Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or hating gay people. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.

 

Helpful Resources:

Fundamentalism and Mainline Christianity

I’ve recently been telling different groups of people that the United Methodist Church is a mainline, not fundamentalist, denomination (although some of our pastors prove to be unfortunate exceptions). I assumed that people knew what I meant, but they didn’t understand the terms I was using. I tried to remedy this problem in an email to a friend, and my wife suggested that others might be interested in my response. What is written below is the beginning of a sketch outlining some main ideas. I know it is limited, but I’m also hoping that it will be helpful.

Fundamentalism is grounded in a specific view of scripture. Adherents typically embrace (usually unwittingly) a theory of divine inspiration developed by a Presbyterian Princeton professor named Charles Hodge in the 1800s. The technical name of the theory is Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and it basically teaches that every word of the Bible is historically, scientifically, and factually infallible or inerrant. In the imaginations of some, it’s as if God dictated the Bible and human beings served merely as passive secretaries. This view erases the humanity of the biblical authors and focuses almost exclusively on God giving us a perfect and divine book. Furthermore, according to fundamentalists, a strict literal reading is the only correct way to interpret the Bible (and some would say that they are not even interpreting but simply reciting the Word of God). In this way, the Bible is pitted against modern science and historiography, and being a “real” Christian means rejecting what science teaches about cosmology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, etc.

The final step is to say, “Our way of understanding inspiration and how to interpret the Bible is the truth, and, therefore, the only legitimate way of thinking.” Do you see the subtle shift? They slip from biblical infallibility into assuming that their theory about infallibility is infallible! Furthermore, these truths are to be protected at all costs from any competing theories or interpretations, which are invariably seen as corruptions or heresies. People who hold different views (and there are many) are to be corrected, converted, or excluded. Fear of false teaching leads fundamentalists to study apologetics from other fundamentalists so they can mount what they believe to be incontrovertible arguments, and the only proper response to these arguments is, “I have seen the light and you are right!” Any push back leads to more forceful arguments, sometimes buttressed by the threat of eternal hell, in a last attempt at conversion. If the person with a different view does not convert, then they are excluded from the community of true Christians (if not physically then theologically and/or socially). So the key elements are:

1. We have the only true understanding of the inspiration of scripture and the only proper way of interpreting the Bible. All other views are necessarily wrong.

2. If you don’t agree then you must be corrected with arguments, converted with threats of hell, or excluded as a corruptor of the true faith.

In stark contrast, mainline Christians believe that God inspired human beings to record the words of scripture, but didn’t erase or bypass their humanity in the process. God worked in, through, and with their humanity to communicate what is necessary for our salvation. This means that the divine message of the Bible is communicated through the human words of the authors, and these words emerged from their own personal and corporate experiences of God. In short, God does not need a perfect, inerrant, infallible book to effectively communicate with us.

Mainline Christians often point out that the Bible is not the Word of God—Jesus is the Word of God (John 1), and the reason the Bible is important is because through its words (in the power of the Holy Spirit) we encounter the risen Christ. Given the ways that fundamentalists erase the humanity of the Bible, some mainline and liberal Christians accuse fundamentalists of “bibliolatry” (turning the Bible into an idol).

Once you acknowledge the humanity of the biblical authors and the Bible itself, you can also see that it is not a single author book. It is a library of books written by many people, living in different cultures, who spoke different languages, and wrote in different genres over the course of 100s of years. Instead of insisting that every letter of every word of the Bible is literal and factual (in terms of history and science), we can begin to discern different genres, and different genres warrant different interpretive methods. So we read the historical parts differently than the poetic parts (e.g. the Psalms), and we read the poetic parts differently than the gospels, and we read gospels differently than letters, and we read letters differently than apocalyptic, etc. In all of this, we realize that the Bible is a religious text, not a modern historiography or science book. A fortunate consequence is that Christianity does not have to be an enemy of the natural and social sciences, but can engage them as conversation partners from whom we have much to learn.

Finally, another significant difference between fundamentalists and mainline Christians is that mainline Christians uphold intellectual humility as a virtue. We insist that we are not saved by our interpretation of scripture or by having the right theory of inspiration. We are saved because God loves us and offers the gift of reconciliation through forgiveness. This means that we are not required to have all the answers, that we can hold our theories and interpretations loosely, acknowledging that we could be wrong. At the end of the day, God is greater than anyone can conceive and we are all rendered speechless before the divine mystery. Part of faith is learning to be comfortable with the fact that we don’t have all the answers, which allows us to trust God and relax into God’s mysterious and active presence.

Consequently, we don’t feel compelled to proselytize and convert people. Only God converts people, and this usually happens over a long period of time. All that Christians are called to do is live like Jesus and share their stories, allowing people to draw their own conclusions as the Spirit leads. All of this happens in the awareness that creation is floating in a sea of grace and that God is working with us on God’s own timeline.

For an accessible introduction to a United Methodist view of scripture, see Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. For a more academic read, see the articles on my website under the heading, “Course in Understanding the Bible.”

Why Culture Is More Important Than Programs When Trying to Grow Your Church

If you want your church to grow, you need to focus less on programs and more on culture.

