The evangelical habit of bearing false witness against mainline Protestants

Brian McLaren shares a confession, and a personal testimony, about the pernicious and pervasive temptation to bear false witness against one’s neighbors.

Specifically, he addresses the widespread convention among white evangelicals — so widespread it’s an expectation, almost a requirement — that says it is somehow acceptable, and not vicious, to bear false witness against mainline Protestants:

I agree with Tony [Jones] that there’s a common rhetorical strategy among Evangelicals that I myself have indulged in, as has Tony by his own admission: trying to seize the middle ground as morally high ground. If you have critics to your right, the only way to gain some space to differ “to the left” is by throwing somebody farther to the left under the bus, so to speak. …

One example: years ago, I spoke with disdain about a “mainline liberal” writer — my attempt to bolster my Evangelical credentials and seize middle-moral high ground by throwing “a liberal” under the bus. I had actually never read anything he had written, but people I respected thought he was dangerous. So I echoed them, needing to bolster my reputation to my right, a sign of my immaturity and insecurity on my part. Again, things I’m not proud of.

Some time later, I was asked to speak at the same event as this person. He was easy-going and gracious. I suppose he knew what I had said about him, but he didn’t throw it in my face. Anyway, at the end of the event, there were long lines of people waiting to talk to us and get books signed. His line was much longer than mine.

So when my line dwindled away, I had the chance to eavesdrop on what people said to him. Person after person said, sometimes tearfully, “Thank you. If it weren’t for your books, I wouldn’t be a Christian,” or “Through reading your book, I became a Christian,” or “I left the church 30 years ago, but when I read book X, I came back.” That’s pretty moving for an evangelical to hear, you know? I realized that this fellow was actually an evangelist, reaching people for Christ who never would be reached by my more conservative friends, or by me!

… One of the challenges of getting older is that you have to keep leaving behind rhetorical “tricks” that you considered acceptable (or were completely unconscious of) when you were younger.

My guess is the other author was John Shelby Spong, the liberal writer unread but widely reviled by evangelicals as history’s greatest monster. But it could have been any number of other mainline Protestant writers. When it comes to liberals routinely condemned as “dangerous” by respected members of the white evangelical establishment — and thus supposedly fair game for disdainful, dishonest attacks — there’s no shortage of potential candidates.

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Pray that you will be among those 'left behind'
  • baronsabato

    Most Christians in the US today cannot recite any of the major creeds or have any idea whether or not they agree with them. As a former Southern Baptist, my first introduction to the Nicene Creed (back when I was still a Southern Baptist) was, “Wow, what a load of bull!” All that “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God” stuff sounded incredibly pagan to me (and as a Southern Baptist, “pagan” is not a compliment, although I don’t mean to offend any actual pagans). All that controversy about the filioque clause, etc., well, I thought it was all crazy, heretical junk. In general, I was taught that creeds are all products of apostate, Satanic churches that attempt to enforce allegiance to a human being (i.e., the Pope) rather than God.

    I guess my point is that every Christian is a heretic to somebody else, regardless of what we actually agree on and what we disagree on. John Spong claims belief in God, in Jesus, and in the resurrection; he defines them in ways that is heretical, at least to somebody. But there are enough people who agree with him and find meaning in the Biblical narrative through his interpretation of it that I don’t think you can just automatically say he’s not a Christian.

    I think what’s important is that he still uses vocabulary and a language set that is recognizably Christian. He talks about Jesus. He talks about God, even if he understands God in a somewhat different way than most Christians do (although not so different from the way many mystics have throughout history). He quotes the Bible and reads the Bible and uses the Bible. Hence, he is still, inasmuch as ANYONE is, a Christian.

