Fred Phelps thinks he’s one.
So does Brother Jed, the Pope, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, and Eddie Long.
So did Biff.
So did I.
So does every Christian.
If you just said “I’ll take ‘TRUE CHRISTIAN’ for $200,” you already understand. Unfortunately, not everybody does.
It’s one of the favorite excuses out there, this idea that people leave the religion because of meaniepies who weren’t “genuine Christians.” Or that we did something horribly wrong that kept us out of the influence of “genuine Christianity.” We were in the wrong churches, or hung out with the wrong people, or believed the wrong things, or didn’t read the right apologetics books, or didn’t study the right bits in the Bible, or didn’t pray enough or fast enough or speak in tongues enough, or something. Our churches must have been too legalistic, or not Bible-oriented enough, or else too liberal. Clearly we did something wrong. If we’d known “genuine Christians” or been exposed to “genuine Christianity,” we’d never have left, and this attitude isn’t just an unspoken assumption but a flat-out accusation made when Christians encounter someone who left.
I’ve got a boat full of issues with this mindset.
First, this assumes that the accuser actually knows anything about me. You already know how much I hate assumptions, but this one’s especially aggravating. It treats me like a toddler who insists she hates fish when she’s never had any in her life. The implicit declaration is “Try it! You’ll like it! I promise!” But I’ve had fish. I’ve had lots of types of fish. Heck, I spent my childhood growing up in Hawaii. I know all about fish. I just don’t like it. I don’t reckon I’ll ever like it. But you know what someone says when a food dislike is declared: “You just haven’t had it made well!” And just as I resent people who try to push fish on me by assuming I’ve just decided on a whim based on a shallow understanding of the nature of fish, I resent people who assume that I had this limited brush with their religion and got a bad view of it, so that’s why I don’t buy into it.
Man, wouldn’t it just suck if I did actually understand the religion and know more theology than the Christian saying that? Wouldn’t it be just awful if I actually had known a lot of people who were decent in the religion and knew a lot of different denominations’ platforms so I wasn’t just folding my arms like that toddler and going “Nuh-uh! Ain’t trying it!”
Second, this attitude assumes that there’s a superior way to understand the religion and a superior way to practice it–and moreover that someone (the accuser, naturally) knows both of these details. Just typing that made me giggle like a schoolgirl because it’s so obviously untrue and so obviously flawed that it’s unbelievable that anybody thinks that way, but that’s the implication I get when someone tells me my problem was just that I didn’t know “genuine Christianity.” Look, folks, there are roughly 41,000 denominations of Christianity, and that’s not even counting the multitude of Christians who aren’t officially members of a church because it’s just not hardcore enough to follow a denomination and they have to hipster it out by themselves. So all in all that’s two billion Christians we’re talking about here. And almost every one of these Christians thinks he or she is a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. Moreover, many of them are convinced that Christians who don’t subscribe to the same doctrines they do aren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
But how do you tell who is and isn’t? It’s not like the Bible is crystal-clear about what it takes to be a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. Every Christian who is erroneously convinced this way thinks that the Bible is clear about what exactly makes someone a genuine Christian, but so is every other Christian who thinks differently. There simply aren’t oodles of Christians out there going “Yeah, I know this doctrine isn’t quite right… but the church is really pretty and they offer childcare.” For every Christian convinced that his or her doctrine is the real deal and his or her church is the genuine article, I can find a hundred other Christians eager to declare that that doctrine and church are getting it wrong. We’re talking about eternal stakes, here, so choosing exactly the right church is terribly important–and every Christian believes that he or she has wisely chosen the correct Grail.
As a Christian, I often got frustrated with people who believed things I knew weren’t true. I often felt stymied about how to address my concerns. Some of the doctrinal differences were minor, but some of them were dealbreaking–like women out of submission and speaking in tongues, or the exact formula and ritual, if any, for a baptism. But they seemed just as positive that it was okay for women to preach to men and that speaking in tongues was either non-essential or demonic or that their way of baptizing was the right way, and they had just as much Bible backing them up as I did. There just isn’t any yardstick that can be used aside from a vague mention of “fruits of the spirit” here and there, and frankly, you’re going to find decent people in almost every church and religion because decency doesn’t hinge on religion.
