Recently, Ed Stetzer tweeted the following:
My initial reaction to this tweet was a mixture of emotions, but it all culminated in a deep sadness, a sense of lament.
As many of my followers well know, I began this blog as an ardently progressive Evangelical. However, as time progressed, it became clear to me and my family that Evangelicalism was no longer a home for us. As such we chose to move into mainline Protestantism, and now attend a local, small PC(USA) congregation.
Even as I read Stetzer’s tweet, I had already begun to attempt a post reflecting on my exit from the Evangelical faith. That post largely floundered in production, as so many of my posts seem to be doing lately. But, as that post lay dormant, Stetzer’s tweet raised up something in me, something I felt the need to write on.
A fair warning, this is a departure from my more cerebral work. This is something more visceral, something that, to be honest, makes me deeply uncomfortable. It is in many ways very personal, borne of personal experience and pain.
I don’t like writing about myself, it so often feels selfish somehow. I fear this will read as little more than the disgruntled ramblings of a discontent. I worry that it will be heard as little more than misplaced anger. Will I simply sound arrogant, like I’ve somehow arrived, aloof and egotistical?
And yet I am hopeful, hopeful that it resonates somewhere, that others can see themselves within and find some hint of solidarity.
In the end, this is me in all my flawed humanity. And in a way, I suppose, this is just me.
The reasons I lament my exit from Evangelicalism are myriad. At the core of it all is the reality that I was raised the son of a fundamentalist pastor. I was converted into conservative Evangelicalism in my late teens. For the better part of 29 years, conservative Christianity was a significant part of my life – though to be honest I rarely lived as if it were.For this reason, the death of my Evangelical faith at first felt almost like the death of a close friend. Sadly, as time passed and I looked back, I realized it had never truly been a friend. It had instead been my abuser, a system of oppressive theology designed to stifle my theological imagination and arrest my spiritual maturity in a state of codependent infancy.
Now, to be clear, I fully recognize this will not be the experience of everyone. I know many good, Christian people who have found freedom and liberation within the Evangelical faith. I cannot speak to their experiences, and I would never dare to illegitimate their faith.
As such, when I speak of Evangelicalism, I speak not of people, but of an industrial complex which feeds upon the suffering and brokenness of its constituents, seeking to produce mindless automatons built only to further the influence of the top level elites who design and maintain the system.
Having come to these realizations, it occurs to me that I am inspired to lament my former Evangelicalism not because I have left it, but because I can still recognize the dangerous fruits of its theology in my life.
Fear and Guilt
Even now, several months removed from Evangelicalism and over a year into my blog, I am regularly racked by fear and guilt. When I wrote my post exposing the hypocrisies of New Calvinism, a voice in my head resounded, “The good outweighs the bad. Why be so negative.”
When I wrote my four part critique of Emerson Eggerichs best-selling book Love and Respect, I had to constantly fight the programming of guilt which called to me from each page, telling me I’m not the man God wants me to be. I had to overcome the instinct to abandon the project because “His ministry has helped so many, maybe I’m just offended because I don’t trust God enough.”
Every time I write a post, I worry whether I will lose followers, I worry I’m going to offend people, worry that talking about these things will “damage the Church.” I am terrified that honesty about my beliefs will cost me close friends, because my journey through Evangelicalism has been marked by such moments.
As such, when I encounter the abused, I am tempted to minimize their suffering. I sometimes feel compelled to ignore the abuse, to dismiss the cries for justice, to recite the mantra, “Souls not circumstances.” When I hear a story of abuse, some part of me is still tempted to wonder “Did she provoke him somehow?”
All of these things represent the programming of Evangelical theology in my life. They are rooted in the words of pastors who I’ve heard preach, “God didn’t call you to abandon difficult relationships, you must always seek reconciliation.” They are the result of internalized insults, of those who tell me I am a “false teacher,” “deceived,” and “anti-Christ.”
But now I realize, these are not the voices of friends and leaders trying to protect me, they are the conditioning of an abusive system. One which wishes to colonize the suffering of others, to reduce people to objects, cogs in a machine. I am conditioned to support the overinflated egos of men who measure the success of their ministry by dollars in the coffers and butts in the pews. I am conditioned to trust blindly, even as I see the hurt and pain caused by tyrants selling shackles and calling them liberation.
