The Authenticity Ethos Versus Biblical Christianity

Introduction

The ubiquitous expectation in modern life is to “be true to oneself,” which means the foremost concern and superseding moral imperative is the cultivation of the self.[1] This self-creation assumes that people have the liberty to form their judgments, even when aligned against the Nature of Things. It’s the liberty to ignore the Lawgiver and Judge; to ignore the unchosen obligations of life; to take up any religion or none at all while imagining oneself to be an impartial critic of the Bible. The authenticity ethos is the right to self-define and then unveil at a time of my choosing. Rather than building an alternative to the authenticity deliramentum, evangelicals have made a truce with it.

For modern evangelicals, authenticity equals transparency. And since evangelical theology emphasizes brokenness rather than victory—“none of us are perfect” rather than “be holy because I am holy”—transparency means revealing sin. In other words, since ongoing sin is the evangelical reality more real than others, the squalid side of life is thought to be more genuine than the holy side.

The language of “authenticity” is itself misleading. It should be that “authentic” refers to rightly aligning oneself with objective reality. But the new notion of authenticity is grounded in the self rather than the metaphysical truth of the Universe. It’s a project of aligning oneself with the imagined or desired outcome. Evangelicals don’t just have a truce with authenticity; it is the fundamental premise of modern evangelical theology, as illustrated in evangelical preaching and music.

This is seen, first, in evangelical preaching (EP). The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that Christ came to save sinners. Saving sinners refers to salvation. Salvation implies saved from and saved to. What does “EP” say you are saved from? Failure before man. The message is that through Christ you are unconditionally loved, so no matter your failures, shame, or embarrassments, Jesus loves you. You are saved from failure before man. You are saved from not measuring up to the person more talented than you. You are saved from feeling bad about yourself. You are saved from the guy one cubicle over who personally slighted you. What does “EP” say you are saved to? Freedom to feel no failure before man, freedom to feel like who you are is enough, and freedom to boost your self-esteem. This is why EP requires that the preacher exposit himself and reveal his psychological weaknesses as illustrations of “the Gospel.”

This is seen, second, in evangelical songs. Consider Keith and Kristyn Getty’s song, “He Will Hold Me Fast.” The lyrics of the song, as such, are not inaccurate. But it embodies the authenticity ethos where weakness is authentic and Christians barely stumble across the finish line. The first lines of the song are:

When I fear my faith will fail
Christ will hold me fast
When the tempter would prevail
He will hold me fast

Of course, Christ will indeed hold his people when the tempter tempts and believers fear, but by emphasizing the authenticity ethos the implication is that the Christian life is for people feebly holding on in the face of fear and temptation, that fear and temptation are the genuine realities of life, and people just weather the storm until Christ just barely pulls them through. The Gospel is thus domesticated to accommodate the new ethic of authenticity.

Confusion

The authenticity ethos found in modern evangelicalism confuses four things.

First, it confuses honesty

When people start with the assumption that feelings aren’t evil because feelings are honest, then expressing real feelings feels honest. In contrast, self-control over whatever feelings happen at the moment feels dishonest. And since honesty is a virtue, that means expressing feelings is a virtue. In this way, the authenticity ethos privileges “emotivism,” as Alisdair MacIntyre called it.[2] Evangelical emotivism assumes there is no way to secure agreement on theological, political, or ethical matters. So, confessionalism is regarded as fraudulent arrogance for failing to feature uncertainty and failing to allow each person’s preferences about theology, politics, and ethics to suffice.

The reason the authenticity ethos confuses honesty is that every virtue is something we are responsible for (Rev. 20:12). Furthermore, emotions are easy but virtues are not (Mt. 7:12-23). Unfettered emotional release is much too easy to be a virtue. Besides, honest feelings don’t lie about their object. A child might feel authentic anger and resentment toward their parents. But as Peter Kreeft has said, “Honesty with feelings means asking whether they are true.”[3]

Second, it confuses community

The gospel of authenticity says that the more planned and liturgical something is, the more artificial it is. This helps explain the devaluing of the Lord’s Day worship service. If authenticity is revealing sin, then the authentic life is living as part of the world. Living in sin is more genuine than consecrating oneself to the Lord.

