I have been following the health status of, and praying for, Rachel Held Evans recently, as she lay in a coma induced to keep her brain from constant seizures. Yesterday, Evans passed away, after a fight to keep her alive following an ordeal that started with a reaction to antibiotics.
As word of Evans death spread through the internet, many expressed their shock and grief. A number of those people also wrote about how she inspired them to take bold steps in their lives, to walk in faith. There was something about the way she made people feel comfortable with doubt, and processing that as a normal part of a faith journey, that resonated with a lot of Christians. She particularly strengthened those who felt cast out by their church experiences.
Evans was noted for her disagreements with prominent evangelical leaders, but it seems that she carried out those difficult discussions with a measure of grace.
High-profile female writers and speakers in American evangelicalism have traditionally focused on spiritual questions, and shied away from controversy and confrontation. But Evans often used her platform to challenge male pastors and leaders. Over the years, she sparred about theology, culture, and politics with prominent Christian men including Russell Moore, John Piper, Rod Dreher, and Mark Driscoll. (Many of them have expressed their prayers for her in recent weeks, after Evans shared the news of her illness.)
Progressive Baptist Pastor John Thornton Jr. puts it well in his newsletter.
I’ll also confess that at times I found her frustrating. Sometimes she seemed a bit naive, taking conservative evangelicals at their word. I wanted her to just tell them to screw off. But I have to admit I found her interactions with many of them impressive. It always seemed rooted in a hope that they could and should be better and that in some way it was her job to stand for anyone that would listen. She offered thousands of people a glimpse of the ways the Christian faith could be less unkind and unfair than the conservative, white evangelicalism that Gen X and millennials were raised in. She seemed genuinely invested in the struggle for a better church when she had plenty of reason to walk away. She showed up and did the work because she knew people, especially people that churches had hurt over and over, needed her to.
Though I only occasionally read Evans’ writing, I remember the experience of feeling that she put ideas, that I couldn’t quite express, very succinctly. I was particularly struck by this Twitter thread.
And, in my experience, Mainline Protestants tend to put a heavy emphasis on the teachings of Jesus, with less emphasis on Paul/the epistles, while evangelicals tend to do the opposite. (Generalization alert! Sorry!)....— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) December 21, 2017
Mainline Christians often take a beating by evangelicals on the subject of biblical fidelity, but Evans’ words reminded me that it’s often just a matter of what parts of the Bible on which a church choses to focus. There are those in more conservative Christian circles who believe that mainline churches are losing members due to a lack of adherence to scripture. Joshua Tait, in this piece on Pete Buttigieg, refers to this position as “demographic triumphalism.”
In truth, churches in mainline Christian denominations aren’t any less faithful to scripture, but their traditions have been built upon a different emphasis. They don’t tend to read the Bible as a constitution, where the “house rules” of Paul have the same importance as the gospel of Jesus. I was grateful to Evans’ for pointing this out, with numerous supporting examples. It’s just an example of how she could question certain dogma with clarity but also grace.
A great number of people are going to miss Rachel Held Evans for all sorts of reasons. Her voice was a critical one within the sphere of Christian thought. She kept many who would have otherwise left within the faith. We will be praying for her young family and many friends as they navigate through their grief.