Effective marketing, strategic preaching, and good online ministries can help get people through the door. If newcomers experience warm hospitality and some of their needs are met in worship, they might even stick around for a few months. But if people don’t develop a sense of belonging in the larger community within the first three months of attending, they will likely go looking somewhere else. Most people crave life-giving friendships in a genuine community of love, and this is the main reason why people stay at a church.

This is why the first part of our mission statement at First UMC Cocoa Beach is so important to me. It reads, “Our mission is to learn and practice the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love . . .” In many churches, first, you are expected to believe certain things. Second, you are expected to behave in certain ways. Third, you finally get to belong, which is typically formalized in official church membership. However, if you are trying to grow your church, these priorities must be reversed. First, you should accept people where they are, so that from the beginning they experience a sense of belonging. Second, you should model how followers of Jesus treat each other when cultivating a community of love. Third, you should offer a lifegiving theology that can sustain and support deep spiritual transformation in the real world.

In growing churches, believe—behave—belong gets switched to belong—behave—believe.

The important point is that if people do not experience a sense of belonging in a community of love, then your odds of keeping them in your church will drastically decrease. And if you can’t keep them around, you will never change their beliefs or behavior.

 Communities of Love

What distinguishes a community of love has everything to do with the way that people treat each other. The New Testament is instructive.

Take for example Colossians 3-4. The author instructs followers of Jesus to die to self (ego), and to resist anger, rage, malice, slander, and abusive or critical language (3:8, CEB). He also tells them not to lie to each other (3:9).

After explaining what must be eradicated, the author goes on to say that we should treat each other with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (3:12). Followers of Jesus are called to clothe themselves in love, exercise tolerance, practice forgiveness, and be united in peace (3:13-14). Our attitude should be characterized by gratitude (4:2), our speech should be gracious (4:6), and everything we do should honor Jesus (3:17).

Likewise, the author of 1 Thessalonians says that we should live in peace with one another, respect each other, and build each other up (5:11-12, CEB).

Organizational Culture

How we treat each other over time creates a unique culture. Organizational culture can be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is like the water in which fish swim. Healthy culture is like clean water in which wildlife thrive, and unhealthy culture is like toxic water that destroys an ecosystem. Another helpful metaphor is that of eyeglasses. Healthy culture is like a good prescription that helps us see our relationships accurately, and unhealthy culture is like a prescription that distorts how we see ourselves and others.

If we are not intentional about eradicating attitudes and behaviors that destroy loving community, then our church culture will be dysfunctional and toxic. Paul describes the kinds of things that characterize toxic culture: hostility, strife, jealousy, envy, conceit, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and competition (Gal. 5:19-21). However, if we are serious about following Jesus, we can cultivate a healthy culture supportive of communities characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5:19-26)

Drawing from passages such as these, we can clearly distinguish between healthy and toxic organizational cultures.

COMMUNITIES OF LOVE COMMUNITIES OF DESTRUCTION
Positive Negative
Hopeful Despairing and Cynical
Optimistic Pessimistic
Joyful Disagreeable
Generous Withholding and Critical
Gracious Demanding
Gentle Harsh
Kind Dismissive or Nasty
Courteous Rude and Crass
Forgiving Unrelenting
Respectful Demeaning
Flexible Rigid
Helpful Obstructive
Compassionate Judgmental
Humble Arrogant
Patient Compulsive and Reactionary
Thankful Unappreciative
Builds-Up Tears-Down
Self-Sacrificial Self-Serving
Open to Feedback Defensive and Blaming
Direct, Respectful Communication Gossip and Backbiting
Peace Conflict and Anger
Unified Divided
Accountability Anything Goes

Who in their right mind would want to invest in a community characterized by the qualities in the right-hand column? A culture built around these kinds of attitudes and behaviors will run-off every single newcomer who has a modicum of emotional health. This kind of culture literally repels people.

In contrast, who in their right mind would not want to invest in a community characterized by the qualities in the left-hand column? A culture built around these kinds of attitudes and behaviors attracts people, because it creates safe environments where people can learn, grow, and change.

 Leaders as Cultural Architects

So, how do you grow a healthy culture? It starts with your leaders. The number one predictor of organizational culture is the way leaders treat each other and those they serve. If your leaders do not understand and seek to embody attitudes and behaviors that reflect the value system of the Kingdom of God, then you will probably never cultivate a culture in which communities of love can grow and flourish.

Consequently, if you want your church to grow then your number one priority should be discipleship. The pastor, staff, and leaders must seek to follow Jesus daily and be transformed in ways that make them more loving. Remember, you can’t share what you don’t have. If the pastor, staff, and lay leaders are not willing to treat everyone in ways that reflect the teachings of Jesus, your church will not grow. It’s that simple.

This means that a handful of people at the top who are left unaccountable to the gospel can poison your entire culture and keep the church from fulfilling its mission. The reason is because the attitudes and behaviors of your leaders are contagious and will create an invisible but pervasive presence that will either feel emotionally safe or dangerous. The former will attract and the latter will repel.

