October 23, 2017

Allen Krell on “Unitarian Christianity”

At Allen Krell’s blog, our friend has outlined a direction with respect to what he will write about in 2012. I asked Allen if he would share his thoughts with the Internet Monk community, and he graciously sent me the following post. It describes his current perspective on the evangelical movement he has left behind.

• • •

In my journey in the post-evangelical wilderness, I found myself confused and bewildered.  I had left as a founding elder in what was rapidly becoming one of the largest churches in our city.    I was questioning myself, wondering if I was the one confused and everyone else all understood something that I just didn’t get.  I examined many traditions, and I found theological points with which I both agreed and disagreed.  With some traditions, I had many difficulties with how adherents implement beliefs, but I still considered the traditions Christian.

Then my journey became clearer as I was able to clarify in my mind the fastest growing and most unsettling of all movements.  I say movement, because being less than 50 years old it is not old enough to be a tradition.  I had difficulty finding a name for this movement, so I started referring to as “Unitarian Christian”.

If you search this phrase in most search engines, it will lead you to websites on Unitarian Universalism, but I consider this movement to be something very different.  The name comes from the tendency of its followers to abandon the traditional concept of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in favor of a Unitarian “Jesus” which merges some attributes of each member of the Trinity.

The movement is very diverse, but it shares some of these common attributes…

  • Occasionally the cross may be mentioned as a means to salvation, but the death, burial, resurrection, and future return of Christ is largely ignored.
  • Instead of historical discussions on sin and grace, this movement focuses on a Jesus who helps us be successful parents, money managers, and athletes.
  • The members of this group do not follow traditional denominational boundaries and are coming from charismatic groups, non-denominational churches, Baptist churches, and even from some of the historical denominations.
  • The “Christian” publishing industry has almost completely been taken over by this movement.  Publishing giants Zondervan and Thomas Nelson Publishing have been purchased by the Rupert Murdoch conglomerate and control most of the “Christian” publishing industry.  This follows a common tenant of this movement of merging American style capitalism with religion.
  • In the extreme, this group teaches a prosperity gospel.  However, the more common teaching is a ‘prosperity lite’ that if you praise Jesus, be a good spouse, and manage your money well then Jesus will reward you with a good middle class lifestyle.
  • As far as I can tell, I haven’t found a good name for this movement.  Some names I have seen are “Prosperity Gospel”, “Prosperity Lite”, and “Consumer Christianity”.  I have been calling it “Unitarian Christianity” because of its use of a singular “Jesus”.
  • I have seen many reports that in much of the developing world, this movement has now become the dominant missionary force.  In fact, it’s merging of American style capitalism and prosperity gospel seems to be very attractive to the impoverished in much of the developing world.

For me, I had to get to the place where it wasn’t about styles of music or whether I could drink coffee and eat donuts at church.  Since this movement ignores orthodox beliefs in a Triune God as well as the death, burial, resurrection, and future return of Christ, I had to question my role and participation.  My journey is mostly of finding a place for me in the religious landscape that is remaining.

Comments

  1. I would add a deliberate ignorance of church history and viewing “theology” and “doctrine” as bad…much like this “hate religion, love Jesus” tripe that has gone viral, again.

    I don’t claim to have all the answers, not by a long shot, but I do believe that what we believe matters. If it doesn’t, then 2000 years of martyrs were all fools.

    • Spot on; except they presume knowing only the past 100 years of church history is relevant .

      Ask yourself this… would you be willing to die on their hill?

      Maranatha, come quickly Lord.

  2. Excellent illustrative use of the “Buddy Jesus” image 🙂

    Something always bothered me about that, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; it’s obviously based on the iconography of the Sacred Heart, but apart from the winking and thumbs-up, there was something else off.

    Then this post hit me over the head: “Buddy Jesus” has no wounds of the nails in his hands, and there is no crown of thorns around the heart.

    Even the soppiest, kitchiest image of the Sacred Heart in Catholic tradition has those elements: the heart pierced by the lance, the crown of thorns, the fire of love, the wounds in the hands.

    “Buddy Jesus” is perfect for the ‘let’s talk about success, not sin’, ‘claim your abundant life in which God wants to give you riches now!’ model that Allen talks about, so once again – excellent illustrative use, Chaplain Mike!

