When True Christians Beat Up on True Christians

When True Christians Beat Up on True Christians November 14, 2019

Editor’s Note: Amazing – I just learned about books written by a non-believing former minister whom I’ve never heard of before!  I even checked on The Clergy Project website and his books are not listed there.  They should be – they certainly fit the bill.  One is titled Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief and another is How to Live a Meaningful Life: Focusing on Things that Matter. This blog post is a review of his first book after leaving the clergy.  The review, which is shortened slightly, was written by a TCP member with a book of his own and is reposted here with permission. /Linda LaScola, Editor

By David Madison

A review of Tim Sledge’s Goodbye Jesus

…From the get-go, as a youth, my approach to Christianity was bookish, and I never had anything like an altar-call moment, ‘giving my life to Jesus.’ Eventually, when I saw through the Christian version of the cosmos, I was able to walk away from it—without too much anguish. I had never ‘belonged to Jesus.’ So by that measure, I admit to the snobbish True Christians, “No, I wasn’t a ‘Christian to begin with.’”
But how many are? By the standards of the intense evangelical folks (“How is your walk with the Lord going today?”), most of the other people in the world who call themselves Christians don’t make the grade. Catholics are seriously off the mark, for example, as are those who consider themselves liberal or moderate followers of the faith. They’re just fakes. Any compromise of the Bible’s infallible status just won’t do.
So how do True Christians explain it when a bona fide True Christian walks away from the faith? That is, someone who really did ‘belong to Jesus’? True Christians, usually at an early age, have prayed,

“Dear Jesus, I am a sinner. Please come into my heart right now. Forgive me of all my sins, and take control of my life forever.”

To abandon Jesus would imply that the Lord had failed; had somehow, inexplicably, lost his hold on the person. As another Christian said of me recently,

“Must never have been saved, you can’t evict the Holy Spirit.

How could that possibly happen?

It turns out that True Christians themselves can be at fault in ‘causing another to stumble’—actually in prompting someone in their ranks to finally see through it all and walk away. It would be difficult to imagine a truer Christian than Southern Baptist preacher, Tim Sledge, who describes his painful path away from belief in his 2018 book, Goodbye Jesus: An Evangelical Preacher’s Journey Beyond Faith. He cites that one-sentence prayer above, ending in ‘take control of my life forever’ as part of his journey into faith; he knew that God sent “Jesus and the Holy Spirit to live inside me.” And he explains how True Christians sabotaged his career, ministry, and faith.

We’ll come to that, but there is much more to his story. On Twitter recently, Sledge cautioned critics of religion against generalizing about the clergy, especially demonizing them all as purveyors of mystery and myth—and worse; which is all too easy in our era of sleaze televangelists and predator priests. Sledge’s book allows his readers to appreciate how pastors do indeed help the people under their care. It is absolutely true that he was deeply into born-again Christian belief, but he saw that many of those in his congregations were hurting—and theology alone was not a cure.

Sledge ended up pioneering support group ministries, something unheard of in the Southern Baptist world. He authored a couple of books that were widely read and used by other denominations. So, yes, he was driven by his commitment to God and Jesus, but that doesn’t distract from his accomplishments. We can admire the expansion of this ministry addressing the profound pain and dysfunction that afflict even the folks who feel that they have been born again.

His major, and final, pastorate was with the Kingsland Baptist Church in the Houston area:

“The people of Kingsland Baptist Church sensed that something was different in me, and that difference was drawing new congregants as our reputation began to shift and grow. We were becoming a refuge to people who were in pain and a welcoming place where they could find help. As believers, we had been taught to act as if Jesus had ‘fixed us’ when privately, many of us knew that we still felt broken.

“I had given believers permission to stop pretending by taking off my mask, confessing my struggle with panic attacks, and talking about some of my emotional wounds from childhood. My new message was that we each need to embrace the pain of the past so we can let it go. We each need to find selected safe people with whom we can talk about our emotional wounds. We each need help in understanding how past traumatic events have affected us, and we each need to learn new patterns of thought and action.”