Since change is difficult, if you are working within an unhealthy culture you will need to do at least three things with your staff and leaders to accomplish lasting change: (1) clearly communicate the attitudes and behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable, (2) put effective accountability systems in place, and (3) regularly and consistently apply these accountability systems until the culture changes and you have the right people in place. (Not to discourage you, but some studies show that creating lasting culture change can take up to seven years.) Leaders must be firm and gracious, remembering that none of us follows Jesus perfectly. However, we should cast God-sized goals for our relationships, and when we fall short of our goal it should lead to repentance and renewed effort.

Culture > Programs / Maturity > Execution of Skill

The upshot of all this, is that churches should focus less on programs and events and more on developing a healthy, loving culture reflective of the values lived and taught by Jesus. In terms of hiring, managing, and disciplining staff, supervisors should focus less on talent and execution of skill and more on attitude, commitment, and spiritual/emotional maturity. This means that the primary job of the pastor is not to be a manager of ministries, but a spiritual leader making disciples that make more disciples. So, the order of importance in evaluating staff and leaders should be: (1) faithfulness in discipleship, (2) commitment to working cooperatively to accomplish the mission of Jesus, and (3) execution of skill and accomplishing mutually agreed upon performance goals.

Accountability Tools:

There are two resources that I have found helpful in discipling staff and leaders when trying to effect cultural change.

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheets

Before a one-on-one staff meeting, I require everyone to complete a “Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheet.” The idea for this kind of worksheet came from Jorge Acevedo’s book, Vital. This is what we use at First UMC Cocoa Beach:

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheet

Name: _____________________________

Date:   _______

  1. Faithfulness: How is it with your soul? Are you abiding with Jesus?

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).

  • How is your personal devotional life?
  • How have you denied Jesus this week?
  • How have you glorified Jesus this week?
  • How are your most important relationships?
  • On a scale of 1-10 how have you lived into the following biblical values:

______    I have been positive, optimistic, and hopeful

______    I have been flexible and open to feedback

______    I have been gracious, generous, compassionate, and forgiving

______    I have been humble, respectful, kind, and polite

______    I have been joyful, thankful, and content

______    I have directly shared concerns only with appropriate people (no gossip).

______    I ‘m pursuing excellence while being encouraging to those I serve.

______    I’m working cooperatively with others to accomplish the mission of the church.

  1. Fruitfulness: How is it with your ministry? Are you abounding with Jesus?

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

  • Program and Administrative Staff: Where are you in your long-range strategic planning? (You should develop 3, 6, and 12 month SMART goals that will help accomplish the mission of the larger church.)
  • All Staff: What progress have you made in your work plan?
  • What do you need to Stop? Start? Continue?
  • What challenges are you facing and what do you need to be successful in your specific area of ministry?
  • How are you serving, nurturing, discipling, training, developing, and resourcing your volunteers? How are you growing those in your care individually and as a team?
  • How can I hold you accountable for your area of ministry?

 ____________________________________________________________

The day before a meeting, I ask the staff person to spend some time praying and reflecting on the questions outlined in the worksheet, writing-in short responses. At the beginning of our meeting, they give the completed sheets to me and we spend about thirty minutes on each section (totaling one hour). Every three months, I give them feedback on how I think that they are doing, creating change plans where necessary. Honesty is very important in this process.  The supervisor must be willing to initiate difficult conversations, and the leaders must be willing to receive feedback without deflecting or blaming.

Social Covenants

A second tool that is helpful in creating cultural change is the social covenant, which I learned from Rev. David McEntire. After making sure that your leaders understand and embrace the church mission, go away on a retreat and work with them to develop agreements regarding how you will treat each other. Importantly, the pastor should not write a covenant (or borrow one from another church) and impose it on their team. Rather, the pastor leads a discussion using the four questions below, which empowers the leaders to develop something that belongs to them. Ownership is critical if the covenant is going to work.

  1. How does the leader want to be treated by the team?
  2. How does the team want to be treated by the leader?
  3. How are the members of the team going to treat each other?
  4. How is the team going to resolve conflict?

Once adequate brainstorming has happened in a group setting, a couple of people from the team who are skilled writers are delegated to organize, distill, and write a rough draft. The draft is then brought back to the team for final revisions. Once a final draft has been written, all leaders sign it around the margins of the first page, which is then copied and distributed. The first ten minutes of every meeting is used to silently reflect on the covenant and publicly self-rate on a scale of 1-10. No one rates anyone else, and no feedback is given (positive or negative) unless the person sharing explicitly asks for it. If the covenant is not used in this kind of way, it will become a useless piece of paper.

Conclusion

These tools are not perfect, and there are many others you can use. But the main idea is that if you want your church to grow then you must focus on cultivating spiritual and emotional maturity in your leaders. You must help them develop the attitudes and behaviors necessary to create and nurture communities of love. Don’t focus on programs, events, and hiring a superstar staff. Focus on discipleship, spiritual maturity, and cultivating a loving culture that models the values system of the kingdom of God.

The Land Between: Navigating Transitions

The “land between” is the place of change and transition. It is where life is not as it once was and there is uncertainty about the future. Some people are suddenly thrown into the land between without any warning.

