Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we talked about toxic Christians. These authoritarian zealots are destroying Christianity’s chances of ever returning from its decline. Despite the damage they do, Christian leaders find themselves completely incapable of either reforming their toxic members or casting them out. Also despite the known problem toxic Christians represent, nobody’s allowed, ever, to cite them as a reason for leaving their church. Today, let’s examine the hand-waving around toxic Christians as a reason for disaffiliation — and why this hand-waving is nothing but desperate flailing.
‘Don’t Let Other Christians Steal Your Ticket to Heaven!’
When I was young, Christian hypocrisy bothered me. Indeed, hypocrisy is why I left the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) megachurch I joined as a teen. Shortly afterward, I joined a big Pentecostal church. The members there seemed like they really, truly believed the stuff they said.
Ever since my childhood, I’d ached to find Christians who were the real deal. Christians who were completely serious about their faith, like I was. And now it felt like I finally had.
That up there is what we call foreshadowing in the writing biz. In reality, it didn’t take long at all to realize that some truly awful people surrounded me in those Pentecostal pews.
But by then, I’d been taught the requisite Christianese hand-waving needed to compartmentalize them away from my own faith. These thought stoppers don’t actually deal with the huge problem that rampant hypocrisy represents. All they do is stop you from feeling allowed to be bothered by it.
So I dutifully parroted this hand-waving to myself: Don’t let hypocrites steal my salvation! Just keep worrying about my own salvation, because Jesus won’t take any excuses about other people on Judgment Day!
And in the doing, I didn’t really think about what these toxic Christians ultimately meant, nor what they revealed about Christianity itself.
Toxic Christians Like to Set the Rules of Engagement.
For years now, I’ve noticed that a great many Christians like to grab a dominant role in their encounters with people outside their tribe. The more toxic the Christians, the harder they try. From there, they try to set the rules of engagement:
- Setting the parameters for what a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ is and does. Obviously, we weren’t in the Cool Kids’ Club.
- Deciding what flavors of (and beliefs within) Christianity are valid and which ones aren’t. Whatever we believed, whatever groups we ever joined, if they weren’t the same group our judge considers valid, they were all the totally worst flavors imaginable. (If we did join their particular group and did share their current belief set, then go to the next rule.)
- Determining exactly why their non-Christian counterpart suffers from disbelief. There has to be a reason. And it has to be insulting, simplistic, and easily negated or fixed by our judge.
- Setting up allowed and disallowed reasons for deconversion and rejection. Haha, fooled ya there! In reality, these judges allow no approved reasons.
All I can figure is that these Christians think that if they can completely invalidate our life stories and nullify our reasons for rejecting their control-grabs, we’ll fold immediately and reconvert. Ta-da! Largely imagined and cold-read problems all fixed!
So you can probably guess that toxic Christians themselves have some very firm opinions about how bothered they’ll allow other people to be by their religion’s huge number of toxic Christians.
(Ironic, isn’t it? The Christians who try to police how people respond to toxic Christians are probably quite toxic themselves.)
The Extent of the Problem.
Whenever two or more Christians gather together in Jesus’ name, the result is not huge miracles (as we hear Jesus himself promise in Matthew 18:19-20). Rather, the result of such a gathering tends more often to be gossip, drama, backbiting, and power politics.
When I say there’s “huge number” of toxic Christians in Christianity, that barely even begins to state the extent of the problem this religion’s having. Probably every single person living in a Christian-heavy area has been seriously hurt on a personal level at least once by a Christian acting like a total hypocrite. The only way to escape this damage is to live in an area that’s blessedly free of Christians in the first place.
And Christians know that their churchmates constantly hurt and abuse people. They know it quite well.
In 2011, a Christian published When Bad Christians Happen to Good People to try to mitigate that damage. It’s not too bad. I mean, it contains the usual hand-waving we always see, but it’s hardly the worst example of policing I’ve ever seen around the topic of toxic Christians. This review offers a sample of the book’s emotional whiplash:
Many of the unchurched folks I talk to base their rejection of Christ on a bad experience with a Christian. In reality, that can be a lame excuse that disguises the real issues at hand: who is Jesus Christ and what does that mean?
