In high school I entered into some lively discussions about religion with one of my best friends, a Mormon. One of these discussions centered around a thought experiment: What if a man who had never heard of Christianity ran across a Bible for the first time, say a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room? If he accepted that the Bible is of divine origin and proceeded to read it in great detail, with no access to commentaries or teachers or any other theological resources (except for historical background material supplied in the writings of contemporaries of the scriptural authors), what kind of theology would this man develop? Would it end up resembling the theology of any of the thousands of Christian denominations of the past or present?
I grew up believing my family’s version of Christianity to be the one most faithful to the original spirit of Jesus and of the biblical authors. Certainly I knew there were unresolved questions about this or that doctrine or practice on the margins, but at the core, we were on the same page with Jesus, Paul, James, Peter, John, and the others who founded the early church. We were not like the liberals who pick and choose from the Bible what they want to believe, chucking out the rest. We recognized that any allowance for homosexuality was foreign to the text, for example. We were not like the Catholics who illegitimately read into a verse or two the infallible authority of the Pope or the transubstantiation of the eucharist into Jesus’ body and blood. We were not like the Mormons who allow the authority of the Bible to be superseded by the writings of a charlatan like Joseph Smith. We were not like the liberation theologians who substituted the gospel of Jesus Christ for a leftist political agenda. We were not like those in the African independent churches who teach that polygamy is within the bounds of God’s will. We were not like the televangelists who preach a health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. We had nothing to do with those who teach that works (even the work of baptism) are necessary for salvation or that the grace of God through the shed blood of Jesus on the cross is insufficient to secure our salvation. We upheld the reality of an eternal heaven and an eternal hell–real places where all of us would really live consciously forever. We eschewed the notion that a true believer, once saved, can ever become “unsaved,” though we didn’t accept strict Calvinist predestination. We opposed those who would attempt to square an old earth or a merely local noachian flood with the text of Genesis. We were suspicious of Pentecostal teachings and practices, even if we didn’t consider their errors serious enough to bar their followers from God’s larger family. We were convinced that Jesus could return at any moment, snatching up his elect into the clouds on the day of the Rapture, and leaving behind the unbelievers (and those who subsequently became believers) to suffer seven years of intense tribulation, followed by a thousand years of Christ’s glorious reign on earth while the unbelievers are tormented in a lake of fire. We didn’t give an inch to those who admitted the possibility of any errors in the biblical text, whether on matters of salvation, of history, or of science–or of any other matter, for that matter. Every word in the Bible was there for a reason, even if God allowed the writing style of the individual authors to be preserved in the text. We defended the Bible against liberal scholarship, higher criticism, and the denial of the supernatural (e.g., the Virigin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus). In the churches we attended, we were almost all of us pro-life, anti-tax, anti-welfare, anti-women’s lib, anti-civil rights, pro-Vietnam War Republicans (that is, we were opposed to all that that the hippies from the 1960s stood for, even though I didn’t grow up in the 1960s myself). But the most important shibboleth of all was the need for a personal relationship with Jesus. It was not enough to give mental assent to the above positions; we had to invite Jesus into our heart and fellowship with him day in and day out, experiencing the reality of God’s presence in our lives.
This was my particular background, a background shared by millions of believers around the world who have been influenced by one or more strains of Baptist, dispensationalist, pietistic, Bible Church, and/or fundamentalist theology, a subset of evangelical Protestantism. Most (if not all!) of these believers assume that their particular reading of the Bible on the above questions is the one most closely aligned with the intent of the biblical authors. To be sure, not all of these beliefs are considered essential tenets of faith; a “pre-tribber” can find fellowship with a “post-tribber,” but maybe less so with an amellenialist, for example. Or one who believes in “once saved, always saved” can fellowship with someone who believes that salvation can be lost. It’s another matter when it comes to what’s required for salvation: once works are added to the mix, that’s the line in the sand that must not be crossed.
Over the years I grew somewhat more open to others’ views. For example, in college I came to admit the possibility that some Catholics might be saved after all, especially those that had a personal relationship with Jesus. Imagine the generosity of spirit that must have come across me, allowing me to admit that not all Catholics are going to spend an eternity of conscious torment in hell! And then I also began to appreciate, if not embrace, the spirit of Pentecostalism, having read many of the writings of Charles Finney and of the singer-songwriter Keith Green and having befriended some Pentecostals at the Christian college I attended. I could no longer say for certain whether I believed in a pre-trib or post-trib rapture, and I also went back and forth on the questions of predestination and the possibility of losing one’s salvation, finding texts on both sides of these issues in the Bible. After considering Matthew 25 (among other texts), in the 1980s I also began to wonder whether there might be some merit in “Lordship Salvation,” a controversial movement that maintains it’s not enough just to believe the gospel in order to be saved; we must also demonstrate by our actions that we believe, or it’s likely we really don’t believe in the first place.