  • Your boss says, “You are being transferred” (or worse, “Your position has been eliminated”).   
  • Your partner says, “I don’t love you anymore.”
  • Your daughter says, “I’m pregnant.”
  • Your son calls and says, “I’m at the police station.”
  • The doctor says, “The tumor is malignant.”

In a matter of seconds, you are ripped out of your normal life and find yourself in a new and uncertain world.

Others gradually slip into the land between.

  • A marriage slowly erodes until both feel like roommates.
  • The business slowly bleeds out until there is no more money and you have to close. 
  • A parent’s memory slowly fades after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
  • Your health deteriorates after a cancer diagnosis.

This message series (see below) is designed to give you tools to navigate this kind of transitional space in healthy and faithful ways. The land between is a challenging place, and if we are not careful we can slip into self-destructive behaviors that undermine our faith and cause us to lose our way. However, if we stay close to God we can navigate transitions in ways that strengthen our faith and lead to a brighter tomorrow.

Video Links:

Message 1: “I’m Sick of This! Complaining in Times of Transition.”

Message 2: “Bring Your Pain to God: Dealing with Discouragement.”

Message 3: “Divine Provision: How God Works Through Others.”

Message 4: “From Tribulation to Transformation: Finding Purpose in Your Pain.”

Steps Toward Forgiveness: Discovering Healing and Freedom

INTRODUCTION

Forgiveness is one of the most important and one of the most difficult things we do as human beings. It is also one of the most misunderstood commands of scripture.

How is forgiveness possible? What do we do with our anger, fear, and hurt? Does forgiving meaning forgetting? Is it the same as reconciliation? Does forgiveness always restore a relationship to the way it used to be? Is forgiveness something that happens in a moment of decision, or is it a process that takes time? What if the offender never apologizes? Is forgiveness for me, for them, or both? How does my willingness to forgive impact my relationship with God?

In what follows, you will find concrete steps on the journey toward forgiveness that will help you start answering some of these questions. While these steps will prove helpful for anyone seeking healing, they are intended for those who have experienced “normal” levels of hurt (for lack of a better term). Those who have experienced intense, chronic abuse resulting in psychological trauma should seek professional counseling as part of their spiritual program.

The most important thing to remember as we proceed is that forgiveness is not a magic trick. It takes time, and some people need more time than others. Be kind to yourself in the process.

 

HELPFUL STEPS IN MOVINGTOWARD FORGIVENESS:

Fully acknowledge the wrongdoing. When we say to someone, “I forgive you,” there is an implicit condemnation of wrong doing. Imagine how strange it would be if someone said to us in a first encounter, “Hi. I’m Jim, and I forgive you!” We might reply, “Forgive me! For what?” The reason is because we only forgive people who have wronged us in some way.

In the Christian tradition, honest condemnation of wrongdoing is part of the logic of forgiveness. First we say, “What you did to me was wrong,” and then we say, “but I will not insist that you get what you deserve.” True forgiveness cannot happen unless we fully acknowledge the wrongdoing and find ways to speak our pain. Sweeping it under the rug, pretending that nothing happened, making excuses, and other kinds of minimizing behavior, does not facilitate forgiveness—it hinders and prevents it.

However, in most cases, it is not wise to immediately confront the offender. Christians are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), but we typically cannot do the “love thing” without the spiritual and emotional work that enables us to gain clarity, process our feelings, and seek wisdom. We often make things worse when a compulsive overreaction is triggered by emotional flooding. Unfortunately, some Christians who have a hard time disengaging when emotionally triggered appeal to Ephesians 4:26 (“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry”) as a way of forcing a conversation that should wait. Rather than compulsively reacting, consider disengaging and working the following steps (being very careful not to use the need for a break as an excuse for stonewalling, a passive-aggressive expression of anger in which we withdraw from the other to punish them).

Prayer and journaling provide helpful ways to fully acknowledge our pain, not only to ourselves but also to God. There is something healing and empowering about speaking our truth before God, as is illustrated in the complaint Psalms (e.g., Ps. 3, 6, 60, 90) and the book of Lamentations. In addition to some healthy venting that can diminish the emotional charge and deescalates the situation, the Holy Spirit can work through prayer and journaling to help us sort out our feelings, gain clarity about the real issues, own any wrong doing on our part, and reclaim our identity in Jesus Christ so that we can act accordingly.

Conversation with wise friends, spiritual directors, or professional counselors can also be helpful.  These conversation partners should be chosen carefully, and what is said should be kept in strict confidence. The goal is not to ruin the reputation of the offender through gossip, but to process our feelings and receive wise counsel in moving toward forgiveness.

One very important task in sorting out our feelings is to discern whether or not they are proportionate to the situation. If the emotional charge outstrips the severity of the offense, then it is almost certainly triggering old wounds that have not completely healed. In this case, we can ride the present pain like a horse back to the old wound and continue our spiritual and emotional work in this area. In this way, we distinguish between past and present offense and refuse to make the present offender responsible for something she or he didn’t do. The goal is to fully acknowledge the present offense without conflating it with similar wrongs in the past and projecting the whole shebang on the present offender.

