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Christians Who Leave the Faith

I recently read “I’m not a Christian anymore: a thread“, by a David Gass, on Twitter. I forget how I first saw it; maybe it was on my regular Twitter feed.

At any rate, as a person with books like “Losing Faith in Faith” on his bookshelf, it caught my eye.

This was an evangelical pastor, who declared publicly that he is abandoning Christianity. He was accepting his doubt, and dropping the sham of faithfulness – after 40 years of missing no more than twelve Sundays.

I don’t want to cherry-pick his thread; it’s not really fair to do so, as it’s not an apologetical missive. I think he’s writing honestly and emotionally, and a point-by-point rebuttal wouldn’t be kind to him…

And it would serve nothing.

I love apologetics; sophistry, the plays on words, the logic all appeals to me. But a good pastor of mine said that “nobody has ever been argued into Heaven,” and while “nobody” is a strong word to use there – surely in two thousand years of Christianity, someone has been argued into Heaven, right? – I still think the larger point is entirely valid.

Apologetics is fun. It’s not really useful as an evangelical tool.

But: looking at Mr. Gass’ thread… I feel like he’s been failed. Not by God, but by the Christian community around him.

He says he was raised in a hyper-fundamentalist environment, with the classic hallmarks of such surroundings. That implies strictness, an insistence on literal inerrancy of the Bible, an insistence that solutions exist for every problem… a sort of “prosperity Gospel” even if it manages to avoid material prosperity. The “prosperity” here isn’t money, or power; it’s that our side, God’s side, always wins. Everything gets fixed. We have it all.

And Mr. Gass saw through it: he saw no supernatural miracles in his life, his marriage struggled. When he read the books that purported to have the answers, he saw them as trite and dismissive.

I’ve read a lot of books like that. I can fully understand his viewpoint on that.

He watched people die of cancer. He buried people from “4 to 96” years old. He prayed for healing for people that didn’t come.

His parents were abusive; his kids rebelled; his marriage was painful to him. Where was God in all of this?

An inescapable reality that I came to was that the people who benefited the most from organized religion were the fringe attenders who didn’t take it too seriously. The people who were devout were the most miserable, but just kept trying harder.

https://twitter.com/DaveGass3/status/112327798932261274

He eventually found acceptance among people who didn’t believe – he said they were the most Christian people he knew, and they weren’t Christian. Given the abusive structure of the church, he just … couldn’t take it any more, and walked away.

I understand.

My heart breaks for him, because I think he missed it all.

At no point in his letter does he mention Christ. He mentions the religion, especially the structured aspect of it; he mentions the trappings, but nothing at the heart. At no point does he say anything about a God he felt was supposed to be out there.

He mentions the Magic Vending Machine, certainly; it was supposed to dispense health and happiness, after all! And it failed! How dare it!

… but nothing about God saying “I died for you, as you were, and for all those lost… no matter where they were or who they were or what they were.”

He points out that the church around him was abusive and caustic. I’ve been in church; it can be!

… but nothing about the Bible saying that that’s not how the Church is supposed to be.

I think Mr. Gass’ story is tragic, because it’s not a failure of God – it’s a failure of the church around him. It’s made of humans, it will fail, but it seems like his churches failed him consistently and in routine ways, all predicated on the belief that things can and should be perfect.

Yet the Bible never says that about our lives.

He wanted to see a miracle: the miracle was him! His life was exactly what the Bible said it would be.

His crisis seems to have been inspired by a lie, that his life wasn’t supposed to work out that way.

I pity Mr. Gass, and understand him, and pray for him and others like him: all of those people looking for magic beyond the magic around them, the people expecting answers to be written on Christian fortune cookies, the people depending on the people around them to be acceptable stand-ins for God.

I pray for the people who failed him, too, because they as well need God’s hand – instead of their own. His failure is theirs. What happens to his faith is possible for them, too, for the same reasons.

I pray for myself, as well, that God guides me in such a way that my own faith remains strong.

A Core Belief

It is my belief that the church is not meant to tell people to do right but to serve as inspiration for the lost to come to Christ, where He inspires people to act in accordance with His Will.

The Nashville Statement

I am confused and conflicted by the Nashville Statement.

This is a doctrinal position on sexual purity. It’s apparently something meant as a tentpole; pastors and church members are asked to sign it to indicate their agreement and acceptance.

I will not sign it.

It’s not that I disagree with its sentiments; I think you can back those sentiments up, Biblically.

It’s that I don’t understand why it’s being written, or for whom, and I don’t know what it does to further the cause of evangelism; instead, I think it challenges potential readers in such a way that they can easily and justifiably reject the Good News in the context of what the Nashville Statement contains.

I can (and do) support the idea of sexual purity; I cannot (and will not) support something that doesn’t clearly support evangelism.

What it says

The Nashville Statement has its own website. It’s made of fourteen affirmations and rejections; the only actual reference to a Bible verse is in the Preamble. That verse is:

“Know that the LORD Himself is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves…” –Psalm 100:3

The preamble also says this:

As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being. By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life.

It then embarks on a series of declarations that encompass sexuality and are limited to sexual expression.

I understand the limited scope; limiting scope is important, after all. (Otherwise, every discussion of every issue would loop back to the concept of sin and redemption, and all other concerns would disappear. That’s unrealistic.) However, while they mention salvation (sort of: “Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it in overflowing measure”) they justify the rest of the statement’s existence in the context of moral purity: “in the hope of serving Christ’s church and witnessing publicly to the good purposes of God for human sexuality revealed in Christian Scripture, we offer the following affirmations and denials.”

The points themselves

Here are the points themselves; they’re offered as an affirmation and then a rejection, often polar opposites. My summary won’t include the actual texts, unless quotes seem necessary or relevant, and my summary will also not address both the affirmation and the rejection unless there’s enough of a difference that it seems important.

