Deconstructing Evangelicalism Constantine Campbell’s Jesus v. Evangelicals: A Biblical Critique of a Wayward Movement (Zondervan, 2023) would have to be one of the saddest books I have read in quite some time. […]
In a former version of this article, I wrongly stated that “Campbell says that he is now an “exangelical”.” However, Campbell wishes not to be identified by any label, but simply to be known as an “Anglican”.
Whenever something like this occurs, it is always a terrible tragedy. And it is something which causes great grief throughout the body of Christ (see 1 Sam. 15:35). I’ve never met Con Campbell, but everyone I know who has, holds him in the highest regard in love. But this is precisely why reviewing his latest book is so hard and I wish he’d never written it.
Any response to Campbell’s criticisms runs the risk then of only providing further evidence of the very things he rails against. Maybe that’s why there have been so few reviews of the book from the wider evangelical community? Much like trying to defend oneself today about not being racist, the mere objection signifies that the individual is quite the White Supremacist!
Campbell believes that most modern-day evangelicals are essentially “judgmental”, “self-righteous” and “unloving” hypocrites. That’s why the cover page has an image of an overturned money table because like Jesus, Campbell is seeking to “cleanse the temple” of Christ’s church of the worldly worship of Pharisaical evangelicals who have corrupted it.
Campbell explains that he has come to this controversial conclusion because of eight key ‘fault lines’. Well, at least in the United States and Australia, as Campbell doesn’t extend his critique to include the UK. But I’m pretty sure he’d say the same things apply there as well. I’ll take each of them in turn as well as try and give a response. All of which means this is going to be a much longer book review than normal…
Fault line 1: American Evangelicalism has become too Politicised
Campbell hates Donald Trump and cannot understand why any evangelicals worth their spiritual salt could have voted for him. That becomes clear from the opening line of the book where Campbell includes a quote from Trump, complete with unedited expletive. Campbell is himself a Democrat by conviction, and hence is effusive in his praise for—as well as strident defence of—the fictional TV drama, The West Wing. Indeed, he often references the words in the show of Catholic President Jed Bartlet to make an authoritative theological point on everything from homosexuality, headship and submission within marriage, asylum seekers and what is the evangelical gospel.
The political situation in the United States though, is much more complicated than Campbell leads the reader to believe. It’s a shame that someone with Campbell’s intellectual acumen and obvious writing ability hasn’t read more broadly on the issues. In this regard, Victor Hanson Davis’ The Case for Trump(Little Brown, 2020) would have been an excellent work for him to have interacted with. But there are also a number of others.
I lived in Southern California for approximately four years between 1988-1992 where I attended a conservative evangelical, Lutheran (Missouri Synod) University. Friends who are still there tell me that under Barack Obama, Christian institutions were only days away from being closed if they didn’t comply with his socially progressive agenda. By the grace of God this didn’t occur but, what has become clear is that—just as with Joe Biden—these so-called “Christian” presidents are nothing of the sort in their strident advocacy for abortion, infanticide, transgenderism, gay marriage and euthanasia.
At least, as the comedian Dave Chappelle perceptively explained out on Saturday Night Live, Trump is an “honest liar”.Trump had the integrity (a term which is extremely hard to use in connection with Trump’s character) to at least admit that he is not a believer and neither has he ever tried to claim that he lived like one. But he has done more to defend the ethical values of people of faith than any of the so-called ‘Christian’ ones.
Campbell begrudgingly acknowledges that Roe v. Wade was overturned due to Trump’s appointment of conservative Supreme Court judges. But Campbell sadly goes on to offer a number of spurious caveats as to why a reversal of this monumental judicial decision wasn’t really all that significant. As Campbell states:
Recent research has demonstrated that the abortion rate in the United States fell to its lowest level ever in 2018—even lower than the rate preceding Roe v. Wade in 1973. Globally, data show that “stricter abortion laws do not lead to fewer abortions” and that “preventing unwanted pregnancies has a significant effect on reducing the number of terminations.” Research demonstrates that the most effective strategy to reduce abortion rates is to increase access to contraception. If we take it as a given that lowering the number of terminations is the goal, perhaps evangelicals should give more weight to strategies besides making abortion illegal.
