Scandalized by the Church
Scandalized by the Church
I spent one hot summer reading internet stories, along with a few books, of people who had walked from the faith. I don’t mean by this that they gave up on the church. I mean what theologians have historically called apostasy. The stories that captured my academic interest were of people who knew they had been Christians but were no longer Christians.
Before I delineate the reasons some people walk away from the faith I want to make a distinction often ignored in our context. Though many talk today about being in a season of deconstruction, I don’t want to dwell on that either. Instead, we need to distinguish walking from the faith and being scandalized at the deep level by the church and its leaders.
If walking from the faith completely is apostasy and if deconstruction painfully peels away layers of the faith learned and absorbed over time, scandalization points to a person’s deep-seated and heart-felt incapacity to endure Christianity as a church or institution. Those scandalized, so I find, still love Jesus and in some degree affirm major teachings of the faith but their experience of the church is so painful they want to go it alone – or with only some cherished, trusted friends.
Apostasy, deconstruction, and scandalization occur for more or less the same reasons, and they include the following, which I take from a book I wrote with Hauna Ondrey (Johnson) called Finding Faith, Losing Faith.
The Bible – yes, that’s right. Not the good parts, but the hard parts.
Science and the Bible: that is, a rigid creationism that either distrusts science or that makes the Bible fit science in concordist ways that strike such persons as artificial and blatantly wrong.
Christians and the church – how some persons have been treated by the church and by some Christians.
Hell – how Christians have taught it, sometimes with glee and revenge and pride.
God of the Bible – usually called the “God of the Old Testament” but it’s not that simple. Rather, many have been struck numb by the angles taken by the God of some passages in the Bible, not least some of the judgment passages.
Education – some have their faith broken by history or pluralism or the lack of tolerance.
Unfulfilled promises in the Bible – or their seeming eternal suspension of fulfillment.
Social location – some are undone when they come to terms with the reality that they are Christians only because they grew up in a Christian setting and that others are not and may never truly hear the gospel.
Control – some churches are so zealous for conformity they become institutions of control and lack empathy and toleration of differences. They become coercive and manipulative.
Desire – frankly, some walk because they’d rather indulge their desires.
Intellectual independence – I found this quite often, or at least it became the major rationale for those telling their stories. They want to think for themselves. They don’t want God, the Bible, or the church telling them what to think or believe or do.
In my study I found one stunning absence: apostates do not leave because of Jesus but neither did I find stories that they missed Jesus. This reveals a serious issue in how the Christian faith is taught: if it is not Jesus centered, it is not truly Christian.
Now to scandals. I find many today have had it with pastors, with priests, with theological debates, or with moral claims and intolerances, but they still love Jesus, talk to him, read about him, and want to pattern their life after him. But the church is for them in the rear view mirror.
Sometimes I hear folks say they have walked but they haven’t left Jesus at all.
Sometimes I hear folks are deconstructing but they are hanging on to Jesus.
The word for what some are experiencing is scandal: they have been scandalized by the church. Not by Jesus but by the church.
They are right.
Even as a local pastor I sometimes say I have a 'love / hate' relationship with the more institutional side of church, as a result of some of the things you mention in todays blog. The gradual movement of evangelicalism (whatever that now is) toward the pole of fundementalism really has not helped. I think it's quite possible for church leaders to implicitly deny God if they set themselves up as if they were God. The political sphere might do it more expressly, but for me it boils down to the same thing. The continuous 'fall' of leaders (I strongly suspect) has to do with posture. If we as church leaders posture ourselves as if we were God, or we are deluded into thinking that somehow we are bigger than the sin that ensnares, then the outcome will be as we see it before us now so often. One day I bow the knee to Jesus for those under my spiritual care, and may God have mercy on me if my behaviour has caused them to walk away from him...whew...
Scot, the first major factor in the scandal is the rank hypocrisy of many. It taints the witness of so many sincere Christians who are truly trying to live their faith, and we mustn't forget about them.
AND, all the reasons you list that have to do with the Bible are matters of <i>interpretation</i>, every single one. For the last nearly 300 years at least (an ever more so in the 20th century) the interpretive grid among non-sacramental Protestants has been a literalist interpretation, which is the way nearly every Evangelical "person in the pew" understands it. They don't get much help with interpreting it from most of their pastors and teachers, either. Indeed, our whole educational ideal is now so left brain-dominant that there's no place in our secular or Christian understanding of things for "truth" to mean anything other than "verifiable historical fact" - no room for handed-down wisdom, allegory, cultural nuance - the very things that make proper interpretation of <u>anything</u> possible, that which imparts MEANING to what historical realities there are. Forgive me - I think improper interpretation is what leads to deficient, if not outright bad, theology.
DG Moore earlier writes that we must start with the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and is dead right on that one (pardon the pun). That's exactly what the earliest Christians did. That's exactly what the first few generations of Christians did through interpreting the meaning of the resurrection - hardly ever using a literalistic understanding of the Scriptures (the OT) but seeing, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what the story line in fact turned out to be... which led to the outstanding theology of Nicea and Constantinople, answering the question of who Jesus is.
And we have to also remember that there has never been any "golden age" in Christianity; the book of Acts documents problems there were from the beginning. Even before Christianity became legal, even in the midst of the waves of persecution and martyrdom, there were Christians who were fed up with nominalism and went out to the desert to seek and pursue a closer life with Jesus. They were not rejecting human company; they were trying to get away from the distractions. How many more distractions do we have! And how many Evangelicals reject even the possibility of a living tradition ("Can't be involved with traditions of men!!!") and elders ("Call no man father!!!") from whom we can learn something about living a closer life with Jesus, what the heart of Christianity in fact is, and better ways to find a deeper MEANING of some of the aspects of our struggle to live not simply moralistically, but faithfully in our time.