I recently read a lengthy post about one woman’s experience in the fellowship of Christians and her reasons for leaving it. It would be easy to be critical of her lack of faith, but this is not the best way to respond to people who feel they have been failed by Christianity. Her narrative of her experience is quite painful to read. Two issues arise:
- What does she think of Christ?
- What does she think of Christianity?
Christ himself is a specific person in historical time while simultaneously living eternally as the second person of the godhead.
Christianity is defined in so many ways by so many people that the source of each person’s angst must almost be defined individually.
In this post, the blogger complained that Christianity does not permit her to love herself and feel good about herself. She says, “Pastors teach that the proper way to view self love is to simply love yourself as Christ loves you. Christ tells us that we are nothing without him and his redemption. Without him and his salvation plan, we are as filthy rags. If we loved ourselves for who we are outside of Christ, then we are nothing, quite un-loveable.” After this statement, her litany of wrongs continues for about four thousand words.
The first thing to do with this statement is to listen to every word carefully. She is saying what she believes to be the truth. It would be easy to disassemble her statements in search of a biblical argument that refutes her logic, but there is something more important than arguing with her. Her decision was not hasty. She remained with the Christian group that hurt her so deeply for a very long time. This statement may contain seeds of the problem, but Christians need to hear all that she has to say. What is her real complaint? What finally drove her out?
After I had read all her words, I went back to the blog where it was posted and discovered that it is linked to a number of other blogs that report the same thing. Those posts are quite long, also. I discovered that at the bottom of all the complaints and the pain and the misery that drove people out of Christianity there was a single man. One man, and one man’s ideas. One man’s interpretation and application of the Bible.
In the course of all this reading I observed an important truth: even though the people claim to have rejected Christ and Christianity, the things they complained of are not really about Christ and Christianity. It reminded me of the stories I have read about heresies in the young church. In Acts 8:14-24 a man tries to buy the Holy Spirit from Peter, because he does not understand that Peter is working in the context of the Spirit’s work in believers. Simon witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit but only paid attention to the power, not the gospel. The problem these people experienced developed as a consequence of one man’s interpretation of the Bible and his application of the interpretation.
Most heresies develop when one person comes up with some idea that seems to him and others more appealing than the raw truth of Christ’s story. The heresy of Gnosticism grew up when individuals extrapolated new ideas from the truth of the gospel and alleged that secret wisdom passed among insiders who knew more than ordinary Christians. Some people could not accept that Christ was simultaneously God and man, so various heresies attempted to explain away the gospel truth or to add to it whatever filled up someone’s gap in understanding. Since the very beginning people have tried to whittle on the gospel in order to make God’s revelation of himself fit whatever model they liked.
The blog posts about people giving up on Christ and Christianity fall into that same trap. These people were abused by people, usually their parents first, who were lured into false teachings by a talented and committed man. To this day the man does not believe that his cult is what is wrong with him. He believes he may have done a few wrong things, but nothing that can’t be forgiven. The man at the root of all this damage still believes that his false teachings are truth. Many people have been deeply harmed by evil done in Christ’s name, and the harm continues.
Why don’t I name the group? Because this group is not alone. There are many.
Why do I bring it up? Because every Christian must learn to discern when human will and human ego are besmirching Christ’s name. It is hard to predict when and where Christians will encounter the walking wounded who flee from abuse at the hands of people who invoke the name of Christ in all that they do. Readers of this blog may include such refugees. If so, I pray fervently that Christ’s truth will come clear to them. When Satan enslaves an atheist, it is a bad thing, but few believers will be driven away from Christ by the rantings of groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation. However, when people have been reared in what their parents considered to be the “nurture and admonition of the Lord,” only to discover that instead of faith, hope and love, their lives are dominated by power, privilege and arrogance, those people flee the falsehood and it is very, very hard for them to see the truth of Christ. Their wounds are deep and agonizing. Pharisaism has surfaced in the form of churches, sub-sects and thriving seminar presenters who create a subcultures within Christendom that Satan is justifiably proud of. They do it just the way the Pharisees did it; they take the Bible apart and rewrite it in the form of laws and rules and expectations that sound quite scriptural on the surface.
There is a reason that church history is full of councils and synods and various other forms in which the collective experience and wisdom of the church as a whole is brought to bear on problems. It is easy for some single individual, like me, to believe he has received insight that nobody else has received. Maybe this notion is fed by the adulation of receptive students or audiences who buy a lot of books. Whatever drives it, the church worldwide has always been wisely leery of any sense that God speaks a message to one person without giving others the same insight.
For example, even though Martin Luther is considered to be the “father” of the Reformation, he was actually only one of many who saw that false teachings and unscriptural practices permeated the Catholic Church at the dawn of the Renaissance. Luther was a great leader and strong voice for truth, but he was not alone. God revealed the same problem to many individuals at the same time that Luther spoke out.
Further, any study of the life of Luther will show that he was not perfect. Hence, people who followed him instead of following Christ would have been disappointed in the outcome. Lutherans around the world use Luther’s name as a sign of their shared confession to Christ, but none of them prays to Luther or considers him to have replaced Christ.
Be warned. No human being is perfect. Jesus was the only perfect human being ever born, and the only one who ever will be born. When somebody starts teaching some dramatically “new” idea for living the faith, Christ advises caution. He said, “Be wise as serpents.” The truth of the Bible does not change, even though the times change. The plight of the blogger who abandoned Christ and Christianity over a cult of personality is a lesson to us all. We do not serve a human personality, not matter what a great leader he may be. As Paul wrote,
When one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 1 Corinthians 3:4-7
Paul saw people starting to cling to personalities even then. He did not want the congregation to put their loyalty to even the best of men ahead of their commitment to Christ. He said, “No one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 3:11
It is sad that some pastors and teachers allow or even encourage people to cling to them instead of always pointing people to Christ. It happened in Paul’s day, and it happens in ours. When we meet Christians who have felt driven away from Christ by Christian leaders who usurped Christ’s place in the fellowship, we must recognize that they do not need our judgment. These wounded souls need the Great Physician as much as the evil drug dealer on the street corner needs Christ, and they probably are more resistant to Christ than the drug dealer, because they have been burned. The best way for us to share Christ with them is to be loving listeners. Listen before speaking. Listen with love. Speak with love. Do not confuse a good argument to refute theological error with a good testimony to the love of Christ.
The first word of warning is, Watch yourself. Be sure your faith is centered in Christ, not some personality. The second word of warning is, do not argue over rhetorical questions with a person who has been wounded by a personality cult. Be Christ-like, and do not usurp Christ’s work in the heart of this person.
Have you encountered someone who suffered abuse at the hands of a personality cult that claims to be Christian? Have you yourself suffered such abuse? What is your experience? What is your first word to Christians you meet?