Campbell’s arguments here sound strangely reminiscent of those which might have been used after the end of slavery. Yes, it was the right thing to do, but Campbell believes Christians should never be single-minded voters—let alone get too involved in politics—even if it involves an issue which is literally a matter of life-and-death. It’s difficult not to see how Campbell’s position practically at least, doesn’t result in political quietism.
Fault line 2: Evangelicals Hold to an Unloving “us versus them” Mentality, especially when it comes to Gay Marriage, Homosexuality, Transgenderism and Race.
Campbell shifts continents at this point and turns his sights on his home country of Australia. He is especially critical of what he calls the Anglican Diocese of Sydney’s “blunder” in donating one million dollars to the same-sex marriage ‘No’ campaign in 2016. However, it quickly becomes clear that this is because Campbell himself believes homosexuals should have been afforded the right to marry all along. As Campbell argues, “Christians can no more claim that marriage belongs to us than we can claim to own the sun”. Further, according to Campbell:
As long as two consenting adults are involved, why do evangelicals care if they choose to be together and call that marriage? There is no parallel in this case to abortion, a matter in which innocent lives are at stake and require protection.
But this is to really miss the entire point because a) On what grounds does Campbell believe that only twoconsenting adults should be married? Why not three or more? And why not extend that provision to those who are even related? b) God is the one who defines the limits as to whom we should marry and hence marriage belongs to Him as does the sun and everything else He created c) What’s more, the rights of children are hugely impacted when either their biological mother or father is legally removed.
Of even greater concern, Campbell claims that evangelicals misunderstand Romans 1:18-32 since it is a “symptom, not a cause, and the passage does not address individuals and their choices”. But this only further confuses the issue. Homosexual practice is clearly a judgment from God. And as such, it’s something to be repented of and confessed.
Not only does Campbell fail to interact with any conservative evangelical author on the subject of homosexuality, but he also fails to mention any of the other pertinent passages on this issue; i.e., Genesis 19:1-11; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:10 or Jude 5-10, all of which would have directly refuted his thesis. In fact, Campbell even comes to the following disturbing conclusion:
Attempts to halt the outworking of this judgment may find little success, and it could even be argued that evangelicals. who try to impede the “outworking” of Romans 1:18-32 are opposing the plan of God, since these societies are experiencing the results of a fractured knowledge of God as an expression of his judgment.
Is Campbell really suggesting that the evangel is not powerful to save and transform a person’s soul? That is the opposite of what the apostle Paul teaches when he famously says, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed. You were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 6:11).
Campbell travels down the same hermeneutical trail when it comes to the subject of transgenderism. This is because, according to Campbell, the Bible is “an artefact of the ancient world” and so “did not have a developed way of discussing the difference between gender and sex, although there are nevertheless some hints of the distinction.” This is not the place to enter into an extensive discussion of the topic, but for those who are interested, see the excellent paper by Rob Smith, Responding to the Transgender Revolution. Needless to say, Campbell’s arguments are once again less than convincing.
Critical Race Theory
A third concern in Campbell’s book is his treatment of racism, and in particular, his support for Social Justice and Critical Race Theory (CRT). Campbell seems unaware as to how antithetical CRT is to Biblical Christianity, and it is also striking how little secondary literature—from either secular or evangelical authors—Campbell interacts with or even seems to be aware of. Instead, Campbell argues:
Christians are wise to “plunder the Egyptians” when secular society develops useful tools. We don’t have to buy into the worldview out of which they come any more than soccer moms become Hindu when they do yoga in the gym.
The issue I always have whenever people use this argument is that they also fail to perceive the danger of compromise which it ultimately presents. Later in the book of Exodus, the Israelites use the gold they had plundered for Aaron to use in constructing a “golden calf” (Exod. 32). This act was itself the pinnacle of idolatrous rebellion. Tragically, the same thing often occurs with those who practice yoga, which is in itself an inherently spiritual practice.
Campbell v. Evangelicals?
Campbell repeatedly rebukes evangelicals for having an unloving and self-righteous “us versus them” mentality. The greatest irony of all though is that his own book is titled, Jesus v. Evangelicals. Is that itself not an “us versus them” paradigm? For when Campbell uses the very same rhetorical approach, is he is not to guilty of “gaslighting”? Thus, perhaps a more accurate title for the book would have been Campbell v. Evangelicals?