  • Lliira

    Go ahead :). I don’t know how good the description is for flavors of Christianity other than the Lutheran-Quaker blend I grew up with; I can’t remember Fred dwelling on this particular kind of guilt, for instance. It’s not that you’re not doing enough good in the world, it’s that you literally never can do enough good in the world, but you must try anyway, and if you don’t, God will cry. God, from whom all blessings flow, who loves you so much more than you can ever imagine in your pitiful little sinful human heart, will be heartbroken either way by your horribleness, of course, but still, you must try.

  • Alix

    “that one thing is just unassailable.”

    Not really, and it never has been. Plenty of Christians have held the view that Jesus didn’t experience bodily resurrection or didn’t even really exist, and they’ve still been Christian.

    On another point, the modern mainstream-Christian views of Jesus and a whole host of other things have a heck of a lot more to do with politics, spreading their version of the gospel by any means necessary, and concerted efforts to stamp out any dissent than the obvious rightness of their doctrine gently persuading the hearts and minds of the unbelievers (though some of that happened too). It’s the foundation of mainstream doctrine because mainstream Christians made damn sure no one else survived in great enough numbers to challenge them – and also because mainstream Christians all ultimately derive from one specific form of Christianity, several schisms down the line.

  • Lliira

    Have you read When Jesus Became God by Richard E. Rubenstein? Excellent book.

  • SisterCoyote

    H’m. Fred always speaks of his family rather lovingly, and has mentioned that they were on the sane end of the scale – but I think it’s pretty common, across the harsher ends. My old boss, who was a Baptist, gentle soul and amazing person, suffered from the same crushing guilt complex, but had learned to laugh at it. I know my sister’s got a bit of the same.

    “You must try to be perfect, even though it is humanly impossible, because every time you’re not perfect, you are disappointing/hurting God and contributing to the sins for which Christ was crucified, so, y’ know, stop it. Even though you can’t. …Good thing God is so merciful, huh? We have to stop imagining God as a giant boot, waiting to stomp us all into dust the first time we step out of line…” (Guess what my mental image of God was, following that sermon, for quite some years.)

    But yeah – it’s definitely applicable for a lot of us, I think.

  • Alix

    Also, really minor point in comparison, but:

    sure, you can classify anyone from a Bogomil to a Gnostic to a Manichaean as a (heterodox) Christian.

    You probably should, if you really want to be honest about any investigation into either Christianity or those various heterodoxies. They self-identify as Christians and exist in relation to Christian doctrine, they’re Christian. The only possible exception are, potentially, a few “Gnostic” sects that seem to have branched off of Judaism and never absorbed Christian teachings, but “gnostic” is a bit of an overstretched term anyway.

  • Alix

    No, I haven’t, but it looks fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation. I think I need to make a library run…

    Edit: Actually, screw that. I’m buying it on kindle.

  • Lliira

    My family wasn’t harsh at all. I think my maternal grandparents believed pretty much exactly what Spog does. They were just… really guilt-ridden. I dunno if it was a Northern European ancestry thing, or a Great Lakes region thing, or what. I think on my mother’s side, part of it was that we have ancestors who were slaveowners in the antebellum South. On my father’s side… well, they’re Swedish Lutherans.

    I never thought of God as punishing. I remember a sermon in which the priest said God forgave everyone, literally everyone, and I thought “that means Hitler’s in heaven”, and it was a really powerful moment for me. My idea of God was more — disappointed. Sad. Guilt tripping.

  • SisterCoyote

    *sigh.* Yeah; painfully heavy guilt is one of those things where I can understand how someone could look at religion and go “This stuff is really toxic.”

    I can sympathize. Earthly authorities were the ones I thought of as punishing and angry – God always… I dunno, I guess the concept wasn’t well-developed enough. I remember overwhelming guilt, but not how it all connected.

  • AnonymousSam

    I wonder if that might be it.

    Basically, I ran into the problem of evil. It didn’t bother me before then (because, yeah, APD), but as soon as it affected me, I needed an answer for it. There were no answers. There were no people who would even entertain the question. So that was that.

    If I’d had a Fred in my life, someone to answer “I don’t know either, but I’m sorry for what happened,” then I might not have concluded that the whole thing was one cruel lie and turned into the poisonous creature I was for about a decade.

