Why Evangelicals Lean So Hard on Original Christianity

Authoritarian Christian leaders love this myth because it lends them extra credibility.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Not long ago, we examined some particularly harebrained, willfully-ignorant tweets from evangelical leader Tim Keller. He compared modern American fundagelicalism to Original Christianity. To my surprise, Keller was just repeating stuff he’d written almost two years ago! However, I can easily understand why he felt the need to repeat himself. Now more than ever, authoritarian leaders must grab for every source of power they can. And there ain’t much in their religion that’s quite as powerful as the allure of that mythical Original Christianity living in all evangelicals’ hearts. Today, let me show you how — and more importantly why — evangelical leaders have weaponized this seductive myth.

(Sebastian Unrau.) Credit: Sebastian Unrau / Unsplash

Original Christianity: An Overview.

No matter the danger, the souls of our kind have always yearned for the cool, dark beauty of the forest. [Elfquest]

Almost all evangelicals believe that their religion started out as pure, unadulterated Jesus-osity. See, Jesus’ first followers had the real-deal Christianity right in their hands. However, as the myth goes, awful people snuck into their leadership ranks and somehow wrestled this simple, sweet, perfect form of Christianity away — then wrecked it forever more by introducing all kinds of other weird ideas into it.

Finally, the myth declares, Jesus got through to a few very dedicated followers. These faithful followers set the religion to rights again. Coincidentally, these followers went on to found whatever variant of Christianity each believer prefers best. So now, the Christians belonging to that particular variant can be sure that they practice the real-deal 1st-century original pure form of Christianity.

If you ever wonder which variant today looks the most like Original Christianity, just ask any member of any evangelical church about it. They’ll happily tell you that their own is the only one fitting that bill.

All the thousands and thousands of other variants? Oh, those are false variants. Their founders and members may believe wholeheartedly that they heard Jesus correctly. But they didn’t. Only that particular Christian’s flavor is the correct one.

Jesus is so lucky to have them!

our denomination set things aright
Saji George, “Tom’s Doubts #14.” (Sept 2011)

(See also: The Original Greek and Hebrew Is Still Nonsense.)

The False Claims Tim Keller Makes About Original Christianity.

Tim Keller makes five major claims. Unfortunately, all five claims range from really iffy to false and irresponsible:

  1. “The early church was multi-racial. In other words, it totally wasn’t racist, y’all! This is just an attack on Critical Race Theory (CR). Evangelicals despise CRT because it reveals their systemic racism. However, in reality scholars agree that it’s beyond irresponsible to apply modern conceptualizations of racism to ancient people. Mainly, though, we can refute this by remembering how Jesus-the-bigot treated a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28).
  2. “The early church was a community of forgiveness and reconciliation.” LOL no. Leaving aside the fact that Keller offers absolutely no support for this claim at all, early criticisms of Christians do not make them sound particularly forgiving. We have no reason to believe that ancient Christians were any different from modern ones. Keller also claims here that early Christians were totally persecuted, an idea The Gospel Coalition (TGC) loves too. But real historians know that this idea is pure mythology.
  3. “The early church was famous for its hospitality to the poor and the suffering.” If it was, and I’m not conceding that point without significant evidence, they neither invented the concept of charity nor exclusively practiced it.
  4. “It was a community committed to the sanctity of life.” LOL no. Again, this sounds like simple propaganda. All through Christianity’s history, Christians have abandoned infants. Also, many ancient cultures disliked abortion not because of those pweshus baybeez, but because they condemned the motivations of the women seeking this care.
  5. “It was a sexual counterculture.” LOL no. The idea of celibacy and sexual inexperience equaling moral purity was nothing new. And we have plenty of criticisms of early Christianity telling us that Christians failed utterly to live up to their rules about relationships and sex. Again, they were probably a lot like modern fundagelicals that way.

So he’s perhaps 1/3 for 5 here. That’s only if I’m feeling generous.

And I’m not.

The Beloved Myths Buttressing Original Christianity.

Conan: Almost 20 years of pitiless cumber! No rest, no sleep like other men. And yet the spring wind blows, Subotai. Have you ever felt such a wind?
Subotai: They blow where I live too. In the north of every man’s heart. [Conan the Barbarian]

In Tim Keller’s tweets — as well as in his January 2020 post for TGC — he paints the myth of Original Christianity.