Fault line 3: Evangelicalism is Judgmental and Self-Righteous
Campbell over generalises that evangelicals are characterised by pride rather than humility. This is especially evident in how they treat those who have been divorced or are experiencing marital breakdown. This is an extremely sensitive issue, and due to the ongoing presence of sin, we all unfortunately hurt one another in a multiplicity of different ways. That’s why the Bible says, “Be kind and compassionate with one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).
Following on from Fault Line #2 though, it’s hard not to feel judged by the author while he himself hectors evangelical readers on why they are guilty of having treated others in precisely that way which he himself does. I actually wonder if Campbell is subconsciously aware of this though, as he concludes chapter 3, “Bad Judgment” with the following confession:
As I’ve been writing this chapter, I’ve reflected on my complicity in judging others and I’ve reflected on those who’ve stood over me in judgment. For the former, I’ve needed forgiveness. Regarding the latter, as the target of judgment, I’ve experienced hurt, confusion, and anger. But the LORD has given me peace. I offer them forgiveness in the name of Jesus.
Fault line 4: Evangelicals are Divisive and Tribal
Closely connected to the previous fault line is Campbell’s contention that evangelicals are also far too “tribal”. I can’t speak for the situation in America, but evangelicalism in Australia has prided itself on being almost anti-tribal. The Katoomba Christian Convention—another major ministry Campbell fails to mention—has had a significant impact on drawing evangelicals together from across the denominational divide.
Further, Campbell is negligent in not acknowledging the impact of evangelical institutions such as Sydney Missionary and Bible College—Australia’s oldest non-denominational Bible College—and especially the ministry of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES) in which Campbell himself has been previously involved.
The only evangelicals whom Campbell acknowledges “attempt to pursue a spirit of Christian unity” are Together for the Gospel (T4G) and the Gospel Coalition (TGC). But he quickly dismisses them saying, “But these coalitions tend to develop their own cultures and tribal characteristics that may just tilt toward creating new bigger tribes.”
The most significant example of tribalism which Campbell identifies is that of Moore Theological College’s (MTC) approach to preaching. Campbell personally takes issue with the approach of the deceased evangelist John Chapman—a part-time lecturer in preaching at MTC—who apparently always insisted on students preaching the cross in every single sermon. And not only that, but who specifically championed the theory known as penal substitutionary atonement.
I am myself a graduate of MTC and I thought that his criticism was both unfair and misleading. Especially under the tutelage of Graeme Goldsworthy, we were exhorted to always “preach Christ”. Indeed, I often recall John Chapman’s warm encouragement that every sermon—whether from the Old or the New Testament—should be offensive to, or hopefully convert, either a Muslim or a Jew.
But this could, and even should, be achieved in a multiplicity of ways! I vividly remember Goldsworthy—as well as many of the other lecturers at MTC—exhorting us in lecturers, sermons as well as informally, not to be reductionistic in our approach. Instead, we were challenged to creatively explore the rich and varied ways Christ is revealed throughout the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. Indeed, Goldsworthy himself published a book on this very subject—Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture— which we were all exhorted to read.
Fault line 5: Evangelicals Excuse Certain Sins while Over-Focusing on Others
Here Campbell zeroes in on the fallen figure and celebrity pastor, Mark Driscoll. It’s somewhat disconcerting though, because in the chapter just before this Campbell writes, “For some evangelicals, divorce is one of those unacceptable sins that permits defamation, alienation, and abuse of offenders.” And yet all of a sudden, Campbell himself is committing almost exactly the same sins he rails against!
Most evangelicals today would agree with nearly all of the criticisms Campbell makes about Driscoll, even if the tone in which he makes them is somewhat unloving. But I don’t personally know of a single evangelical leader who would try to defend his behaviour. It’s the severity of his judgment upon Driscoll which causes me the greatest level of unease. It’s as if there is a spirit ofschadenfreude in Driscoll’s demise. Campbell is distressed at how he has supposedly been treated, and yet he is more than happy to throw stones at others who have also been stood down.
I personally approached a well-known evangelical scholar at a preaching conference once to see what he thought of Driscoll’s behaviour—a few years before it all fell apart—and after a long and thoughtful pause he said to me, “Let’s just say that a number of us are trying to mentor him. Please keep Mark in your prayers!” However, I didn’t get the impression in reading Campbell’s chapter that this was something he was likely to suggest, let alone do.
