In his influential book A Theology of Liberation, theologian and Dominican Priest Gustavo Gutiérrez described a kind of deconstruction happening among the mid-twentieth century youth in Latin America. Much of what he described in these youth movements can map onto the deconstruction movement among younger Western Evangelicals today, shedding light onto common dynamics and concerns.
Gutiérrez described a position held by the Latin American Church that he called “the distinction of planes.” In this view, the Church believed there could be a hard separation between their mission and direction action in the world. The Church understood their role to simply be evangelization and moral teaching; they were to have no direct action in social justice or reform. “[The Church] was not to interfere, as institution, in temporal matters… to intervene directly… is to betray [its] function.” Individual Christians could influence the temporal order of things, so long as they have “the fullest respect for the autonomy of temporal society” (37).
This model is similar to those held by Western Evangelicals of the last century. Focusing on a hard divide between the Church and society, Evangelicals developed all kinds of theological justification and ministry philosophies to justify a narrow, individualistic focus. Like the Latin American Church of the mid-twentieth century, Western Evangelicals have confined the mission of the Church along similar lines: evangelism and individualistic moral teaching.
This approach created significant issues for the Latin American Church, just as it does for us today. As Gutiérrez rightly identified, this hard distinction between the Church and society is not as neutral as some would like us to believe. Gutiérrez said it this way:
Can it honestly be said that the Church does not interfere “in the temporal sphere”? Is the Church fulfilling a purely religious role when by its silence or friendly relationships it lends legitimacy to a dictatorial and oppressive government? We discover, then, that the policy of nonintervention in political affairs holds for certain actions which involve ecclesiastical authorities, but not for others… the distinction of planes model has the effect of… support of the established order (40-41).
In other words, silence toward injustice and friendliness toward those in power is not neutrality, it is complicity. Such is the problem of the Western Evangelical Church today who has for so long believed they were focusing on essential “spiritual” matters while neglecting the temporal sphere of the world around us. As Dr. Jemar Tisby explains, “the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity” (The Color of Compromise, 17).
In this “distinction of plans” model, Christians were encouraged to participate in “lay apostolic movements.” These were similar to parachurch ministries which are common today. Such movements, like today, were common among the youth. While these groups were not to exceed the mission or views of the Church, often the opposite would happen. Away from the direct authority of the Church, these youth became increasingly aware of social injustices all around them. These youth came to rightly believe their Christian faith ought to inform direct action in these injustices, but they were not supported by Church leadership.
This led to frequent conflicts between members of these youth movements and the established Church hierarchy. In these conflicts, the youth would “question their place in the Church”; the conflict was “responsible for the severe crises experienced by some of them.” As a result, these youth radicalized against the views of the Church.
Is this starting to sound familiar?
Away from the control of Church leadership, the youth discovered “evangelical demands for an ever more resolute commitment to the oppressed peoples of this exploited continent” (59). Unfortunately, the youth were not adequately prepared for what came next.
First, they came to discover that the ideas they had been taught by the Church (under the “distinction of plans” model) were not viable for life in the real world, in the face of real suffering and injustice. In addition, they came to learn that the Church was complicit in many of the injustices they saw in society. Indeed, the Church was responsible “for the very social order which the movements wish to change” (59).
Regrettably, the youth were “inadequately prepared theologically, pedagogically, and spiritually” for the work they wanted to accomplish. In its endeavor to only focus on “evangelization” and individualistic moral teaching, the Latin American Church had not prepared the youth for a Christian response to an increasing awareness of poverty and injustice.
A few years ago I was leading a group of young adults through a study of the book of Judges. I was aware that Deborah – the courageous judge depicted in chapter 4 – may raise questions for our group regarding gender roles and the Church. Sure enough, the bold leadership displayed by Deborah was enough to leave many members of the group with plenty of questions – especially the women. After a few minutes of discussion, one young woman raised her hand and asked, “So is Deborah an exception to the rule, or is everything I’ve been taught about women in the Bible wrong?”
Narrow, compartmentalized instruction had left this young woman without the adequate resources to understand the Bible’s teaching in this crucial area of her life. Similarly, I’ve had countless conversations with young adults surrounding the Church’s complicity in racism and the necessary response to such evils today. These young adults have often struggled between what feels like two bad options: either continuing in silence (as they’ve seen modeled by the Evangelical Church) or sign up for the complete agenda of secular groups (i.e. The Black Lives Matter organization).
Time and again – forced between these bad options – I have seen young adults tire of the silence and complicity of the Church, choosing instead to find solutions by walking away from, or completely question, their Christian faith.
Such was the result of the conflict between the youth and the Church that Gutiérrez described in Latin America. In their radicalization, “many gradually [began] to substitute working for the Kingdom with working for social revolutions” (59). But make no mistake – it was Christian convictions which radicalized the youth against the Church: the belief that Christians ought to take direct action against social injustice and take the side of the poor and the oppressed. Sadly, the institution which these youth were supposed to trust was the very institution perpetuating the injustice they now opposed. The only answer they could find was by turning to socio-political revolution.
All hope was not lost, however; for in their “favor of the oppressed and their liberation… there emerges a new vision for the fruitfulness of Christianity and the Christian community’s role in their liberation.” In this great upheaval, there was hope for a purification and renewing of Christian faith which advanced the cause of salvation and liberation in the world. Nevertheless, “many questions remain unanswered. The new vitality… does not have before it a completely clear path” (60).
In summary, what are some of the common dynamics we see between the “deconstruction” Gutiérrez saw in the mid-twentieth century and what we see today? I see at least five:
- A hard separation between the mission of the Church and involvement in society. This philosophy is the cause of much of the conflict, inadequate teaching, and harm that follows.
- Poor Christian instruction which cannot adequately deal with the real problems we face.
- A lack of wise, discerning, and understanding leadership who cares about the concerns of young people.
- The injustice, and indifference to injustice, perpetuated by the Church.
- More attainable options for addressing injustice elsewhere.
These dynamics will be difficult to overcome – but not possible. All hope is not lost; like Gutiérrez, I believe that there is great promise of renewal and revival within our young, deconstructing brothers and sisters. For such renewal to become commonplace, Christian leaders and institutions must model contrition, repentance, and a genuine desire to engage and respond to the real concerns of those who now question their Christian faith.