. The Lord’s arm is not too short to save (Isaiah 59:1). He is still in the business of saving to the uttermost (Heb. 7:25). There is no need to augment Christ’s word. His sheep will hear His voice.

So lift up Christ’s word. Don’t shrink back. The Devil wants you to put that sword back into its sheath (Heb. 4:12). But if you really care about loving sinners, winning people to Christ, and growing His church, you must never comply.

2 Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. 5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” -2 Timothy 4:2-5


  • Ken Abbott

    So how many times do we have to relearn the lesson that changing the message of the gospel to accommodate its cultured despisers does not produce real converts? The Holy Spirit honors the convicted preaching of the word of God (Romans 10), not preaching designed to scratch itching ears.

  • Paul Reed

    “They said it was a mistake to hold on to the Bible’s teaching about marriage”

    This is loaded language here. All but the most super-liberal of Christians will say they hold true to the Bible and its teachings. However, they just say they have a different “interpretation”.

  • keithkraska

    No one was more guilty of driving away would-be believers than Jesus Himself. In John 6 He preached a message so confusing and offensive that most of His followers left Him.
    Neither He, nor the apostles nor prophets ever edited, covered up, delayed or obfuscated any part of God’s Word to make it more appealing.
    It was not their mission, nor ours, to attract people by any means necessary. They knew that only the unadulterated Word could draw people and save them.
    If we’re attracting people apart from God’s Word, then we’re not leading them to God.

    “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”
    Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”
    1 Corinthians 1:18-21

    • Ken Abbott

      Yes, exactly. Furthermore, “We are to God the aroma of Christ among whose who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16)

      Ever smelled gangrene? Or ripe roadkill? Or spoiled meat? All those make very offensive odors. That’s why the unbeliever wrinkles his nose at the Christian who is faithful to proclaim the biblical gospel: our words speak to him judgment and death.

        • Ken Abbott

          The most succinct statement of the gospel was given to us by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Some might also cite Romans 10:9 or (of course) John 3:16. A more expanded version appears in Romans 4:23-5:2: “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for [Abraham] alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness–for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”

          • Steve Lynch

            Then what part of that are you having trouble communicating to the lost?

            If there’s nothing in “the” Gospel about sexual immorality… why is that a MUST issue for Christianity?

            • Kenneth Abbott

              Why the scare quotes around “the,” Steve?

              The problem is not with communication, it is with proclamation, or more specifically the content of the proclamation. Denny’s post and this thread of comments are concerned with the wrongheaded desire of some to alter or water down the biblical message of repentance for sins and faith in the Christ who was crucified to make atonement for those sins. Misguided attempts to make the message more palatable to the tastes of the worldly are doomed to failure.

                  • Steve Lynch

                    You’ve laid out the Calvinist method of Salvation for me in that last response.

                    Repentance 1st… Faith 2nd.

                    That’s contrary to how I understand it was done throughout the bible… but especially the first century.

                    You cited John 3:16 that teaches us that belief must happen first. Paul wrote specifically belief that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, was buried and rose the third day according to the scriptures.

                    Throughout the New Testament, Jesus, the Apostles and Disciples taught about how Jesus was the fulfillment of “similitudes”, or modeling throughout the Torah and Prophetic writings as basically identification papers.

                    From the Emmaus Road onward… this was the method of spreading “THE” Gospel. They did not teach that Jesus was a great teacher, that he was a good man, that we should be good boys and girls or that he did great miracles specifically… but that he fulfilled those scriptures…. so that we might believe.

                    But if you look and examine the scriptures of the Old Testament too… it appears that Belief was always first before repentance came. Because repentance is a response to Belief.

                    How would someone genuinely repent to a deity they don’t even believe in? It doesn’t happen… But Calvinism teaches just exactly that.

                    • Ken Abbott

                      My statement “the biblical message of repentance for sins and faith in the Christ who was crucified to make atonement for those sins” was not intended to assert a temporal sequence in salvation. It is, instead, a mirror of our Lord’s own proclamation as recorded in Mark 1:15: “‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!'” This call to repentance and faith, with various wording, is found throughout the NT; good examples are found in the several evangelistic sermons recorded in Acts.

