How to Diagnose Doctrinal Drift
Monique and I have a lot of Zoom calls with leaders in all kinds of churches, ministries, and Christian schools. In these conversations, it is not uncommon for us to advise them on issues related to doctrinal drift. In fact, I wrote an article recently outlining three steps we recommend all Christian institutions take in order to prevent drift. We also offer services to help them implement these steps.
Doctrinal drift happens primarily through indiscriminate hiring. (I discussed this issue on a podcast last year.) Weak policies can contribute to the issue, as well. The number-one way to stop doctrinal drift in its tracks is through courageous leadership. In short, leaders must be willing to part ways with employees with unsound doctrine. If an institution isn’t willing to do this, then drift is inevitable.
The pattern of doctrinal drift is so predictable that we have developed four stages to determine where an institution is in terms of its spiritual health. Think of these stages as a tool to diagnose an institution’s spiritual cancer.
Stage 1: Publicly affirm clear biblical positions.
Stage 1 institutions generally have a robust statement of faith that they require all of their staff (or at least their top-tier managers) and board members to sign. They are also willing to publicly state their positions on current controversial issues in a clear and unambiguous way.
This may sound something like:
“We affirm the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.”
"Life begins at conception."
"Abortion ends an innocent life."
"We affirm traditional marriage."
"We believe in two sexes: male and female."
"All humans are sinners."
"Hell is real."
"We don't support cultural Marxism or BLM."
The CFBU website has multiple pages listing our positions in a transparent way because we want our donors to know where we stand and why.
Keeping an institution in Stage 1 requires vigilance and intentional policies. And most importantly, it requires courageous leaders who are willing to fire people, including those at the highest levels of management, when needed.
Stage 2: Practice silence about controversial issues in public.
While a Stage 2 institution may still have a public statement of faith, it is silent about “controversial” or “political” issues. This usually means their statement of faith fails to include a clear position on issues like abortion, marriage, gender, or homosexuality. Instead, you might hear their leaders say things like:
"Abortion is a very nuanced issue."
"Talking about homosexuality in public might damage people."
"We don't take political positions on issues like abortion."
"We don't want to use politically charged language in public, such as saying the phrase pro-life."
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. We all affirm King Jesus.” (I covered this unhelpful approach to politics in a previous podcast.)
If you work at a Stage 2 institution and begin to question the lack of clear position statements on these issues, you are likely to hear responses like the above. "We aren’t going to pick sides on this issue,” they may say “We just want to focus on our mission.” This kind of “Let’s keep the main thing the main thing” language is often code for, "We already have people in management who diverge from traditional biblical positions." And its adjacent axiom: "We aren't going to fire them."
Many employees whose institutions are in Stage 2 don’t want to see how far their church or school has drifted doctrinally. But we have seen this pattern time and time and time again.
Another common feature of Stage 2 institutions is that they are usually willing to take a strong stand in public against past sins, especially racism. You will hear their leaders say things like, "We condemn all forms of racism." But here's the problem: saying this takes almost no courage. Why? Because standing against racism isn't controversial. Nearly everyone already agrees that racism should be condemned! My operating theory about this phenomenon is that taking a strong stand against racism gives institutions the appearance that they are remaining biblically faithful. This, in turn, distracts donors and parents so they won't notice the institution’s silence on current issues of controversy.
Institutions in Stage 2 can theoretically be turned around, but doing so requires very strong leadership at the presidential and board levels. Stopping Stage 2 drift generally involves firing multiple mid- and top-level managers, as well as implementing new hiring policies and a more robust statement of faith. Accomplishing this is very, very rare, simply because few leaders with this kind of vision actually exist.
That brings us to Stage 3.
Stage 3: Silently shift positions and hide it from constituents.
If left uninterrupted, institutions will eventually transition into Stage 3.
The typical scenario is that one or two key people get hired or promoted into upper management, and these people have ideological differences with those employees and donors who have Stage 1 thinking. These new managers have the power to change the institution's position on an issue and broaden its hiring to reflect those new values. They will then hire people who are pro-choice, who are sympathetic to socialism, who post pronouns in their bio, or who affirm Side-B homosexuality (or are, silently gay affirming). A diversity officer may be hired. New institutional policies may tell employees “not to discuss politics” with each other.
But––and this is key––these shifts are not generally clearly communicated to donors or lower-level employees. And when they inquire about rumors, the leadership denies the shift.
Many Christian institutions are in this stage––think Christian higher education, Sunday School curriculum distributors, and book publishing––but their donors and patrons don't know it yet.
Institutions in Stage 3 are generally too far gone to be turned around. It’s usually best for the conservative-minded employees and supporters who remain to abandon the institution and start (or join) a competitor.
Stage 4: Celebrate sin.
It is only a matter of time until the institution eventually tells its employees and donors that “love for neighbor” means that they should celebrate the courage of people who affirm the opposite positions mentioned in Stage 1. This is where many mainstream church denominations are now.
This might sound like:
"Loving your neighbor means supporting their choice for abortion."
“Love is love.”
"We celebrate all genders."
"God is queer."
How to Start Noticing
If you want to know what’s happening with the institution you send your hard-earned money to, here are two practical steps to take.
First, stop merely listening to what its leaders are saying. Instead, start to notice what topics they are NOT talking about. Are there important issues in our cultural moment that they have never addressed publicly? For example, did they say anything publicly when Roe was overturned? Do they ever make clear statements against the radical trans agenda?
Second, ask more direct questions. If you work at a Christian institution and notice that your leadership doesn't take a public stand on tough cultural issues, especially when they are directly relevant to your ministry, then start asking questions.
What is stated on the website?
What does the employee handbook say?
How are potential employees screened for doctrinal fidelity?
What is the ministry’s process to deal with employees who hold to ideas consistent with progressive Christianity?
If you don’t feel like you can even ask these kinds of questions, that could be a major red flag.
One clear sign that your once-healthy institution has drifted into Stage 2 is that you are given vague answers like, “We will look into this” or “That could never happen here” or “We have __________ (insert the name of a conservative scholar) on our staff.” These are the cowardly evasions that ministries will run on biblically minded donors and staff in order to keep the money flowing in. These ministries swim in the waters of generalities and dismiss questions that demand specificity.
One of the saddest realities that Monique and I see in ministry is that courageous leaders with a robust knowledge of historic Christianity (not simply someone with a Christian testimony and “good leadership skills”) are in short supply. But being able to diagnose spiritual health is the only hope we have to preserve our legacy institutions, most of which are already well into Stage 2. Where do you send your money? To your local church? Your kid’s Christian school? A ministry? Now is the time to start pulling back the curtain on their spiritual health. You may be shocked by how far they’ve already drifted, and how many cowards are in top-level leadership. I don’t think it’s trivial that God lumps the “cowardly” in with the “murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” (Rev. 21:8; see also Heb. 10:39).
For more tips on hiring, check out my interview with Dr. Gary Miller, former Provost at Biola University.