Warning Signs About The State Of Evangelical Pop Culture: The Visible, Institutional Church Matters

The evangelical world is gravely ill. The disease is not Covid-19. It is not even what you might suppose it to be. After all, we should not be surprised to find out about sin within the highest precincts of Big Eva. The real disease is EDS: Ecclesiology Deficiency Syndrome. The confirmation yesterday of the ugly details of the Ravi Zacharias scandal and the announcement that consumers (via iTunes) have pushed a “Queer” Christian to the top of the Contemporary Christian Music chart are symptoms of EDS. We have been seeing symptoms for decades. When I taught briefly (and happily) at Wheaton College in the mid-90s I used to ask my students, “what is Billy Graham’s ecclesiastical affiliation?” No one knew because it did not matter. As far as Graham was concerned, and as far as the post-World War II evangelical establishment was concerned, the function of visible institutional church was to serve the big parachurch organizations. The visible church was for young Christians, but the parachurch organizations were said to be where the action was. Fuller Seminary, founded by the movers and shakers of the neo-Evangelical movement, Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003), Harold J. Ockenga (1905–85), and, later, E. J. Carnell (1919–67)—not to mention the school’s namesake, Charles E. Fuller (1887–1968), the radio evangelist—is symptomatic of the desire of the post-war neo-evangelicals to try to have the theology of the better fundamentalists (e.g., Machen) of the pre-war ear but without the nasty church fights. The neo-evangelical movement was intentionally a church-less movement. Coincidently, EDS stands for a real medical syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which weakens the connective tissue of the body. Perhaps that makes EDS as used here, Ecclesiology Deficiency Syndrome, ironic too?

Coming Out In CCM

There has been a spate of stories for more than a decade about leading CCM performers and figures “coming out” as homosexual. Ray Boltz started the movement in 2008, when he “came out” in The Washington Blade. He says he is now living a “normal gay life.” The reader may be certain that the Apostle Paul would call that an oxymoron. This past July, Matthew Paul Turner, the former editor of Contemporary Christian Music Magazine, also announced his homosexuality and his divorce.

Of the stories I read about Semler (her professional name), the HuffPo article was the most illuminating. A lot of the headlines are misleading. When most of us think about CCM, we think about theologically conservative people trying to communicate (more or less) traditional (modern) evangelical theology in some genre of rock. Think of Larry Norman or Chuck Girard or any of the performers who set the trajectory of CCM, whose records I was playing at “New Life 95” KBHL in Lincoln, one of the USA’s pioneering CCM radio stations. Theologically, Larry Norman was rather conservative. Semler is not Larry Norman, i.e., Billy Graham with long hair and some hot blues licks. As the HuffPo article explains, she is the

daughter of an Episcopal priest, Semler said she grew up going to church multiple times a week. The Christian community she was raised in was generally welcoming to LGBTQ Christians, allowing queer parishioners to serve in leadership roles. But even with such a progressive religious upbringing and parents who wholeheartedly embrace her, Semler said she wasn’t shielded from toxic Christian theology. She was still exposed to it when she went on mission trips or attended church camps, she said.

The only time she came into contact with any semblance of traditional Christianity was when she visited it at camp and she judged it “toxic.” Why is her music Christian? The article explains, “Preacher’s Kid is a Christian album, she insisted, because she is a Christian, and many of the songs she wrote for it deal with her faith.” This is sheer Narcissism but it is a great indicator of what is wrong.

1. Semler identifies as a Christian
2. Semler thinks x
3. Therefore x is a Christian truth

That Semler thinks of herself as a Christian is granted. That she thinks x (e.g., her opinions regarding LGBTQ sexualities) is granted but it does not follow that her views qualify as Christian. There are more objective measures. It is not as if Holy Scripture does not speak to LGBTQ sexualities. It does. Growing up Episcopalian she might not be aware of what Paul says in Romans 1:18–32; and in 1 Corinthians 6:9–20 but they are painfully clear. Paul’s language in both places is rather pointed, especially in 1 Corinthians 6, even if that pointedness is obscured somewhat by our English translations (see the resources below for more).

My point here is not to rail against Semler, Botz, or Turner et al. but to note how they illustrate the personality-driven, churchless nature of contemporary evangelical (to the degree that evangelicals are funding Semler’s mission to mainstream the Q of LGBTQ into the evangelical bloodstream) theology, piety, and practice. It is rootless relative to the Great Christian Tradition, i.e., catholic (universal) Christianity. It is divorced from Scripture. It is church-less.

Back in the very early 80s I learned that CCM was no “ministry.” It was a business. It still is. Big companies are selling a product, an experience, an illusion to Christians. This is not to say that there are not wonderful, godly people producing contemporary Christian music but it is to indict the CCM business. Who elevated these people to Christian leaders? The New Testament has a process for identifying and vetting Christian leaders (see 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). Nowhere in the Pastoral Epistles do we find agents, record label executives, or concert promotors. Paul speaks of pastors, elders, and deacons. This is not to say that CCM artists have to pass the tests of 1 and 2 Timothy or Titus in order to get up on stage or sing or to post a song on the internet but it is to say that Christians must stop looking to them for leadership. A singer does not a leader make. Many of them are thoroughly confused theologically. Clearly the folks giving up the struggle against their homosexual desires are not accountable, in any real way, to orthodox, biblically-grounded churches.

