I recently was reading the story of a former evangelical Christian, profiled by Tony Kriz in his new book,Neighbors and Wise Men.After growing up in a small, insular expression of the faith, he discovered a wider world outside it. In particular, this passionate believer discovered an environmental movement that spoke to his soul while his church home ridiculed the environmentalists. So, he switched his allegiances: "The Christian church has no coherent answer for earth care. And for that reason I now know I could never be a Christian."
Initially, this remark angered me. The evangelical movement has more than a few dissenters from the typical attitude toward environmentalism. They could have saved this man's faith. But as I gained some sympathy, I realized that the man's apostasy illustrates our need for faithful dissenters, insiders who stay true to the movement while critiquing its failures. These dissenters add diversity and show us new ways to be faithful followers of Christ.
It wasn't too long ago—when political evangelicalism was loud, and its hypocrisy easy to see—that I, immature and ignorant, wanted to lodge my own critiques against the church.
A faithful dissenter
Thankfully I discovered Ed Dobson, the faithful dissenter who voiced my own critiques while remaining inside the evangelical fold. Dobson was formerly a board member of the Moral Majority, a spokesperson for Jerry Falwell, and a vice president at Liberty University. Dobson had since become a successful pastor, leading a megachurch in Grand Rapids, and he remained a powerful voice in the pulpit and in his books. He was named "Pastor of the Year" by Moody Bible Institute. Dobson was an evangelical of evangelicals. He was a religious righter of the Religious Right.
And he gave me an answer to the problem of the church entwined with politics. In Blinded by Might, coauthored with fellow Moral Majority member Cal Thomas, they blame the Religious Right for that entwinement: "We have confused political power with God's power." Dobson and Thomas argue that the church has been compromised and distracted from its central mission. In 2008, Dobson voted for Barak Obama, telling ABC news that Obama "more than any other candidate represented the teachings of Jesus."
Dobson was a dissenter even during his days as a student at Bob Jones University. He turned away from, but never fully rejected, those who once nurtured him. Dobson speaks fondly of his days in fundamentalism and doesn't deride those he left behind. As Dobson has matured beyond the fundamentalist and Religious Right communities, he has simply pursued greater faithfulness and obedience to God for himself, his congregation, and the church at large.
Another kind of leadership
Now, Dobson is embracing a new role. After several years living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, Dobson is breaking the mold of the public figure diagnosed with a terminal illness. Such personalities typically retreat into private, preventing the public from seeing them in a weakened state. Or, these figures blandly assert that the disease will have no effect on their responsibilities.