Saturday, October 19, 2013

Saved by Being Right: Christianity and Dogmatism

In the Christian group I belonged to in college, we believed we had all the answers.

Other Christians might differ from us in doctrine, but we knew the truth, straight from the Bible. "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it," we would say.  We even knew why everyone didn't see things the same way we did.  They were deceived.  Or they were "in compromise" with sin and were trying to justify themselves.  Or they were "lukewarm" and just didn't want to "pay the price" to really "press forward in the things of God."

I remember the time I mentioned to an older church member that I wondered about young-earth creationism.  I asked her if maybe the earth wasn't six thousand years old.  Maybe God didn't intend the "days" of Genesis 1 to be viewed as 24-hour periods?

She became very upset.  "It was evening, and it was morning, one day," was what the Bible said.  How could I possibly be questioning that?  If we were going to start changing the meaning of Bible words, who knew where it could end?  If we started to believe the wrong things, what would happen to us?

I shut up.  But I couldn't help seeing what was behind her eyes as she put me back on the straight and narrow.


Oh, there was fear of the leadership, of course.  No one wanted the pastors to decide a demonic spirit of deception was upon any of us. They would take us into a private room where a group of the most trusted members would spend hours shouting at the demon to come out of us.  In the worst case scenario, we could be subjected to public rebuke in front of the whole congregation, or even be excommunicated.

But the fear went deeper than that.  It was in essence a fear of not believing properly-- a fear that we could find ourselves on a slippery slope towards actually falling away from Christ.

"It's very important what you believe," they told us. Whole sermons were preached on this.  We were saved by faith in Christ, and though we were supposed to enter a trusting personal relationship with Christ through that faith, what "faith" meant, ultimately, was believing the right things.  Hebrews 11:6 was constantly repeated to us:   "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him."

Belief is high priority in Christianity.  Even apart from the spiritually abusive, controlling segments, it's high priority.  One of the most famous things Jesus said was, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16, Emphasis added.)  And Paul said, "If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9, Emphasis added.)

But there's a problem.  Belief, as most often understood in the modern Western world means "Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something" or "Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons." The word also has a third meaning, "The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in another," but when we say, "I believe in God" or "I believe in the Resurrection of Christ," that third meaning isn't usually what we're talking about.

But Jesus and Paul spoke of belief primarily in that third sense.  Belief in something as an accepted truth was not nearly as important as trust and confidence-- not in a set of tenets, but in Christ, the Father God and the Holy Spirit.  Belief in doctrine was meant to spring out of that trust-- not the other way around.

If you ask most Christians straight out, they will usually say that they do believe it's trust in Christ that saves them.  And yet so many times, we live our lives as if the really important thing was what we mentally hold to be true-- or even simply that we hold the approved opinions.

And the problem with this, of course, is that if every thought and opinion must be the "right" one according to our religious group, we are in danger of being so right-thinking that we never actually think at all.

Theologian and Bible scholar Peter Enns, Ph.D. says:
The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued–provided you come to predetermined conclusions. . . that doctrine determines academic conclusions. 
Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one. It did not come to be in order to inspire academic exploration but to maintain certain theological distinctives by intellectual means. These intellectual means are circumscribed by Evangelical dogma. . . As an intellectual phenomenon, the Evangelical experiment is a defensive movement.
How many times have you talked to a Christian who asserts that your disagreement with him or her is in fact a moral failing?  That your problem is lack of faithfulness to God or disrespect for the Bible? For many of us, it doesn't seem possible that someone could carefully and prayerfully examine a Bible text and end up honestly seeing it differently than we (and our minister or pastor) see it. 

Christians can come to believe that God gave us minds not for the purpose of learning and exploring the world He gifted to us, or for growing in our understanding of God, God's ways, and ourselves-- but for holding onto to our beliefs and dogmas against all comers. 