    • a version of the Buddy (Jesus) Christ picture with a photoshopped Starbucks coffee cup in hand one of my avatars i used on a theological message forum i frequented for a few years on my own post-Evangelical faith journey…

      i did see the movie Dogma which introduced the new Buddy Christ via the “Catholicism Wow!” campaign…

      and no, any indication of the crucifixion deliberately missing since the standard Catholic crucifix considered very negative & needing a modern make over by the hip Cardinal Glick (George Carlin)…

      Jesus Lite. the Buddy Christ seems to be posing a “gotcha!” look as if all traditional Christian orthodoxy merely a not-so-funny joke foisted upon hapless souls throughout the Church Age…

      yeah. i also agree it was a great choice for illustrating the article…

    • even worse is “hipster jesus”…my goodness. I wonder if some of the emergents who push this kind of jesus would’ve complained about mosaic law being too “mainstream”.

      • it was those very ’emerging’ saints on that post-modern theological message forum that actually help me keep my faith journey going in the midst of my church detox period…

        it was that very open & oft times visceral conversation that helped my ‘see’ beyond my own theological prejudices & bring into clearer focus those of differing viewpoints that truly loved Jesus, but were burnt out by church politics, hypocritical attitudes, & insufficient answers to the standard bullshit-of-life questions…

        that very intense interaction actually strengthened my own faith as i allowed much of the disputable matters to be discussed & those orthodox tenets of the faith to be challenged…

        i allowed myself to be open to rethinking the why’s of my faith. my faith. what i believed & why. not those things found in books or even the bible, but what i really, truly, believed. it was an amazing process of re-discovery for me…

        so, the lower case ‘e’ emerging saints were some of the most enjoyable people i had the opportunity to interact with, even i did use the Buddy Christ as one of my avatars… 🙂

  3. I get the impression that the dominant missionary forces in the developing world – whether they are internal or external to historical denominations already established there – focus a lot on the Holy Spirit. Moreso, in fact, than most American churches do. This strongly contradicts a reading of the action in the developing world as Unitarian, though it does not exclude elements of prosperity gospel in theory or practice.

    Philip Jenkins’ still-accurate The Next Christendom is, to my mind, the best survey of the demographic, theological, and cultural trends of the expanding Church.
    http://www.amazon.com/Next-Christendom-Coming-Global-Christianity/dp/0195146166

    • Julia,

      I hesitated including developing countries, because I don’t have direct experience. I based it a bit on what I see in American charismatic circles. The mega-church of formerly charismatic origin down the street from me is very different from the “old school” charismatics of 50 years ago. They have put the charismatic gifts on the periphery and have basically one sermon “My family is wonderful and prosperous and if you do as I say your family will be too” In other countries, I don’t know if “old school” charismatics or “new school” charismatics dominate.

      I also base it a bit of some readings of speeches given by Pope Benedict XVI. His speeches have led me to belief that in the developing world he is more worried about the newer influences in developing countries.

      I would love to hear from those who have recently been involved in missions work to hear first hand.

  4. There were different sets of tendencies worth noting, but one disturbing aspect in that laundry list is that it seems to suggest a growing confluence with Mormonism.

    • You really hit the core of my problem, although Mormonism was never mentioned in the blog entry. In the debates about Mormonism surround Mitt Romney, I saw a recurring theme in those defending the Mormon faith by saying “The teachings of the Mormon church I hear on Sunday are no different than the non-denominational mega-church down the street” That scared me.

      When I was a teenager, my pastor said one thing about both the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witness and that was “Look at the Trinity”. If they don’t believe in the Trinity, they aren’t orthodox Christians. Then, I asked myself, do some of the non-denominational mega-churches believe in the Trinity? I can’t tell from listening to their sermons.

      • Amen!

        And we are supposed to overlook the Mormon belief in pantheism and its foundation by a grifter and con-artist and the totally un-Christian idea of becoming “gods” and having “spirit babies” with our spouses for life after death and its ever changing theology….because they are so nice, normal, clean cut and happy???

        Not buying it, and am amazed that ANYONE can spend 30 minutes with Mormon theology and not walk away thinking that Mormons must have been lobotimized or on drugs to believe this claptrap!

        And you really hit the nail on the head with the merger of Christian light prosperity Buddy Jesus with Mormons…..because as long as you look happy and successful, God MUST love you to bits, right?

        • I read this earlier today and didn’t have time to comment. I almost took the plunge into Mormonism when I was in college. I went to a number of LDS services, hung out with the missionaries and did a few ward activities. I still have my Book of Mormon, D & C, Pearl of Great Price and my aplication to Brigham Young which I never filled out.

          What you wrtie about Allen is disturbing. I recall toward the end of everything for me, that I felt sick in church. I felt sick at participating, and there was something that bothered me that I could not figure out. Later on I had this deja vu expereince and I realized that some of what I encountered in fundagelicalism reminded me of what I saw in Mormonism. There were many things I noticed…one of them was the emphesis on exterior appearance. I mean I heard regulalry, “You live in Washington, D.C.and are what people see when it comes to the gospel. Live your best!!” Plus I also got the feeling that many evangeliclas felt threatened by Mormonism and maybe they adopted some of theri tactics to try and get ahead.

