You might have heard about a dilemma, which is a serious problem with two possible answers. Apologists galore have been hawking what amounts to a false trilemma for years about Jesus Christ called liar, lunatic, or Lord. There exists another, more pressing trilemma for Christians. It’s part of the decline of their religion. I speak here of the trilemma lords, ambassadors, or salespeople. Evangelicals’ answer to this trilemma is painfully easy to discern. I’ll show you what these options are, what they tend to go with, and what it means for us.
Door #1: Ambassadors (The Role They Imagine).
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
Many Christians see themselves as their god’s ambassadors to a sinful, quickly-deteriorating world. In the popular apologetics site Got Questions, their writer goes on at length about how seriously Christians should take this comparison. The post speaks movingly of survival in a world Christians feel isn’t their true home.
Billy Graham’s website echoes that sentiment and adds to it. The late evangelist begins his essay by outlining that Christians “are citizens of two communities–the community of God and the community in which we live.” To him, an ambassador must follow the rules he thinks the Bible dictates, engage in what he thinks is social justice, do whatever he thinks his god tells people to do, and spread what he thinks is his god’s message as far as possible.1 Of course, Billy Graham was a culture warrior through and through. He spent his entire life working toward something else entirely–and encouraging his followers to do likewise.
Campus Crusade for Christ, a fundagelical group that preys upon college kids and now goes by “Cru,” has a similar take on ambassadors. They also make similar mistakes about both. Hailey Domeck, the writer there, thinks that an ambassador “adopts the identity of the king and therefore has all the authority and power of the king.” I’m sure she’d like with all her heart for that assertion to be true. She also thinks that an ambassador “represents a specific message,” though she garbles that idea quite a lot.
(Reality Check I.)
I could go on, but hopefully you’ve got the idea. Evangelicals have a serious misunderstanding of what ambassadors are and do. They use that misunderstanding as a permission slip to act out in the specific ways they enjoy most.
In reality, ambassadors must be supremely mindful of local customs and mores. As that link illustrates, diplomats in general must learn a lot of etiquette! At all times, no matter what rank a diplomat holds, they must ensure that neither their superiors nor their home country’s leader will ever be embarrassed by anything they’re doing.
Ambassadors represent the leader of their home country, but they do not get to act against that leader’s wishes. Nor do they get to make big sweeping decisions without the direct input of that leader. They are not exact stand-ins for that leader, with all of the powers and prerogatives thereof.
Typically speaking, ambassadors of all levels get their positions as a reward. Either they really stand out to the person who appoints them, or they work their tails off to rise up the ladder of service.
Oh, and if ambassadors seriously screw up, which they do sometimes, their leader can–and will—recall them.
(Reality Check II.)
It’s always made me laugh to think of how little Christians today resemble actual ambassadors for anybody, much less for an omnimax god who might seem terribly coy but is actually super-talkative with his own followers.
If an ambassador’s primary task is to represent their ruler in a foreign court, Christians fail hard at it. I mean, I guess it’s possible for their imaginary “home country” to be an absolute hellhole of injustice, dysfunction, cruelty, and greed. They certainly don’t make it sound like an appealing place to visit, much less move to.
Nor do Christian “ambassadors” make their imaginary “ruler” look very good. If they’re the people he’s decided will best serve his interests abroad, he’s not a very good judge of character.
No, they have something else in mind when they’re sanctimoniously patting themselves on the back for being in the world but not of it.
Door #2: Lords (The Role They’re Really Aiming For).
Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.
Pope Leo X, on his way to turning the Vatican into a party house
Evangelicals’ definition of an ambassador ends up looking a lot more like their definition of a feudal or monarchical ruler from centuries ago: a lord. In that definition, a lord gets to command people at will. If his subjects refuse to do as they’re told, their lord can punish them. Nobody can stop that lord from doing whatever he wants, ever.
Evangelicals decided at some point that their god appointed lords to rule. Oh, and they take that idea very seriously. Even when I was Christian, we literally sang songs about being the sons and daughters of what we called the King of Kings. That made us princes and princesses, obviously. Our fantasy also set us to the task of responsibly ruling the poor heathens in our midst.
Now Christians have entire movements devoted to seizing control of governments to enshrine their religion into law. Evangelicals’ entire culture focuses on gaining more and more power over others. Their movements go by names like Dominionism and Reconstructionism. Quite a few of them want America in particular to be set into their hands, like children are placed into their parents’ hands after being born. Sometimes you hear the phrase “Christians must guide culture” in these situations. This phrase doesn’t mean a metaphorical guidance.
Such Christians may pay lip service to the notion that their imaginary friend totally set them in that position over non-Christians. But since he has never deigned to speak for himself, his followers operate completely without oversight or checks on their behavior.