The authenticity ethos fails to see that biblical community is impossible without Sunday worship services. Covenant Renewal Worship renews biblical fellowship in at least three ways. First, the weakest members see themselves as part of the whole church, not just as tag-alongers. It does the weak members well when the one who is high experiences what it’s like to be low at the foot of the cross. Second, the church is separated from the temptations and sins of the world. After all, it’s hard to view pornography on your phone while on your knees confessing sin alongside God’s people. Third, the quarreling members’ otherwise intractable conflict resolves as they unite at the Lord’s Table, remembering that they have one faith, one Lord, and one baptism.

Third, it confuses cognizance

When people think it’s virtuous to say what they think, they assume something false, namely, that they have mastered what they think. Part of the reason people struggle to master their tongue (James 3:7-8) is that they struggle to master their thoughts. The meaning and actions of one’s life are a person’s real thoughts, and the final meaning of life isn’t known until reviewed by Christ the Judge on judgment day. This is reflected in C.S. Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces, when Orual says, “Lightly men talk of saying what they mean … I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean?” Until that day when the word is dug out of us, pray the Spirit conforms you to the Scriptures, prayers, and confessions of the church.

Fourth, it confuses righteousness

In the authenticity ethos, there is a distinction between inner authentic emotions and obedience to external moral standards. Authenticity is thought to be righteousness itself because it reveals a certain identity and complexity, at once factual and mysterious. And so it is that sexuality is obligated to be faithful to inner desires rather than to biblical moral expectations. Pastors are authentic when they reveal the raw elements of their own life. Churches are authentic when they feature the “weakness” and “messiness” of life and how Christ someone makes the harum-scarum life look beautiful. Congregants don’t confess sin on God’s terms, but imperfections on their own terms. The primary result is that people are sheltered from correction, making sanctification impossible.

Christianity, no doubt, has room for acknowledging weakness before God (2 Cor. 12:9). But the difference is that the Christian confession of weakness happens conjointly with confessing sin for the purpose of transformation. The gospel of authenticity says “I accept you as you are.” The gospel of Christ says, “I will transform you.” The first requires the mere confession of weakness, the second also requires Spirit-wrought repentance from sin. 

The authenticity ethos is a trendy way to embody the chic piety of self-definition. This is problematic for Christians for two reasons. First, God hands out the definitions, not people. Second, when people hand out the definitions, they conform to the canons of sinful nature. This is how a Roman Catholic priest can come out as gay and receive a standing ovation in the name of authenticity. Had he declared his commitment to fighting against the dishonorable, unnatural desires (Rom. 1:26), he would have received the anti-ovation of heckling jeers.

Conclusion

The authenticity ethos thrives when the objective reality of Christ’s victory is diminished by the subjective feeling of imperfection; when the supreme reality is moodiness rather than God, the cross, and the Gospel. In contrast to the authenticity ethos, the great truth of the world is the objective reality of Christ’s victory. This is particularly emphasized in the book of Revelation, where the Christ, the Faithful and True One, goes forth unto victory, riding the white horse, robed with the garment sprinkled with blood, and leading the armies of heaven (Rev. 19:11-16). Make no mistake, God sees the tears and fears (Rev. 7:17; 21:4). Yet the final victory is assured (Rev. 15:2), the faithful’s blood avenged (Rev. 19:2), and our Savior reigning (Rev. 5:7-8).

Why is it wrong for Christians to practice “authenticity?” Because that’s not the reason Christ died on the cross. He didn’t die so people could have self-expression. He died to create a society of human beings who have died to the self and been united by the Spirit, with the Son, to the Father into a heavenly city equipped to invade the earthly city.


[1] Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 270.

[2] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 19.

[3] Peter Kreeft, The Best Things in Life: A Contemporary Socrates Looks at Power, Pleasure, Truth, and the Good Life (Downers Grove, ILL: IVP, 1984), 105.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.