The last few years have been a rough stretch for the evangelical church. Plagued not only by a complex and intractable health crisis with COVID, the church has also faced an increasingly polarized cultural-political environment as well as numerous internal scandals involving abusive leadership.
Perhaps it is not surprising that this same period of time has seen a rise in so-called cases of deconversion—people who once claimed to be fairly run-of-the-mill evangelicals but then, for whatever reasons, decided this was not the life for them. And they walked away from the faith.
The high-profile cases of deconversion stories are well known: Rob Bell, Rhett and Link, Joshua Harris, etc. And for every high-profile case, there are countless ordinary folks who are also leaving Christianity behind. There is even a recent book devoted to this phenomenon: John Marriott, The Anatomy of Deconversion: Keys to a Lifelong Faith in a Culture Abandoning Christianity (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2021).
At the same time, something else has been happening in evangelical Christian circles—some believers are engaging in the task of deconstruction.
Now, understandably, that word also has its own negative connotations—largely due to the work of Jacques Derrida. For many, deconstruction is a dismantling of the Christian worldview so that core Christian beliefs are subverted and undermined.
In other words, some use deconstruction as a functional synonym for deconversion. To say “I deconverted” is the equivalent of saying, “I deconstructed my faith.” Thus, it’s a rejection of historic Christian beliefs.
But that is not always how the term “deconstruction” is being used by evangelicals today. For many, it simply means that we should ask hard questions about whether the version of Christianity we are following is consistent with the Scriptures, or with historic Christian beliefs through the centuries.
Now, given the confusion around the term “deconstruction,” one could argue that it might be better to use a different word altogether. Fair enough. But, my purpose here is merely to observe that some people use the term more positively regardless of whether we wished they used a different one.
In this more positive sense, a call for deconstruction is effectively a call for reformation. It’s saying there just might be things in the church that are seriously broken or problematic. And the church should work to change these things when they’re discovered.
Essentially, this is what Martin Luther did. He inherited a particular version of Christianity, namely medieval Roman Catholicism which included the veneration of the saints, the selling of indulgences, and the moral corruption of the clergy (just read about Luther’s 1510 visit to Rome).
Of course, what happened next is well known. Luther began to have serious doubts about the Christianity that he was presented with. But—and this is key—this did not mean he doubted Christianity itself. The two should not be confused.
Now, Luther’s detractors did not see it this way. For them, Luther was, in fact, denying the one truth faith. Therefore, in their eyes, he was an apostate. He was a schismatic heretic.
Two Kinds of Deconstruction
With these considerations in mind, it seems we can distinguish between two kinds of “deconstruction”:
Total Deconstruction. This kind of deconstruction is essentially the same as deconversion and ends up undermining, and denying, core doctrines of historical Christianity. Even if a person insists on calling themselves a “Christian,” they have effectively left the faith.
Reforming Deconstruction. This is the kind of deconstruction that affirms Christianity’s historic Christian beliefs, but also acknowledges that there are still real and serious issues that the church needs to address. In other words, the church has more reforming to do.
As Reformed evangelicals, we would obviously not encourage Total Deconstruction because that would be the path to something other than historic Christianity. Indeed, I have written quite a few critiques of this sort of deconstruction, most recently in my book, The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity.
However, as Reformed evangelicals, we should be open to Reforming Deconstruction. Surely, we don’t believe that the church in this generation, or any generation, is without need of further reform. Just like individuals, the church must always strive towards greater sanctification. Indeed, if we believe in the doctrine of total depravity this should not come as a surprise.
Sadly, this is not always what happens. It seems that there are some, maybe even many, today that seem to reject both forms of deconstruction. There’s a posture of defensiveness in some quarters where nearly any critique of the church is met with resistance, even exasperation. If you point out a problem in the church, you must be one of those people on the pathway to deconversion and apostasy.
On this point, some will insist that deconstruction should never be compared to reformation. The Reformers, it might be argued, criticized the church on the basis of Scripture, whereas modern deconstructionists are just basing their criticisms on socio-cultural preferences.
But, this objection misses the whole point of the distinction above. It is certainly true that Total Deconstructionists are trying to make the church succumb to the standards of culture. And that should be rejected. But that is decidedly not the case with Reforming Deconstructionists. They affirm historical Christian beliefs and want to see the church become more faithful to those beliefs.
Our aversion to a particular word (“deconstruction”) should not keep us from hearing peoples’ legitimate concerns, nor should it cause us to treat them as automatic enemies of the church.