In a lot of ways, we can view Keller’s five-point listicle as an artifact of its time. We can see elements of his tribe’s major culture wars in all five items. Indeed, Keller wrote his listicle precisely because he wants to make modern American fundagelicalism look like a carbon copy of that imaginary first-edition Christianity that evangelicals all want to practice.

To do that, he has to invent a lot of stuff that didn’t exist, mangle what did, and ignore a host of annoying facts in the process. But he’s drawing upon other myths evangelicals hold near and dear to their hearts, so they won’t look too far into his claims.

  • That there’s some vast difference in the sexual behavior of fundagelicals and the unwashed heathenry outside their bubble. (There really isn’t. At least, there’s no positive difference.)
  • That the Jesus Auras of those first Christians were so powerful that they actually managed to behave vastly differently from their cultural norm. (I can see no rational reason to believe this. In truth, people at the time seem to have regarded Christians as gullible, sneaky, and ignorant.)
  • That Christianity spread through the ancient world because it was so, I dunno, DIFFERENT, I guess. (In reality, the fledgling religion looked like any other religion started around then. Perhaps because of those similarities, its leaders struggled hard to attract and keep its trickle of recruits. That situation didn’t change till they finally acquired serious cultural and temporal power.)

But Keller’s making these wackaloon claims for a reason.

Weaponizing Original Christianity.

Oh, sure, sometimes Original Christianity claims function like a simple virtue signal between group members:

Look at me! I believe all the correct things! I’m a good member of the tribe! Aren’t you too? Aren’t we all totally just like Jesus’ favorite Christians of all time? Yes, yes we are! Yay for us!

But when Christian leaders invoke Original Christianity, they usually expect to get something out of those listening to their claims.

Namely, they expect compliance and agreement.

So these claims usually operate as an Appeal to Nostalgia. This popular apologetics ploy (and logical fallacy) seeks to make an unsupported claim look more legitimate by comparing it to an old-timey idea that listeners will like and probably already accept. The idea here is that if the claim looks exactly like the mythical first kind of Christianity, then Christians must accept it.

When you see a claim of Original Christianity, you can be sure of two things right away:

First, it’ll be wrong somehow — and probably grievously wrong at that.

Second, the claim-maker is doing it to grab a cloak of authority for their demands.

The Five Fundagelical Truths Expressed Between the Lines.

Thus, in his listicle we see Tim Keller pushing hard on this logical fallacy to gain buy-in for his particular flavor of modern American fundagelicalism:

  1. Absolute opposition to real-world efforts against racism.
  2. Making Christian groups sound a lot less abusive and abuse-prone than they really are.
  3. Fighting with all his might against any real efforts to combat poverty, hunger, and homelessness.
  4. Forced-birtherism to the hilt.
  5. Blatantly appealing to misogynists and bigots.

In Tim Keller’s hands, opposition to these five points constitutes opposition to Jesus H. Christ himself. Rejecting his five points means rejecting those first Christians and their perfect Christianity.

And well, Christians know what the only penalty for that crime is. Keller doesn’t even need to explicitly name the threat here. They know very well what it is.

And the Truth About Evangelicalism.

What a sad, cheap, hamfisted, tawdry bit of emotional manipulation we’ve seen out of this big-name Christian leader and his sycophants.

Part of me wonders what Tim Keller knows about the decline of his religion that I don’t know quite yet, because his historical revisionism stinks of desperation on the grandest scale.

He’s left nothing whatsoever to chance in his list. Without exception, every one of his flavor’s biggest cynically-engineered slapfights and worst moral failures is right there, each one lovingly compared to the first and bestest-bestest-ever Christians to ever-ever-forever Jesus-the-Jesus-Jesus.

And he’s been pushing these five false claims for almost two years now while ignoring all the big scandals that have been unearthed in this same time. If his flavor of Christianity actually were actually the real-deal Original Christianity, then it’d tell us a lot about the disgusting perversity, control-lust, and cruelty of the first Christians. 

It’s grotesque that he’d go there, yes. But wow, it’s also a breathtaking admission.

In an age when evangelicals’ only product — group membership — is more and more tainted and unwanted by the day, all Tim Keller’s got is lying his face off to try to at least retain a few butts in pews (BIPs) before they realize it’s all fake and bleed out the back door.

NEXT UP: I wish evangelical pew-warmers cared more about their own rights. Their leaders certainly don’t! Evangelicals rarely even think about the stuff that can go hideously wrong when they trust their leaders too much. We’ll ask why next time — see you soon!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...