Not too long ago I restated my critique of the standard Christian teaching that, while it would take an eternity of suffering for me to pay the price of just my individual lifetime of sins (most of which appear to be “thought crimes”), Jesus paid for the sins of billions of people’s lifetimes over the span of a single Friday. I’m not sure how the math works out on that, but part of the fun of religion is that things don’t have to make sense.
In fact, it may work in a belief’s favor if it doesn’t make sense. I’ve argued before that, for the Christian faith, nonsensicality may even add to the credibility of a belief.
[Related: “How Christianity Breaks Your Thinker“]
Inevitably, though, whenever I take aim at a popular Christian belief (like substitutionary atonement), it never takes more than a few seconds for someone to chime in saying that #NotAllChristians believe whatever it is that I just said. Someone always has to speak up and say, “Well, that’s not my Christianity.”
The first thought I always have when they say things like this is: You’re right, #NotAllChristians believe the thing that I just said. I mean, really, come to think of it, the only ones who do are the Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, Pentecostals, most Catholics and most Anglicans, Vineyard churches, Bible churches, Nazarenes, Churches of God, Congregational Methodists, Independent Baptists, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Brethren, Wesleyans, Apostolic churches, Missionary Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Holiness churches, Evangelical Free churches, Christian Reformed, Full Gospel, Foursquare churches, Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, most community churches, Calvary Chapel, and literally hundreds of other species of Christian churches.
But yours takes a different view. Okay. Glad to hear it?
At this point I’ve heard this refrain so many times, it behooves me to confess what I see happening after the six thousandth time I hear it: You are helping to invalidate both my concerns and your own each time you do this. Permit me a few minutes to explain what I mean.
How This Dismisses My Concerns
You may not realize it always dismisses the listener’s concerns when you say “but not my [whatever].” I know that’s not your intent. Your intent isn’t to be insensitive. Your concern, most likely, is to draw attention away from whatever is being discussed, redirecting our attention instead to yourself, your own tribal identity, and your own viewpoints. You feel that they are better than whatever is being critiqued, and that’s just lovely.
[Related: “Yes, I Know Your Christianity Is Better“]
But is that really your greatest contribution to the discussion? The most important thing you can do at this moment is to chime in and say, in effect, “Imma let you finish, but (this other thing over here) is way more important than (whatever you’re trying to talk about)?” Like Kanye West, it feels like this interjection is more about putting yourself or your own tribal identity at the center of attention because seeing someone else in the spotlight makes you very uncomfortable.
Let’s consider an analogy.
A woman posts on social media that a guy took advantage of her while she was drunk, but then one of her male friends chimes in with “Not all men do that!” Okay, thanks for sharing? But why did he feel the need to say that at this moment? Was that more about her situation, or about him? And if it was about him, shouldn’t he realize it’s a wee bit insensitive to respond to her post about date rape by changing the subject to men who don’t commit date rape? I mean, how egocentric can he be? He should let the woman voice her concern without making this about him.
Seeing how routinely black people are shot by police rather than simply being detained, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was quickly countered by a corresponding #AllLivesMatter viral campaign. Arthur Chu responded with an excellent comparison:
— Arthur Chu (@arthur_affect) November 27, 2014
It’s not that non-black lives don’t matter. But could you not allow the cultural spotlight to be taken off of your own tribe for just a few seconds to learn more about what’s happening to other people besides you?
After I’ve vented about a theological belief that I see producing psychological harm in people, if your greatest contribution is to change the subject to your own tribe and how they buck the trend, I’m going to imagine you running through a cancer fundraiser shouting something about other diseases.
Ultimately what this does is help remove from one group the responsibility for what another closely related group is doing wrong. I realize what’s most important to you is to differentiate yourself from them. But maybe sometimes we need you to identify with them just long enough to feel like dealing with them is partially your problem. They’ll listen to you way more than they’ll listen to people who aren’t even in the same wheelhouse.
How This Hurts You, Too
Whether you realize it or not, when you do this you are also undermining your own views because each time you reiterate it, you are reminding me that your tribe cannot even agree on the most basic issues of belief.
Does the purpose of the crucifixion strike you as a nonessential thing to disagree about? Because to me, it doesn’t. It seems to me the question “Why did Jesus die?” is kind of central to your message and to your tribe’s raison d’être.
And it’s not like that’s the only thing the church has fought over, never really coming to a consensus. Off the top of my head I can think of several questions over which the church is divided:
1. How reliable is the Bible? Can the church disagree with it? This question undergirded the Protestant Reformation and it never did get resolved. It’s not like the Protestants and the Catholics had a big conference and voted and decided on a common belief. The Catholic Church stuck with the Pope and the Councils, and the Protestants went their separate ways, insisting that the Bible alone would guide their theology (the Eastern Church wasn’t even invited to this discussion).