The more Sledge worked with people, the more he understood the complexities of pain and dysfunction:

“The people who were touched by what I shared were typically people with decades of prayer, Bible study, and confession of sins under their belts. But they were still suffering, still acting out, still seeking something to ease their pain and improve their lives. They had tried the ‘God alone will fix it’ approach, and it had not worked.”

Sledge was compassion-driven to do what he could to help people achieve wholeness. But how had be been so caught up in the drill of ‘prayer, Bible study, and confession of sins’ for decades? As was my own case, growing up in rural northern Indiana, that was simply the drill. It was the overwhelming cultural context in which I came to awareness of the world. I often speak of ‘faith brain damage,’ not meaning, of course, that physical damage is done. When beliefs entail huge emotional investment—which inhibits tampering with that investment—the damage is nonetheless real. And when the scare-factor is added, that is, the frightening promise that eternal punishment is the divine reward for rejecting Jesus, the faith can be well nigh unshakeable.  Sledge states it well:

“Once established, faith plants deep roots. A broken belief system is hard to leave, especially when learned during formative childhood years.”

Eventually he would confess:

 “I felt angry at the religious system that pulled me in when I was a child and robbed me of a more rational process of selecting my vocation. I felt angry at myself for leading others down the same path. I felt angry at the seductive shallowness of what I believed—simple answers that faith taught me to never question, answers that didn’t address life’s complexity.”

The seductive shallowness. 
You can’t come away from reading this book and fail to see that Sledge is a smart guy, so what gives? Faith brain damage means that defenses are securely in place:

“I approached any troubling issue concerning the Bible or faith with a simple goal: How to prove it was not a reason to stop believing. Despite ample capacity for critical thinking, when it came to faith, my reasoning was constrained by a very short leash.”

But there was erosion—or potential for it—early on in Sledge’s religious journey. He makes repeated references in the book to “exceptions to the rule of faith” that he noted along the way: things that ought not be if believers have welcomed Jesus into their hearts.

• For example, if Jesus is in your heart, how could there be room for lust? Sledge reports that, at seminary, he discovered that an attractive female student was the topic of graffiti in the men’s room, just by the chapel:

“…I was stunned. Along with her full name was a crude statement about the ‘luscious’ nature of her genitalia. Who would write such a thing here? How could such a vile message end up on the wall of a seminary bathroom?”

• And who needs meds when you have Jesus?

“One afternoon, standing in a hallway waiting on a meeting, I couldn’t help overhearing two professors I admired, deep in conversation. They were chatting about tranquilizers, comparing notes on their experiences with anxiety-reducing medications. I was shocked. These were towering figures who consistently—in their teaching and sermons—focused on the power of God, highlighting the significance of the Holy Spirit and emphasizing the incredible power of prayer… the students who followed their teachings would undoubtedly see taking such meds as a sign of spiritual weakness. The incongruity between their public teaching and their private anxiety prescriptions was striking, and overhearing their hallway talk was a hard pill for me to swallow.”

The exceptions to the rule of faith accumulated steadily as his experience in the church moved forward. All these eventually rushed back to his mind—he had always made the pledge to think about them later—when he confronted a few of the biggest violations of ‘Jesus is in our hearts.’

By almost any measure Sledge had been successful as the pastor of the Kingsland Church; there had been phenomenal growth, he received high grades on his annual reviews, and there were satisfying salary increases. He notes, however, that there were actually two congregations: the ‘forever’ members who wanted the focus on Bible, prayer, and confession of sins, but also the new members, the strangers, who had been attracted by the support group focus.

Sledge was sabotaged by a conspiracy of deacons who proved to be masters of Machiavellian maneuvering—and was forced out—but, of course, they were convinced that they were being guided by Jesus.

“…as my demise at Kingsland was unfolding,” Sledge was told: “We have bathed this in prayer.” Translation: “Don’t challenge this decision because we’ve been speaking to God about it, and we know it is God’s will.”