Opportunity for Reflection
Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean all critiques of the church are legitimate. She’s an easy target, and many people are quick to throw out accusations that aren’t always accurate. Moreover, there are some who can be perpetual cynics, not laying out their concerns constructively and charitably.
But, despite the critiques that are unjust, shouldn’t we be open to the critiques that are just? Shouldn’t the church that is born out of the Reformation be the very church that is genuinely open to reform?
Here’s where I think these discussions about deconstruction provide a good opportunity for some self-reflection by the evangelical church. Are we a church that is eager to point out the problems in every other institution—government, education, Hollywood—but unwilling to point out the problems in our own? Are we willing to consider the log in our own eye (Matt 7:5)?
Also, what does “loving the church” really mean? What if loving the church means we want her to be sanctified so she reflects Christ’s beauty even more? What if loving the church means we love the sheep—whom Christ loves—and guard them against the very dangers Christ asked us to watch out for? What if loving the church means that we address the things that mar her reputation in front of a watching world?
In other words, the fact that the church is the beloved bride of Christ is not a reason to care less about her shortcomings, but more. Indeed, the church is the most important institution on the planet.
So, if someone raises good-faith concerns about the state of the church, let’s be quick to listen and slow to speak. Consider their point of view, even if you don’t agree with it. There’s no need to be defensive because we can expect that the church needs reforming (just as we all need sanctification).
God is at work, purifying his bride. And that’s good news—for all of us.
I really appreciate the distinction you make about helpful, humble, biblical “deconstructing” and that which rejects all that is rich and right and good about our Christian faith. Having five young adult children, all of whom are experiencing some degree of deconstructing – some very helpful and some sadly not, I am very sensitive to this issue. I am asking God to help me look at and talk about every situation that I’m deeply concerned about in the church or society with eyes both committed to God’s truth and humbled by my and my church’s own depravity and constant need of God’s grace.
JB Boren says
In the infamous words of Barack Obama, “You didn’t build that.”
In plainer terms, how are we supposed to deconstruct something that wasn’t built in the first place? We didn’t build our faith, it was a gift to us. Therefore, if someone deconstructs something, it isn’t their faith, but something less. It might be an idea, a set of feelings, or some head knowledge, but it isn’t saving faith.
Good post, and I’m glad you are addressing it head-on…something the leaders in my own denomination (the SBC) are failing to do, IMO.
Daniel Harris says
The church will always be reforming and every Christian today needs to wrestle with issues and concerns that we see in it. I do not blame many, however, for being suspicious about a term like deconstruction, especially within a postmodern, self-actualizing context; and with many prominent former evangelical leaders using the exact same term to describe their deconversion (as you mentioned!). Many self-described “ex-vangelicals” currently use the term “deconstruction” to describe the process of the breaking down of their faith. The problem is their faith remains broken down. Many Christians, after observing that phenomena, hear the term “deconstruction” from well meaning Christians and wonder, “what is the criteria by which we are to build back?” A less culturally loaded, more positive word like “reform” or “return” or “rediscover” would be far more helpful in my opinion to ascertain exactly what it is people are seeking to do. We do not want to smash the whole thing. If we do wrestle with problematic issues within, which we all should be doing, the Word of God must be the sole rule and guide–and nothing else.
Clearer terms, carefully defined, would bring far more clarity into the discussion!
For sure there is a lot of attacks on the church both outside and within. There is what I believe is a vocal minority that has become prideful and rebellious against government. In general (and we see examples in worship) we have turned focused more on self and less on God and others.
There is also revisionists trying to change meanings of scripture and historical understandings. It’s the age old lie.. did God really say? I’ve seen posts on social media of people struggling with same sex attraction looking for encouragement and planning a celibate life and others telling them it’s ok, God’s cool with that. They start saying no that scripture isn’t talking about loving same sex marriages, it’s talking about abusive ones.. etc. There are also Baha’i and Unitarians who pose as Christians and say every religion all pointing to the same with different messengers, but when it comes down to it they can’t answer when you ask who they believe Jesus is, whether he’s God, whether he died and rose again, etc.
Guymon Hall says
Seriously? Which one of the recent deconstruction celebrities do you think are just raising “good faith concerns about the state of the church”?
Michael Kruger says
It doesn’t seem like you have read the article. I distinguished between two kinds of deconstruction, one bad and one good. The “deconstruction celebrities” (as you call them) often are engaging in the bad version. I said that plainly. Indeed, I have written entire books about this! But others offer good faith concerns. If you have never heard good faith concerns, then I might suggest you haven’t been listening. It should also be said that sometimes “deconstruction celebrities” might actually be right about some of their concerns even if they have not handled everything well. Just because someone deconverts doesn’t mean everything they said was incorrect.