All of this creates a huge challenge when trying to forgive someone who continuously hurts us. Before we can calm down, process our feelings, and discern a way forward, the offender does something else to hurt us again! Since forgiveness is a process, some people hurt us so frequently that it feels impossible to keep up! This is a complex topic that deserves its own article, but suffice it to say that if you are in a relationship with someone that is constantly hurting you, then you need to take steps to change or end that relationship. In the least, you should think carefully about establishing appropriate boundaries (see Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries).

If safe, appropriate, and wise, speak your truth assertively to the offender. Part of the spiritual and emotional work mentioned above is to prayerfully discern if and when to confront the offender. Sometimes it is wise, and sometimes it is not.

As you pray, journal, and talk with trusted friends and counselors, ask God to disclose your real motivations for wanting to confront the person who wronged you. Also, ask God to surface the outcomes that you hope to achieve and whether or not these are realistic. In terms of motivation, your primary reason for confronting another should be to speak the truth in ways that make genuine forgiveness more likely.

Importantly, while true forgiveness always aims at reconciliation, it does not always lead to that outcome. It only takes one to forgive, but it takes two to be reconciled.  However, you can still forgive someone even when reconciliation is unlikely. You can forgive someone even when you know that the relationship will never be the same, when you know that new boundaries must be established or that a necessary ending is required. Even in the best case scenarios, when someone has been seriously injured (physically, emotionally, or spiritually), forgiveness does not always restore the relationship to the way it used to be. For example, you can forgive someone for abusing you as a kid without giving them access to your children. All of this leads us the question of our primary goal in confronting an offender.

The goal of confrontation is not to make everything the way it used to be (although this might be the fantasy of a remorseful offender seeking absolution). Nor is the primary goal to create a change in the offender. Rather, it is authentic self-presentation in obedience to Christ—honestly speaking our truth in a way that is consistent with our Christian values. We might ask the other person to hear, understand, and acknowledge our feelings. We might hope that in doing so the offender will acknowledge the offense, ask for forgiveness, and work with us to renegotiate a healthy relationship. But at the end of the day, we have no control over how people interpret and respond to our assertiveness. And remember, you can forgive someone even if they refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing and reject your forgiveness. Again, the main goal is to speak the truth in love, which can help you find freedom from hurt and move on with your life.

If you have prayerfully discerned that speaking your truth to the offender is appropriate, wise, and safe, then you want to proceed assertively. Assertiveness is the healthy alternative to passive, passive-aggressive, and aggressive behavior. Here is a helpful model for assertive communication.

  1. State the facts clearly. Pretend you are a reporter responsible for explaining as concisely as possible exactly what happened, without any interpretation or value judgements. Avoid generalizing (“You always . . .”) and keep a laser focus on the facts of the specific situation.
  2. Use “I” language to express how you feel. Don’t blame, judge, or condemn with “you” accusations, but use “I” language to honestly and clearly express your feelings.
  3. Focusing on the specific situation at hand, say clearly what you want to happen in the future. If you are feeling unimportant because your spouse is always late, you might say, “I want you to be on time when we make plans with each other.”
  4. Say how your relationship will improve if they are willing to negotiate that change with you. “If you are on time then we will be able to better enjoy what we have planned.”

In all of this, do not get distracted by argumentativeness, and if you feel yourself getting emotionally flooded, disengage, calm down, and try again later.

While proceeding in this way will make it more likely that our concerns will be heard and addressed, it is not a magic formula that makes people acknowledge wrongdoing and conform to our expectations. Again, our goal is authentic self-presentation. We express our feelings, make our requests known, and invite the other person to join us in working on the relationship. But then we release the situation to God and take the other person’s response as information as we find our next steps.

Make a decision to let it go. This is the heart of forgiveness. Instead of seeking revenge, punishment, or vindication, instead of insisting that the offender gets what she or he deserves, we decide to forgive—we let it go so we can move on. This should not be confused with rescuing people from the natural consequences of their actions. In fact, natural consequences are life’s best teacher. If your husband will not sever all ties with his mistress, you can forgive him and file for divorce. A natural consequence of serial infidelity is a loss of trust, and you cannot have a healthy marriage with someone who is fundamentally untrustworthy. So the suggestion is not to rescue people from natural consequences, but to resist the temptation to willfully dig-in and stick-it to the person who hurt us.

Part of letting it go means refusing to bring up the offense in the future for the sole purpose of hurting the offender or ruining his or her reputation with others. We don’t forever forget the offense, and trying to do so is often unwise. Remembering what someone did to us can provide valuable information for discerning healthy and wise next steps. Also, there are situations in which it would be appropriate and necessary to discuss the offense (either with the offender or with someone else) later down the road. But all of this is different from using the offense as a weapon for the sole purpose of ongoing punishment.

The most difficult battleground for the task of letting go is our imagination. When the offender or offense comes to mind, we are tempted to fantasize about retaliation, but generating and dwelling on these imaginative scenarios can be like drinking poison. The initial adrenaline surge might make us feel powerful, but ultimately the fantasy will trigger and intensify the very feelings we are trying to resolve, making us feel even more powerless and victimized. And if the content of the fantasies is contrary to our value system as a Christian, they will have the added effect of creating unnecessary guilt.

