When I was a teenager, I was striving to be the best Christian that I could be.
Now, stop for a moment. This means many different things to many of you. Some of you who have a good relationship with your church are automatically assuming that what I mean by being a good Christian is the same thing as what you mean — following all of your doctrine and avoiding sin, maybe being extra pious and worshipful and evangelical. Some of you are automatically assuming that I mean that I was trying to be a leader. Some of you are automatically assuming that I mean that I was trying to be the most knowledgeable about what the Bible says (and if you fall into this category, you’re probably assuming that I was trying to match your personal or doctrinal interpretation).
And some of you are already thinking, “Oh, great. Just what the world needed, I’m sure. Another Bible-thumping, arrogant, hypocritical, judgmental ass who thinks I’m hellbound because I believe in evolution.”
Because, Christians, that’s the reputation we have out there. And, I’m sad to say: (a) we brought it on ourselves, so no matter how bad you feel about it, that reputation isn’t persecution, and (b) lots of us really are that bad.
(I can already hear the complaints from some of you. “Bible-thumping” is derogatory, and there’s nothing wrong with reading, believing, and following the Bible. “Arrogant” can’t possibly be right, because I’m not confident in my own thinking, but in God’s. “Hypocritical” is only right to the extent that none of us are perfect, but we are forgiven. “Judgmental” isn’t accurate, because I don’t judge people, I judge their sin, and if they choose to keep sinning then God condemns them, not me. And believing in evolution doesn’t mean you’re hellbound, it means that you’re clearly so uninformed of the truth of God that I can’t imagine you could be heavenbound. Plus, this whole paragraph is putting words in my mouth that I would never say out loud, and it’s clearly designed to mock me. How dare you!)
Yeah, I’ll admit, there’s some mockery and overexaggeration there… but not much.
Listen, I don’t have a problem with a lot of the beliefs held by fundamentalist Christians. I can make a theological argument for creation in seven days. I can make a theological argument for just about anything, really. Whether or not I believe various doctrinal items isn’t the point of this post.
It’s the idea of defined doctrine at all.
My best friend from high school has just recently published a book that appears to center around doctrinal issues. I plan to buy it soon; the only reason I haven’t done so yet is that he and I definitely don’t see eye to eye on the idea of doctrine itself.
Here’s my issue.
The basic concept of Christianity is that we are inherently sinful beings — that our human nature leads us to do things that are evil — and that redemption for eternal life comes through Jesus Christ. (For the record, I don’t have a problem with this part as written; I have a problem with it as it is often interpreted, but that’s for another day.) The fact that our human nature leads us to sin means that a lot of the things we want are things that we should not want. (Remember “thou shalt not covet?” That’s a pretty good example there.)
But there is also a lot of Biblical doctrine that says that we should “lean not on [our] own understanding,” and suggestions that we can’t understand things on our own. God’s ways are higher than our ways, and all that.
To an extent, I have to agree with that. (Key words in that sentence: “to an extent.”) I know that when my daughter Sage gets fussy because we haven’t gotten her out of the bassinet to feed her fast enough, she just doesn’t understand the way things are. She doesn’t have a concept of time (and therefore a concept of patience); she doesn’t yet realize that immediate hunger doesn’t mean permanent hunger; she doesn’t understand that our main goal is for her to be healthy and happy. So I can extrapolate that I, a mere human, would not understand all of God’s ways.
And I can certainly understand that there are people who spend their lives studying about and talking to God. The clergy should know more about God’s ways than I do. So I can understand going to pastors for advice.
It’s when that advice starts to get codified into church doctrine that I get antsy.
Someone once told me that if you were determined to only cast a vote for a Presidential candidate whose views aligned perfectly with your own, you would end up voting for yourself. (Incidentally, I announced years ago that I would run for President in 2012 as a Demolican, combining the best feature of both parties, which is avoiding blame for what the other party is responsible for. I haven’t been in charge, so I haven’t messed up any of this. Vote for me!)
Well, theology can go the same way. My own experiences can lead me to build up my own beliefs about what is true and what is not true. And then, when I find a church, I find that their doctrine doesn’t match with my own beliefs.
The choices there are simple. Choice A — change my beliefs to meet the church’s doctrine. Choice B — find a different church. Choice C — stay with the church, but treat doctrine as an a la carte option.
The trouble with Choice A is that either you proclaim to believe something that, deep down, you really don’t… or you find a way to justify and rationalize until you have forced belief in that doctrine onto yourself, no matter how much it bothers you.
The trouble with Choice B is that you’re basically trying to elect yourself President. No church will match you perfectly.
The trouble with Choice C is that if you can pick and choose, then what’s the point of doctrine in the first place?
Many Catholics use birth control. Many Nazarenes dance. (That surprised me, too.) Many Christians in general spend lots of time committing all sorts of transgressions against their individual church’s doctrine without ever once feeling a twinge of guilt. Why? Because, well, the church couldn’t possibly be right about that, right?
So when your beliefs contrast with the church, the best recommendation is to turn to God. Pray about it. See what He has to say.
But aren’t you forgetting? You’re not supposed to lean on your own understanding. And if God tells you something… well, how do you know for sure that it’s God, and not your human nature trying to deceive you again?
It’s not that I think I have all the answers. It’s not that I think God and I always agree. But when it comes to certain issues, I have a deep-seated problem with some doctrine, and I just can’t force myself to agree.
You have to live with yourself first. I couldn’t live with myself if I supported certain doctrines held by many, many churches, even when I can see where in the Bible the churches get their rules.
And for so long, I was told that if you disagreed with Biblical rules because you felt they were wrong, you were spiritually immature and relying on your human nature. This led me to believe that you knew when you were following the Holy Spirit on matters like this simply because it felt wrong.
When I was a teenager, I was striving to be the best Christian that I could be. To me, this meant figuring out what I felt was right, and just, and kind… and choosing the other option because it was harder to do, and that’s what I thought God expected of me.
I don’t blame the church. There’s way too much blame already, and I firmly believe that the majority of people both in the church and outside of it are only trying to do the best they can. Plus, I had a funny way of interpreting things that wasn’t at all what most of my leaders intended.
Deep-seated convictions may be part of my human nature. They may be prompted by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, it’s impossible to tell the difference.
When I’m faced with that, I make the decision that allows me to live with myself — the decision that gives me peace. Inevitably, it’s the decision that seems to share love with the most people (which is what leads me to think that perhaps I do have it right, if I’m lucky).
I may not always be able to “defend” my beliefs, at least not in the manner of apologetics. And I’m not always that good at explaining my beliefs. But I think I can sum it up pretty simply.
After loving God, the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Strip away all of the “what this means” concepts of “well, loving God firstand neighbor/yourself second means not sinning, and tolerating that behavior means that you’re not loving God first” or similar justifications, and it boils down to one thing for me.
Love one another.
Not fix one another because you think that’s the right way to love. Not preach at one another. Not tell one another that you’re sinners. I get it: “tough love” and all that crap.
When’s the last time someone tried to tell you that you were living your life wrong? Did it make you feel loved? What would have made you feel loved instead?
That’s what I’m trying to do now, regardless of whether or not it matches church doctrine.
In my less humble moments, I like to think that I’m doing what Jesus did to Pharisaical law. In my more humble moments, I trust that God looks at my intent.
Love one another. It makes it so much easier to live with yourself.