Fault line 6: Evangelicals show little Pastoral Care or Concern for Divorcees
Campbell is more than upfront with readers as to the breakdown of his own marriage and the personal and professional consequences that resulted. But while his intention in the chapter (Till Death Do Us Part) is to request greater compassion, I was left feeling that Campbell was engaging in special pleading to justify from the Bible why what he himself had done was OK.
In contradiction to the historic reformed faith, Campbell believes that desertion and adultery are not the only grounds for a Christian to be divorced. How he reaches that particular conclusion requires a level of exegetical gymnastics which he himself acknowledges at times pushes the limits of Biblical inerrancy and which results in a level of “harmonization” which is unlikely to convince those who know the Scriptures well.
Even though I am a graduate of the same college in which Campbell trained and served, I had no inkling that the Campbells’ marriage had dissolved until I had read his book. Which is good, because it means that at least my evangelical brethren weren’t also guilty of gossip. But Campbell believes he received much more support and sympathy from unbelievers than he did from those within the evangelical church. Campbell acknowledges that:
Some evangelicals will argue that this is because non-Christians don’t care about marriage as much as we do, so their lack of judgment is cheap. Unbelievers might even celebrate your personal freedom and ability to do whatever you want. None of that is very Christian. [And] these arguments serve only to excuse the very real problem of evangelical judgmentalism.
However, just why exactly is the above argument “not very Christian”? One of the most challenging things about following Jesus is knowing that there is an ethical expectation placed upon you which the unbelieving world cares nothing about. Indeed, it delights in rebelling against God’s law and especially “approves of those who practise them” (Rom. 1:32). This being the case, unbelievers affirming his decision to be divorced is exactly what you’d expect from them to do. The real surprise would be if they challenged him to remain faithful. Campbell would likely object that I’m just one of those nasty evangelicals who are guilty of being judgmental.
Fault line 7: Evangelicals are Too Focused on Celebrity Pastors and Megachurches
I found myself agreeing with nearly everything Campbell says on this point. His analysis of the megachurch phenomenon is both apropos and insightful. While I don’t think really large churches are wrong in and of themselves, a church of over 2,000 people—the definition of what Campbell classifies as a megachurch—does “invite anonymity, spectatorship, consumerism, and a lack of meaningful engagement beyond the Sunday show.”
But the vast majority of evangelical churches in America, and especially Australia, would not qualify. Indeed, I can’t think of a single evangelical church in Australia which has more than 2,000 people in regularly attendance. I’ve also been part of a thriving multi-site church in Sydney, and it was able to negotiate many of the problems Campbell correctly identifies.
Nearly every evangelical theologian or pastor I know would agree with Campbell’s criticisms and even add a hearty “Amen!”. And so, what’s exactly the problem? If modern day evangelicalism has sold its soul to the spirit of the age as Campbell claims, then where are the real-life examples of this happening, especially in his home town and country? All of the evangelical pastors I know—even in multi-site—are serving in churches of 250 or less.
Fault line 8: Evangelicalism has been Over-Run by a Lunatic Fringe
While Campbell positively mentions the examples of John Stott and Mark Dever as evangelical leaders whom he admires, he seems eager to include a whole host of people who are anything but evangelical, let alone Christian. What’s more, Stott himself would have bristled at the suggestion that he was any kind of “Pope”. That’s the complete antithesis to everything evangelicalism as a theological movement stands for.
Campbell uses this final “fault line” to have another shot at evangelicals who dared to speak against voting democrat. And this is where John MacArthur, who Campbell labels an “evangelical superstar”, comes in for special mention. Perhaps the reader should simply listen to what MacArthur said and decide whether a follower of Christ Jesus could in good conscience vote for Joe Biden.
It is outside the scope of this already overly long review to respond to each objection Campbell makes. But it is worth clarifying that the context of MacArthur’s words was in the context of COVID-19 lockdown and democratic overreach in the state of California. This resulted in an expensive legal battle which MacArthur and Grace Community Church ultimately won and were awarded $400,000 (US).
