I think that Christianity is in a state of emergency. There is a huge difference between what it is supposed to be, and what it actually is. Let me try to explain briefly what surely deserves many articles to treat thoroughly.
Christianity is supposed to be a human subculture in which people honor God for his righteousness, wisdom, and love, and strive to live in his “image” themselves in all their “ways”, both in their own thoughts and in the how they treat one another. They are supposed to be able to learn how to get along well with one another, to grow and to mature in their thoughts and character, and to come to understand deep and meaningful things. They’re supposed to be able to work well together, and in all this, should serve as some sort of a “light” in this dark world.
But in reality, this is not what’s generally going on in the churches. While there are certainly some exceptions among Christians, I think we are generally a dysfunctional lot who spend more time pretending to be a holy people than actually living in holiness. As a culture–and in our various micro-cultures that we have invented in our denominational world–we are not actually learning the precepts of God so much as we are learning memes and hearsay that we repeat incessantly to one another, creating echo chambers in which there is a collective effort to present what we are doing in a way that is much more impressive than what we are actually like. It is vain. Empty. For show. And it makes a mockery of the actual teachings of scripture.
The way “The Church” talks and thinks about itself has become a massive idol of sorts, taking the place of the true religion taught in the scriptures by God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the Prophets and the Apostles. We are not like those people, and we have trained ourselves not to be fully aware of that fact. Sure, we know it—and many among us regularly bemoan the sad state of “the church” today—but almost no one among us seems to be in the business of setting things right in our own camps. No, just like all the other camps, we’re quite busy pretending to keep the church plates spinning—keeping the busy-ness going—keeping the traditions running—keeping the church “services” on schedule—and keeping the public relations “spin” spinning, such that it is well marketed and presented—such that we keep the lore of our own church business going in hopes that future generations will keep coming to church.
What’s missing is the “Why?”.
Why should we do this?
And what else is missing is the What? that we’re supposed to be doing, but aren’t. Let me repeat for you the second paragraph in this post:
Christianity is supposed to be a human subculture in which people honor God for his righteousness, wisdom, and love, and strive to be like him themselves, both in their own thoughts and in the way they treat one another. They are supposed to be able to get along well with one another, to grow and to mature in their thoughts and character, and to come to understand deep and meaningful things. They’re supposed to be able to work well together, and in all this, should serve as some sort of a “light” in this dark world.
This may be the sort of thing that we claim to be doing. It may be part of our lore—of our own self-talk—of our own media campaign. It may be part of the hearsay culture that we run—part of the things we say about ourselves as we try to keep the church machine running. But in actuality, we are far from such a people. We are not a bunch of people who are becoming substantially like Jesus in character. No, we are instead a people who cannot manage the basics of thinking, deciding, believing, and acting that are taught in scripture.
We have have been mistrained, misinformed, mistreated, and misconditioned. We have been subjected to such a long train of errors and bad spiritual habits that we lack any meaningful awareness in some cases that we are in error. We have been lied to and misinformed so much that we struggle even to identify reality. We don’t know how to discuss things with one another, and are so afraid of being hurt and/or misunderstood that we quickly shut down. That is, we are cognitively and emotionally unfit for having such discussions. Where we could possibly work some things out, we don’t. Instead, we shut down, being basically incapable of getting anything accomplished. All we can do is to keep church running as we always have. Beyond that, we are incapable. No substantial reforms. No improvements. No repentance. No setting things right. No overhauls of any sort.
We have become strange idolators of a sort. Where we ought to be worshiping God and striving to learn and to understand and to implement the great many principles and precepts and facts and thoughts that are in the scriptures, we have traded all that off for a religion of make-believe, in which we pretend that we, “The Church” already grasp it all–more or less–and where we discount the intellectual pursuits that would be necessary to actually understand it. The result is an inauthentic religion, where we spend much more time trying to appear as if we were a special organization than we spend trying to be special people. We have made idols of ourselves—idols of what we do—and of our own “story”. We don’t see ourselves as we actually our—with our unimpressive track records, but we see ourselves, as some think of it, as “the church triumphant”.
We can’t agree on our own doctrines and practices. We don’t know how, and we don’t even try, for the most part. Rather, we take it as a given that we ought to split up into our various camps, where we can do as we please, and to remain unbothered by the choices other Christians are making.
