In the wake of Joshua Harris’ announcement of deconstruction, the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ brigade has gone on the offensive. Don’t know who TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are? Just ask them. They’ll tell you! And as certain as they are of their own status, they’re even more certain about that of other people. Today, let me show you what that label means, why so many Christians police and gatekeep it like they do, and what their hypocrisy means in the big picture.
(When evangelicals detach from the culture wars, they often call that process “deconstruction.” Deconversion involves losing faith entirely. Disengagement involves just pulling away from religious practices.)
The Problem of Labels.
It took me a long time to figure out what Christians were talking about when they insisted that a fellow Christian or ex-Christian was never really a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. They use the term like I’ve given it, as if spelled in all caps with a trademark symbol. (Sometimes you’ll also hear it as “real Christian,” or RTC, for real true Christian. For Mormons: true blue Mormon, or TBM.)
But Christians rarely define the term in any meaningful way.
If really nice Christians see an evangelical acting out in shameful and mortifying ways, they sniff that that person isn’t a real Christian at all and loudly hope nobody holds that Christian’s behavior against everyone in the pool. Quite a few evangelicals slam progressives in like manner–often in incredibly mean-spirited ways.
This merry-go-round never ends. When I was Catholic, Southern Baptists thought I wasn’t a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. When I was Southern Baptist and then Pentecostal, I knew all kinds of people who thought that about Catholics. People who think speaking in tongues is out-and-out not-okay accuse tongue-talkers of it, and vice-versa. (Remember the doctrinal yardstick Biff used?)
And quite a few Christians, mostly evangelicals, happily sneer that ex-Christians were never really TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at all.
Gosh! There’s a whole lot of inter-tribal warfare happening behind the scenes regarding who owns this label and has the right to assign or revoke it from others.
An Owner-Less Label.
A lot of problems plague this mindset, however. See, what’s TRUE™ to one flavor of Christian is false to another. In fact, no central authority exists to definitively make that call. Hell, even when one did and could use brutal force to keep things standardized, it still didn’t work! (More on this later.)
Even worse than that lack of any central definition, though, is this: once Christians of any kind have unilaterally decided that another Christian doesn’t rate the label, it’s not like anyone at all must abide by their decision.
Literally all this label-snatching accomplishes is helping the label-snatching Christian feel superior to the other Christian. It doesn’t shame the snatched Christian into changing; it just makes them feel superior in turn. Nor does this gatekeeping resolve any problems.
No, the practice exists to allow for easy and convenient infighting.
So it’s ridiculous that anybody even tries to lay down the law with the Christian label…
… Not that ridiculosity stops anybody from gatekeeping much of anything, I mean.
The Definition I Use.
Christians tend to have two definitions of the label Christian.
They use a very accommodating definition whenever they want to count up all the Christians worldwide or express dominance through numbers. That one’s more inclusive. Everyone in the pool!
And they pull out the other definition whenever they want to exclude someone. It’s a tool of invalidation and ostracism. (Ah, that “Christian love…”)
Christians use that inclusive definition unless they’re trying to exclude specific people. Thus, it functions as a Christian version of the No True Scotsman Fallacy. And I’ve heard it from Christians all up and down the length and breadth of the religion–beginning with my own grandmother when I was just a child! (See endnote.)
Indeed, as long as the claimant thinks Jesus is kinda important and settles some measure of importance upon the Bible, then as far as I’m concerned that label claim is valid. I’ve never yet met or heard of a person using the label Christian who didn’t fit that loose definition–not even Christian atheists, who might not believe in a “personal god” or afterlife, but still think Christianity is a good framework for a life spent in charity work and social justice.
A particular Christian might be doing a piss-poor job of doing the stuff Jesus told Christians to do, sure. But I don’t gatekeep the label. That’s Christians’ problem, not mine!
The Definition of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
Here’s the definition in use when you hear some Christians take it upon themselves to rip another Christian’s label away. To them, a TRUE CHRISTIAN™:
- Believes the same doctrines and makes basically the same observances as the judging Christians;
- Hasn’t been caught doing anything those judges believe is totally unforgivable;
- Dies in the traces.
That’s it. That’s their definition. If you ever wondered why these prunings of the “body of Christ” seemed so idiosyncratic, that’s why. The goalposts move with each judge’s foray onto the field.
Also note that it is a completely meaningless definition. Literally any Christian could be a fake Christian by this definition. The only way to know anybody’s the real deal is for them to die praising Jesus with witnesses who can vouch for that person’s sincerity! Even the Christians making this judgment can’t fit into it because they ain’t dying yet–hopefully, I mean. If next year our label-snatchers deconvert, then instantly they disqualify themselves from having ever been sincere believers. (Oopsie!)
So much stuff became so clear to me once I realized that a definition shift was happening–and what it was, and why it happened.
Why Evangelicals Try So Hard to Invalidate Joshua Harris.
- First, he separated from his wife, which in their eyes might as well be a divorce, GYAHH (see endnote);
- Second, he firmly rejected one of evangelicals’ favorite things ever: their culture war against LGBT people;
- Simultaneously with the second, he said he was deconstructing from his previous evangelical beliefs.
Really, he couldn’t have offended his former tribe more without also wearing a Planned Parenthood t-shirt while doing all that!
But he’d already done more than enough as it was to merit them disavowing that he had ever been one of them.
As far as they’re concerned, therefore, he never really believed. He totally missed the most important points of the entire religion, somehow. They might not know exactly what he did wrong, but he did something wrong. He was too weak to “finish the race,” as one stranger insisted on his Instagram–which implies that Harris hadn’t absorbed enough Jesus Power to maintain his faith, probably because he was never really a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ in the first place.
All the stuff he did, all his sacrifices for his beliefs, and all the work he did? None of it mattered to the people he’d served, led, inspired, and sold stuff to for decades.