I’ve written extensively about Christians I thought were getting it right, but I know that what I think “getting it right” means and what a toxic Christian would think that term means are two different things. You simply can’t generalize when it comes to Christians, and that’s a big part of the problem for every one of us whether we’re still in the church or out of it or were never a part of it. This accusation of being false is very easy to fling because nobody can agree about what being “genuine” would even involve.
Which brings us to my third problem with the “genuine Christianity” accusation: it assumes that Christianity itself, at its core and in its essence, is perfect. This idolatry permeates toxic Christianity and causes untold harm and emotional grief to both those who remain and those who leave. The toxic thinking goes like this: if someone leaves Christianity, then either the religion itself is the problem or the person is the problem. But the religion can’t possibly be the problem. The Christian god is thought to be perfect and omnimax despite every bit of evidence we have denying the existence of a perfect or omnimax god in this world, and his message is thought to be equally perfect and flawless. So the problem must be the person who left.
It’s all very simple, I’m sure. Ah, that’s the issue then. It’s all the ex-Christian’s fault. Now the remaining Christian just has to figure out what that person did wrong. Don’t you make a mistake here: that is a very pressing question and it has got to be settled immediately. Blame must be portioned out before the remaining Christian wonders what it’d be like if the message itself was the problem. You can almost hear their thoughts: Whew! Thank goodness I figured out what she did wrong! Now I can get back to praising Jesus!
But this mindset is a lot more insidious than that, a lot more malevolent. I also detect in the weak explanations offered for my apostasy an unwillingness to confront the brutal reality that I present every time I declare that I left that religion. Let’s face it, leaving a perfect religion with a perfect god under threat of an infinitely barbaric punishment for leaving…. over people bein’ all meeeeeeean to you? How shallow and idiotic is that? How ridiculously juvenile, short-sighted, and simple-minded would someone have to be for that to be a valid reason for them to leave “all that” behind? How incredibly stupid would I have to be to leave for such a vapid reason as that?
I can tell that the Christians making this accusation are well aware that they’d never, ever leave their religion over the things they accuse me of leaving it over. It’s almost like they’re reassuring themselves. Not only are they settling out that I did something wrong, but it’s something wrong that they’d know better than to do. They’re safe. They aren’t tempted to leave now. Another stupid idiot left their religion for stupid idiotic reasons. As long as they don’t come face to face with knowing the truth, they can believe that the religion’s still valid. Like I once heard from a friend involved in Amway, they think the system works, if you work the system. And also like any Amway salesperson, they think if someone leaves, the system wasn’t the issue but rather the person working the system didn’t work it correctly. As long as they can put the apostate into a box labelled “Definitely did something horribly wrong,” they don’t have to think further about it.
The thing is, this is a mindset that backfires. The second a Christian declares that someone else did Christianity wrong, that invites the obvious question: “How exactly can you tell someone’s doing it right or wrong?” Because that would require a mind-reader or a magic spell, wouldn’t it? I’ve heard all sorts of rationalizations for how a Christian can make such a ludicrous claim and they are each funnier than the last. Because the Christian’s god told them (and he doesn’t tell the other folks who make the same claim?). Because s/he studied the Bible extra-dextra hard (and Christians who disagree do not?). Because s/he shows the fruits of the spirit (which lasts until s/he is challenged, at which point the rage-flecked threats or condescension come out).
If these folks are correct, then only the tiniest fraction of Christians in the world are really TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and only a few churches practice “genuine Christianity.” And by wild coincidence, the Christian making this implication knows exactly where to find both. If this religion were a diet plan, then most of its adherents would be 600 pounds. If it were a franchise, it’d be an MLM where just the top of the pyramid makes money. Every one of these people insists that they have it right and everybody else has it wrong, and yet they don’t seem to care what anybody else is doing as long as everybody’s still in the religion. Their accusations and finger-pointing only happen when someone leaves, at which point it’s just unfathomably funny to me that suddenly I was doing everything all wrong.