  1. Marriage is between a man and a woman, and is a covenant before and with God.
  2. God’s Will is for monogamy inside of marriage and chastity outside of marriage.
  3. God created both man and woman, and both have equal value in His sight. (I’m not sure how this is scoped; are they saying hermaphrodites are not created by God, or that genetic eunuchs are not created by God? I don’t know. It’s only a few sentences. Maybe they didn’t want to cloud the issue.)
  4. The differences between men and women are natural, created by God, and are meant for good and do not reflect evil.
  5. Biology is relevant for sex identification. (I am assuming – hopefully without justification – that this is a denial of transgender concerns in all ways.)
  6. Ah, here we’re addressing transgender issues at last: such people are “eunuchs created by God” and can have morally and physically uplifting lives.
  7. Homosexuality or transgender state is contrary to God’s design in creation.
  8. Homosexuals may live a pure and rich life in God’s Will. However, homosexuality is not part of God’s Will.
  9. A desire for sin does not justify that sin, with a particular focus on sexual sin.
  10. Approval of homosexuality is sinful.
  11. We must address sexual issues with gentleness and love.
  12. Salvation can redeem anyone who suffers in sexual sin.
  13. God’s grace enables us to supercede transgender or homosexual conceptions, and is not compatible with transgender or homosexual conceptions of self.
  14. Christ came to save all.

Whew! If I were you, I’d read the actual affirmations and denials themselves, rather than relying on my summaries; the affirmations and rejections are not long.

However… a few things stick out.

One is that you might notice how many biblical verses I used in my summaries; if you look at the original texts, you’ll see the exact same number of biblical references used. This concerns me. If you’re drawing a line in the sand based on what God says about an issue, I’d think you’d… want to show what God actually says about that issue. Sure, you’d probably cherry-pick it regardless, but I’d still expect it. For a Biblical statement of some kind, the Bible’s slightly important.

Another thing you might notice is the emphasis on … sex. Look, sex (and sexuality) is important; I’d never deny that (nor would I want to.) But they mention salvation in article twelve.

To me that says that obedience to a moral watermark is more important than salvation. It says to me that the signatories think it’d be cool and kicky if you got saved, but what’s really important is that you obey the rules.

I mean, think about it: these affirmations are saying that God can save you, sure, but what’s important is that you know how to act.

That’s backwards. That’s harmful.

God can save anyone, from anything, at any time. God isn’t going to be dissuaded by the fact that you’re married to someone of the same gender while having been born as a different gender (or whatever; mix and match how you like.) God can reach across every boundary as He wills and as the recipient responds.

And it’s up to that believer, at that point, how to respond. That may mean abandoning a lifestyle and living in a manner compatible with the Nashville Statement; if so, that’s great. I’d celebrate that kind of faith and dedication and obedience.

But it also might mean doing what the new believer can do. Maybe their faith isn’t strong enough to take drastic leaps of lifestyle or denials of a lifetime of impulse or habit; I don’t know.

I can’t judge. It’s not mine to judge. What goes between a believer and God is between that believer and God, and all I can do is present myself as willing to respond if asked. (If someone came to me as a Christian who was actively homosexual, and asked if homosexuality was contrary to the Will of God, I’d… say that it was contrary, yes. But I’d do so in such a way to allow the ministration of God to work on that believer. And if you’re wondering: yes, this has happened, and I’ve seen the effects that things like the Nashville Statement can have. They’re not pretty, and it’s just not worth it.)

Like I said, it’s not that I disagree with the articles of the Nashville Statement. I believe in (and practice) sexual purity (an easy task, as I love my wife beyond all other human beings). But I don’t see where the Nashville Statement actually furthers the Gospel, nor do I see it as being written in such a way that it can easily further the Gospel to the people whom it considers in need of the Gospel the most.

Instead, it purports to drive the lost away.

That’s bad.

Christians and Covenant

Jeff Doles recently published “A Contractual View of the Gospel,” in which he makes a lot of good points – but he also de-emphasizes something that I think is crucial to the nature of our relationship with God.

He says that many Christians see our relationship with God as a contract; we exchange an act (of faith, in the Christian sense) for salvation, whereas some others attempt to exchange works for salvation. (I’m not sure which group he’s referring to here, but look around; it’s easy to find people who say they’re good Christians because they do good things, as opposed to the idea that they’re good Christians because they believe in Christ and act upon that belief.)

He says that when we emphasize the contractual nature of our relationship – “we have done this, now give us that” – that we have made the contract itself an idol, replacing our love for God with a desire for certitude.

It’s an interesting, and valid, point. In my cultural tradition, there’s the concept of Heaven and Hell, sort of – Judaism has a number of views about the regions inhabited by the soul, such as it is, after the passing of our mortal coils. But as I understand it, they’re more abstract than concrete, and their pull is more ephemeral than absolute.

Put more simply: if I go to Heaven when I die, that’s great. Likewise, if God sees fit to send me to the lake of fire, well, that’s His right and power. My desire is to glorify His Name, whatever that might mean and in whatever fashion I am able. I have an abstract covenant with Him, and I trust Him to act according to His Will; the reward for me is in that fulfillment, not in whether I get a cookie when my life is done.

But that doesn’t mean there is not a covenant! Christ is our High Priest, after all; the priesthood was founded on a covenant. If the covenant is not fulfilled – if we don’t have that certitude – then our faith is in nothing, and I don’t think that’s the case.

So the crux, for me, is in the nature of the relationship to Christ. Am I faithful because I want the quid pro quo of salvation, or am I faithful because I love the Lord? if it’s the former, I run the risk of idolatry, as Doles suggests; if the latter, then salvation is a promised result (and that’s good, right?) but that’s a secondary effect.