This has been a difficult post for me to contemplate, not to mention for me to actually write. It is my hope that anyone who has faced (or is facing) similar issues will find some guidance and peace of mind.
I grew up Presbyterian, but have attended mostly evangelical/charismatic ‘style’ churches for the last 20 years (see my earlier post). Twenty years is more than enough time for some common problems to have been reinforced: Many evangelicals have an underlying distrust (if not disdain) for intellectual thought, and have adopted a “fortress mentality” – where they attempt to combat the difficult questions and challenges of our culture with greater religious “emotional intensity” while never actually addressing or confronting the challenges leveled at them by those of different convictions. Nancy Pearcey, in her book “Total Truth” (a book I’ve found to be a wonderful resource on Christian worldview), writes at length on this phenomenon, since it is a common scenario in many evangelical churches. This vein of anti-intellectualism has caused evangelicalism to lend itself to a systemic distrust of questioning. In some cases, it’s simply a moderate fear of “will I have the answers if someone questions my doctrine?” That can be a healthy fear – if it leads one to confront those questions in their own life head on, rather than hide behind ‘religious experience’ alone. However, in two specific instances, I have seen the ‘distrust of questioning’ taken to an extreme that I cannot find any Biblical support for.
At the heart of this is the desire – the need – for communal bonds. For all that good that came of evangelicalism’s early days, there was a prevailing attitude of distrust towards the ‘religious authorities’ of the time. In Total Truth, Pearcey writes, “Taunting religious authorities became so widespread on college campuses that in 1741 the trustees at Yale University had to pass a college law forbidding students to call college officers ‘carnal’ or ‘unconverted’” (pg 271). The point here is that while there was good that emerged from what evangelicals know as the “Great Awakenings”, at the same time the old order of strong communal bonds within believing communities was disintegrating. You cannot assault the institutions that made those bonds possible, without also dissolving the bonds as well.
The result is a problem evangelical churches have wrestled with for decades: how to foster real community. Pearcey explains, “In the colonial period, the dominant political philosophy had been classical and Christian republicanism, which was highly communal. But in the new liberalism…the ethos of self-sacrifice was replaced by one of self-assertion and self-interest” (pg 280). In describing the emerging style of preaching at the time, Pearcey writes, “Increasingly, the populist preacher became a performer, stringing together stories and anecdotes…this method engaged the audience’s emotions while subtly enhancing the speaker’s own image by highlighting his own ministry and spiritual experiences. The outcome of all this was the rise of personality cults, the celebrity system that has become so entrenched in evangelicalism” (pg 287).
And here is where the fine and dangerous line is crossed. This is how many evangelical congregations have moved from the desire for real community, into the territory reserved for cults: “One of the dangers in personality cults”, according to Pearcey, “is that they easily lead to demagoguery…strong-willed leaders who, ironically, ended up exercising an even higher degree of dogmatism and control than pastors in traditional denominations, whom they denounced” (pg 289).
How those leaders assert their control can vary. However, in my experience, the squashing of dissenting opinions seems to be a common symptom. A close companion to that symptom is that members (especially leaders) in that congregation have no qualms about severing relationship with those they disagree with, regardless of prior history. So, here’s a short quiz for you: If you currently attend a church, how well do they handle disagreement? If you disagree, are you ostracized, directly or indirectly? What about others who have disagreed? Does your church push for “unity” by attempting to enforce “uniformity”? If the leaders of your church show no broken-heartedness over ‘severed’ relationships with those who’ve disagreed with them, may I humbly (albeit emphatically) suggest you find a new church? As Christians, we should be among the best examples of the power of reconciliation. We have several Biblical examples (Paul & Peter, Paul and Mark, to name two) of Christians who disagreed and came into conflict, and yet continued to support one another in the end. If we have a pattern of cutting people out of our lives because they won’t “line up” with our “vision”, are we not simply acting like petulant children? To borrow a paraphrase from Augustine: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”