  • Alix

    every Christian is a heretic to somebody else


    And I am totally stealing that line from you, just so you know. :P

  • David Policar

    Yeah. Which is why the next wave is taking this into consideration and doing its best to frame the nasty gays and their fellow-travellers as oppressing decent moral Christians for their beliefs.

  • Albanaeon

    That man never fails to amaze me in how singularly terrible a person he really is.

  • Stone_Monkey

    I agree…to a point. You’ve had more of a chance to have had life throw things at you and react in response to them if you’ve lived longer. And therefore have had more chance to live a life. So wisdom perhaps correlates with age rather than being caused by it.

    That is, a person is more likely to be wise if they’re older, but it’s not necessarily the case that an individual older person is actually wise.

  • ngotts

    Late antiquity (by which I mean here, 1st-7th centuries CE in the Mediterranean and Middle East) seems to have been a time of extensive religious experimentation and syncretism, as well as the time political leaders caught on to the value of a state religion with a well-defined doctrine and an organized, centralized body to enforce it. Four religions eventually precipitated out of this ferment – Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam – but even the two that predated it in some form were extensively changed.

  • ngotts

    Everyone saw Jesus as a lot of trouble

    Really? Where’s the evidence for that? Jesus was a Galilean and did most of his preaching in Galilee, but the tetrarch, Herod Antipas, didn’t find him threatening enough to have him executed, as he reportedly did John the Baptist. There doesn’t seem to have been any attempt by the Romans to round up his followers either before or immediately after his death, as there would have been if they had thought him a serious threat, rather than a minor nuisance. Some back-country hick causing a disturbance in the Temple and annoying the Sanhedrin just before Passover? Better crucify him just to be on the safe side. The only evidence for any sort of persecution pre-Nero comes from Christian sources, and we know from current events that Christian claims of persecution are not necessarily well-founded. Acts claims that Saul/Paul was rounding up Jesus’s followers and imprisoning them, but how do we know this is any more than the common “Oh what a wicked person I was before I converted” claim?

  • Alix

    Both the syncretism and the state religion bit aren’t unique to that time period, but yeah. Something seems to have come to a head around that time, and you can actually pretty much throw Buddhism into the mix, too, if you broaden the region a bit.

    People have remarked on it before: all of the world’s major modern religions either stem from that time period or, as you say, were extensively changed by it, and no one, to the best of my knowledge, has put forth a really cohesive explanation as to why. (Aliens coming down to seed human religions during the Great Refueling or something doesn’t count.)

  • Alix

    I love this whole summary. :)

    I will say, the New Testament does indicate that the disciples were fearful of something post-crucifixion – they were all hiding out, conveniently, so Jesus could show up all resurrected.

    But the other thing to bear in mind is that this was a time period where it really wasn’t unique for revolutionary apocalyptic would-be messiahs to pop up in Judea. The scant evidence points to John being fine until he started making political comments against Herod*, and going by the N.T. Jesus stayed well away from subversive comments or inflammatory actions until he was ready to be arrested and killed – to the point that many people have suggested that Jesus stage-managed his own death, and it’s a pretty compelling argument.

    *Which Herod he was sniping against is something of a question, as is what exactly he said that got him into hot water. The New Testament, perhaps not surprisingly, is really garbled on this.

  • christopher_y

    As an atheist who was a liberal Christian in the past, I think you’re right. As Paul put it:

    And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.

  • Carstonio

    So? Religion isn’t about protecting a copyright. What deserves to be mocked is the arrogance of believing that an individual’s or group’s version of a particular religion is the only true one. At least when the band Manowar proclaimed “Death to false metal,” it was for the entertainment value.

  • Carstonio

    So? Religion isn’t about protecting a copyright. What deserves to be mocked is the arrogance of believing that an individual’s or group’s version of a particular religion is the only true one. At least when the band Manowar proclaimed “Death to false metal,” it was for the entertainment value.