Luther’s detractors did not see it this way. For them, Luther was, in fact, denying the one truth faith. Therefore, in their eyes, he was an apostate. He was a schismatic heretic.
The Reformation did cause a catastrophic schism in the Church, i.e., the Body of Christ, although it might not have been the intended outcome. An argument can be made that people like Erasmus and Thomas More were “reforming deconstructionist”, whereas Luther was a “total deconstructionist”, and that Catholics of his time think of Luther the same way evangelicals today think of the deconverted. (I had a chance to read a biography of Thomas More, who wrote many treatises defending the Catholic Church, matching the vitriol of Martin Luther and William Tyndale tit for tat. He was perhaps one of few laymen with the learning, knowledge and skill, to engage in this historic struggle, and his writings tell the other side of the story, so to speak.)
Someone once said to the effect that Luther abolished the authority of the Pope, only to replace it with another, his own. I suspect the same can be said about “total deconstructionist” today, i.e., they replaced the authority of historical Christianity with self-authority. If Luther didn’t doubt Christianity, neither did the progressives, for they only challenged the version they were familiar with.
When I was younger I thought if only the church did this or that more people would come along…but I think I was coming from a place of naivety.
I reckon that Christ calls us to deconstruct those things that hinder our faith on a daily basis. This can be on a personal level and also as a local church community or even as a denomination.
It calls for maturity and forbearance, prayer etc and is much easier said than done. I would consider Gideon a reluctant deconstructionist, reformer, transformer and so on. Our societies tear things down and rebuild all the time, all those house flip shows & stuff. But often they are following a trend and investing substantial money for a quick return.
The big thing is growing in awareness of what the church of Christ is and is not as we look to the Word of God in how we go about things in a godly manner.
Timothy Joseph says
While I appreciate your distinctions, it seems you seem to be willing to believe that either form actually seeks to Reform the Church. I wonder what example you might raise as a proper deconstruction? Maybe with some at the various RTS you would see Social Justice as a legitimate example of deconstruction. I certainly hope not.
Michael Kruger says
Depends what you mean. If you mean that Total Deconstruction people might personally think of themselves as reforming the church, then I am sure they do. But that doesn’t mean they actually are. As I said in the article, I think that Total Deconstruction is a bad thing. I have written about that extensively. As for Reforming Deconstruction, that involves wanting to change anything that a particular church or denomination is doing that is out of accord with Scripture. I hope we can all agree that’s a good thing. Obviously, opinions about what is out of accord with Scripture will differ, but it was not the intent of my post to list out specifics.
Mark Harvey says
The concept of “construction” isn’t a post-modernist innovation.
Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, uses the extended metaphor of a foundation— laid by Christ and the apostles and built upon by others.
What gets built on that foundation can be quality construction or it can be junk. On the Day (of judgement) those qualities will be revealed.
It’s not (or shouldn’t be) controversial to say that a lot of junk has been built on the foundation of the faith over the last two millennia.
Whether it’s medieval Catholicism, 18th Century enlightenment, 19th Century liberalism, 20th Century dispensationalism, the fundamentalism of my youth, or the Nationalism and culture wars of today, fallible and fallen humans will always steer the ship into the reef. We need regular course corrections. That’s why we have a high view of scripture and a low view of human nature.
When the people entrusted with leadership in the church miss the mark, people in the pews get hurt and are left to tear down the junk on their own, as best they can. We can love them, support them, and guide them or we can criticize them for not doing it “right”.
I’ll let you decide which is most likely to turn deconstruction into deconversion.
David Madison says
In theory some kind of “deconstruction” might be a positive thing but I think the term has been appropriated by those who are engaged in something dangerous. An obvious example would be the attempt to change the traditional Christian position on homosexuality. I imagine that pretty much every Christian (assuming the word is still applicable) who has “deconstructed” would reject the idea that homosexuality is sinful. Deconstructionists usually have respect for the teachings of Jesus (although these are generally cherry-picked) but they are often hostile towards Paul. They may concede that Paul condemned homosexuality but then say that it doesn’t matter because Paul can be disregarded. They then point out that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. (It is true that Jesus said nothing specifically but his comments in Matthew 19 have clear implications for the subject.)
This is not simply a reform of Christianity. If Paul’s teachings are rejected then what remains can hardly be regarded as still being Christianity. The deconstructionists might have had a point that there is too much emphasis on sin and not enough on love and redemption but they go to the opposite extreme. The unavoidable impression one gets from what they say is that they just don’t take sin seriously. Hence I believe that we have a real battle on our hands. Those advocating deconstruction are dangerous.