This gave him pause:

“How can individuals who are supposedly connected to the same God—changed by him, talking and listening to him, and using the same book he has provided for guidance—be so at odds with each other so often?”

He had also witnessed the intrigue and blatant dishonesty of a nearby mega-church that wanted to absorb the Kingsland church. The political ruthlessness—and his own exhaustion—left him with no desire to find another pastorate. He was on the exit path, although he tried for a long time to find a church home, without success; his faith eventually unraveled.

“Once I stopped going to church, an odd thing began to happen. Although there were moments of sadness about the loss of fellowship, there were more moments of lightness. I felt as if my mind had been unshackled; a 10-foot-tall circular wall around my thinking was beginning to crumble.

“And as it did, I saw it for what it was—a kind of prison, a barrier that was keeping light out. As I let go of some of the restrictions that had been imposed on me—as I permitted myself to think honestly about what I believed—my path became infinitely easier.”

“Although I wanted to keep believing, as much as faith had been my bedrock—the steady ground on which I had built my life—I had now traveled to its unexpected edge. I found myself dangling from a precarious cliff as my grip began to loosen, and eventually, I fell—or perhaps it would be better to say—started to fly.”

“…my collection of exceptions to the rule of faith refused to be ignored. It was too late to claim a need for more time, more study, more commitment, or more faith. Not only had I watched Christianity from a front row seat for decades, but I had participated in the spectacle. And now, I was arriving at the decision that it just doesn’t work as advertised.”

“Why did I stay so long in a belief system that is so obviously not true? How could I keep my eyes closed for decades to such evident fatal flaws in my faith? I’m not stupid, but that’s how I felt once I finally let myself think without restrictions.”

In the final chapters of the book, Sledge offers a few helpful tutorials on the problems presented by the gospels, Jesus, and the apostle Paul. It doesn’t take a seminary degree to figure these out; a commitment to reading the texts carefully, meticulously, critically is all that is required. Edging away from the faith—“Haven’t we been conned?”—is not an uncommon response….

Goodbye Jesus is a welcome addition to this expanding shelf of books by the faith-experts who decided to walk away. There are so many contradictions, improbabilities, and violations of common sense. There are too many yawning gaps, too much that is missing, for Christianity to make sense….

===========================

 

David Madison, a Clergy Project member, was raised in a conservative Christian home in northern Indiana. He served as a pastor in the Methodist church during his work on two graduate degrees in theology. By the time he finished his PhD in Biblical Studies (Boston University) he had become an atheist, a story he shares in the Prologue of his book, published in 2016: 10 Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith.

>>>Photo Credits: by Andrea Reese ;  Amazon listing

 


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  • mason

    David’s erudite review of Sledge’s book makes it clear Sledged is a hammer that drives home the absurdities and political nonsense and divisions of the myriad of Christian sects. Just reading through the review and being briefly immersed in the ecclesiastical verbiage I kept hearing Kevin from “Shark Tank” shouting, “Stop the madness!” I wonder, will the human species ever fully evolve out of the continuing Dark Age of irrational theism?

    “It would be difficult to imagine a truer Christian than Southern Baptist preacher, Tim Sledge, who describes his painful path away from belief in his 2018 book, Goodbye Jesus: An Evangelical Preacher’s Journey Beyond Faith,” … or a truer former believer like like 5th generation Southern Baptist preacher John Compere, or over 1,000 other former passionate and “called” clergy now participants on The Clergy Project.

    Sledge writes, “Why did I stay so long in a belief system that is so obviously not true? How could I keep my eyes closed for decades to such evident fatal flaws in my faith? I’m not stupid, but that’s how I felt once I finally let myself think without restrictions.” Just about every participant on TCP has had that same haunting question, and I think the answer is in the fact that most of us were brainwashed, bamboozled, and bullied into our nonsensical beliefs by the culture we were in as cultural children, and the social pressures to stay in that cultural petri dish are immense, especially if one has be come a professional clergy in the dish.