Also during college, I began to ponder the teachings of Jesus pertaining to wealth and the poor, especially in the Gospel of Luke. What I discovered ran counter to the prevailing evangelical teaching that wealth is okay as long as we don’t allow it to come between us and God. No, in Luke, as I discuss in my book, Jesus taught not only against an improper attitude toward wealth but against keeping wealth itself. Similarly, I was confronted by his teaching against violence in passages like Matthew 5:39: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” I thus felt a growing cognitive dissonance between the often pro-war, pro-wealth evangelical community of which I was a part and the teachings of Jesus I read in the Gospels.
Which brings us back to our Gideon’s Bible thought experiment. It slowly dawned on me the extent to which the particular contours of my faith had been shaped by a religious tradition that didn’t necessarily coincide as perfectly with the Bible as I had always thought it did. And if I had been oblivious to just a few of these discordances, how many more were lying outside my radar? How much of what I believed all my life conflicted in one way or another with one biblical author or another, without my even realizing it?
At this point some of my readers might wonder, What’s the big deal? Everyone knows there are differences in opinion among believers, but if we diligently seek out the intent of the original authors of the Bible, taking into consideration the historical context, using responsible hermeneutics, comparing scripture with scripture, and seeking God’s guidance, God will in fact lead us into all truth, at least into all the truth that really matters. The rest we can hold in suspense until all is revealed in the fullness of time.
It all matters because since the time my doubts about Christianity came to a head, I have been confronted more times that I can count by well-meaning individuals who have said, “If you only had subscribed to this version (invariably meaning the version held to by the one confronting me) of Christianity, you might not have gone down this path.” I’ve been told my former evangelical faith was not conservative enough or not Calvinistic enough, but more often I’ve been told my former faith was too fundamentalistic and that it would have endured if it had been more flexible, more broad, less legalistic. Well, I’m sorry, but I didn’t have a say in the religious background in which I grew up, nor has anyone really. When I hear these post-mortem assessments, they come across as a more than a bit condescending: “Well, well, you were like a protected tree that grew up in a climate-controlled greenhouse supported with a lattice of pre-packaged answers, but when you were let out into the big bad world, the first hailstorm pummeled your tender, flaccid twigs and chewed you up. Pity, really.” Or from a Calvinist, “Well, you never grasped or embraced the sovereignty of God.” Or from a Pentecostal, “Well, you never drank in the power of the Spirit.” Or from a peitistic evangelical, “Well, you never experienced a genuine personal relationship with Jesus” (even though there’s no discernable difference between my experience and theirs). Or from a Catholic, “Did you really ever experience traces of grace?”
For those who haven’t been confronted by such a conflicting cacophony of post-mortem voices, it’s difficult to appreciate how exasperating the experience can be. Underlying all these voices is the assumption that there can’t possibly be a problem with Christianity itself; the problem lies with Ken’s misconceptions of True Christianity. Yet the irreconcilable differences among the beliefs held by those earnestly attempting to set me straight (many of whom have studied the Bible and sought God for decades but simply can’t agree with each other) help to confirm to me that Christianity is, never has been, and never will be a reliable guiding light to the nature of reality.
Though I’ve already expressed above my frustration with some moderate or liberal believers who assume it was my fundamentalism that led to the shipwrecking of my faith, I can still appreciate that they are at least aware of the differences between their faith and that of the New Testament writers. They accept that the biblical authors were at least in part products of their time, that their various teachings can’t all be reconciled, and that there is room for growing and learning about God beyond what’s contained in the ancient scriptures. Evangelicals and fundamentalists, by contrast, cannot accept that the biblical authors taught conflicting messages or that there’s any significant daylight between what the scriptures teach and what they themselves believe. They’ve opened that Gideon Bible, have applied the right hermeneutics, and have embraced the True New Testament doctrines. There’s often little appreciation of the long, winding history of theological thought that led to the present Bible Church/Dispensational/(partial) Calvinist doctrinal statement posted on the church’s website or taught at Dallas Theological Seminary. Sure, there’s an awareness of church history in some quarters, but these are often matters of mere curiosity, learned without any real acknowledgement of the near absolute dependence of one’s beliefs on ancient and modern church history outside the New Testament.
