“Now it’s scary to be a sinner falling into the hands of an angry God, but it can be equally scary to be a doubter falling into the hands of angry believers.”Brian McLaren (Faith After Doubt, p.10)
While reading Brian McLaren’s new book Faith After Doubt, this quote jumped off the page at me. Brian always has a way of putting words to my experiences I’ve had on my pilgrimage of faith. If you live in a community where correctly understanding the Bible is more important than faith, then you know how excruciating it is to change your mind. If you do not come from a similar tribe, then the previous sentence may seem strange to you, but this was my perception of who God is. One could have faith, love for God, and love their neighbor as themselves, but if they were wrong about how they interpreted certain passages, worshipped in the “wrong” way, or even used the wrong version of the Bible, they weren’t real Christians.
Changing your mind in this environment is like changing your last name, rooting for the rival football team, or when a teenager pursues a career path different from what her overbearing parents prescribe. It’s hard to describe exactly how it feels to allow yourself to change your mind, but I think it’s like the hiker who cut off his arm with a dull pocket knife to remove himself from underneath a boulder to avoid certain death after five days of being stuck. Because when you feel compelled to change your mind, part of you wants to stay where you are while the other has to go where you feel God is leading you.
The tricky part about all this is that you are told your entire life that changing your mind is good. After all, if you study your Bible with an open heart and an open mind and find something that the church interprets incorrectly, then you would be a hero! What you aren’t told, however, is that the church already has all the correct interpretations, and that this is a ploy to convince people to study with them by tricking them into thinking that they could change. It’s like if LeBron James challenged a little-league player to a game by claiming that he doesn’t hit all his shots. Except in this case, your “everlasting soul” is on the line.
In my fellowship, to show that we aren’t really that close-minded, people point out how two famous preachers didn’t agree on the exact nature of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. One viewed the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a figurative indwelling through the Bible, while the other says that the Spirit indwells literally but not in any miraculous way today. So, there’s one thing you can disagree on. There are others, but each person has their own made up list since there isn’t one given in the Bible. Some churches even give would-be ministers a test to see where they line up.
Offend someone’s imaginary list of doctrines to which one must agree, and you are denying the gospel of Christ itself. You aren’t teaching the doctrines of Christ, and faithful Christians can’t bid you “Godspeed” (2 John 9-11). If someone greets you, or says “have a blessed day” at the grocery store (not kidding), while you are in error, then they are taking part in your evil deeds.
So, what does a church do in a situation like this? Well, first you pretend to study with the person to make them feel like you are giving them a fair shot, but in reality you changing your mind isn’t a possibility because you already have the truth. Second, you announce to the church that you have done all you possibly could, and brother or sister so-and-so has gone down the slippery slope of liberalism (a catch-all word for bad guys). Third, you write a letter excommunicating that person while making it abundantly clear to everyone else that they are not to approach you because you are extremely dangerous. Finally, when the rascal seems competent in what they teach, write letters to area churches warning them of the danger they are in if this wolf in sheep’s clothing should visit their assembly. Faithful churches should mark any church off the list of approved congregations who accepts this infidel.
One would wonder why anyone could treat someone like this, but this type of treatment is nothing compared to what God is supposedly going to do to people who worship in the “wrong” way, say the wrong things, not understand all the right doctrines in the same way, or go to the “wrong” church. In many people’s eyes, God will torture this person forever regardless of their faith in Jesus, love for God, and love for their neighbor. So, this harsh treatment by one’s own congregation is an attempt to shame the person out of thinking for themselves to save them from their version of God. In some extreme cases, God is very concerned about whether a woman passes communion trays while standing up versus sitting down, how many cups ones uses in the communion, and whether or not one finds it acceptable for a church to donate money to an orphanage.
This style of fellowship, discipline, and teaching is flawed because we, as humans, are fallible. None of us have perfect knowledge, and we are always growing and learning. To judge someone based on where they are now typically sets the person who is doing the judging up as an infallible interpreter of the Bible. It also assumes that this is what Jesus intended for us to do, but that’s an article for a different time. People who view God in this way elevate their interpretation of the Bible to the same level as God’s word.
Someone may respond to this article and say, “Are you saying that you fellowship people in error?” As my friend Dallas says, there aren’t any other kind.
I hope you don’t mistake my passion in this paper for hatred towards these believers. I totally affirm their sincerity and love for God, but I believe they are misguided. I want nothing more than for them to break free from this mindset that is nothing like the liberty offered through Jesus. At the same time, I totally entrust them to God while I pray that somehow God will use me and my writings as a wake up call for my church family.
If you struggle with doubt, or if your church family excommunicated/ shunned you for changing your mind, then I can tell you will enjoy Brian’s book. I’m not far into it, but it is wonderful so far.
I also would like to point you to another resource. If you have heard 2 John used in the way I mentioned above, or if someone has quoted Galatians 1 or Amos 3:3 at you because you disagree with them about something, then please check out freedominchrist.net which is a website I recently reconstructed for my good friend Dallas Burdette. His book Old Texts Through New Eyes deals with many of the passages typically used to expel other believers from the community for minor disagreements.