    Tim Sledge doesn’t come up in a search of TCP participants so I sent him a message about TCP. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8520119daea2479e431dd6430af7c20554c74d3d09c9f8f1826d7252d976bde0.jpg

  • Jim Jones

    I guess I will never understand why people get tricked by religion. All my life I kept waiting for someone to show me something that wasn’t just a claim, assumption or guess. But even Billy Graham couldn’t do it so I remained a skeptic.

  • Milo C

    That sounds like an amazing book and I’ll look for it.

  • mason

    I’ll try to explain. The vast majority get tricked, brainwashed, bamboozled, bullied into religion when they’re are kids who trust and look up to their parents, relatives, and the adult authority figures they are immersed in in their culture. I curious, were your parents religious?

  • Jim Jones

    Mother only. She sent me to various churches – never came herself.

    Mind you, I voluntarily went to a 3 day, day only sort of bible camp. No TV in those days.

    And I went to a full on Billy Graham revival meeting. He was in his 40’s. He couldn’t sell me either.

  • Linda LaScola

    She sounds like my mother — religion was not exactly reinforced at home.

  • Linda LaScola

    I learned from David Madison that Tim is not yet a member of The Clergy Project, but asked for (and received) info on how to join.

    When he does, he can have his books mentioned on the public site.

  • mason

    Yep, no cultural, family, authority bulling brainwashing there. Your mother gave you a wonderful gift.

  • ctcss

    Linda, it’s responses like yours that point out to me that when religion is not an important part of one’s home life, it’s not likely to stay around in one’s later years as something valued. You appear to have grown up in a household where God and religion were regarded as mostly an afterthought. I OTOH grew up in a household where religion was considered to be very important and was central to how we operated. It would be very hard for me to just dismiss God as something without value, any more than I would regard the rule of law as something that could be dismissed as something without value, i.e. I find both conceptual notions to be interesting and worthwhile.

    None of this formally proves that God exists or doesn’t exist, or even that one kind of family produces better offspring. But to me it does say that parental example is rather important when making a case for why some people stay in religion and others do not. I watched what my mom (and other church members) did and was impressed enough that I valued their example, and wanted to know more, rather than wishing I could escape from what I had been presented with as I grew up. (I also had the benefit of not having theological concepts like hell, eternal punishment, original sin, Bible literalism, fatalism, etc. to deal with. )

    All too often, I get the distinct impression that religion is generally not a subject that is presented to most people as something knowable, understandable, and useful. Which, to me, says that helpful teaching (as opposed to enforcing arbitrary behavior or learning a subject by rote) also makes a big difference in how a person regards a subject.

    When something strikes a person as intriguing, they usually keep it around in their life.

    No judgement meant here, just an observation.

  • Dawn

    Not all church-goers/religious folks set good examples. Some of the most vile, hateful, selfish and unkind people I’ve met are loudest and proudest about how “Christian” they are. Religion isn’t necessary for a youngster to be/become a kind, caring, loving and generous person.
    Also, “intriguing” isn’t “based in reality”, and most people have to deal with reality or be screwed by it.

  • LeekSoup

    Yeah well, as a 5 year old I was on a mission station in remote Africa with my parents. When we returned to our home country we always went to church. I was fervent as a teen, even to the point of doing a theology degree at university.

    But I’m now apostate so these things don’t always last and parental examples of faithfulness come with no guarantees.

  • LeekSoup

    This was always a conundrum – when 2 Christians were at loggerheads and both absolutely convinced God was informing their point of view. “God told me” was always the most serious claim – contradicting that was to tell someone they were “deceived” so carried huge consequences.

    The key is realising that when both parties can’t be right they can both be wrong. Seems Tim Sledge has concluded that as well.

  • carolyntclark

    I’d venture to say that a large majority of our 1000 + apostates on The Clergy Project were reared in Faith families.
    Many are offspring of a generational line of religious ministers.