But it doesn’t stop there, for within each camp, we have our own struggles of disagreement. We have our own members who are trying themselves (whether much or little) to make sense of this world, and of the scriptures, and of what goes on in “the church” (whatever that means to them). And we’ve got to manage those people somehow.
In most cases, this management of personnel in the churches is handled terribly, in ungodly fashion. There is a ubiquitous drive to control information, as if to keep things from getting out of hand. And practically every church subculture makes ample use of “thought-stoppers”—manipulative techniques for getting the members to self-regulate in what they are willing to think about—to be curious about—to look into—to explore and examine—and to ask questions about, or to make public comments about. Indeed, one of the greatest threats in most of the church cultures has become the genuine question—of the sort one asks when trying to understand how things are—the sort of mental output that even a child can produce.
Ask a genuine question in most churches, and see if the answer you get doesn’t seem to be the sort of answer that suggests that no further questions ought be asked. Or see if, rather, the one asking the question is encouraged to ask on until his curiosity has been satisfied. I doubt very much you’ll find the latter. Indeed, the one asking “too many questions” is likely to be pulled aside rather quickly so to as modify the question-asking behavior. Various reasons may be given for the need to stop asking. They may be things like, “Your questions are making people uncomfortable”, or “they are making people struggle with their faith”. Or the criticisms may be aimed at you personally, such as, “I get the feeling that your questions are motivated by pride, or by a desire to stir up trouble, or by a desire simply to challenge the leaders as if you were vying for control.” Or more informally, these kinds of things often come out as one-liners like these:
- You just like to argue.
- You always have to be right.
- You love to hear the sound of your own voice.
- You don’t have a very quiet and gentle spirit.
- I sure do hear a lot of “Jack” in your questions, and not much Jesus.
- You are prideful.
- You are independent.
- You are just bitter.
People may tell you these things, having heard them themselves over and over for many years in their own church experience—whether they’ve been told these by others, and have learned to quit asking questions themselves, or whether they simply overheard them, and are now stepping in to play their own part in the grand hearsay exercise that has become “the church”.
It’s a mindless practice, aimed at promoting more mindlessness.
And what happens when such tactics are unsuccessful at shutting down the questions and challenges to the going beliefs and practices? Well, generally, the heat gets turned up. The push-back against the questioner/challenger normally gets hotter as needed to make them stop. Perhaps some sin of theirs is singled out in order to drive them away—even if other members (who aren’t the questioner/challenger sort) are living with the same sins and aren’t confronted). Perhaps they are deliberately slighted, such that they’ll take offense and quit coming to the church.
This is how it is normally done. And it doesn’t take a genius to cook up a suitable strategy to make something like this work.
And this almost always involves hypocrisy in the leadership. In particular, it involves the hiding and/or excusing of leader’s sins, injustice, errors, and bad behaviors. There’s almost always cover-up that goes on—which is itself injustice. And members get caught in the middle, and are forced to take sides. And “the church” is used unfairly in this—where it’s really just leaders cheating in their morality and in their administration of justice, it’s done in the name of “the church”—and even of Jesus—such that the resulting actions of the leadership are counted as official church business.
And we have all seen this—if we’ve had our eyes open. I know of no denomination that is immune to it—even among the ones that proudly consider themselves non-denominational. And if you fast forward through a few decades of this sort of church experience, you get to a spot where you have an entire church culture that has been mistreated in such ways, and that has been psychologically conditioned into quite a dysfunctional lot. This miscarriage of justice and this mismanagement of facts, questions, and challenges, has become for them a way of life. They have watched as many things were swept under the rug, and they learned to “justify” it in various ways—none of which are actually just. And worse, they learned to do this in Jesus’ name—as part of the religion they will tell you is authorized and sustained by none other than Jesus himself, as the “Head of The Church”.
Do they know better? Of course they do. But they have to tell themselves whatever it takes to keep the practice running. Otherwise, this is not them disagreeing with the leadership—disagreeing with fallible humans over the way they have handled things—but it is them disagreeing with “The Lord’s Church” and with God himself. This is the way it’s spun. This is the way they’ve heard things talked about many thousands of times over the years. And this is the way they still see it—-until it’s not. That is, this is the way they still see it until they finally figure it out that this sort of endemic injustice and intellectual dishonesty is not in fact the will of God.
