“Don’t you believe that God inspired the Bible?”
“Yes,” I said, “but I don’t think God stopped inspiring people when the Bible was in its finished form. I’ve read some great books by women that I think were equally inspired by God, and they give me a perspective that the Bible doesn’t, since every book theologians decided to include was written down by a man.”
My hands on the wheel, I glanced sideways at my friend, who views God very differently than I do. She raised her eyebrows and then leaned back against the headrest, looking exhausted.
I went on at length to name some of the current books I’ve read and to say why I got more out of them than a lot of what I read in the Bible, especially those pesky chapters in Paul’s epistles that tell women to shut up. That doesn’t mean that I don’t read the Bible, I told my friend; in fact, I’ve read the entire Bible in three different translations, and I still read it every day, following the Common Lectionary.
My friend listened for a while and then said, “You’re making my head hurt.”
I laughed. “Is that because of my argument or the concussion?”
My friend had taken a tumble in a parking lot that resulted in a concussion, and I was driving her home from a check-up.
“Both,” she said.
That was a few months ago, and this week, now that she’s well again, we continued the conversation. Though she doesn’t agree with many of my views, we both find it interesting to discuss them, and we respect each other’s views.
I’ve also seen that concussed look, though, in the eyes of evangelicals when I try to explain to them why I do not believe the Bible is meant to be read literally. Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I have many family members and friends who do believe the Bible is both literally and historically accurate. When I have these conversations, they often end with a confused look and the pronouncement, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Those who love me fear for my soul, but they are usually respectful enough to simply shake their heads and walk away.
Recently, though, a cousin who was frustrated with my argument finally gave up trying to reason with me. He resorted instead to telling me that much of what I say and write sounds “dangerously close to the apostate church.” For those who are unfamiliar with fundamentalist beliefs, Nathan Jones, an ordained minister who graduated from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, describes the apostate church in this way:
The Church has become so seeker sensitive, and that can be a good thing in that we want unbelievers to come to know Jesus as their Savior, but we have ended up chasing the believers right out of their churches. We have filled our churches with unbelievers and now are putting unbelievers into the church pulpits. These new church leaders are not saved. They have no fruits of the Spirit. They have no signs in their lives that show that they are saved. These unbelievers in the pulpits keep writing their apostate books and they keep leading their apostate churches saying every kind of doctrine that has nothing to do with the Bible whatsoever.
Jones believes, as many evangelicals do, that apostasy is one of the signs that the end times are near and that Christ will soon return. My cousin—and many other fundamentalists—essentially believe that progressive Christians are the “apostate church.”
People like Jones are vocal, and they have learned to use social media to broadcast their message to a widening audience. Though I am a Christian and an elder in my church, when I try to engage them in conversation on social media, they openly and loudly doubt my salvation and the salvation of some of the most Christ-like people I know.
Because progressive Christians believe in the separation of church and state and are reticent to proclaim their beliefs in such public ways, any counter-argument to evangelicals is rare. In recent years other evangelicals, who are more focused on social justice and earth-care, have begun to speak up, but rarely does the average person in the pews of a progressive church challenge such thinking by bringing God into the conversation. As a result, extreme evangelicals—those who do not hear the arguments of science or social justice— have become an influence in our public dialogue out of all proportion to their percentage as part of the population, and they are aiming a wrecking ball at the separation of church and state.
Fundamentalists are not just dangerous to our democracy, however; they are even more dangerous to the human psyche of those who walk away from the fiery message of doom preached in their pulpits. I launched this blog five years ago because my mother, one of the most Christ-like people I’ve ever known, revealed to me that she was afraid she was going to hell. When I expressed my astonishment, she told me that even though she knew on an intellectual level that her fear made no sense, it was nearly impossible to reject something that had been beaten into her throughout her childhood.
Almost a year ago, I lost the second of two brothers to an opioid addiction. After a year in jail, my brother received help from a program at a mega-church in the city where he lived. They provided him with a bed in a group home in exchange for his work in the church and their thrift shop. They required that he attend Bible study every day and that he go out in a van with others to seek converts on street corners in some of the worst parts of the city. Church attendance was mandatory, and residents had to commit to six months in the program.
My brother told me that he loved the contemporary music at the church and that he enjoyed his small group Bible study. But he said that the sermons were very hard to listen to because they were meant to instill fear and to scare people straight, and according to their teaching, he was never saved. One of the leaders of the church told him that if he left the program, he was choosing hell and that he couldn’t come back. He left the program just shy of six months but still managed to stay clean for almost a year. Shortly before he died in a car accident with heroin in his system, he had hit a rough spot, and he told me that he felt God had abandoned him.
The reasons for addiction are complicated—and the way out even more so. I am grateful to the church for trying to help my brother. But I believe that message—that if we walk away from God, then God walks away from us—contributed to his death.
My fundamentalist acquaintances would say that I’m cherry-picking when I choose not to believe that women should be silent in church but then choose to believe this verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans:
38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NRSV)
Perhaps I am cherry-picking. But when I look at the whole of the life of Christ, I can’t see how oppressing women, denying help to the sick and the poor, and lacking compassion for those fighting the demons of addiction are any part of the package. Nor is calling a compassionate Christian an apostate.
Even the early Christians thought that Christ would return in their lifetime. And for over 2000 years humanity has suffered from the doom and gloom of those predicting that Judgment Day is near but who feel they can ignore the plight of others because they will be swept up to heaven when the day comes.
I wish pastors and Christians like those I’ve encountered in progressive Presbyterian (USA) churches had more of a voice. They speak of a gentle and generous God but also a God who is angered when self-righteous religious leaders refuse compassion to the multitudes. And I wish more Christians were like my friend, who is willing to engage in a dialogue with those whose beliefs are different even when it makes her head hurt.
To those who suffer the wounds and bear the scars of judgment from a version of Christianity that Christ himself might not recognize, I would say that those religious leaders sound suspiciously similar to the scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s time.
And I offer you this thought that my pastors often use to end our Prayers of Gratitude and Concern: “In life and in death, we belong to God.”
Indeed, we do.