  • abb3w

    Once again, I’ll note the role exit model from Ebaugh’s “Becoming an Ex”. The stages she posits are initial doubts, exploring alternatives, a “turning point”, and creation/adoption of the new (ex-whatever) role. The trajectory described by the author largely seems to fit.

    The mention of “two congregations” reminds me of Dale Cannon’s “Six Ways” model; it seems the congregation encompassed two groups that emphasized “ways” to differing degrees. (It seems possible that the emphasis pattern of the author may have been different from either of the two.) Those who are seeking to induce role shifts (whether turning believers into infidels or vice-versa) may find that particular approaches vary in effectiveness depending on which “ways” someone is oriented toward.

  • mason

    Yeah … Thse ol’ reliable ace trump (pun intended) cards of “God told me” … or “The Lord is leading me” were always in every well trained Evangelical’s hand when I was in the cult, and those well worn cards are still in play today among my relatives and former friends still been led https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/86f41ecebfb66dd7ef72fdc3a19aef7897aa47b5ae185792cb54b4aac8d48aff.jpg .

  • mason

    ctcss … the research shows one kind of family does produce better offspring; the atheist, non-religious, secular family. Non-religious/secular children are more moral and more successful. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/11/nonreligious-children-are-more-generous https://www.forbes.com/sites/jvchamary/2015/11/05/religion-morality/#46ff3d857aea

  • ctcss

    Mason, you seem to be referencing a rather shallow approach to what Jesus taught. From what I read in the gospels, he expected his followers to follow his example by being selfless and compassionate towards others, and in bringing healing to those in need, i.e. to be known by their actions, not by their words. The approach you are citing seems more like people trying to get away with whatever they can, however they can. That’s not what I get from what Jesus’ ministry seemed to be about.

  • ctcss

    Carolyn, my point was not about being reared in a religious environment so much as it was about being taught by those who led by example. I was impressed by the actions I saw my mom take, as well as the actions of a number of others in my church. Furthermore, I liked the theological concepts I was taught. They made sense to me, and didn’t contain the sort of harsh, cruel, and unjust ideas that so many here often complain of. I stayed with my religion because of the positive impact it made on me.

    I’m not saying everything and everyone was perfect, just that I found positive reasons to stay and continue my journey of exploration, not negative reasons to flee. OTOH many TCP members seemed to have found negative reasons to leave. And based on what has been cited from time to time, a large percentage seem to be from fundamentalist backgrounds, which often contain theological elements and approaches that strike many as unhelpful and toxic. And in cases like Linda’s, there was no strong case made by her mom (and others) for the usefulness or understand-ability of religion, so she ended up leaving.

    Everyone’s story of why they stayed or left is going to be different. But staying doesn’t mean a person hasn’t thought deeply about why they are doing it, any more than leaving is evidence of someone’s moral failing.

    Circumstances vary, thus conclusions also vary.

    All the best.

  • ctcss

    Agreed. Regularly going to church is no guarantee of anything. Fervency is also not a guarantee of anything. But setting a good example of compassion, caring, helpfulness, and selflessness etc. towards others (i.e. like the Good Samaritan exemplified by doing good without any strings attached, even towards one’s opponent) can often make a very positive and lasting impact.

  • ctcss

    Agreed. Hypocrisy is never a good look. But I beg to differ on “intriguing” isn’t “based in reality”. That which intrigues us, and prompts us to explore further than where we currently find ourselves to be, can lead us to discover things that we did not expect to find. Thus the Wright brothers, intrigued by manned flight, helped bring it about. Ditto for Edison and his many inventions (as well as his many, many failures along the way). And I rather think that Jesus’ disciples, intrigued by what he was teaching and doing, also discovered much that they had not expected by persisting in their desire to learn more from him.

    I am intrigued by what Jesus taught and did, thus my desire to explore and to learn more about that subject area.

    Reality isn’t just comprised of what you currently know. It’s also composed of what one hasn’t encountered yet, but exists nonetheless.