And thus I am afraid because fear is a method of control, the only way a naked emperor can parade through the streets unquestioned. I feel guilty because part of me still wants to believe the facade of the Church is more important that the people within it.
But something strange happens when one finds freedom in Christ. I read of Christ clearing the temple, and realize exposing injustice is at the heart of the Gospel. I read about the cross and realize that condemnation and guilt are not the Gospel, they are the emptiness of law which can never save me. They are a tyrannical ravings of a king I no longer serve.
I value intellectual pursuit highly. I read academic books – books many would consider only as textbooks – for fun. I study science and history, theology and hermeneutics, and I find my life and my ability to understand and relate to others profoundly improved by doing so.
Yet I am plagued by worry that I am over-intellectualizing my faith. As I write an in depth historical analysis of Romans 1, I am reminded that “God doesn’t communicate in riddles, he communicates with clarity and absolute truth.” Never mind I have yet to meet an Evangelical who can make heads or tails of Revelation, I always feel a slight twinge whenever I dare to color outside the lines.
In these moments I recall words I once heard in a sermon, “We don’t need more Bible Scholars and Theologians, we need more lay people who simply trust the Bible and obey it.” Or the time he told our church, “Don’t interpret the Bible for your kids, it is true and that truth will be apparent to them if you just read it to them.”
And yet, here I am talking about the cult of Cybel and the centrality of sex acts to ancient fertility cults. It was instilled in me for so long that I am not to question the Bible, but to simply do as it says. Yet every time I read it, I cannot but hear the voice of the Spirit drawing me deeper, challenging me to think past the narrow strictures and flimsy boxes of the theology Evangelicalism has sought to instill in me.
What has become readily apparent to me is that so much of Evangelicalism is predicated on conformity. They want Bible scholars to smooth out the rough passages that cut a little too deep or provoke too much difficult thought. What they do not want is for people to practice any theological imagination which would undermine the cut-and-dry categories that keep their ministries successful.
They don’t want people to question when their men’s curriculum glorifies violence and shames men into hyper-macho caricatures. They want you to simply accept that Jesus was a “manly man” and that Christianity is a “masculine” religion. In this mindset, it is okay to use words like “faggot” and “pussy” to describe non-conforming “secular” men, because Masculinity is a high calling. But don’t you dare suggest that feminine metaphors for God, for Jesus himself, abound in Scripture.
The reality is, when you begin to question these things, the entire foundation starts to crumble. Suddenly their multi-million dollar national men’s conferences seem absurd. Their books on “biblical masculinity” look like little more than a croc of chauvinist bullshit. And their theology is quickly exposed as little more than thinly veiled patriarchy.
This is why academic study must be controlled, why clear lines must be drawn. Doubt is denigrated, blind faith codified, and questions demonized because power and control are the bedrock of the system. The pastors are demagogues, rulers of their kingdom, unquestionable and all knowing. Their humility is found not in admitting what they do not know, but in deigning themselves to spend time with meer lay persons, to bestow their knowledge upon us.
These pastors maintain the system by tone policing our concerns, discouraging us from forming independent “conclusions,” and constantly insisting that things like calling women “incubators” or telling “flirt to convert” jokes aren’t really objectifying women,* after all Jesus wasn’t “politically correct.”
Such environments do not cultivate mature theologies, they stifle them. We cannot find freedom in Christ under the ever watchful eyes of big brother, “leaders” who seek to preserve the oligarchy by making themselves the gatekeepers of all truth. We cannot know what we believe when they prohibit us from asking difficult questions or entertaining alternative views.
And again I am reminded, that this is an environment of abuse. Abusers thrive on ignorance and control. They thrive on power, on public image, on being right all the time. And they lash out with shaming tactics and demeaning rhetoric when anyone dares to breath too close to their house or cards
And when one realizes their entire faith rests upon someone else’s flimsy constructs, there comes a time to just knock the whole damned thing down and start over with better materials.
It now occurs to me that the entirety of the theology I was taught was rooted in antagonism. In order to demonstrate myself as righteous, I need a sinner to point out to everyone. In order to establish how much I love and forgive, I need to first find someone I consider unloveable to patronize with empty platitudes.
Missions work is thus rooted in a deeply paternalistic savior complex. I am witnessing to people because I have what they need, I am the good person and they are the bad. People become objects, notches in our belts to display proudly in Bible studies.