          But the feeling I had was horriffic. And I realzied that the last time I had this feeling was with Mormonism in college.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          And we are supposed to overlook the Mormon belief in pantheism and its foundation by a grifter and con-artist and the totally un-Christian idea of becoming “gods” and having “spirit babies” with our spouses for life after death and its ever changing theology….because they are so nice, normal, clean cut and happy???

          Anecdote read somewhere: A kid raised in a Holiness church tradition who upon adulthood went Mormon because “Mormons don’t drink or smoke”. The LDS he encountered played the holiness/abstinence card better than his church so he figured they had to be more Christian.

          • That’s what its all about, isn’t it? It all boils down to morals, and “baby kittens” theology. Everybody loves family-oriented people. And who can hate baby kittens?

      • Steve Calvert says:

        One of the major players in the “church” today is T.D. Jakes. His ordination is in the United Pentecostal Church which holds to the “oneness’ doctrine.

  5. I am amazed at the type of truths movements such as the “Unitarian Christian” are willing to throw out in exchange for peace and numbers. We must get back to basis and the true truth of the Word proven revelations of Creator God!

  6. In short, church is a business. For this reason, it cannot be divine. What is divine is the kingdom of God. Only by seeking the kingdom of God instead of seeking church will we find Jesus Christ and the daily portions of His grace that we so desperately need to live for Him as we should and as we desire.

    • “church” as noun or verb???

      i would argue this: both The Body of Christ & The Church are indeed divine entities consisting entirely of infallible, imperfect, broken saints…

      God’s heart for the world (cosmos) & His crowning work of creation (people) the vessel He wishes the good news to be proclaimed & lived out in the midst of this sin infected existence…

      and so it will be ’til the end…

      maybe certain church methodologies, traditions, worship expressions, etc. not to everyone’s liking, however, there is a divine paternity we all have in common regardless of our theological nuances/differences…

      i cannot live out my faith in a vacuum, or be the only Lone Ranger for Jesus. i actually do need to be in deliberate relational community with like-minded saints as part of this peculiar group of called-out ones…

      i may not be able to get along with all of them all the time, but that is neither a disqualification or encumbrance to living out the good news as Jesus intended. the church is definitely part of, “thy kingdom come, upon the earth, as it is in heaven…”

  7. What you describe is not universalism. I see it still as fundamentalism. Again, I highly recommend the article, “The Revival of Religion and the Decay of Ethics” by Robert Gordis posted on the religiononline website. Fundamentalism very selectively strains a couple gnats out of modernism and proceeds to swallow the then entire camel.

    Universalism for me is represented by great minds like the late Forrest Church. I’m not a universalist, but there seems to be a lot of intellectual integrity in their midst that makes it very attractive. It would help if intellectualism wasn’t demonized among fundagelicalism (yet another example of how fundagelicalism is in lock-step with the values of the zeitgeist).

    • ox, he’s talking about Unitarianism, not Universalism (I made the same mistake, too, and had to have a little think about it).

      • I did understand. I understand how “universal” seems fitting, especially after observing Lutherans adopt the very things he describes, despite their incompatibility with Lutheran teaching. It’s like a cancer. Ironically, those who actually call themselves universalists don’t seem to buy into it.

      • Often Protestants replace “catholic” with “universal”. In the context of this article, heresy is the new orthodoxy.

  8. I am familiar with, and worried about, the trends you are mentioning. And they’ve definitely left the evangelical/charismatic world and moved outward. I recently moved to a new city, and went to the local mainline church. I was crestfallen to find there a small, struggling congregation with a part-time pastor, who had been “adopted” by a mega-church of the same denomination located many states away. The local pastor preached a sermon about the need to reinvent the church to get people to attend and discussed how many new people it would take to meet various financial goals. He asked, ‘what if I could guarantee to you that if we do x, y, and z, we would have 120 new members by [date]?” At one point, he added that Jesus was better than any other product anyone else was selling.

    Just a few days ago, I received a postcard in the mail announcing an exciting new series the church is doing on improving your marriage and staying in love forever.

    Clearly part of the church growth building program is the new how-to-succeed sermon series.