(Some psychologists suggest that we can heal memories by reexperiencing them through fantasy with compassion and power. For example, if we cannot confront a parent who abused us as a child because they are deceased, then we might fantasize about a memory of abuse and imagine our adult-self standing beside our child-self and speaking-up in assertive ways. Or if we cannot confront someone as an adult because she or he is violent and unsafe, we might fantasize about standing-up to him or her and speaking honestly about our pain. What distinguishes this kind of fantasy from what is discouraged above is that it is not punishing, vengeful, or retaliatory. It is self-healing not self-wounding.)

Rather than getting lost in punitive fantasies, pray for the offender every time they come to mind. Pray that God will heal whatever brokenness drives their bad behavior, and that God will help them honestly see what needs to change. We consciously choose to let go of the offense and then pray for the offender, not primarily because it has some good psychological effect for us (although it does) but because this is what Jesus commands:

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28).

This is an essential part of being a follower of Jesus, and true forgiveness happens only when we come to see the offender through the eyes of compassion. This usually doesn’t happen unless we pray for them so that God can change our hearts in the process.

Finally, forgiveness includes consciously and continuously rejecting any toxic messages about ourselves that are triggered by the memory of the offender or offense. Sometimes conflict makes us fear the worst about ourselves, leading us to accept false, negative judgements made or implied by the offender. (See my article, “Don’t Label Me! The Subtle Violence of Judgmentalism.”) If we are not careful, we find ourselves myopically focusing on our failures and growing edges, which generates distorted stereotypes and leads to relentless self-recrimination. This is not to say that we should avoid honestly owning our part in conflict, but beating ourselves up with false stereotypes actually makes it more difficult to accurately assess the situation and move toward genuine forgiveness (which might include forgiveness of ourselves too). As those toxic message pop into our minds, we should ask, “Is it true? Is this what God says about me? Is this what people who know and love me say about me?” If not, surrender it in prayer and reclaim your identity in Christ.

 

CONCLUSION:

As stated at the beginning, forgiveness is a process that takes time. There is no magic formula or quick fix. It is difficult spiritual and emotional work. Some people have been so betrayed or traumatized that forgiveness seems impossible. For those people, I would suggest that it is an “impossible possibility.” It might be impossible for you on your own strength, but it is not impossible for God to do through you, if you are willing to stay close to God and give yourself time to heal. Wherever you are on the journey toward forgiveness, I pray that God give you courage, strength, and hope, as well as a couple of good friends who can walk beside you.

(If you liked this article, you might also like “The Power of Weakness: How Attempts to Be Strong Lead to Impotence.“)

 

Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?

(This article by Pastor Mark was originally published on “Philosophy Goes to Church” and is reprinted here with permission.)

Introduction: What Did Jesus Really Say and Can We Hear Him Today?

I recently attended a lecture given by John Dominic Crossan[1] on the violence of God in the Christian Bible.[2] His central thesis was clear: “If the biblical Christ is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the Christian Bible, then the historical Jesus is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the biblical Christ.” After making some cursory remarks about how to distinguish between the words of the historical Jesus (or the earliest oral tradition attributed to Jesus) and the words of the early church placed on his lips, Crossan developed an argument for the historical Jesus as a non-violent Jewish revolutionary who cast a radical vision of peace through (distributive) justice.

As the lecture drew to a close, what stood out as most interesting to me were the sayings that Crossan, in some sense, attributed to the historical Jesus:

  • Bless those who persecute you.
  • Don’t return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Be kind to your enemies.
  • Give away your possessions.

It occurred to me that although there is rigorous debate about the authenticity of other sayings (much of which revolves around whether or not Jesus’ message was apocalyptic), the vast majority of historical Jesus scholars, whether liberal or conservative, agree that Jesus said these kinds of things. What is even more striking is that these sayings that have garnered scholarly consensus in the Twenty-First Century are precisely the ones that are most problematic for the American church today.

When thinking about why this might be the case, I have a nagging suspicion that it has something to do with our preoccupation with success. In what follows, I simply try to voice some of my informal reflections in hopes of generating a discussion. Although I have been trained as an academic theologian, this is not a scholarly article. I mean no offense to academics, but after leaving the academy almost ten years ago to devote my life to pastoral ministry, I am not interested in crafting an airtight argument supported by long footnotes that can withstand the rigorous critique of people who are much smarter than me. This qualifying statement is my way of asking for grace from those who serve the world well in an academic setting. Rather than seeing yourself as a respondent on a panel at the American Academy of Religion (and hence seeking to refute my claims), my hope is that you will read as a friend (and try to help me, as a pastor, to wrestle with a problem that is very real in the church).

Success: Trying to Understand the Problem

As I serve in the local church, I get the feeling that Christianity is being co-opted by a preoccupation with success. Many pastors (including myself at times) want to be more like Steven Furtick than like Jesus, and to lead churches that look more like Fortune 500 companies than the ecclesia described in the book of Acts. In terms of the laity, instead of renouncing their quest for worldly success, many convert to Christianity in hopes that it will provide them with more effective strategies for achieving such worldly acclaim!