Do these folks realize that what they’re saying is that all the churches I attended were doing false Christianity, which means they’re all going to hell? If it was true enough when I was attending to get me to heaven, then surely that’s all the genuine-ness it needs, right? And what separates all those false churches from the accuser’s “genuine” church? It’s not like Jesus came down from heaven and vouched for it. Continue in this line of thought, and it doesn’t take long to realize that every one of these churches and every one of these Christians have exactly the same evidence supporting their style of worship and doctrine. This “No True Scotsman” fallacy isn’t going to do anything but work against a Christian because it leads directly to some rather dangerous musings, namely: They can’t all be right. But they could all be wrong.
If I could tell Christians something and have them actually listen to me, I’d tell them to please stop telling ex-Christians that our “problem” was that we just didn’t see genuine Christianity or that we just didn’t know any TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
The problem is quite the opposite. We saw genuine Christianity quite clearly and knew plenty of TRUE CHRISTIANS™. They were not enough to keep us in place because we figured out the religion makes a number of claims that aren’t valid and we found the whole mindset to be toxic and stunting. We left because it wasn’t true or right for us. It’s okay if someone else thinks that despite its untrue claims that it’s still a valid belief system for him or herself. That’s fine. Fly that freak flag high. But I needed something different, and so did all the others who left. We weren’t stupid, uneducated, vapid, juvenile, or shallow. We knew lots of decent people, and we studied all sorts of apologetics and explored all kinds of different denominations and approaches. None of it made sense to us or was compelling enough to make us give up our short, precious years to base our lives on a lie.
But how much research and how many TRUE CHRISTIANS™ is an apostate supposed to do to meet the remaining Christian’s rigorous demands? Almost every one of us ex-Christians has had well-meaning religious friends and family demand we read this or listen to that or attend this other thing as if we aren’t allowed to say we hate fish until we have tried every. Single. Goddamned. Type. Of. Fish. In. The. Whole. Goddamned. World. We’re adults, okay? How about treating us like adults and trusting us that we did enough research to know what we do and don’t like? How about not insisting we jump through hoops until King You is satisfied that we did enough to virtuously declare this religion just wasn’t for us?
Apostates already know through bitter experience the answer to that question–“there will never be enough hoops jumped through”–because the religion can’t be the problem, remember? We already know there are no compelling apologetics explanations on the market today or in the past and we already know there is not a single bit of objective evidence backing Christianity’s claims, so if we read the book or watch the video or attend the lecture and come out of it still convinced Christianity is invalid for us, we know you’ll just say we’re hard-hearted or just “don’t want” to believe. So why bother demanding we do all that anyway? Why not accept that there isn’t going to be some magic bullet slam-dunk you’re going to have that we haven’t already seen and heard, and move past insulting our intelligence and treating us like recalcitrant children?
Dear Christians, please stop making assumptions about us, and please stop accusing all your fellow Christians of being non-genuine. It’s very unloving, and it’s uncalled-for, as is the implication and accusation that we left for dumb reasons that you’d never, ever consider leaving over. If you want to know if we were TRUE CHRISTIANS™, you can just ask. If you want to know why we left, most of us would be happy to tell you. Or better yet, focus on our objections to your religion and stop worrying about putting us into boxes so you can ignore us and wipe your brow in relief that your walk is totally safe, so you can rest easy in your erroneous assumption that apostates are all shallow ego machines or worse.
For a religion that cares about the truth, Christians don’t seem to want to hear ours.
But that’s okay.
We’ll keep saying it until they get it. Sooner or later they’re going to wonder why there seem to be all these apostates who were doing everything wrong, and maybe it’ll make them stop and wonder how so many people could possibly have gotten the religion so very wrong and how so many “false Christians” could exist in the world to lead astray all these apostates. Why, it’s almost as if there really isn’t any sort of gold standard for Christianity, and almost as if maybe we didn’t leave over false Christians at all. But if we didn’t, then… then.. what else could it be?
What else, indeed.
One of the things that happens when a Christian is convinced that people leave the religion for stupid reasons is that a certain amount of paternalism and condescension naturally and inevitably erupts in that Christian’s mind. Next time we’re going to talk about the hand-wringing religious people get into over their dwindling dominance over society. I’ve got my keyboard poised and it ought to be fun. Hope to see you there. We will be like a bunch of kittens in a basket.