  • MaryKaye

    No, sorry. Since becoming a parent I have pretty much put other parts of my life on hold.

  • Wednesday

    FWIW, some branches of early Christianity didn’t believe in the literal original-body-returns-to-life resurrection, either. (Heck, some Christian groups believed Jesus and Christ were actually two separate beings.)

  • Baby_Raptor

    I see your point and bow to your more nuanced view.

  • Mark

    You’re right, I shouldn’t have used the word secular–it doesn’t apply, since he worked in a nonsecular field. Atheistic humanism, then.

  • Joan Jacobson

    Could have been Jim Wallis. He has a new book out and although he identifies as evangelical, they don’t accept him back. In fact, a professor at Colorado Christian University got fired for even suggesting (not requiring, just suggesting) that his students read Wallis’ writing for a diferent theological perspective.

  • Jim Roberts

    Still is, really. He made a statement to the effect that if the crucifixion and resurrection wasn’t exactly as described in the Bible, it wouldn’t be the death of Christianity and, well, that’s all she wrote. Can’t be caught saying that kind of thing.

  • Lliira

    Paul said a lot of things that I, as a Christian, was taught were wrong. That line looks heretical in the framework I grew up in, frankly, because he’s saying that Christianity is about the supernatural rather than the actual teachings of Jesus Christ.

  • guest

    I remember being astonished by this when I lived for a short time in the Midwest (I’ve never READ the whole Bible, but had listened to all of it at least once on cassette tapes in my Walkman). I remember grabbing a thick cookbook off a shelf in a fundamentalist’s house and shouting ‘every word in this book is the absolute truth! I totally believe this! I haven’t actually read it, but I totally believe it!’

  • Lliira

    In the West, the Western Roman Empire going kaput pretty much required a new belief system to account for it. You could no longer travel the roads safely; no one was taking care of the aqueducts any longer, so you didn’t have clean water any more; the economy crashed worse than we can probably imagine; people started to forget how to speak and write Latin and Greek, which meant they could no longer communicate with each other across distance. On the other hand, the Roman Empire wasn’t exactly popular and beloved outside Rome and its immediate environs. So anyone saying Rome’s fall was part of a greater plan was likely to be welcomed with open arms.

    The Eastern Roman Empire kept going, but still, the world seemed to be cut in half for them. Also, Justinian axed education funding in order to gather more power to himself (my Byzantium professor made a direct parallel between Justinian and Bush II). It was already known that religion was an excellent way for the state to control people, and that it didn’t work so well on educated people. The old religion didn’t seem to be doing so well, but this new religion had all the buzz, and like the old religion, you didn’t have to be born into it.

    Plus you might lose your personal divinity, as emperor, but you could claim God wanted you to be emperor, which might be even better. It was monotheistic, so you could control literally every other belief system by saying if they didn’t fall into line, they were the enemy of the one and only God.

  • guest

    I’ve read people drawing a connection between the development of these religions and the use of currency (didn’t find a Google reference quickly, but will look harder/rack my brain more if you’re interested).

  • Invisible Neutrino

    For me, it was simple, comparatively. I kept seeing Christians telling me (not to my face, but I saw enough of it in the media and in the Plain Truth magazine I used to read) that being anything but heterosexual was bad and you should pray to God to get yourself fixed.

    Surprise, no fixie.

    Conclusion: No more Christianity for me.

  • Jamoche

    Most fundamentalists said they read selected passages, which often were selected for them by their church, a Bible study group, the editor of a book of devotional readings, and so on.

    And they’ll be the same ones who rail at Catholics for not reading it ourselves, just listening to what gets “selected” for us by the lectionary. Which, if you include daily Masses, covers about 80-90% of it, skipping things like the genealogies ;)

    My grandmother is 90, Southern, but not evangelical (her family picked churches based on which of the two in the small town wasn’t Southern Baptist) and she’s read most of it – I got the impression it was something her generation just did.

