Growing up evangelical, I was taught that heaven is reserved for all who sincerely believe that Jesus is the Son of God and accept him as Savior through his work on the cross. I memorized the verses that support this doctrine.
I was also taught to obey those in authority (oh boy, was I taught that), along with the Scripture to prove it.
And I was taught that “good works” are useless – and all applicable verses were duly memorized.
The memorization of select verses proved very effective in keeping me on the evangelical path for over half a century. Though I read the whole Bible, a handful of verses dominated my belief system, and it was hard to leave those beliefs behind. I empathize with all evangelicals who are timidly putting a toe in the water of progressive Christianity. It’s scary.
I find it odd now (or maybe I don’t) that I was never exposed to the “hard” teachings of Jesus – and I know I’m not the only one who missed out on these. From my vantage point as an “exvangelical,” I see every day how evangelicalism teaches a few simple tenets of faith thoroughly, while many important truths – especially about love and sacrifice – are glossed over.
We do learn tricks to explain away these defects – we learn to say, “we must never question God” (translated: we must never question our leaders’ interpretation of Scripture); “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” (translated: see above); “Scripture interprets Scripture” (translated: everything somehow comes back to you can’t be saved unless you pray the Sinner’s Prayer).
For example, I get constant pushback when I write that caring for the needy is an essential part of the Christian walk, because that’s “works righteousness.” Never mind that Jesus said it, the doctrine of evangelicalism does not support it.
Tricks of the trade
How can one simply ignore the clear teachings of Jesus? Like this:
One reader explained that when I take Jesus at his word, I’m oversimplifying, because the Bible “is hidden wisdom (1 Cor. 2:7), it is mysteries (Matt. 13:11), it is a book that is sealed (Is. 29:11) and needs to be spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14) [emphasis in the original]. The commenter’s point was that I shouldn’t take Jesus’ words at face value because there is always a hidden meaning that I obviously don’t know because I’m not spiritually discerning enough. Luckily, he (suprise! it’s a male) has the answers – and they don’t include actually caring for the needy (if by “needy” you mean lacking food and clothes).
He goes on to say – so as not to come across as heartless? – that if you really want to do “physical charitable deeds for the physically needy,” you should do it “in secret so that only God sees it (Matt. 6:1-3).” This is handy, because it enables congregations to evade activities like special collections for disaster relief, cooking meals for the homeless, and even collecting canned goods for the local food pantry.
(I’ve since stopped allowing comments on the blog – it was just exhausting – but it’s still possible to comment on Facebook and Twitter @GlassesGrace)
As an evangelical, I was never taught to question my actions or motives. My teachers were right, so my Christian walk must be right. Above all, I was told not to question my theology. Again, this made my journey out of evangelicalism very hard.
But evangelical theology (and all theology) desperately needs to be questioned:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Luke 6).
I would ask evangelicals, when is the last time you did a spiritual eye exam? Hold up the words of Jesus and check whether you are seeing them clearly. Hold up Jesus’ life next to yours and confess the differences between them.
To answer the question in your mind, yes, I have done this. Repeatedly. That’s how I came to see that God loves all people and so should I, and that God wants us to care for each other. That’s how I came to see that Jesus accepted people as they were, rewarded faith wherever he found it (with no regard for details of theology), and gave his life in pursuit of a community of true, deep love and service. I should be emulating all of these qualities.
I’ve found a lot of planks.
I’ll keep doing spiritual eye exams for the rest of my life.
Some planks are harder to remove than others (I plan to talk about some tough ones soon – sign up for my newsletter?).
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