Jonathan Martinez says
Good article, but my complaint is with the term “deconstruction.” While you are 100% right there are positive and negative versions of it, it is already a loaded term. I would like to see a return to personal “reformation” or “restoration.” These two denote there is something there when you are done. When you deconstruct something, you may have something useful when you finish, or useless parts destined for the garbage.
Dayne Burns says
The Protestant Reformation happened because God raised up men who stood on the foundations of Scripture and not the promises, methods, and traditions of man. Today, the teachers in many churches don’t know Greek and are more concerned about keeping the teaching relevant and interesting. As the culture continues to be more man focused, living as Christ will become more difficult. God will raise up more teachers to lead us out of the darkness. Or at least how to maintain our faith during the purge.
Lois Westerlund says
Dr. Kruger, this blog surprises me. At its heart, deconstruction, as the term is used to describe Derrida’s approach to language and meaning, is about just that: how does language mean? Derrida’s critical theory severs the connection between words and Creation, as perceived by our five senses. Language only refers to itself, endlessly playing word games in which the referent is endlessly deferred. It is a hermetically-sealed capsule. The result is that language means whatever the reader determines it means. When the meaning of words is found in objective truth, we know God from creation. (Romans 1). We see light (or rather, see by it) and because God made humans the “metaphor-making animal,”we understand the meaning of John’s statement that when Jesus became man, the “true light was coming into the world.” We perceive sheep and shepherds, doors, towers, and rocks and water and we begin to know a little of the reality of what our Savior is to our souls. If language is robbed of its objective meaning, there is no proclamation of truth. (I John 1:1-4). I understand that the meaning of a word changes as it enters the cultural mainstream; precise thinking is the victim. I believe it would be well to carefully define the term before recommending a partial adoption of “deconstruction.”
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Lois. In my article, I mentioned that I am aware of Derrida’s approach and that I regarded it as negative. Also, I am not “recommending” the use of the term deconstruction. Nowhere in my article do I encourage the use of that word. Rather, I am merely acknowledging that not all use the term as a way to undermine Christianity. Some use the term as a way to speak of needed Reform. And we should not let our aversion to a particular word keep us from hearing their concerns, nor should it cause us to treat them as enemies of the church.
Jim Pemberton says
This is a good discussion as it raises categories that help us to think more clearly about the Christian faith. The definition of that term itself bears some distinction. On the one hand, there is the faith as practiced by various covenant communities. On the other hand, there is faith as held by regenerate individuals. Deconversion is almost exclusively a reference to individuals. Deconstruction can happen to individuals, but it most often refers to covenant communities. Martin Luther set out to reform Rome, not bring individuals to faith. It should be noted that deconversion doesn’t happen to people who are regenerate, but unregenerate people who only outwardly profess faith. So deconversion is merely an alignment of their cognitive state with their spiritual state. The purification of the church (the covenant communities as I’ve been referring to them), a kind of deconstruction, often happens when individuals are faced with the reality of their unregenerate lack of faith and deconvert. Otherwise, a church may see purification come through revival in reformation when the unregenerate in the church are regenerated, in other words: true conversion.
M. Christian says
Kinda confused. While I agree with the category expressed, ‘reforming deconstruction’, the Church on the whole requires an educational gauntlet that is both financially and intellectually exclusive, which is used to insulate itself from such reforms.
It is almost comical to expect anyone to have real success. Though it is a nation on paper founded by those despising imperical rule and violations of basic human rights and Christian religious expression, it is filled with a people that are married to autonomy and a counterculture that would, as Pharisees, sacrifice all free expression to combat it.
The Church does not govern itself but has surrendered itself to a system falsely promising buoyancy. It should be appreciated for what it is and the calm it brings, but it should equally be acknowledged that its goal is to preserve itself and not truth and that is evidenced in every subsequent generation it produces. That system regulates and limits what we are called to be in the most pragmatically beneficial ways while declaring ‘resistance is futile’.
It can tear us apart while promising to ‘build us better than before’. Are we exercising a Christianity pre-Catholic as ML wanted? Is it NT in its expression with its itty bitty crackers, efficiency schedule, and digital perimeters?
The most unsettling reality is the longer we are in it, the more we see the value of what it offers in its approach, the more we hesitate to experiment for fear of upsetting the beneficial balance. Yah, we start off as ML looking for doctrinal integrity but which of us would last a day trying to live as ML? The Church is part of a larger context in America and is not to be expected to change outside of predictable, prenegotiated, and gradual measures. If we see it as a womb that grows the future Body of Christ then we would hesitate to upsetting that balance for life, but if we see it as a womb then we would jealously guard the integrity of what it does reproduce and who pokes around to determine that.