As time goes by, though, Christians may well find themselves as kings without countries. As people absent themselves from Christians’ Pretendy Game, these pretendy lords will find their courts dwindling faster by the day. Without people willing to play along with the role, the game collapses.
Door #3: Salespeople (The Role They Absolutely Don’t Want)
TS: Haven’t you ever heard the phrase “The customer is always right?”
Shannon: Let me tell you something. Let me give you a little secret, okay? THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS AN ASSHOLE!
A salesperson in Mallrats (1995)
Christians in America have achieved some political triumphs in the past couple of years. Yes. But as we’ve seen, those triumphs come at a hideous cost to their tribe. Simply put, the religion’s leaders can’t actually command others to play along with their Pretendy Game.
Sure, they used to be able to do just that. It’s why so many people played along in the first place. (They sure didn’t do it because the Christian message is just soooooo amazing!) Now, however, if Christians want to keep their groups together, they must make those groups appealing in their own right.
That means they must sell their religion to people, and then must work to ensure their religion stays appealing to those people. They must be salespeople–and good ones at that.
It’s not a role that comes naturally to evangelical Christians, who have made themselves–to the religion’s complete detriment–the face of Christianity for most folks. Not long ago, I compared the most obnoxious of Christian evangelists to catcallers because they aren’t generally actually sincerely trying to sell their religion. They’re really more like trampling on people they hope will be powerless to fight back.
No, here I’m talking about them selling the religion in a way that actually might appeal to people and draw in potential recruits.
By and large, Christians are horrible at that kind of selling.
They want to recruit people, sure. Thing is, the Christians who most want to score sales want to do it as lords. They don’t want to do it as salespeople. In their minds, they are the Designated Adults–the Official Unofficial Parents of Us All–the Drawling Highway Patrolman Of the Freeway of Our Lives.
Anything less is a distinct lowering of status, in their minds.
A Lowering of Status.
The most toxic Christians of all would rather die than lower themselves to the status of supplicants. The whole reason many of them got into that flavor of Christianity in the first place was because it gave them easy access to levels of power they absolutely do not rate on their own merits.
Their religion’s sourcebook might talk a very big game about how Christians should
UM-bull humble themselves, and evangelicals in particular might crow about how totally biblical they are, but in lived reality the worst apples of the bunch don’t want to actually do that.
But they also don’t want to outright call themselves lords and masters. Doing so flies in the face of their false-humility schtick. Besides, even they’ve figured out that they don’t need to blatantly advertise the truth to draw in those who also seek undeserved power over others. No, it’s way better to mislabel their dream job. Then they can pretend that they act entitled and grab constantly at temporal power because the Bible told them to do it.
A few people might realize that what they’re doing looks more like the Grand Dukes of Tuscany or even the Medici Popes from back in the Renaissance, but hey, their own adherents generally won’t. For a while, anyway.
What It All Means.
I won’t apologize for raising my boys to be Christian men.
Janie Lee Kelly, very intentionally missing an important point or three
As the religion’s adherents dive further and further into extremism, this trilemma is going to become more important to know about. People will see more and more Christians whose evangelism attempts are completely baffling–until we realize that they trying to act from a position of lordship, not salesmanship. Such Christians seek to command and to seize what they consider their rightful due. Worst of all, they’re going to get angrier and angrier about being asked to follow the same rules everyone else must follow to be considered civil and courteous, expectations which they already see as attempts to humiliate them.
Push past their blustering and histrionics to discern the power dynamics they’re trying to recreate from their fantasies. Once we do that, their willful ignorance, their belligerence, and their aggression all start snapping into tight focus. What they’re doing makes perfect sense–if one knows about their fantasies of lordship.
No, they don’t act like real ambassadors should. And there’s a reason for it. That reason is also exactly why their religion is falling apart right now, for all its political successes lately. It’s also why not one single reputable survey gives Christians a bat’s chance in a bonfire of reversing their decline.
Christians can’t be lords–especially not anymore. They were never ambassadors. And they don’t wanna be salespeople.
My heart just bleeds peanut butter for ’em.
NEXT UP: When I talked about having to sell to customers and stay appealing forever, did you think about relationships? Well, if you did, then you, my friend, are prescient. When we come back to the Unequally Yoked Club–coming soon!–this topic is going to figure prominently into that discussion. Also this week, we’ve racked some gaming posts too! See you soon!
1 Bear in mind that Billy Graham is a prime example of someone living in Christian Bizarro Land. His essay is nothing but a string of Christian dogwhistles, all aimed at priming his fundagelical followers to leap with both feet into the religion’s various culture wars. His life goal was to turn the world into the Republic of Gilead. No joke, no exaggeration.
Bumble’s Toy Distraction Count: 1 2 3
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