Leaving Big Eva

Perhaps brightest warning sign about the danger of unaccountable, wandering, self-proclaimed, self-identified, evangelical leaders is the Ravi Zacharias scandal. The details are not edifying. Part of the story is that he bought and operated a couple of spas. I kid you not. Investigators announced yesterday that they confirmed the worst allegations of sexual misconduct and even a charge of rape.

Which church ordained Zacharias? To whom was he accountable? Was he a Methodist, a Lutheran, a Baptist, a Presbyterian? As it happens he was ordained in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which has roots in the holiness tradition. The CMA statement about his death mentioned nothing about the gross immorality with which he had been charged. Indeed the CMA cleared him of the charges in March of 2018.

One might object: Zacharias was supposed to be accountable to the CMA. Is that not what you want? Yes and no. He had a formal relation to CMA but in a rightly ordered church, any minister who operated “spas” and who advertised himself as having degrees that he did not have, would have been sanctioned and removed from ministry. Only after public furor over the scandal did the CMA have another go at it. Further, we should consider the nature of Zacharias “ministry.” He did not function as a local pastor but as a roving ambassador and defender of Christianity. This is not to say that he did no good but how much damage has his scandal done? Conferences have their use but our Lord instituted the visible, institutional church. He instituted the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the two sacraments (Baptism and Holy Communion), and the use of church discipline. Were these the hallmarks of Zacharias ministry and life? When we think of his work, do we think of Word, sacrament, and discipline or of bright lights and big conferences. It would seem to me that, if one is dedicated to defending the faith, scrupulous honesty about one’s credentials would be essential. His serious fudging about these things did not impress at least one skeptic, who doggedly uncovered the truth but he fudged these things because fake credentials are a part of the Big Eva biz.

This site is devoted to recovering the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. That puts the visible, institutional church right at the center of why the HB exists: to help the Reformed churches recover their own confession and to help those who are investigating the Reformed faith to find it, to grow in it, and to find a confessional Reformed congregation. The visible church matters. Church structures matter. Accountability matters. The truth seems to be that Ravi was another evangelical rock star who was not genuinely accountable to anyone. He was famous. Influential people came to celebrate the opening of his first “spa.” Were he accountable, in Reformed categories, to a local consistory (elders and pastors) and to a regional gathering of elders and ministers (classis), I am reasonably sure that he would not have been permitted to open a couple of spas. Do the Reformed churches get everything right all the time? No. There was a minister in my own federation of churches, who, in 2012, was sentenced to five years in prison for sexual exploitation. Nevertheless, despite that, structures matter. That is why the Lord instituted ministers, elders, and deacons. They are to hold one another accountable and to hold the sheep accountable, who in turn, have a role in holding the leadership accountable. Mutual oversight and care is built in to the nature of the Reformed church or it is meant to be but it is not built into nor is it a part of the CCM concert and record circuit,  or the Big Eva conference circuit.

Dear Christian, please do not invest your favorite CCM artist with spiritual authority. Music is powerful. I still remember CCM lyrics and riffs from 40 years ago. Songs are designed to get into your heart and head but a good guitar lick is just that. A good song writer is a good poet but that does not qualify her to be your spiritual mentor, even if the song she sings “speaks to” you. God is speaking to you in his holy Word. His servant, your pastor, is speaking for him when he faithfully announces the law and the gospel Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day. Your favorite CCM pop star or your favorite Big Eva celebrity will not visit you when you are down, but your pastor will. The Big Eva celebrity is not charged to care for your spiritual well being but your pastors and elders are. They love you. They know your name. They are praying for you. Won’t you look to them? Enjoy the beats and the bass but let them be what they are: entertainment. Let your pastors and elders be to you what they are, those who shall give account to God for your soul.

© R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Dr. Clark, thank you for this article. The news about Ravi Zacharias is quite heartbreaking. Thanks for pointing out the emphasis that the local church and elders should have in the life of a believer. Just a quick note, on your first reference to 1 and 2 Timothy in the article, Timothy is spelled “ Timonthy.” Thanks again for the article!

  2. Dr. Clark

    You said, /Growing up Episcopalian she might not be aware of what Paul says in Romans 1:18–32; and in 1 Corinthians 6:9–20 but they are painfully clear./

    Having attended an episcopal (later Anglican) church and seminary (trinity school for ministry) I can tell you that in the daily office lectionary of the 1979 episcopal book of common prayer (the daily Bible readings) it skips keys passages about homosexuality. For example, in the readings for week 2 of lent, on Tuesday the NT reading is Romans 1:16-25, then on Wednesday the reading is Romans 1:28-2:11. It just skips 1:26-27 completely!
    Same thing occurs in the week of proper 20. The reading for Wednesday of that week is 1 Corinthians 5:9-6:8 and then the Thursday reading is 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, totally skipping verses 9-11!

    So your hunch is right…the episcopal church purged those texts from their daily lectionary readings.

Comments are closed.