I have come to believe that the success culture in America has its own vision and prescription for salvation, and one of the biggest challenges for pastors is figuring out exactly what this looks like. My hunch is that the logic of the success culture is driven by a notion of power construed as willful and controlling, even manipulative and coercive. It takes many forms, including wealth, fame, charisma, intelligence, and sex appeal. To be successful means to possess and effectively leverage power to achieve a series of goals that are themselves designed to increase power, expand freedom, and merit the praise of others who have already joined the club. Inherent in all of this is the ability to control oneself and others, to effectively manipulate resources, and to manage external circumstances.

Successful people exercise the power to control their thoughts. They cultivate the “power of positive thinking,” which not only helps them manage their outlook but can even bring external circumstances into alignment with internal desires. Don’t you know The Secret of how we can leverage the “law of attraction” by the power of positive thinking to create life-changing results of increased happiness, health, and wealth? Successful people also control their emotions and exhibit an internal strength that precludes neediness, vulnerability, and anything else that can be perceived as weakness. Winners are of sound mental health, evidenced by the power to manage and eradicate anxiety, guilt, depression, and other undesirable feelings. In the parlance of much that passes for women’s ministry today, strong people “choose joy.” They don’t really need anyone else to be happy, but create their own happiness and then design relationships in ways that enhance and protect it. Successful people also possess the personal power to transform a “normal body” (which is an entry-level requirement for the school of success) into a beautiful body, which always increases one’s power! Even in the church, people are encouraged to follow biblical diets like The Daniel Plan and commit to exercise as a fifth spiritual discipline. If you can leverage personal power to control your thoughts, emotions, and appearance, then you are well on your way to managing the perceptions of others (in both real and virtual environments), thereby gaining greater influence over people who can advance your quest for success. (Who cares about people who lack the power to promote, or derail, your agenda?)

Although I am no Clifford Geertz, it seems to me that all of this has generated a powerful cultural stream in America that exercises a gravitational pull on the church. To shift metaphors, it creates a pair of glasses through which we see all of life, including the life of faith. Read through these glasses, the Gospel is not seen as a call to abandon the quest for worldly success, but a new and improved strategy for successfully completing the quest! In the most concrete terms, when I preach on Sunday mornings that we should fully surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, which includes allowing him radically to redefine our values and goals in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, I fear that many hear, “Jesus can empower me to return to work tomorrow and be more effective at what I am already doing in pursuit of goals I’ve already set.” Our “personal relationship” with Jesus can easily become another way to access the power needed to become successful, admired, and well-respected.

One symptom of this problem is the way some clergy preach the Bible and, consequently, how many lay people interpret it. Instead of the biblical Christ (perhaps normed in important ways by the Jesus of history) serving as our guide for the faithful interpretation of scripture, those breathing the air of the success culture tend to give hermeneutical priority to passages that support the logic and value system of hard won success. The clearest example is found in the “prosperity gospel” with its focus on Deuteronomic theology, but there are subtler forms that infect the American church in innumerable ways.

When confronted with the sayings of Jesus that contradict the logic and value system of the success culture, many find ways to reinterpret those passages to marginalize the intended message. For example, when confronted with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, some say, “Well, what he really meant was that violence should be a last resort and only in self-defense. If someone hits me rather softly and doesn’t draw back for a second blow, then maybe I should exercise the power of self-control and suggest a non-violent solution. But if someone hits me hard and keeps coming at me, then surely Jesus would not object to me defending myself. To turn the cheek in a real fight would simply be crazy!” If pressed harder on this issue with a clear presentation of Jesus’ direct command, some are honest enough to say something like, “Well Jesus was the Son of God, and I’m only a sinful human being. So if someone hits me, I don’t care what Jesus said, I’m fighting back and asking for forgiveness later.” Only a loser would allow himself to be assaulted without some kind of retaliation.

The problem, of course, is that the passages being ignored or reinterpreted in service to the success culture are not merely ornamental, but rather absolutely essential to Christian faith and practice. More precisely, the logic and value system of the success culture is antithetical to the logic of the gospel. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mountain shows Jesus completely reversing the logic and value system of the success culture, effectively saying, “This is not only wrong—its wrongheaded! This will not only fail to deliver happiness but it will prevent you from seeing the true way of salvation and accelerate your journey down the highway to hell.” The success culture is all about acquiring, consolidating, and leveraging personal power to achieve self-determined goals (not least, security), and to do it in a way that will merit the praise, admiration, and respect of others perceived to be more powerful and successful than we—thereby increasing our power and positioning us for even more success. In stark contrast, the logic of the gospel can be found in Matthew 16:24-26: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” In our efforts to acquire and consolidate power to secure our interests and accomplish our self-determined goals, we lose our lives (even more so, not by failing but by accomplishing those goals) and become powerless to do anything about it. The only way to truly be saved is to completely abandon the quest for worldly success and totally surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, a surrender that is so complete that it leads Paul to confess, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 19a-20b).