Too many in this nation’s Church that easily grease up to impress her, only to lead astray her affections and real ability to produce. Its not unlike our predetermined way of life we’ve come to know and even embrace, yet it is not life in the image of God we then shushed to sleep with promises of tomorrow.
Sleeping beauty had so many political issues upstream and if the prince had never arrived, no Serpent’s curse could have ever been broken. Is it Him who sings to us? ‘I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream’.
If He has come already and broken the curse and established His reign and multiplied His bride’s influence under the protection of His rule, why are we as a lost queen roaming the woods again in search of a rescue? Because another serpent has risen in its place? Or has the Queen her own issues and become what she’s despised? Wouldn’t that make for its own maleficent outcome.
Perhaps instead we see a woman in travail, and the pangs of the centuries or generations pushing towards only one inevitable conclusion. Whatever we are seeing now, it is vitally important that we see it through the eyes of the one Who’s vision it is. And though ‘visions are seldom what they seem’, if we know Him then we know what He’ll do…
I tend to view “reforming deconstruction” as an oxymoron. Reform means to turn something back to the original form. In many ways this is opposite of what deconstruction is about.
I understand that Dr Kruger is arguing that some people use the concept in a different way with a different intent. However, I’m not sure whether it is fitting to sign off on their misuse of terms. Especially since the trajectory of reforming deconstructionists is the same direction as Joshua Harris, Rachel Held Evans, and others. These reforming deconstructionists are just inhabiting more neutral ground and using equivocal language to blend into their otherwise traditional backgrounds. But don’t let it fool you, because under further investigation, they’re introducing many of the same dangerous errors as reactionary responses and in some cases newly minted errors that erode the sufficiency of Scripture. Last generation went after inerrancy. This current movement has a pattern of denying the sufficiency of Scripture.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Deb. But I am not sure you ready my article carefully:
1. You say deconstruction is the opposite of Reform. For some people that is true. But for others, that is not true. Others use the term as basically synonymous with “reform.” Indeed that was the whole point of my article!
2. Nowhere in my article do I encourage the use of that word. Rather, I am merely acknowledging that not all use the term as a way to undermine Christianity. Some use the term as a way to speak of needed Reform. And we should not let our aversion to a particular word keep us from hearing their concerns, nor should it cause us to treat them as enemies of the church.
3. Given that people use the term differently, why assume they have the same agenda as Josh Harris or Rachel Held Evans? Just using the same term doesn’t mean this at all. What if some people want to dismantle broken parts of the church. For example, the Ravi Zacharias scandal showed that some Christian ministries have a culture of self-protection, cover-up, and an unwillingness to protect victims of abuse. Should cultures like that not be “deconstructed”? Wouldn’t you want to change/reform cultures like that? I hope so.
Benjamin B Thompson says
Supposing “deconstruction” can be a positive, moral, good phenomenon for the church at large: then we should be able to point to people who have undergone a self-described process of “deconstruction” and come out the other side more faithful and orthodox than when they started. Has this been the case? I would go so far as to say that, if we as Reformed, confessional Christians are to redeem this term in any meaningful sense, then it should even be that the *majority* of people who *self-consciously* use this term come out better for it. I ask again, has this been the case?
Because as far as my eye can see, it seems that the overwhelmingly vast majority of people who “deconstruct” do, in fact, “deconvert”, or at the very least, land in a highly progressive place. I’m even having a hard time identifying *anyone* who has actively described their process as “deconstruction” who has then landed in a biblically faithful, confessional, and Reformed place.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Benjamin. But you’ve set up your own standard for what counts as legitimate deconstruction, and it’s a standard that misses the entire point of my article.Your standard is this: legitimate deconstruction only exists if the person doing the deconstructing ends up in a confessional, reformed church. But, why is that the standard? Why can’t the legitimacy of deconstruction be measured by whether this person is trying to reform the right things? For example, what if a person’s “deconstruction” involves breaking down and removing any ideology in the church that defends abusive leaders like Ravi Zacharias or Mark Driscoll? Why wouldn’t that be a good and positive thing? Even if that person individually is not reformed and confessional in other places, why can we not agree that those changes need to be made? Your view, on the other hand, is arguing that we can only agree with a deconstruction project if the person ends up in our reformed world 100%. But that is very tribal. You are basically arguing we only support people if they are in our tribe. My view, is that we should support a Christian who is trying to bring good change to the church even if they’re not 100% in our tribe.