On the other hand, I believe a disturbingly high percentage of Christians leave the church and even the faith because of a bad experience with an individual Christian, a Christian leader, or a group of Christians… This Christianity thing would be amazing if Christians would just stop getting in the way.
His solution appears to be a firm admonition to readers to Jesus harder. Of course.
How Toxic Christians Try to Fix the Problem of Toxic Christians.
Even the nicest Christians simply can’t stop their churchmates from hurting and abusing others. There are just too many toxic people in the religion. Many of them have attained power and leadership positions. And they have a whole boatload of rationalizations memorized to justify their own behavior.
So instead, Christians try to police how other people respond to the damage caused by toxic Christians.
Sometimes, their policing takes downright abusive forms in turn, like we see in this tedious open letter from February 2020. Its writer, Brad Harrub, tells us in a preamble:
For the next few months I’m going to [. . .] pen letters to people who have walked away from Jesus and His church. While these letters are written to a generic audience of people who have left the church, most will be written with a particular person in mind… in hopes that they will think seriously about where they stand.
WELL, that certainly doesn’t make him sound like a creepy, narcissistic, passive-aggressive authoritarian enraged that he can’t directly control his target!
In the letter itself, Harrub tries to trample and negate someone’s stated reasons for disaffiliating from a church full of toxic hypocrites. In its author’s complete desperation to injure and control his mark, the letter has some humor value. But it also tells us exactly how toxic Christians use their religion as a tool to harm others.
I mean, this guy goes through every single plodding step, one after the next in sequence, to arrive at his conclusion: his targeted victim must rejoin his church no matter how awful its members are.
King Brad hath decreed it!
The Ongoing March of Bad Christian Advice.
Now, Brad Harrub is hardly the only toxic Christian out there trying to police people’s reactions to being hurt by toxic Christians.
Worse, toxic Christians themselves all too often try to strong-arm the victims of other toxic Christians. They tell these victims to put themselves back into harm’s way. This advice might make those giving it feel good about being on the winning team. But it won’t help the victims of toxic Christians at all, and it sure won’t change the behavior of the toxic Christians being shielded here.
Very few kinder, more compassionate Christians ever seem to jump into the fray to defend those harmed by their toxic brethren, much less to lay the blame on the shoulders of the Christians who deserve it and encourage self-care and self-protection for those injured. I’ve rarely ever seen it happen myself, though sometimes I hear Christians claim they do this.
(If they really do it, then good. They need to do it more often. And more loudly.)
Instead, most Christians seem to leave the playing field to the very hypocrites who are directly causing their loss of credibility.
What Toxic Christians Really Mean to Christianity.
A group that cannot regulate its worst members — and worse, can’t protect its vulnerable members from them — is not a group worth anyone’s time and resources. It’s certainly and definitely not a group blessed and animated by the spirit of a real live god of love and mercy!
And ultimately, that’s really what toxic Christians tell us about Christianity itself. They destroy all their churchmates’ claims about their god, their ideology, and themselves as a group. They reveal the terrible truth about Christianity: that it’s just another religion like its thousands of competitors, and one that’s all too easily turned to evildoing by bad-faith players.
As I said yesterday, for a long time Christian leaders didn’t have to worry about alienating and offending anybody. Nobody really had a choice about affiliation and compliance.
But now the situation looks very different. Nowadays, if someone doesn’t want to hang out with a really awful group, they usually don’t have to. Better yet, there’s really nothing Christians can say to make someone attend a church against their own free will.
For the first time since they gained complete dominance, Christians have to appeal to consumers in the religious marketplace on their own merits, without artificial subsidies and influences on purchasing decisions. And that means that Christian groups themselves must be worth joining and supporting.
It just really says something to me that so many Christian groups are pulling out the stops to avoid having to change their worst behavior to draw in new customers and keep them.
They’d really rather keep their toxicity than rescue themselves from decline. It’s not actually that surprising, but still, wow.
NEXT UP: (Trying this again:) 1st-Century Friday! See you tomorrow!
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Parting thought: I found this master’s thesis online and found it just fascinating. It’s about how a hard-right evangelical church group defines itself in great part by attacking their tribal enemies. You might like it too.