The power of success is characterized by willful grasping, while the power of the gospel is characterized as willing surrender.[3] The former is the way of conquest; the latter is the way of the cross. The former focuses on predetermined outcomes; the latter focuses on faithfulness. The former is self-defeating, self-destructive, and self-condemning; the latter—according to Jesus—is the way of salvation and abundant life.

I want to make this point as strongly as possible. Jesus does not say, “If you do all that I have commanded then you will be successful” (and in several passages he suggested the opposite). To assume this is absolutely to misunderstand his message. Everything Jesus teaches—the logic of his gospel—runs contrary to the vision of salvation promised by the success culture and the concomitant strategies that supposedly make it possible. But this logic and this culture are exactly what we are up against in the American church, and this raises a critical question: Is a Christianity that is co-opted and reinterpreted by the value system and logic of the success culture still rightly described as Christian at all? If not, then what is the way forward?

Conclusion: Questions for Conversation

I want to end my reflections by posing a few questions to academics and pastors alike.

In your research and experience, how is success defined in American culture? How does our pursuit of success shape and reinforce American culture? Does success have its own logic and value system?

To what extent has the American church been influenced or coopted by the culture of success? Does this lead to a reinterpretation of the vision and way of salvation as proclaimed by Jesus, and does it go so far as to undermine the logic of the gospel? What is the difference between success and abundant life?

What resources would help us clarify the problem, gain a more faithful understanding of the gospel, and deepen our relationship with Christ?

As we seek answers to these questions, let us remember the words of Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

If you liked this article, then you might also like:

Notes:  

[1] Bible Symposium, “Reading Between the Lines: Recent Research on the Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Florida Southern College, 14 April 2016.

[2] The arguments in his lecture are more fully developed in John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation (HarperOne 2015).

[3] I first discovered this distinction between willful and willing ways-of-being-in-the-world in Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (HarperSanFrancisco 1982). However, it is assumed and taught by all contemplative Christian traditions.

 

Don’t Label Me! The Subtle Violence of Judgmentalism

No one likes to be labeled or reduced to a stereotype. But without even realizing it, we often experience a person and then cast him or her in a role that becomes the basis of all future interactions. The problem is that once we start thinking of John as a “bully” or Jane as a “manipulative person,” it’s difficult to relate to them in any other way.

This is particularly true with interactions that involve conflict. When someone gets angry with us, their natural human response is to look for reasons to legitimate their anger. This leads them to trace offending behavior back to some personality or character defect. In doing this, it is not uncommon for them to inadvertently hit-on one of our growing edges, which are undesirable ways of thinking or acting triggered by stress. In reality, these growing edges are fragments of our total person, and usually not characteristic of our normal ways of being and acting. However, in the hands of the offended these fragments are magnified into stereotypes that not only legitimate aggression but also provide a basis for writing someone off as a “difficult person.”

Stereotyping in this context is subtle form of violence and is highly effective at triggering guilt and shame because it’s a distortion of something we already know to be true about ourselves. When someone is looking for reasons to justify their anger toward us, they usually don’t fabricate things out of thin air. Rather, they hone-in on a small piece of who we are, something with which we already struggle, and magnify it in ways that eclipse all of the other aspects of our person. Since many people are not only aware of their growing edges but also deeply ashamed of them, when someone latches on to these undesirable traits and effectively says, “This sums-up the kind of person you are,” it can really hurt.  

In Christianity, this is a form of judgmentalism, something that Jesus sternly warns against: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2). Some of Jesus’ most severe criticism was aimed at the religious leaders of his day who were driven by a judgmental spirit to condemn those who failed to meet their expectations. Going even further, Jesus also said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).   

Clearly, judgmentalism is wrong, and when treated this way we face a twofold challenge. First, we must find ways to resist the label. This is not to say that we should actively deny our shortcomings through the power of positive thinking. We should be honest about our failings and work diligently to grow past them. But we should also actively resist any message that says, “This shortcoming defines who you are and makes you undesirable or defective.” The best way to combat this temptation is to make a list of scriptural affirmations that ground our identity in Christ, and meditate on these affirmations during times of prayer. For help in doing this, see my message, “Overcoming Insecurity.” In addition, we can surround ourselves with spiritually mature and emotionally healthy people who know us, love us, and focus on our strengths to inspire change. These are people who help us see our faults in the overarching context of grace and our progressive sanctification. This is an exercise in discernment: To whom should I listen?   

The second (and much more difficult) challenge is to not become that which we hate. Our natural response to judgmentalism, is to say, “What a jerk!” and then fantasize about (and even act on) ways to reestablish respect, dominance, or superiority. “I am not going to let anyone treat me like that!” If we are really honest with ourselves, all of us struggle with being judgmental, and it is much easier to see it in others than it is to see it in ourselves. While it is important to consider past interactions when making important decisions about present and future interactions, we cannot effectively combat judgmentalism with judgmentalism. In addition to resisting stereotypes, we also have to resist stereotyping and allow for the possibility of grace-empowered change. The only way that I know how to do this is by praying for people that I’m tempted to condemn or write-off. 

Whatever judgmentalism, labeling, and stereotyping you face today, remember to ground your identity in Christ and pray for those who mistreat you.