  • FearlessSon

    He made a statement to the effect that if the crucifixion and resurrection wasn’t exactly as described in the Bible, it wouldn’t be the death of Christianity and, well, that’s all she wrote. Can’t be caught saying that kind of thing.

    I want to criticize those offended by it and say, “Is your faith really that weak and fragile?”

  • Alix

    Oh, that’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to look into that.

  • fredgiblet

    I have times where I wish I was religious. KNOWING would be nice. Feeling that there is indeed something more going on and someone who actually cares about everyone would be nice.

    But ultimately I can’t bring myself to believe and in the end the feeling passes and I move on.

  • Alix

    I agree, with the small caveat that it’s overly reductionist to think of it as one old religion vs. Christianity – there was, firstly, no unified pagan religion*, and probably more importantly, there was a huge explosion in new religions in the Roman Empire during its last few centuries.

    Christianity was one of a crowd, and the more I dig into this, the more I get the sense that, regardless of how certain kinds of Christian scholars like to frame it, the fact that Christianity came out on top at the end was more luck of the draw than anything else. No Constantine** setting up Christianity – no rise of the Roman Catholic Church, and Christianity probably would’ve dimmed with the other cults.

    *Not directing this at you at all, but the notion that all paganism was some unified single religion is probably one of my biggest pet peeves, right up there with the notions that no one in the ancient world ever traveled, dared sail on an ocean, invented machines, or lived past thirty.

    **It occurs to me that Constantine was perfect timing for Christianity – it gave Christianity just enough time to establish itself as legitimate before the whole damn empire fell apart. Too much earlier, and Christianity might’ve been too entwined with the Roman system; too much later, and it would’ve been too new.***

    ***And I need to stop with footnotes in the comments section…

  • Alix

    And, well, not all of Christianity accepts Paul as valid.

    It’s funny how so much of a largely Jesus-centric religion puts him in second place to a prolific and idiosyncratic letter-writer.

  • Lliira

    Oh, my entire comment is hugely reductionist :). I think Christianity happened to have a lot of the right things combined (women are human, not merely sex toys/baby incubators; slaves are human; monotheism; you don’t have to be born into it) at the right time. It could very easily have gone another way.

  • Alix

    The really fascinating thing to me is how many of the other new religions had a lot or even all of the same things going for them – the “women/slaves are human” thing in particular. The Isis cult, especially, is interesting in this regard – it’s hard to know for sure, but it seems to have been even more widespread than Christianity, and more generally accepted, until the collapse of Rome, and in fact people (even some Christian apologists!) have noted the high amount of similarities between Jesus’ teachings and the Isian movement – to the point that some of Jesus’ sayings are basically ripoffs of some attributed to Isis, and to the point that some people think he was far more influenced by his stay in Egypt and Egyptian religion in general than most mainstream Christians nowadays would find comfortable.

    …All of this is why I really, honestly think that early Christianity was far more weird (from the perspective of the modern mainstream) than people are really comfortable even entertaining, let alone admitting. And it really seems to me that most mainstream Christian arguments about their own history and the authenticity and preeminence of their own version of Christianity are … disingenuous, to put it mildly.

    On a completely different topic: the eastern empire fascinates me, but I find it kind of overwhelming and I haven’t really dug into its history like I ought. (Aside from the history of Greek Fire, which made for a series of very weird papers for school.) Do you have any favorite books on the topic?

  • Ben English

    It’s interesting the way you say that, because I *did* find this blog around the time the fundamentalist framework I was rasied in collapsed. I spent months through 2008 and 2009 searching for a framework of understanding Christianity that did not seem hateful or abjectly delusional. I only found Fred’s blog when someone linked me to the Left Behind posts (in a context of mocking bad literature, not even discussing Christianity.) Maybe I would have eventually moved in this direction anyway if I hadn’t found Fred’s blog, but you never know.