Once they figure that out, they tend to find and to cling to passages of scripture such as:
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
2 Corinthians 6:17
Therefore, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”
I had said it’s an idolatry problem, and it is. Where Christians are supposed to be following God and Jesus, the vast majority go to churches that teach them to follow “The Church”. That’s not what they say they’re teaching them, mind you. No, they say they’re teaching them to follow God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Bible, but if you actually analyze what’s going on there, you’ll see that they are indeed being taught to follow the church institution, and its traditions and the real-time dictates of “leadership”, even where they disagree with the teachings of scripture.
Now, at this point, many are quite ready to fight—making their various cases from the Bible for the legitimacy of the leadership in their churches. And at this point, our present discussion would have to explode in a thousand directions so as to give due consideration to all the arguments that would be presented in defense of what goes on in today’s churches. But I’m not going to go there in proper at this point. Rather, I’ll deal with that in subsequent articles (as if I haven’t already written about it somewhere or other). Let me make this one point right away, however: The sheer fact that there are, among the churches, so many different teachings about the proper structure and authority of church leadership should itself be an exceedingly troubling and offsetting fact. My point is that the utter certainty with which so many will handle this belies the obvious disunity that exists on the subject, and that has existed through many centuries of fierce debate.
But let me cut to the chase here. If you’re a cheating referee and want to manipulate the outcome of a football game, the easiest way to do it is to stop calling fouls for the infraction known as “holding”. The team being favored in this way quickly figured out that they can get away with this particular cheat in this present game, so they hold more and more. Meanwhile, the other team continues to be penalized for holding whenever they do it. And the favored team enjoys a substantial (unfair) advantage in being allowed to break this particular rule with impunity.
This is what every church I know about does in protection of “leadership” (or whatever they happen to call it in their own church culture.) A rank-and-file member who molests one of the youth group may well be run off, but when a church leader does it, a great many congregations will consider that a special case, and no penalty flag is thrown. And why not? Well, it might “cause people to struggle” or “give the Lord’s church a bad reputation”. Or perhaps some other consideration is overemphasized, such as that the family of the church leader who sinned would be really harmed if this were to come out. These are vain excuses, to be sure, yet they are so commonly practiced as to sound quite legitimate to many millions of believers today. And meanwhile, many a wounded teen and family are left to suffer without the proper closure of a just treatment of the offense. And this, sadly, is a way of life for a great many Christian families.
Let me repeat: These excuses are utterly convincing to a great many Christians today. When they hear them they believe them, and they shut down any further mental processing of whatever’s going on. And they also have learned to repeat such things to one another. That is, they are active participants in the hearsay culture—in the meme machine by which the church spreads institution-protecting messages throughout the membership. And they keep doing this, even as they see it continue to hurt others who have been wronged, and who are subsequently treated unjustly in the aftermath of it, so as to protect the great idol: “The Church”
Where the scriptures would teach that individuals should confess their sins and repent of them and quit doing them, the churches get themselves off into the weeds of excusing and even protecting the sins of their leaders. This is cheating. And it’s done in the name of God and of “The Church”. Never mind that God hates injustice. Never mind that the scriptures repeatedly demand repentance from such wickedness under threat of the Lake of Fire. No, the churches continue to excuse it anyway.
And I could scarcely count the myriad sins that go on protected in this way. The people have been conditioned to join in the protection of it. They are that dysfunctional—that un-Christ-like—that twisted of mind and behavior alike.
Don’t they know better?
Yes. But they are torn between two masters: Between Jesus and between “The Church”. And which one’s voice do they follow? Invariably, it’s “The Church”—until they change their minds (which is what it means to repent).
And then what happens?
Then they discover rather quickly that they cannot stay in their church, for they cannot serve two masters: Either they will love the one and hate the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.
And if I may be so bold as to speak my mind, that’s what the churches are doing: They are despising God, and serving “Church” instead. “Church” has different morals from God. God is righteous, wise, loving, and just, where “Church” doesn’t have to be any of those things. And God is always righteous, wise, loving, and just, where “Church” can pick and choose on an ad hoc basis how it would like to behave in this or that scenario.
Most Christians develop a very high threshhold of tolerance for the inconsistencies and injustices of “Church”. They tell themselves it’s the right way to think, even though they know better, and even though anybody who has read the Bible should know better. But hypocrisy is the price of membership in an institution like that. If you’re not willing to be hypocritical, you can’t stay. And many, we can observe, are quite willing. Hypocrisy is, by the way, one of the fundamental paradigms of this world.
When injustice happens at church, the dysfunction of the members can be observed. They’ll know that wrong has occurred, but they’ll function like children in the aftermath of it. The institution will be protected in most cases, and the penalty flags won’t be thrown against every foul—as needed to protect the leadership.