I maintain that our hypothetical Gideon Bible reader would have been mightily confused and conflicted at the end of his exercise, not being able to call on a theologian or scholar to explain all the conflicting messages. I doubt he would have come up with the Orthodox teaching of the Trinity by reading a Gideon New Testament on his own. This doctrine was hammered out in excruciating detail through debates, councils, and edicts for over three Christian centuries. He likely would have been left with the impression from all the NT writers except Paul and John that salvation requires works and not just faith. He might think that Paul accepts the legitimacy of baptism for the dead. He certainly wouldn’t find any scriptural reason to think slavery as an institution should be abolished, but instead that slaves should obey their masters. He would find some verses in Paul and elsewhere to make him think salvation can’t be lost, and he would find others in Hebrews and 2 Peter and elsewhere to make him think that one’s salvation can indeed be forfeited. He would find verses in Paul (especially Romans 9) that lead him to think that only God chooses who will be saved (and that we don’t have a choice), while finding others that teach that God wants all to be saved, if only they would come to him like chicks coming to their mother hen. He would find some verses teaching that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment, while finding others that speak of the destruction or annihilation of the lost. He would find some verses that allow for divorce in the case of unfaithfulness or desertion, while finding others that allow for no such thing. He would find some verses that speak of the eternal hereafter on planet earth, while others speak of the hereafter in Paradise or heaven. He would in no way be able to untangle the mystery of eschatology in the neat and orderly way that the dispensationalists or the preterists believe they’ve cracked that nut. I’ll cut this potentially long list very short in the interest of time.
In a sense I find that as a nonbeliever, the Bible is much clearer to me now than when I believed the Bible to be inerrant. Because the Bible had to be inerrant, whenever two or more passages seemed to be conveying different teachings, I tended to pronounce the “clear” passage as authoritative and the “less clear” passage as needing some sort of alternate interpretation to make it fit with the “clearer” passage. For example, consider the following, which, because of prior theological commitments concerning the sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice, cannot be taken at face value or must be regarded as “unclear” by many evangelicals:
“Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
Now that I’m no longer constrained by my prior evangelical theological commitments, I’m free to read this as it appears on its face: there was something lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions that Paul could supply. This run so deeply counter to evangelical theology that it must be immediately dismissed as heretical, but it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion while remaining honest with the text.
Or consider 1 Timothy 2:11-15:
“11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”
Verse 15 is universally considered as an “unclear” passage by evangelicals. But it’s clear enough to me as one no longer bound by inerrancy. Women are saved through childbearing, and furthermore, if they don’t continue in faith, love, and holiness, they’ll lose the shot at salvation that childbearing afforded them. Nothing could be clearer.
What I’m trying to drive home with these two small examples among many is that it’s supremely naive to think that any one group has an authoritative handle on what the biblical authors really believed or taught. At least liberals don’t even pretend their beliefs line up with the NT writers on all counts. But many conservatives mistakenly think their theology really is faithful to the Bible, allowing them (without conscious hypocrisy) to use the Bible as a weapon against all who would (in their view) play fast and loose with its teachings. This is dangerous. Unconscious hypocrisy can be more insidious than conscious hypocrisy, because conscious hypocrisy can at least sometimes be accompanied by a twinge of restraining guilt, and it’s easier to call someone out on conscious than on unconscious hypocrisy.
I was once a third (more like forth or fifth) party to a sexual abuse situation in a missionary environment. The family of the accused complained that the missionary organization that called out the accused was not following the biblical approach of having the accuser (the alleged preteen female victim of the sexual abuse, now an adult) confront the accused. I met with a couple of the family members of the accused and tried to explain how difficult it would have been for the accuser to have confronted the accused face to face, and the response was, “Well the Bible says this is how it’s to be done, and it doesn’t matter how difficult it is; we must follow the authority of the Bible in this matter.” I proceeded to read to this fairly well-to-do couple a few verses in Luke that clearly teach against the keeping of wealth, asking if they were then ready to sell everything they had and give to the poor as Jesus taught. I don’t recall their response, but it apparently didn’t make an impact. They remained unconsciously hypocritical in their insistence that the mission board follow one scriptural passage when it served their interests but were unable to acknowledge what another scriptural passage taught when it ran counter to their interests. Thus the scriptures can be used as a bludgeon to cajole others into accepting whatever doctrines or practices one is convinced of, while at the same time overlooking any number of other inconvenient doctrines and practices.
What are your thoughts? If you’ve deconverted, have you been confronted by various well-meaning individuals who’ve assumed that if you had adopted their version of Christianity, your faith could have been preserved? If you’re a conservative believer, have you assessed the relative contributions of the Bible, church history, and the need to harmonize discordant passages as factors determining what you believe?