Last week when I heard that Kevin Max, part of the Grammy Award-winning rap trio DC Talk, had renounced his evangelical faith, my heart sank. The quintessential ’90s CCM fan, I was disappointed to see Max be the latest in a string of celebrity Christians to walk away from orthodox Christianity. On May 15, Max tweeted that he has been deconstructing his faith for decades and now considers himself an “exvangelical.”
The number of public figures renouncing biblical faith in recent years has been startling and disheartening. The list includes John Piper’s son, Abraham Piper, Desiring God contributor Paul Maxwell, pastor and “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” author Joshua Harris, Hillsong‘s Marty Sampson, singer Audrey Assad and Hawk Nelson’s Jon Steingard.
Defining the terms
While each of these exits from evangelicalism have looked different, they share similarities. It’s helpful to remember that simply being in the “evangelical movement” does not make one a Christian — a dedicated follower of Jesus. Slangit offers this definition of evangelicalism:
Evangelicalism is a movement within the Protestant Christian faith that emphasizes salvation by grace through faith in Jesus’ atonement on the cross for humanity’s sins. Other tenets of the movement include being “born again” as a Christian when receiving salvation, spreading the gospel, and the Bible’s ultimate authority.
Evangelicalism is not by definition synonymous with Christianity, but the movement is focused on the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), spreading the gospel as Jesus instructed in the Great Commission (Mark 16:15), being “born again” through salvation by grace alone through faith alone (John 3:3), and a high view of Scripture as the believer’s source of absolute truth and practical theology (2 Timothy 3:16). “Exvangelicals” have rejected one or more of these tenets of the Christian faith.
Unlike some others who have become exvangelicals, Max claims he’s still a Christian. “I still follow the Universal Christ … I have no idea how many people’s blogs or podcasts are using that announcement for further division, but I’m here for The Grace.”
Shortly after I graduated from college, a Christian friend from high school told me he was agnostic. He said he could no longer accept the basic tenets of Christianity “If there is a God,” he said, “He’s way bigger than this narrow definition.” That sentiment seems common with those who leave faith in Jesus as described in the Bible.
At the time, a mentor said, “It must be nice to just make up what you believe.” That’s an oversimplification, but that’s exactly what we humans are prone to do. One of our greatest faults is to think we know better than God. Like God’s enemy, Satan, we say in our hearts, “I will ascend to heaven, above the stars of God.” And this arrogance can lead to the undoing of our faith.
Here are a few truths I think can help us process the exvangelical movement:
Following Jesus is an all or nothing proposition.
Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). We live in times where “denying self” is an increasingly foreign concept. If anything, our world promotes self-glorification. My ideas have merit. My truth matters. I decide my destiny. In the midst of this, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and our own ideas and shoulder the burden of following Him fully.
Throughout Scripture we see the truth repeated that we cannot pick and choose what we believe or which commands we will obey. God requires our full allegiance. A person cannot accept God’s love but reject His holiness and justice. Christianity is not a buffet where you choose the truths that are palatable to you and leave the rest on the table (although that’s certainly an ever-present temptation). Faith in Jesus is radical. It’s countercultural. And it doesn’t always make sense to our feeble human minds. Jesus is not, as Max claims, a nebulous “Universal Christ.” He tells us who He is — the Son of God, killed on the cross, buried, raised to life again, living Savior and victorious King.
Turning away from the faith is not a new thing.
It seems like those who denounce Christianity believe they have discovered some new, freeing form of faith, but they’re not as original as they think. In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, who received divine wisdom from God, says: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This pattern of rejecting God’s ways, that are stated in Scripture, started at the beginning of humanity and will continue until God makes all things new.
In fact, Paul told the young pastor Timothy that apostasy, the abandonment or renunciation of belief, would happen: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). That may sound harsh, but any belief system that opposes God and rejects the gospel of Jesus Christ comes from the enemy, who is crafty and destructive.
There are multiple biblical accounts of people leaving the faith in New Testament times, so we should not be surprised by similar events happening now. This doesn’t mean that it’s not discouraging to see this — particularly in the life of a friend or a loved one.
It’s OK to deconstruct your faith; but then reconstruct it based on truth.
I know many people who have been hurt by the church and other believers. In some cases, non-biblical ideologies they encountered through evangelicalism or Christian subculture have attained the status of spiritual (and other kinds of) abuse. It is healthy for all believers to “deconstruct” beliefs that do not line up with the teachings of the Bible and bear bad fruit. But we can’t stop there.
1 John 4:1-3 provides a great overview of this concept:
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”
One of the wonderful parts of being a Christ-follower is relying on the Holy Spirit to provide discernment between bad beliefs and fruitful ones. I think we need to be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when we see ungodliness or bad fruit within our ranks. Instead, we need to “test the spirits” and call out and renounce those that are not from God. As we get to know Him better through His Word, we can reconstruct our faith in ways that align more closely with God’s Word and His heart.
Where reconstruction begins
Every time I hear of someone renouncing his or her faith, I am grieved. I can’t imagine leaving my amazing Savior, and I find it hard to understand why someone would. But it is ultimately an individual choice that we each must make. I’m reminded of a story recorded in John 6, where Jesus has just preached about the Son being the only way to the Father. It says that after He said these things many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him. Jesus then spoke to His 12 disciples: “Do you want to go away as well?”
I love Peter’s reply in verses 68-69): “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter believed so deeply that he was willing to die for His faith — upside-down on a cross. And that’s the thing: Following Jesus comes with a cost not everyone is willing to pay. But that cost pales in comparison to the immeasurable riches found in Christ.
Ultimately, God knows who are His, and Kevin Max’s story isn’t over. My prayer is that in his faith journey, he’ll rediscover the God of the Bible and grow to love Him more than he ever has. But he’ll have to do it on God’s terms, not his own.
Copyright 2021 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.