    As a sidenote, this a minor quibble, but I don’t think the term “unitarianism” is the word you want to be using — at first I wondered if you were going to discuss unitarian universalists, or there much older theologically-heavy ancestors. Then I thought you were talking about oneness Pentecostals or sloppy evangelical Christology. So maybe the term is too specific and technical to be used to capture the huge movement you are describing? After reading the content, I think what you really mean in the prosperity gospel and its more palatable cousins, and/or corporate growth-oriented church movements, which waste very little energy on thinking about such classic Christian doctrines as the Trinity.

    • Danielle, you are on the side of my wife. She doesn’t like the term “unitarianism” either. I do believe an accurate name will evolve over time as this movement is significantly different enough from orthodox Christianity.

  9. Since the term Unitarian is sorta taken, I wouldn’t use it. And Therapeutic Moralistic Deism, while starting to get some play, is a bit wordy, and doesn’t allow for the heavy use of “Jesus” instead of “God” in that particular religion.

    So, submitted for your approval: Inconsequentialism.

    The consequences of our sin, and what Jesus had to do to deal with it: Never discussed. The consequences of our actions, and how to avoid them through developing the fruit of self-control and sanctification: Never discussed. Instead, freebies from Jesus, happy thoughts, assets, and health. Where’d they come from, why’d Jesus give them to us, and what are we supposed to learn by them? Never discussed. Don’t think about it; just believe. Really hard.

    • I don’t know. I hear the phrase “therapeutic moralistic deism” a fair amount in some of the circles I move in, and I think there is a danger that it could become another “buzz phrase” that gets slapped on any spirituality or theology we happen not to like.

  10. “Unitarian Christianity” sounds kinda like an amalgamation of Bible Belt Baptist Fundamentalism and Purpose Driven Pragmatism. Soteriological Utilitarianism Uber Alles, popularity equals spirituality, and skepticism is the devil.

  11. Douglas G. says:

    Ah, I am confused. I was thinking of Christian Universalists:

    http://www.christianuniversalist.org

    This guy, Krell, just seems to have made up a new name (“Unitarian Christianity”) and used it as a slur against evangelical Protestant groups he doesn’t like, but who have nothing to do with either self-avowed Unitarians or Universalists. Talk about “demons from the id”! (Get it? “Krell”? Forbidden Planet…? If not, never mind.)

    • The name evolved from some discussions on my blog. It came from my belief that the number one problem with these groups is the abandonment of the Triune God in favor of a generic “Buddy Jesus”. I started out calling it monotheism, but commenters correctly pointed out that wasn’t an accurate use of the word since even the Trinity is still a monotheistic God. Our friend Wikipedia is down today, but even its opening paragraph on “Unitarian Universalists” states that the article is specifically on the Universalist movement and that throughout history there have been other groups who believed in one merged God/Jesus without believing in the Trinity.

  12. This didn’t go where I thought it was, and all I ca say is “Amen!:.

  13. Cedric Klein says:

    Another vote against the U-word. It has a certain accepted range of meaning which is outside how it’s being used here.

    Suggested alternatives-
    JesusismyHomeboyism or just HomeboyJesusism
    BuddyChristism

  14. I have observed the same thing, and find myself pretty ambivalent about “church” these days. I am currently looking for a place to find spiritual companionship – that’s what it has come down to for me. I’ll let everybody know if I do find that place. If any of you find it, yell loud so we can all hear. I’m actually in a church now that I don’t feel very critical of, but am still looking for the companionship and interaction that I crave. I don’t mind helping out, but I don’t want to go to any more meetings to talk about administrative tasks. I’m staring down the final third of my life and would like to age well and die well. Going to meetings to figure out how many chairs we need and who we can get to set them out isn’t on my list of things to do anymore.

    Just to let you know, there are some groups that describes themselves as Christian Unitarians or Biblical Unitarians. They reject the Trinity and see God as one God – the Father. The Holy Spirit is….well, God, I guess, since they believe that the Holy Spirit is the spirit of God, not any separate entity. Jesus is pretty special, but not divine.

  15. I actually don’t think Unitarianism is a bad term for what you’re describing. It is, after all, kind of the de facto official religion of the American republic. Deism and Unitarianism were pretty tightly tied together around the time of the revolution and the founding of the country. Despite some Christians cries to the contrary, most of the people responsible for crafting the founding documents were Unitarians and/or Deists. They had no problem using the term “God” in a general sense to refer to a greater power, but most of the time it shouldn’t be assumed that they’re referring to the triune God of the Bible. It’s also why America has been comfortable with vague statements concerning God or providence from their leaders, but no much those mentioning Christ.

    I don’t see anything in this piece as hugely surprising. I just think many Americans have chosen to find their identity first as Americans and secondly (or thirdly, or whatever) as Christians.

    • Depending on who you talk to, “American” and “Christian” are either interchangeable or inseparable.