Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19).
Christians have long regarded this verse, known as the “Great Commission,“ as one of the most important sayings of Jesus. Clearly, He commanded His followers to make disciples, but the way believers interpret the verse varies. What, specifically, the believer might ask, am I commissioned to do? Preach? Teach? Go to a foreign country as a missionary? And as non-fundamentalist Christians, we might ask ourselves, just what is our commission?
I once read a book by John Shelby Spong titled Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (HarperOne, 1992). I was disturbed by his statements that widespread belief in biblical inerrancy was an enemy of the Christian faith. My view was that there is nothing wrong with believing in biblical inerrancy, and non-fundamentalists should respect the beliefs of those who take that position, since we expect them to respect our views. I still feel that way. However, I have recently become aware of the dangers of carrying fundamentalism to the extreme. This often involves spiritual abuse and discouraging people from being Christian disciples, instead of making disciples.
I recently joined an Internet group for non-fundamentalists. It is made up of two types of people: those who consider themselves non-fundamentalist Christians, and those who are so disgusted with fundamentalism that they have decided to leave the Christian faith altogether. The group has made me sadly aware of how many people have been abused and wounded because their church, their families, or a significant other, were so militant about their fundamentalist views that they attempted to indoctrinate or force them on the person. As a result, people have found their self-esteem deflated, their marriages destroyed, their children exploited, or they have been disfellowshiped or excommunicated from their church, simply because some people or person of influence took their fundamentalist views to the extreme and used them as a means of power.
Christian believers, regardless of denomination or theological camp, are to be in the business of building up disciples, not tearing down disciples and making them hate the church. To encourage disciples, particularly those who find that they cannot accept dogmatic fundamentalism, there needs to be an open conversation about the issues Christians disagree on. Perhaps our specific commission is to promote conversation and civil disagreement, and rescue people from the dangers of extreme fundamentalism.
So what are the dogmas of extreme fundamentalism that are dangerous when one attempts to use them to control others? Below I suggest several.
You must have the blind faith of a child or you can’t enter Heaven.
I told my family that I had doubts about the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ. They told me I must simply believe. They explained that Jesus said unless I have faith like that of a little child, I would go to hell.
It seems that many people from fundamentalist families are chastised for questioning the Bible or their church’s teachings. They are taught by parents or their church or both that doubt is a sin. Sometimes the teacher invokes the image of Jesus with a little child, with Jesus saying that one must have faith like a little child or one cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Continual confrontations like this might result in one abandoning the Christian faith, believing that he or she cannot call themself Christian if they doubt that certain statements in the Bible are true. Worse, though, are cases resulting in the person feeling tremendous guilt, berating oneself, struggling in vain to believe things that to this person are untenable. All this for feeling guilty about using the brain that God gave them.
But consider what Jesus is actually recorded as saying:
Truly I tell you. Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a child will never enter it. (Mark 10:15).
According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gets more specific about what this means:
He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4).
Jesus calls for humility, not blind faith. Indeed, while childhood is a humble state, children tend to be very curious and ask many questions. They are not characterized by blind faith. They trust, but they trust those who have shown them love.
While there are a few places in Scripture where we find people rebuked for doubting specific things, there is no general condemnation of doubt. Although some will point to a verse in the letter of James:
But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. (James 1:6).
But this verse follows one that encourages people to ask God for wisdom. Verse 6, then, tells us not to doubt that God will give us wisdom if we ask for it. It is not a general condemnation of doubt.
Doubt has always been a friend of Christian believers. Religious people who refused to doubt have through history been the gullible victims of dangerous cults such as Jim Jones‘ The People’s Temple. It is through doubting that we discern the truth and learn new things. We know that it is even healthy to doubt what we read in Scripture, because only if we know that it is okay to doubt it, can Scripture become real to us rather than oppressive.
You are a worthless sinner.
Amazing Grace had always been my favorite hymn. Until I really thought about the words; “Amazing Grace . . . that saved a wretch like me.“ Me, a wretch? That started me thinking about some of the ideas I had been hearing in church. That I’m not good, because only God is good. That I deserve to go to hell. Really?
Most every single young man has had these thoughts: he feels attracted to a lovely young lady, but because she is so lovely in his perception, he assumes “She is out of my league. I am wasting my time if I think of asking her for a date.“ Now imagine how this young man feels if this young lady approaches him and says that she likes him and wants to go out. The young man suddenly feels as if he is on top of the world! He feels unworthy of this lady’s affection. Perhaps because he is shy, or he doesn’t have money, or if he is in school his grades aren’t that good, but he certainly does not feel worthless! He feels like he is worth a million dollars!