These “secular” persons are objects to be assimilated into our own narrative. When floods strike New Orleans, this is God’s judgment for their “sin.” When kindergarteners are gunned down, this is God’s anger against gay marriage. When gay people are gunned down, it is because we are too tolerant of the Muslim faith. The suffering of others becomes a way to prove our own love, to enforce our theological superiority, and to show that we are the chosen and blessed of God.
Further, Evangelicalism is rooted in an ethnocentric arrogance. One need only memorize enough Scripture, and holiness will abound. Never mind that there are nations where Christians can be imprisoned for simply owning a Bible.
Suffering is God’s punishment for our sins, never mind that millions of Christians are refugees of war, innocent families displaced by the arrogance of tyrants.
America is a Christian nation, founded in Christian ideology. Never mind that we still work to suppress minority voting, what matters is that our privileges are legislated and normativized. Forget that Western Imperialism fuels the labor trafficking of children in sweatshops across the world, these children are acceptable casualties in our search for the best deal possible.
All Lives Matter more than Black Lives Matter because the majority narrative of white privilege maintains the polite sensibilities of suburban, conservative white Christians. Blue Lives Matter, because we are okay if “they” want us to preach the Gospel to them, but heaven forbid “they” leave their neighborhoods to shop at the same stores as us. If a black man is killed by police, then he should have just complied. But don’t dare mention that a white person in the same circumstances would still be alive, and likely would never see jail time.
When all is said and done, there is apparently no conflict between “saving souls” and imprisoning, oppressing, and lynching actual bodies.
This is because Evangelical theology is so often predicated on the notion that, to worship the Way, the Truth, and the Life, one must first become the way, truth, and life themselves. That the goal of theology is not to grow and learn, but to conquer the text and arrive at absolute and unquestionable propositions.
And invariably these propositions are wielded as weapons. You have to give this much money, you have to align with this political party. Your marriage must fit within specific parameters, the man must rule the woman submit. And in every case, these theological “rules” enforce the privilege and power of those in charge, those representing the “moral majority.”
Thus, God is not loving, he does not pursue our enemies or forgive those who have wronged us. He is our God, he is bound by our interpretation of the text. Those who buck the system, who ask too many questions, are driven out. Because in the end, God is our puppet, a tool of our own imperialist agenda. In order to colonize others, we must first embrace tribalism, create a God in the image of our own imperialist ambitions.
The abuse continues to shine through. Pastors assert their authority by controlling access to “the Truth.” They create straw men to fight, keeping people trapped, tilting at windmills so they ignore the dangers within. They addict their followers to anger and hatred, then sell it for a profit at national speaking events and Christian bookstores.
But there comes a time in one’s faith when it becomes painstakingly evident that certainty is the opponent of faith. That antagonism and a love rooted in the cross of Christ are wholly incompatible. When it becomes clear that I am serving someone else’s agenda at the expense of the kingdom of God. When I realize, it is okay to walk away; there is no shame in leaving one’s abuser. Church should be a source of refreshment and safety, not oppression, shame, and exhaustion.
It is for these reasons, and so many more, that I lament Stetzer’s tweet. I lament all the ways in which that Tweet reminds me of my own past. I lament because I feel the sting of rejection his words embody, and realize all the ways in which I have also injured others. I lament because some part of me so deeply desires to fit in again.
But I am also reminded of the hurting people I talk to on a near daily basis. I am reminded of the abuse (physical, spiritual, emotional, and sexual) I have seen play out again and again within Evangelicalism. I remember that so many of us have been rejected not for our sins, but for our willingness to heed the call of God in our lives – for finding a God we can neither control nor box. A God that pushes the limits of our conprehension, destroys our every notion of deity, a God who is known not by a thundering voice from a distant mountain but through a crucified man named Immanuel.
And in these moments, I am reminded that I am not here because I abandoned my faith, but because I have dared to pursue maturity in it. I have not left Evangelicalism because I ignore the work of the Spirit, but because I recognize her guidance in my own life. I am where God has called me to be, and that is to faith after Evangelicalism.
**Featured image from https://wisewomenbuilding.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/caged-bird-flies.jpg**
*No joke, here is an email exchange between my wife and an executive pastor at the largest church in Wisconsin.