God utterly hates injustice, but “Church” does not. God loathes it, but “Church” thrives on it. And the people are forced in their church business to choose between the two again and again. And a great many will never reason their way out of that quagmire.
It’s quite simple, actually, but to them, it’s complicated. But it’s complicated because of one very fundamental dysfunction: They have learned to set aside the truth of a matter in deference to some higher priority. It’s that bad.
And this makes them dysfunctional in so many other ways. Witness the average believer in an online discussion forum about Christianity. Most cannot navigate disagreements or wide-ranging discussions well at all. They can’t handle being disagreed with. They get all caught up in the weeds of wanting to know each other’s “tone”, and can’t manage to deal with the actual facts of what is being written to them. They are quick to take personal offense, and lose sight of the basics such as fact, logic, and sourcing rather quickly. They can’t constrain themselves to avoid taking scripture out of context. (And there is no shortage of examples of this.) They can’t constrain themselves to say or write only that which they know to be strictly and demonstrably true; they simply must include other material, exaggerating its worthiness. In short, they end up executing upon others the same manner of hearsay treatment that they’ve been trained in at church. They get triggered by things and they shut down—just like they have been conditioned to do at church.
You’ll likely have to search a long time before you’ll ever find two of them who can set out to discuss and study some grand Bible topic, and who can remain functional in that study for six months. It will have crashed and burned much sooner than that.
The modern Christian is a champion of abandoned trails. That is, of ideas and topics that seem worthy of investigation, but that will invariably be abandoned before any good has come of it. We are victims of a thousand distractions—of a thousand thought-stoppers and redirections and manipulations. Our minds are not well-trained for paying attention long-term, or for seeing a matter through to its end. And of course they’re not! Indeed, we have been deliberately trained in exactly the opposite for our entire church lives!
We have been so conditioned to pause at the least sign of emotional trouble, or of conflict—or at the least accusation of wrongdoing, or hint of suspicion. We have victimized each other, while thinking that we are doing God’s service in it all.
This should not be.
And that is the fact. The reader who cares about the sad state I’m pointing out will surely want to know “OK, what now?”. But I say “first things first!”. Let this fact be stated loud and clear–that the current state of things is unjust, dishonest, and hypocritical, and that it must be abandoned by anyone wishing to be an authentic follower of Jesus.
An article like this will be intriguing to many, but the question that lies in the balance is this: What will be done with this fact? The choices, in the extremes are:
- To repent of it completely.
- To do something less than complete repentance.
#2 is by far the most popular option. In fact, there’s a variant of #2 that is so utterly popular and effective that it has become the default way of dealing with such things:
3. Make a show of taking this seriously, but then end up doing something less than complete repentance.
#3 is such a glorious option for so many, because it helps people deceive themselves quite convincingly. “Oh, yeah, we had a special meeting about this very serious issue and leadership is acting decisively on it.” Such things may be reported a hundred times in such a church culture without anyone asking, “So, how’s that going? What’s the latest?” Notice that they’re satisfied with the appearance of action, and are incurious about the effectiveness and completeness of it.
And that’s the way we do it. That’s the way we practice our dysfunctional Christianity. We want the appearance of function, but are unwilling to pay the price of authenticity. And that’s the culture we grew up in, if we grew up in the churches.
I know of no exceptions to this rule. I will frequently ask people to cite examples of exceptions—and every once in a while, I run across someone who is so deluded as to send me the address of their church (which is demonstrably like the rest in these days)—but most people know. They they their congregation is in a bad way. The doctrinal particulars may vary slightly, but every church institution I know of has the same sorts of bad ingredients mixed into their bowl, even if they can boast that their recipes are different.
This is not righteous.
A post like this should rightly raise a hundred questions or more—and most of them very good ones. But a hundred modern Christians—having been raised in churches like ours—will not be well-equipped to ask those questions, or to navigate the discussion that should naturally ensue. Keep in mind that we have been conditioned for decades to shut down—to abandon the trail, to be distracted, to be dissuaded, to live with disappointment, and to shut down any curiosity we may have.
Indeed, the easiest possible thing to do in response to this post is nothing. And the next easiest thing to do in response to it is next to nothing. And that is what most will do–until it is not. That is what most will do until they should make that glorious choice to change their minds, and to think as God thinks about such things, even if it means rejecting what their church thinks about it.