                      You are mistaken to assert that “the Calvinist method of salvation” predicates faith on repentance. Regeneration has priority over both and leads, under sovereign grace, to both. It would be more accurate to say that repentance and faith are simultaneous effects of regeneration. John 3 is actually a perfect citation for this doctrine, in which our Lord tells Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom of God a man must be born again (regenerated). Verse 16 does not even refer to repentance; it teaches that the person who believes in Jesus Christ has eternal life and shall not perish. Verse 16 says nothing about the preconditions of that belief, for our Lord has already stated the priority of regeneration.

                      Your closing statement is false. Calvinism, in keeping with Scripture, does not teach that the unbeliever is capable of genuine repentance. I’m not sure from where you have gotten that idea. It certainly does not appear in standard works of Reformed theology.

                      Throughout this thread, I have intended through my remarks solely to call Christians to remain faithful to the whole counsel of God in their conversations with others. History teaches us that attempts to make biblical Christianity more appealing to the culture of the world are doomed to failure. The gospel is inherently offensive to the unbeliever. It is a stumbling block to the self-righteous, it is foolishness to the wise of this world, and it reeks of judgment and death to the one who seeks to do his own will. But to those who by the grace of God believe, it is the power of God, the wisdom of God, and the very aroma of life.

  • Ian Shaw

    I guess I wonder where RHE gets her statistical information regarding evangelicals losing a generation. I am a Gen Y-er and my church averages around 650 people each week. We have seen tremendous growth in the past 2-3 years of those in my generation (especially those with with children and having more children) and even the generation after myself and even X-ers as well.

    I had some thoughts like RHE a long time ago, but that was before I discovered and low self-etseem. It’s not about what I want. It’s about my brokenness, my inability and Christ’s ability to save me. And because I am saved and my faith is in him, I pursue obedience to Him.

    The word cuts deep like a sword. It will either convict and bring those repentance, or harden already hardened hearts.

    I don’t think RHE understands the potential external consequences of only serving someones temporal needs. She can pull and tug on all the heart strings she wants, but bottom line, if the claim is true, that WV was not preaching/teaching/talking, etc. the Gospel to those that they were serving, they were doing nothing but sending children on their way to hell with full stomachs. She and others may not want to hear it, it may sound cold and unloving but they need to hear it and it’s the truth. You may claim that this isn’t a game and children shouldn’t be used as bargaining chips.

    “But when we begin using child sponsorships as bargaining tools in our debates, we’ve lost the way of Jesus.”

    If you blatantly ignore Matthew 28:16-20, was Jesus even a part of the discussion to begin with?

    You’re right. It’s not a game. This is life and death. I’m not going to support an organization that feeds the hungry based on humanism when there are organization that do the very same thing and feed them spiritually as well..

    • Stephen Beck

      Ian, I think the stats show that across the board church attendance and cultural adherence to Christianity is declining. But I think Ed Stetzer has pointed out that it is likely that genuine, orthodox Christianity (as revealed in surveys questioning consistent individual attendance, giving, belief in key doctrines, etc.) has remained pretty stable.

    • buddyglass

      “I guess I wonder where RHE gets her statistical information regarding evangelicals losing a generation.”

      Take your pick. Pew, Gallup, Barna, etc. Brad Wright does a good job of parsing the data.

      Bottom line: all age groups have seen a decline in evangelicalism since the 1990s, but the decline has been most steep among the young. On the other hand, current levels are about the same as 1970.

      Conservative evangelical denominations, however, seem to have membership that’s either flat or declining.

      PCA (to 2010):
      Verdict: flat.

      SBC (to 2011)
      Verdict: declining from a high in 2005.

      LCMS (to 2011):
      Verdict: declining since approx. the mid 1990s.

      Church of Christ:
      Verdict: declining.

      From what I can tell, about the only denominations showing growth are the Mormons (who aren’t even Christian) and Assemblies of God (and various other Pentecostal groups). Possibly “non-denominational evangelical” churches are showing growth, but statistics are hard to come by.

      • Andrew Orlovsky

        Most of the megachurches that have exploded over the last 20 years are non-denominational, or associated with less known denominations such as the Evangelical Free Church. Another issue with finding accurate statistics is that many of these churches may only have around 20% of the weekly attendance becomes members at that church.

        • buddyglass

          True. But if the % of attendees that are members has declined significantly over time that’s sort of a separate problem. In that case I guess the glass-half-full view would be that attendance is still increasing, but the glass-half-empty view would be that a much higher proportion of the attendees aren’t sufficiently invested in the life of the church to become members.