Now imagine that this young man is the average human, and the young lady is God who wants an intimate relationship with the man despite his failure to measure up. That is exactly how it is with God and man. We are sinners, which simply means that we don’t measure up and God is out of our league. See my blog post “But It’s Not Cool to Talk About Sin.“ Sin is simply missing the mark. Rebelling. Our imperfect human nature would put us out of the league of God if He didn’t want us so badly. But since He does, we are far from worthless. We are valued more than a million, more than a zillion dollars, by God Himself! The Bible does not teach that we are worthless. On the contrary, according to Scripture we are made in His image, a little lower than heavenly beings, and so much the object of His love that He sent His Son to us so that we could be His forever! Does that sound like the Bible teaches that we are worthless? Of course not!
Still, a major vein in Christianity, commonly known as Calvinism, after the teaching of reformist John Calvin (1509-1564), teaches that the natural state of humans is “Total Depravity.“ Calvinists point to scriptural references which describe humans who have not accepted the Salvation of Christ as “dead“ in sin. If the word “dead“ is to be taken almost literally, then the sad state of the unsaved human is indeed total and depraved.
While I respect everyone’s right to their own belief system, I am moved to say that this way of thinking is very dangerous. It has been used to destroy the self-esteem of many impressionable people, and it has driven many others away from the Christian faith. It is much too easy for advocates of Calvinism to dismiss this loss by saying “They were just not a part of God’s elect.“
We are all worth much, because God created us and loves us. All of us. Without limits or consideration of whether we are “good enough“. This should be the Gospel message that we preach. We are all precious and chosen by God.
Wives must submit to their husband’s authority.
My husband and I were having problems, so we went to our pastor for counselling. After hearing us, the pastor said one problem was my unwillingness to submit to my husband’s authority. I told the pastor and my husband that was not going to happen. The pastor said therefore there was nothing he could do to help us.
Modern day Christians who believe that wives should submit to their husbands are quick to point out that according to the Christian model of the family, the husband should put the wife’s needs and desires first, and then he should make the final decision. I wonder how often it really works like that. It still leaves the man as having authority over the woman.
For generations, in fact for hundreds of years, the normative pattern for nuclear families in the western world has been for husbands to have authority over other family members, including their wives. Of course, there have been kind and gentle men with this authority, such as my own father. And then there were men who used their authority to control and/or abuse their wives. But most men never questioned the notion that they were the head of the marriage. And perhaps most women never questioned it either. Seemingly, it worked, as today many people nostalgically look back to a simpler time and call it “The Good Old Days“ or “The Golden Age of Marriage and the Family.“ Was it really that good or golden? Not until 1993 was it a crime in all 50 states for a man to rape his wife!
Whether our age-old normative patterns really worked for everyone or not, things have changed. While in bygone days people rarely questioned whether men should rule in homes, we have drifted into an era of passioned reaction to the movement of Women’s Liberation, perceived by conservative Christians as liberal, anti-Christian, and anti-family. Male headship and female submission have therefore been raised above being a folkway and promoted to being a demand, a dogma, a belief something is very wrong if a Christian couple is not practicing it. And women are actually being counselled by clergy, even female clergy, to submit to their husbands in order to fix the problems of their marriage. It doesn’t work, and it’s very dangerous.
All of this is a result of a misunderstanding of ideas put forth in the epistles of the New Testament attributed to Paul and Peter. And the fact that through the history of the church, and even today, most persons who have power and authority in the church have been men.
It is very doubtful that Paul or Peter, or God for that matter, cared about who “wore the pants“ in the family. Men did. In the cultures of the Hebrews as well as the Greeks and Romans, that was never questioned. In fact, in Hebrew culture women were at least respected as humans. In Greek/Roman culture, women were considered property. The biblical writers felt no need to persuade couples to let men have the authority. Even if they cared about such an arrangement, they didn’t have to tell people to practice it. The interest of Paul and the early Christian church was to persuade men to love their wives, rather than regard them as property or as someone to control (Eph 5:25, Col 3:19, 1 Pet 3:7).
I personally cannot understand why a husband would even want a submissive wife.
The body is shameful.
I got a job as a nude model for an art class. My family told me that a Christian should not have a job like that. When I explained that it was not about sex but about art, my family said that whenever I expose myself to any man other than my husband or my doctor, it was shameful.
How the idea that the body is shameful became a part of Christian teaching is beyond my understanding. According to the third chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve became ashamed of their nakedness and hid from God supposedly because they were naked. But it is made clear in the story that this shame was a result of their fall, of their sin. The shame was not part of God’s plan.
Probably the most well known scripture concerning the body and its value is Romans 12:1. I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. This obviously means that this body that has such value should be cared for and not abused. The author of this passage, Paul, came from the Jewish/Hebrew tradition which emphasized oneness of the body, soul, and spirit. Of course, much of Paul’s teaching seems to follow the Greek philosophical tradition of duality between flesh and spirit. Many Pauline passages admonish us to live by the Spirit and not gratify the desires of the flesh. I see this as Paul’s effort to speak to the Greek and Roman world in terms they could understand. But nowhere in his biblical writings did Paul call the flesh evil. He taught that the flesh should be under the control of the Holy Spirit.