    All the best.

  • carolyntclark

    Strange that when “God told me” … or “The Lord is leading me” ‘ the voice or lead is usually in keeping with one’s own thoughts or needs.

  • I’ve enjoyed my interactions with Tim and appreciated reading his book. Another important voice among us!

  • LeekSoup

    Linda’s mother could have modelled all those things without pushing religion on her. Those qualities are not uniquely found in Christianity or any faith system.

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    I remember reading someplace that families where the *father* was religious had a much stronger chance of having religious offspring who stayed faithfuldeluded for longer.

  • ctcss

    Agreed. But my point wasn’t that Linda could only get good things from religion. Rather, I was simply pointing out why Linda, whose homelife did not focus on religion as having value, likely drifted away. Of course, there are no guarantees that she would have stayed even with her mom valuing their religion more than she apparently did. All I know is that in my case, the positive example set by my mom regarding our religion had a large impact on me.

    To each their own.

  • LeekSoup

    And as I said, the very high value placed on their religion by my parents didn’t prevent me becoming apostate eventually. It took a long time as I initially accepted it all as true and very important. So if you are genuinely wondering whether parents attaching value to religion means children are more likely to value it too, then it can go both ways. In your case it stuck and in my case it didn’t.

  • Linda LaScola

    Interesting theory, ctcss, but doesn’t apply very well to my family, because my brother and sister and I all turned out differently as adults.

    I’m an atheist, my brother is a “none” (He says he’s “nothing” religiously) and my sister became an evangelical Christian.

  • Linda LaScola

    FYI — my parents set a good example in all the ways you mention. It was all part of being a good person, not a good Christian.

  • Linda LaScola

    That’s right — all you know about is your own case.

    By the way, my parents did value religion — after all they sent us to Sunday school and made sure we received all the “sacraments.” It just wasn’t presented as the reason to be a good person.

  • swbarnes2

    It would be very hard for me to just dismiss God as something without value,

    And yet, many people who grow up devout do.

    But to me it does say that parental example is rather important when making a case for why some people stay in religion and others do not.

    Or, perhaps it’s not “example”. Perhaps it’s early and consistent sabotage of the lines of thought that would lead people away from religion, with a dash of “You lose your family if you go your own way on this”.

    I watched what my mom (and other church members) did and was impressed enough that I valued their example,

    If you lived next to a mosque full of supremely impressive Muslims, would you honestly, sincerely start to think that their doctrines and beliefs might be true? Even where they conflict with Christianity?

    Have you read an article about churches lately? Lots of people have been awfully impressed with sexually abusing monsters.

    All too often, I get the distinct impression that religion is generally not a subject that is presented to most people as something knowable, understandable, and useful.

    So when I bring up villages drowned in tsunamis and children dying before vaccines were invented, you aren’t going to answer “Well, we aren’t supposed to understand that at all”, aren’t you? When I ask where the next blockbuster anti-malarial drug is, you aren’t going to insist that I’m not supposed to expect religion to be useful for that?

    Its useful for telling me that I don’t have to sell cakes to customers I don’t like, right?

  • Jim Jones

    It all makes perfect sense when you realize that each person’s god is the ego projection of the self styled believer in the supposed being . . . with added super powers.

    Of course god wants what they want.

  • Jim Jones

    The bible in general, and Christianity in particular, are far from consistent. ISTM that Matthew 25:35-40 is all that is needed. Why the rest?

  • Jim Jones

    Jesus is not much use as a model to emulate. I prefer Fred Rogers or Sir Nicholas Winton.

  • Jim Jones

    Those, like rich Republicans, who talk about Jesus the most are often horrible, corrupt people who should be scorned and despised.

  • Jim Jones

    > I am intrigued by what Jesus taught and did, thus my desire to explore and to learn more about that subject area.

    Start here: The Christ: A Critical Review and Analysis of the Evidences of His Existence

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/46986 (free online)

    You’ll know more than almost everyone.