          I use to attend an Evangelical Free church. Looking back, it might as well have been Southern Baptist. Only without the drinking & dancing taboos. The pastor of that church got his seminary degree from Dallas Theological if that’s any indication. I suspect there’s been growth among “Bible Churches” as well, but I’m not sure whether they really count as a “denomination” since they’re all independent. Where I live, at least, there’s a theologically (and politically) conservative Bible Church that has seen big growth over the ~20 years I’ve been in the area.

    • Chris Ryan

      There’s a significant number of young evangelicals who oppose church recognition for gay marriage but nonetheless support civil marriages for LGBT. I think that’s the group we’d like to keep in the fold. These evangelicals react strongly to perceived bigotry. I think the church can chart a middle ground–by opposing religious marriage for gays but supporting civil marriage for gays–and retain these folks. From the Salt Lake City Tribune: “In 2012, Pew found that 29% of young white evangelicals (age 18-29) expressed support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, higher than older evangelicals at 17%. But it was far below the level of support for same-sex marriage expressed by young adults as a whole (65%).”

      • Andrew Orlovsky

        Interesting, thats almost a complete polar opposite view from the one most Democrats had prior to 2012. I remember Obama and others saying that they had nothing against homosexuality, but still thought marriage should be limited to one man and one women.

        I think there’s a lot of young Evangelicals with a libertarian streak (Ron Paul seemed very popular among Evangelicals in there 20s the last two elections), but few seem to recognize that estaiblishing same sex marriage results in more government, not less. Same with adding sexual orientation to anti-discrimination laws. Regardless of what you think about these issues, neither is a case of “getting the government out of our bedrooms”

        • Chris Ryan

          The difference is that when Obama said that you could hear his empathy; gays felt that he still respected them. Rove and Bush didn’t show that empathy when they ran against gay marriage in ’04…Regarding keeping gov’t out of the bedroom = more gov’t. Why you could argue (and many did) that keeping gov’t out of water fountains, bathrooms, buses, and diners would mean more gov’t. But most ppl saw right thru those Jim Crow-era claims. Eliminating gov’t discrimination always reduces gov’t.

  • Andrew Orlovsky

    Exactly, if Rachel Held Evans is right, then shouldn’t mainline protestant churches be booming, or at least declining at a lesser rate than Evangelicals. But they are declining at a rate much higher than Evangelicals. Statistics show that most of the infamous “Nones” cited in all those polls grew up in very liberal church traditions (both Christian and Jewish). Same with her accusation of the church being sexist, when actually women greatly outnumber men on Sunday Mornings even in conservative churches.

    And how does she get to determine what a test of Orthodoxy is? The Bible is quite clear that homosexulity is sinful and same sex marriage is not marriage at all. Not to single out the homosexuality issue, as I’m sure there a plenty other issues where Evans and her irk stray from orthodoxy, notably the historicity of the Old Testament.

    • Bruce Symons

      I’m wondering if you have really read what she was saying. Is she rejecting the Bible itself or the way some Christians are using bits out of the Bible?

        • BruceSymons

          Jon & Michael
          Again, read what she has said. She talked about ‘denial’, ‘continued opposition’, ‘an unhealthy alliance’, and an ‘obsession’. In other words, again, how some Christians are using the Bible.

          • Gus Nelson

            BruceSymons: Perhaps Ms. Evans is attacking “use” of the Bible. However, words like “opposition”, “unhealthy alliance” and “obsession” sound much more like her opinion than any sort of exegetical critique of other people’s views. Thus, isn’t she guilty of the very sin she’s supposedly pointing out? I want to give her and others who think like her the benefit of the doubt. However, I find it trying when it seems she is either oblivious to the irony of her position or, worse, doesn’t care. Since you seem sympathetic to her views, what do you suggest?

            • BruceSymons

              I’m a bit confused about what you are saying here. Of course it’s an opinion — Denny called it an ‘opinion piece’. So where do ‘exegetical critique of other people’s views’, ‘her position’ (on what? and, how can it be ‘ironic’?), ‘her views’ (on what?) all come into the discussion?
              My plea is: please deal with what she said — was the WAY we have responded to the whole affair the best one? Did it bring people nearer to God’s rule, or, in our brokenness and blundering, have we provided another excuse for them to turn away?