    Maybe I’ll write an AU fanfic about it.

  • arcseconds

    I get the impression, though, that Spong’s beliefs are not actually all that different from those of many other people ordained in churchs in the Anglican Communion, and in many other ‘mainline’ Protestant churches besides.

    It’s just that Spong is more open about this than others.

    I’ve heard similar things about Lloyd Geering, who’s a presbytarian. The problem that the ministry had with him, so I’ve heard, was not his beliefs, which were not all that unusual, but that he let the cat out of the bag publically.

    There are lots and lots of theologically liberal Christians (in the sense they self-identify as Christians, attend ordinary Christian churches, and sometimes even are ministers of those churches) who don’t believe in literal bodily resurrections.

    I don’t know what Fred believes on this score, but several of his fellow travelers on the progressive christian thingy on Patheos don’t, e.g. James McGrath.

    Also, and this came as a surprise to me recently, Martin Luther King was highly theologically liberal and as far as I can make out, didn’t believe in a literal bodily resurrection either.

  • Ben English

    Honestly it just doesn’t make any sense to me. He makes assertions without any argument or evidence and then uses those assertions to support subsequent points.

  • arcseconds

    Ha, now, that’s interesting, because I was acquainted with someone who made exactly the reverse kind of choice than the one that I guess you made.

    She was a Wiccan, but then converted to Catholicism of the most dogmatic sort.

    While she was a smart and quite intellectual person, and not lacking in curiosity, what appeared to be going on is that she really wanted answers. Wicca doesn’t really deal in firm answers to questions as far as I can see, whereas the Church has had a lot of fine, philosophical minds spin out a huge, largely consistent web of teachings on this and that. So someone with her mindset can ask all the questions she likes, and find answers that are intellectually satisfying in a puzzle-picture kind of a way.

    Now I should say that as far as I could work out, for all practical purposes at any rate she never insisted that anyone else should be an orthodox Catholic, which wouldn’t have gone down with her friends very well at all, given that they were largely either Wiccan or atheists.

    Me, I found the whole concept rather disturbing, because she had apparently outsourced her reason to the Vatican.

    So, yeah, accepted the guidance of the Heirophant, completely and utterly.

  • Gregory Peterson

    “Some back-country hick causing a disturbance in the Temple and annoying the Sanhedrin just before Passover?”

    Sounds dreadfully sinful to me.

  • christopher_y

    Intriguing. Which denomination was that?

  • Nick Gotts

    I doubt there’s any correlation at all. For one thing, a number of forms of bigotry seem to correlate with age – as do voting Republican in the USA and Conservative (or most recently, UKIP – our very own Tea Party) in the UK.

  • Nick Gotts

    I didn’t say anything to the contrary. I doubted whether “Everyone saw Jesus as a lot of trouble”. There’s no good evidence that they did.

  • Nick Gotts

    That you are fearful of something doesn’t mean it’s actually likely. Having their leader seized and executed might well make the disciples fearful, but there’s no claim even in the NT that the Romans came looking for them, nor the Sanhedrin in the immediate aftermath (i.e., before Pentecost).

    many people have suggested that Jesus stage-managed his own death, and it’s a pretty compelling argument.

    I don’t find it so. If he had, he’d surely have prepared his followers for it better than he appears to have done. More likely, he either expected God to intervene on his side, or just miscalculated through ignorance of the big city and its politics.

  • misanthropy_jones

    I was raised as a sort of half-assed methodist. my paternal grandparents were serious about their church, my dad would rouse up and take us to church when he was home (his job involved a lot of travel), mom and her family weren’t really religious at all. by high school i had completely drifted away from christianity.
    read a lot of stuff, mostly eastern philosphy, tried a few different things, but nothing really took.
    then, at about 30, i sat back down and read the gospels. realized that, whether they were true or not, this was how i wanted to live, what i wanted god to be like.
    so, back to christianity, but more out of idealism and hope than blind faith.
    to each his own, right?