Except that’s actually impossible. Sola Scriptura may look wicked cool as a tattoo on a Calvinist dudebro’s forearm, but it’s logically impossible to pit that Bible against the Church since without the Church you’d have no idea which books belong in the canon and which ones don’t. I remember countless hours discussing this at the Reformed seminary where I did my graduate work, but even back then I understood that at some level it was an indefensible belief.
2. Do supernatural spiritual gifts continue in the church today? You’d think this question should be pretty settled after two thousand years of working on it, but you’d be wrong. Charismatic churches are among the fastest growing churches in the world, especially in countries that are less economically developed. But huge portions of the Christian faith feel these churches are in error, and if you were so much as to raise a hand in church while singing, you could be shown the door by an elder or a deacon. You may laugh, but I know of churches that split over that.
Take speaking in tongues for example. If you’ve never heard it for yourself, it basically sounds like gibberish, like a Sims character on speed. Pentecostals believe everyone is supposed to speak in tongues when they get saved as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. For them, if you don’t speak in tongues, then you’re not really saved. But non-charismatic churches feel that either a) this was never a valid supernatural experience, or b) it was only legitimate for a few years, maybe long enough to get the Bible written, after which time God shut that phase down and now it’s just a curious story from early Christian history.
Christians love to say they agree on all the essentials, but they can’t even agree on which things are essential and which things aren’t. You may not think that your belief about tongues is central to the gospel, but other Christians do. And every time one of you chimes in to tell me that #NotAllChristians see it the way the other guy does, you only remind me that y’all can’t agree on much of anything.
3. How does baptism work? What’s it for, and what’s the right way to do it? People have been killed over this question. Wars have been started over the proper mode and membership requirements for baptism. European churches saw baptism as a way of welcoming new people into the church at birth, while later groups (along with a handful of dissenters, most of whom had to live in hiding) saw baptism as a sign of conversion. For them, baptism should only accompany an intelligible profession of personal faith, which would require letting the child get at least old enough to speak.
Some churches believe baptism, like communion, is only a sign of something spiritual happening deep inside. Other churches believe these aren’t just symbolic gestures, they are rites which actively accomplish things inside the person’s body. Catholics and Lutherans believe the bread and the wine they swallow actually changes into the body and blood of Jesus (eww) while most Protestant churches think that’s absurd.
Again, wars have been fought over which church is the right one, so these aren’t minor disagreements. They are the kind of disagreements which even to this day prevent people from worshiping together.
4. Does God choose who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? Come to think of it, is hell even a real thing? And what exactly is it? Most writers in the Bible seem to have been writing from a strong sense of the sovereignty of God. They make him the active agent for everything that happens in the world, from weather events and major political upheavals all the way down to which sparrows fall to the ground and how many hairs are on your head.
But modern Christians chafe at the biblical language of sovereignty, presenting him instead as a reactive person who lets people make their own decisions, stepping in to intervene only after the consequences for those choices have come to pass. Except not all modern Christians go this route, because churches that follow the Reformation closely skew toward a Calvinistic reading of the Bible which sticks closely to the ancient way of seeing the world that originally produced the Bible.
Why a Fractured Church Matters
Hopefully you see where I’m going with all of this. My point is to show you that anyone who’s been around the block a few times knows just how many kinds of churches there are in the world, and it is obvious how poorly they play together. In some cities in the Deep South, you can stand on one street corner and see five or six different kinds of churches, all in your line of vision from a single vantage point.
This means that hundreds of people who live in the same neighborhoods will wake up each Sunday morning, get dressed, then meet under five or six different roofs because their churches’ theologies are so incompatible with each other’s that they cannot even worship together.
The reason this matters is that Jesus said the unity of the Church would serve as evidence for the legitimacy of his ministry. According to the fourth gospel, Jesus prayed that his followers may be one even as the members of the Trinity are one (not that the word “Trinity” ever appears in the Bible but then that’s another thing churches have split over). He went on to say that the unity of the church would be how the rest of us would know that he was who he said he was.
[Related: “The Most Fantastically Failed Prayer in History“]
Which means people like me are off the hook, frankly. The entire discipline of Christian apologetics should be discontinued until the Church learns to agree on at least a handful of things. Once Christians can stop drawing lines in the sand between each other, invalidating everyone who stands on the wrong side of the line, then maybe I’ll start paying closer attention to what apologists have to say.
But then again, if the church did even half of what the Bible said they would do, there wouldn’t even be a need for apologetics. The validity of the Christian faith would be so obvious that we would be asking them about “the reason for the hope that is within them” rather than having them always initiating that conversation themselves whether we asked them anything or not.
TL;DR: I’m sure that when you say “But that’s not the God I serve,” you feel you are helping your case. You are trying to immunize your own tradition from the criticisms that plague the traditions to which you don’t belong. But whether you like it or not, at some level those traditions are your responsibility, too, because you’re all in the same giant boat, and they’re sure as hell not going to listen to me.
[Image Source: Church Leaders]