By the end of the book, Campbell seems intent on blaming “evangelicalism” for the behaviour of every kind of heretic and false teacher in the church today. But is this really fair? A few chapters earlier Campbell eviscerated evangelicals for being horribly judgmental, and yet all of a sudden they do not seem to be able to exercise any doctrinal discernment at all.
What’s more, it is striking which evangelical leaders Campbell chooses to highlight, and those whom he chooses to completely ignore. I would have thought that having served at two of the leading evangelical theological training institutions in the world—Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Chicago and Moore Theological College, Sydney—at least some of Campbell’s former evangelical colleagues were worthy of respect, or maybe even a positive mention?
A Cultural Critique of a Personal Problem
As I said at the beginning, this was one of the saddest (and spiritually sobering) books I have read in quite some time. It seems to come more from a place of personal pain and professional disappointment rather than operate as any objective critique from a wise and trusted friend.
The major disappointment I had with Campbell’s book though, is that it is not the “Biblical critique” that it purports to be, but a subjective defence of the author’s own political and personal theological views. I lost count of how many times Campbell spoke of evangelicals being responsible for the so-called “culture wars”. All while he himself stoked the fires of religious animosity!
Ultimately, it’s the kind of book which someone should have strongly encouraged him not to write, or at least publish, for it doesn’t benefit anyone. While Campbell is a world class scholar in Biblical Greek, his handling of Scripture calls into question his ability to exegete the text objectively or well (2 Tim. 2:15).
I only hope that this is not the book he is remembered for. And if Con happens to be reading this, then I trust that he will graciously take the feedback in the spirit in which it was given (Prov. 27:6). We’re all “works in progress” and even our brothers and sisters in Christ can hurt us more deeply than we could ever imagine. Just try being a pastor sometime.
But that doesn’t mean that the movement itself is wrong or that it needs overturning. Indeed, as I’m sure Campbell himself would still affirm, our union with the Lord Jesus Christ empowers us to forgive just as we have been forgiven (Matt. 6:14-15). And this is what the evangelical movement still champions and is rightly to be commended for.
Evangelicalism as a movement is far from perfect. But neither is it the Pharisaical enemy to Christianity which Campbell thinks. We’re all a mixture of fallen human beings who continue to struggle with every kind of sin there is.
But precisely because Christ Himself has promised to never let us out of His hand (John 10:28) I hope and pray that Con Campbell knows that he is loved infinitely more than he has ever been hurt. And that the behaviour of his evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ always reflects the truth of the Gospel message we all hold so dear.
– Mark Powell
 It’s beyond the scope of this review, but Campbell’s analysis of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial is similarly simplistic. For a more robust treatment of the subject historically and culturally see Edward J Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Evolution (Basic Books, 2006).
 Campbell quotes approvingly of an article by Jonathan Merritt, “Conservative evangelicals were unwilling to offer forgiveness to a Democrat who asked for it. But they have freely offered it to a Republican who doesn’t want it.” However, Clinton never publicly asked for forgiveness but lied that he “had sexual intercourse with that woman”. What’s more, there is not an evangelical Christian I know who believes that Trump’s personal lifestyle is in any way acceptable.
 Campbell simply glosses over any serious examination of the subject, and instead writes, “The New Testament has plenty to say on the subject as well (Romans 1:18-32). Suffice it to say, Christians differ on the interpretation and application of the relevant texts, and this is not the place to weigh in on those discussions.” Jesus v. Evangelicals, 39.
 Campbell takes particular issue with Driscoll’s brash manner when meeting the faculty at MTC and for being disappointed that Graeme Goldsworthy was no longer on staff. Of particular concern to Campbell though, was Driscoll’s failure to properly acknowledge or thank his assistant for handing him a can of coke.
 For a thorough examination of the passage in question see the work by Campbell’s former evangelical colleague at Moore College and Gordon Conwell Seminary, Roy E. Ciampa & Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Apollos, 2010).
 The accusation of “judgmentalism” is a difficult one to respond too for all manner of different reasons. Campbell was a respected theologian and well-known author when the breakdown of his marriage occurred. There are obviously consequences when this happens, whether it is for a short time or maybe even longer. And this is because of the very public nature of one’s role (1 Tim. 5:20). But that is really only a problem if your identity is tied up with your academic or ecclesiastical position such that you can’t possibly do anything else.
Hillsong doesn’t count because they are technically charismatic / Pentecostal.