All that mattered was that he was making them–and their tribe and even their ideology–look really bad.
So they had to shun him.
These Are A Few Of Their Favorite Things.Luckily, shunning is another of their favorite things! One evangelical took it upon himself to Christian-splain at me yesterday all about how his magical book says that all these cruel jabs and sanctimonious blatherings are divinely commanded. Gosh, he’s just following orders! It’s not his fault that his imaginary friend ghost-wrote a magic book that ordered TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to do that! How dare I suggest he not follow divine orders to abuse and mistreat a former tribe-mate?
More than a few evangelicals have also brought up (on Harris’ feed) that Bible verse that they think says that anybody who rejects their religion was never one of them. It’s from 1 John 2:19:
They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
That same section of 1 John describes these folks as “antichrists.” In fact, the appearance of so danged many antichrists obviously meant that the end of the world was coming any day now! Since 1 John was written around 100 CE and the world did not end then, the author mis-heard his god, I suppose.
The above link about 1 John also theorizes that the “antichrists” are people who left the author’s flavor of Christianity and began preaching and teaching competing flavors of Christianity. I’m leaning toward that interpretation, considering the rest of that section deals with discerning the correct flavor of Christianity.
More to the point, however, even if that verse grants evangelicals permission to negate former members, it comes from the same Bible that contains any number of other rules, definitions and commandments that evangelicals routinely ignore and warp into non-recognition. (Oopsie!)
What It Means.
Nobody who’s left evangelicalism (or tangled with evangelicals) will be surprised in the least by how Harris’ former tribe is treating him. But evangelicals themselves routinely express surprise and disappointment in how they get treated when they themselves lose their faith. I’ve seen them and others talk often about how anger-inducing and saddening it is to have their sincerity as onetime Christians questioned. Some even remember doing that to others, back when they still believed!
Invalidation can feel like a slap in the face, especially for those of us who spent many years in the religion, spent a lot of time and money on it, or made spectacularly-bad decisions because we thought a god wanted us to do something. Such treatment is the opposite of showing us love. I make absolutely sure to point that fact out when I see it.
But evangelicals must disqualify us from ever feeling we ever legitimately held the label. If someone can really, truly, sincerely believe the same doctrines evangelicals do, and do all the same stuff that these current evangelicals do, and then still deconvert, then literally nobody is safe from deconversion. And that is the absolute truth. Nobody can absolutely deconversion-proof their faith because reality itself has a funny way of intruding on stuff that’s imaginary. (And there’s this: a sincere Christian’s deconversion also makes clear that at least one Bible verse is untrue, which is its own problem for literalists.)
Indeed: deconversion can–and does–happen to anybody!
Oh, And About Progressives Dancing With the Scotsman.
For their part, progressive Christians usually disqualify evangelicals, not ex-Christians. And they do it for a slightly different reason. They want to distance themselves from those awful, nasty, cruel Christians.
I get their disgust. Still, they don’t get to slice away parts of their “body” they don’t like.
Christianity creates progressives, yes. And it also creates evangelicals and hardline Catholics and weird uber-Mormon cultists just as easily. The religion’s central problem is that none of its claims are true, nowhere, ever, anywhere, in any way. The corollary problem is that the Bible itself is a hopeless, vague, twisted mess of a document. Many Christians get distracted by the occasionally-pretty writing in it and the religion’s excellent marketing engine, so they miss those two points.
Progressives just happen to be generally-decent people, so they gravitate to the decent-er flavors of the religion. Terrible people end up in evangelicalism in much the same way.
But they are all just as validly Christians as their counterparts are.
Though really, hell, it ain’t like either group will listen to me anyway! Invalidating each others’ labels is now as big a part of the Christian experience as nodding earnestly while a preacher blathers on.
Out of the Fullness of the Heart.
Remember, invalidation and negation are abuse tactics. See this label gatekeeping for what it is. Don’t put up with it.
But more than that, we need never feel obligated to prove to jackasses just how totally sincere we were when we believed all that guff. If they want to argue sincerity and you want to get muddy with them, fine, have a grand ol’ time!
Just don’t lose your focus on false claims and lack of support for those claims.
Cuz see, here’s the big secret:
Even if we’d never once believed a word of Christianity, our rejection of it is still well beyond any Christian’s reach, veto, override, mocking, or validating or invalidating. Try as they might, and ohhh friends, they do try, they can’t actually do a single-dingle-dongle thing about us telling our truth.
Do you hear me laughing? Because I am.
NEXT UP: Speaking of which, next we dive into one of the biggest social changes to occur in the past 1800 years. Seeya then! <3
About my grandma: When I was a wee little tyke of 8, I found a stash of Catholic magazines under her bed. I was a readaholic, so that discovery kept me busy for most of the day. Eventually, I had to go ask her to clarify something I’d just read: “Grandma, what’s a ‘Charismatic Catholic?'” I still remember how her brow knitted and her lips pursed, as she considered how to respond to her little barely-tamed, ex-feral granddaughter.
Finally, she managed a reply I’ll never forget: “They’re not like us.” That’s all she said (in her taciturn German-tinged Balamer accent), but it was enough. Her answer implied that they weren’t real Catholics. I sure didn’t want to be some other kind of Catholic that wasn’t real, like I knew we were! That ended my curiosity about them. Years later I learned the real definition, but Grandma’s lasted me for quite some time. (Back to the post!)
About his separation: Incidentally, the tribe could have easily forgiven Harris’ first offense if he hadn’t also committed the other two. Divorce, like non-marital sex, remains absolutely endemic in evangelical circles. They’ve learned to put up with both. But rejecting the culture wars–or walking away from the tribe itself? Release the hounds! (Back to the post!)
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