There are definitely biblical teachings that warn against sexual immorality, but these teachings do not say that sex itself is shameful. And there is something to be said for modesty of dress and refraining from exposing private parts of the body in public. These restraints follow cultural norms and there is nothing necessarily wrong or shameful about these folkways and mores. But shame of the body is in no way biblical, and it has no place in what the church should teach.
Homosexuality is an abomination.
My friend’s son confided to his parents that he thought he was gay. My friend took him to see the pastor of their church. The pastor advised the parents to get the boy into conversion therapy as soon as possible. Before they could do this, it was too late. Their son commited suicide.
Homosexuality has two meanings. It often refers to sexual preference for members of one’s own gender. Most people today accept the fact that one’s sexual preference or orientation is not something one has control over.
Homosexuality can also refer to sexual activity involving members of the same gender. Of course, homosexual activity does not have to involve people with a homosexual orientation. And people with a homosexual orientation might be celibate, just as heterosexual people might be celibate. Some conservative Christians teach that if one discovers that he or she is gay, they can still live a moral life if they remain, with God’s help, celibate. And most who teach this are heterosexual. I am sure this includes refraining from lustful thoughts and sexual fantasies about members of the same sex. Alledgedly, some gay Christians are successful in being voluntarily celibate. I find it doubtful that this is a realistic goal for many people.
Christians who believe that homosexual behavior is immoral can point to scant scriptural evidence that supports their position. Of course, as far as we know, Jesus never said a word about it. But does that mean that a person does not have the right to believe and teach that homosexual behavior is wrong?
I would say that the issues of homosexuality, including same-sex marriage and the ordination of gays as clergy, should be a subject of open conversation within the church. All Christian churches, with the probable exception of the Metropolitan Community Church, have a majority of heterosexuals in their membership. As a heterosexual, I feel that I have a right to my own beliefs about what is right and wrong, but I know I am standing on shaky ground if I condemn a behavior that I have never even been tempted to indulge in. It is far too easy for me to refer to the sexual behavior of gays as an abomination, yet regard my own sexual sins as benign. I might believe that homosexuals should be celibate, but I do not know what it is like to be gay. Nor would I be receptive if my church told me that as a heterosexual that I should be celibate. I have enough on my plate trying to stay away from the wrongs that I am tempted to commit.
When religious people come down strongly against homosexual behavior, the results can be devastating for making Christian disciples. The Trevor Project (www.thetrevorproject.org) reports that LGB youth contemplate suicide almost 3 times more than straight youth. LGB youth from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to attempt suicide as LGB youth from families with low levels of rejection.
Whether homosexual behavior is immoral should be a matter of personal conviction and conversation within the church. Many churches have official statements condemning homosexual behavior. One might shrug that away, saying that these churches also have statements condemning other behaviors, including premarital sex, which their members have violated for generations without much guilt or animosity toward their church. There is a difference, though. One might partake of premarital sex and simply hear their church say that what they are doing is wrong. It is easy for one to just say they disagree with the church’s stance. But when a Christian denomination condemns homosexuality, it sends the message to homosexuals that the church not only condemns what they are doing but who they are, as sexuality is so much a part of one’s very self-identity. Few teens would take their own lives because their youth pastor tells them what they are doing with their girlfriend or boyfriend of the opposite sex is wrong. But the condemnation of their homosexual behavior is often seen as a condemnation of ones very nature.
Our Rescue Mission
I earlier stated that one should respect the beliefs of others, unless others believe they need to compel persons to have the same theology as they, or they do the others use their beliefs to control or oppress. We have many brothers and sisters in the faith who believe that the Bible is inerrant, whose theology is acted out in love, compassion, and respect of others. We should in turn respect them.
Recall that I mentioned the need for conversation about issues Christians disagree on. A healthy conversation involves people listening to each other, being willing to learn from each other, and respecting each other. Different sides of issues are considered. Unfortunately, there are many conversations among Christians where the different views are not expressed, either because conversants aren’t aware of these views, don’t have these views, or disdain these views.
I think that one important calling of non-fundamentalists such as yourself, if you share my views, is to be a part of the conversations of Christians. To gently let people know that there are different ways of believing within the family of God. To encourage others who are feeling shut out of the church because their theology is different. To offer reasons that it is healthy to have beliefs that are a little bit different.
Making disciples is a continuous project, because disciples need to grow and mature. When disciples encounter stumbling blocks that cause them to question what they might have been taught to believe, or what others in their community of faith seem to believe, they need encouragement to continue in their quest. I suggest that such encouragement is something people like us can offer.