              • Gus Nelson

                Bruce: Yes, it was a bad move for those who, in knee jerk fashion, immediately removed their support of children without providing World Vision an alternative ( I’ll stay for six months while you find another sponsor, for instance). However, those who believe that it is undermining biblical authority to support gay marriage have a real concern, with real consequences, in a real, sin filled world. When Ms. Evans uses terms like ‘denial’, ‘continued opposition’, ‘an unhealthy alliance’, and an ‘obsession’, she is making a statement about what she believes the Bible says and she is clearly disagreeing with many who have different convictions. If this were simply about how this matter was handled then she could have written a column filled with suggestions about how to better handle it (like the one noted above, for instance). She could have noted that those offended should have offered to meet with World Vision in Matthew 18 fashion, or she could have suggested everyone agree to a brief “cooling off” period during which BOTH SIDES could consider how to best handle this. Instead, she went into attack mode, suggesting that the “evangelical machine” (whatever that is) is driving young people from the church.

                Sorry this was so long, but I find Ms. Evans often uses her platform to attack, not to bring together (I have read numerous of her columns) and, thus, I find it ironic she takes such a haughty tone.

  • Adam Westmoreland

    Andrew, do you have a link to those stats? I’ve always been curious about the growth or shrinking among denominations. Thanks in advance.

  • Seneca Griggs

    As noted by another commenter, Jesus himself generated “nones.”
    But, I do wonder if in the cycle of our culture, the “nones” are growing. Possibly they are. During the time of Elijah, he thought he was the only believer left but God assured him there were 7,000 others who had not “bowed the knee.” If there were roughly 3.5 million Jews at that time, those who had not given into the culture’s thinking were about .02 percent. The “nones” were a huge majority.
    I suspect we’re drifting in that direction but I don’t know for sure. However, deserting the clear teaching of Scripture is a Non-Starter as far as I’m concerned. Nones will not be won over by abandoning scriptural truth.

  • Curt Day

    Both the Bible and Christians drive away would be Christians. That is why we need to listen to them to see if the latter comes into play at all.

    In addition, we really should ask ourselves if it is the Shepherd who is calling us to have society persecute and discriminate against gays. It isn’t the Shepherd who is calling us to agree with homosexuality. But is it Him who is calling us not to treat gays as equals in society?

    • Andrew Orlovsky

      Sorry to sound like Bill Clinton here, but the problem with that statement is that everybody has a different definition of “treating gays as equals in society”. Many secular liberals will say that anyone who has any moral objections to homosexual acts are bigots, even if they decide to support same sex marriage or oppose the right of vendors such as photographers or florists to not participate in same sex ceremonies. I am simply not convinced that there is a formula for Christians to still faithful to Biblical orthodoxy, while not being seen as bigots in our society.

      • Ian Shaw

        Andrew, that is a peferct description of the issue. The problem is the definition is ambiguous to some, while to others, the definition is very strong, almost militaristic in nature.

        Having a moral objection to someone’s behavior does not make one a bigot. But even saying that will get you called a bigot. That’s the problem with having the discussion. Both sides of the argument bring emotionalism and inflammatory rhetoric to the table.

        I’ve been called a bigot. Granted, I know that I’m not a bigot (because having a difference of opinion with someone does not make one a bigot). I think the formula is to continue to be faithful to what God calls us to and let the words roll off our back. If we try to fight the culture war ourselves, we will fail. If we speak the truth in love and put Christ first, He will do the battle for us.

        Hostes Humani Generis….we should stay obidient to the Lord, but should probably just get used to hearing this.

      • Curt Day

        Nobody who remains faithful to their convictions will go without criticism. But the real issue in terms of treating gays as equals is about treating them the way we want them to treat us. There will be some critics but most gays will respect that kind of equality.

  • Ian Shaw

    Look at what Denny posted about OkCupid. It’s not enough to overturn voter state proposals that were voted for by the people of the state. If you hold a position contrary to someone else or donated money to a cause that is against SSM, you’ll be publically asked/called to step down/resign at your job.

    That is asinine and shows that equality is not the end-game of their campaign. But hey, it’s popular in today’s culture to treat anyone that opposes SSM like Nazi’s or criminals.

    • Paul Reed

      I imagine our opponents will be given a little bit of a grace period as we adjust to the “normalcy” of gays. Kind of like the civil rights movement in the 60s, the population tolerated racist comments from older people for a while(look up what some of the language some older politicians still use.) But our kids will not be given this kind of leniency.

      • Ian Shaw

        So you’re saying that if our kids publically say that SSM is wrong, it’ll be like dropping an N-bomb and they’ll be prosecuted for hate speech?

Comment here. Please use FIRST and LAST name.