Tuesday, December 4, 2012

All or None

I ran across a well done piece by Rachel Held Evans a couple of days ago. She talks about 5 things you don't have to leave behind when you leave fundamentalism. It deals with some difficulties that someone may have breaking away from fundamentalism.

Sometimes, "fundamentalist" can be a pejorative term. I don't believe Ms. Evans uses "fundamentalist" this way, and I certainly am not using it in a negative way here. I am using the term to describe a strict, exclusive, uncompromising, conservative approach to interpreting the Bible. Though my religious background is fundamentalist, I no longer believe that a fundamentalist approach to interpreting the Bible is best. I have found the consequences to this change in approach very difficult. This is why I found Ms. Evans' post interesting.

And to be sure, I'm not physically "breaking away" from anything. I'm not leaving or even contemplating leaving church. I think that will be obvious as you read this. I'm describing a mindset change that I believe allows me to have a better understanding of Scripture and a stronger faith.

With this change in approach have come disagreements. When I have discussed these disagreements with people who take a fundamentalist approach, the most common response is to jump to the conclusion that I do not (or soon will not) believe in God or the Bible. This response has been nearly ubiquitous. For example,  I have shared with a few people that I do not believe the Bible is a rule book, instruction manual, or blueprint. Here are some responses I've gotten when I've revealed this change in approach to the Bible...
  • If you approach the Bible this way, you will eventually believe that it has no authority. You will even reject direct commandments.
  • You must not believe that the Bible is inspired.
  • Do you now believe that any religion is ok? Muslims, Hindus, and even atheists?
  • Do you no longer think that homosexuality sinful?
  • You just want the Bible to say whatever you want it to say. Do you even believe in God anymore?
This is just a sample of the radical responses that I have gotten. I'm baffled. I've often asked myself, "Why would they think this about me?" I really don't know the answer to that question, but I believe it's related to an "all or none" mindset (Either you agree with all of what we teach or you agree with none of what we teach; you are either right or wrong.) that I am sometimes still guilty of.
To be fair to those who have reacted this way, many people do leave fundamentalism and go to an extreme counter position of atheism or agnosticism or some self-destructive pattern of behavior (addiction, idolization of pleasure, etc.). So, their concern for me is not altogether irrational and I appreciate it, even if it hurts at times. Without the community of God helping me out, who knows whether I would have run to one of those other extremes.

Some people seem to be concerned that I don't believe in Jesus or the Bible any more, that I don't believe in church any more, that I don't believe in restraint any more. To clear the air, using Rachel's excellent post as a guide, here are my thoughts on her 5 things that I haven't left behind.
  1. I believe the Bible is inspired by God. Just because I don't believe it's a technical "how-to" document doesn't mean that I disregard it or reject it. I study it harder now than I ever have in my life. I find myself engrossed in its stories. I see God's love on every page. I now take the whole thing and not just the few proof texts that I had memorized. I still have those proof texts stored away in my heart, but I read them afresh and in their context and through the lens of Jesus crucified. Some things I understand better than ever and other things I'm more confused about than ever. Sometimes it makes me joyful and sometimes it comforts me and sometimes it makes me afraid and sometimes it frustrates me and sometimes it makes me angry. But it always fills me with awe. I'm challenged every time I open my Bible app or leather bound book. I love reading the Bible because it teaches me about God.
  2. I believe that the church reveals God's wisdom. I don't believe that worship begins and ends when the church is assembled and dismissed. I don't believe that there is a specific order of events or a specific set of acts that must be performed as part of worship. And sometimes, I admit, I'd rather stay in bed. But I believe it is necessary for my spiritual survival to join and work with God's community. I don't agree with every doctrinal position taught at church. I don't like every sermon or Bible class. I'm not a member of a perfect church, but I'm a member of a good church. There are people there (myself included) who are suffering and some of that suffering is self-induced. And we need one another to show compassion and love. And I love every single person there. I fit right in with my own brokenness and weaknesses. We are all working together with God toward fixing and strengthening one another. I love my church (I consider them my family.) and can't fathom leaving them. I need them.
  3. (I'm combining Rachel's 3 and 5 into one point here.) I believe that God calls us to be disciplined and holy. I strive to pray, study, and sacrifice more. I strive to avoid profane and filthy things and live a life that is moral and holy. There are restrictions on our behavior and there are things that we must actively do. What I've found, though, is that the specific rules that we've made don't truly make us holy or moral. Rather, they serve to give us man-made standards that we can use to judge the discipline and holiness of other Christians. I don't consider myself a better Christian than any other Christian. And I don't want any part of that type of thinking any more. I want to pursue these things from love rather than from fear and guilt.
  4. I have lost friendships over these disagreements. I miss the friends that I have lost and long for their approval again, but I'm not sure their approval is possible unless I return to a fundamentalist mindset. I don't believe that would be true to myself or to true to God. Other friendships have been changed. I have many friends with whom I disagree and I strive to maintain those friendships. I don't want agreement on biblical issues to be a condition for friendship. It's good for me to learn to exercise the patience and kindness and discernment that I believe is necessary to preserve friendships in the presence of disagreements. Ms. Evans speaks truth. If you abandon the fundamentalist mindset, you will lose some friendships and other friendships will change. I've found this to be the hardest part, but as she says, I don't want to leave the friendships behind.
I pray that I cling to and pursue Scripture, community, discipline, friendships and holiness, more like Him.

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