"Dogmatism" is the logical fallacy of "[p]roposing that there simply cannot be any other possible way of making sense of and engaging with an issue but the one you represent." Dogmatism is "[t]he unwillingness to even consider the opponent’s argument. . . the assertion that one’s position is so correct that one should not even examine the evidence to the contrary."

Dogmatism in Christianity, I think, comes primarily from fear.  If we believe we are saved by faith, and we define faith primarily in terms of having the right set of beliefs, then anything that challenges those beliefs must be resisted as evil.  Our thinking becomes defensive rather than inquiring, didactic rather than exploratory, closed rather than open.  We see our role as the instructors and correctors of others, rather than as listeners and learners.  

We all want in our heart of hearts to be listened to and understood.  But dogmatism strips us of our ability to listen and understand.  We become fundamentally unable to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. 

In the end, all we have is spiritual pride.  

And the Bible actually warns us against this.  Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:1-2, "Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God."  And Jesus said to the Pharisees in John 9:41, "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains."

We aren't meant to believe we have all the answers, or to believe that's even possible.  We're meant to walk humbly with God, to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to (Romans 12:3).  We aren't supposed to be one another's mental police, but one another's servants. 

To my readers who are Christians:  if "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6)," we don't need to be afraid. We can be free to explore, to examine, to seek greater understanding in all things.  Having a difference of opinion is not a slippery slope to heresy. Questioning is not a slippery slope to apostasy.  

Questioning is a way of appreciating the complexity of the universe God placed us in.  And allowing others to think differently is a way of appreciating our own complexity as human beings. 

"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." 1 John 4:18.  It's time to let go of fear of not being right.

Because we're not saved by being right.  We're saved by trusting in Christ.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. Your last line in particular felt like a poke in the heart. After listening to a similar sermon and then reading this article, I'm starting to realise - after a long time of getting cranky with the dogmatism of others - that it's ME who needs to hear this message and repent of spiritual pride. *sigh*

Kami said...

"Questioning is a way of appreciating the complexity of the universe God placed us in. And allowing others to think differently is a way of appreciating our own complexity as human beings." ~Amen, Sister! It's also the only way to grow and become more healthy and mature.

Pat Pope said...

Amen and amen. Well said.

Unknown said...

I love it when minds like yours so clearly lay this out. My explanations end up clogged with poetry. I'll be linking back to this, for sure.

Monique said...

Wow, so well said and I so needed to hear this :)

Saaasbo said...

Awesome post!!!!!!!!

Don Vick said...

Thanks for posting that. I used to be one of those dogmatic Christians, but I've come a long way toward growing out of it. Nice to see the light shining from another mind.

WillieK said...

I heartily agree with this post. However, I see far too often people replacing a lazy adherence to dogma with a lazy adherence to intellectual fuzziness. While it's true that we are saved by grace, not by right belief, that doesn't mean the pursuit of right belief is valueless. We risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We need to embrace uncertainty in our thinking, but not give over to it completely. It may be true that not everything can be known with certainty; that doesn't mean nothing can be known with any degree of certainty. That same intellectual curiosity that made you uncomfortable with the dogma needs to drive you to a better theology, not a place void of theology.

Kristen said...

Willie, if you'll look at my blog as a whole, you'll see that I'm hardly "void of theology." My theology is orthodox (small "o") in accordance with the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, so no, this post is not about, or in support of, "lazy adherence to intellectual fuzziness."

Alissa said...

I just love this so much. I read it just after I had a very frustrating experience with Christians insisting on being right. Thank you for putting so eloquently the things that I was feeling. I mentioned you in my latest post :)

NorrinRadd said...

Personally, I don't confess any Creed without qualifications. For instance, in light of the fact that Scripture uses the terminology "TODAY I have begotten Thee," I require a clear and acceptable explanation of the "eternally begotten" part of the Nicene Creed before I'll agree to it. I'm aware this makes me a heretic in the eyes of some, and I'm fine with that. I'm also fine with using "heretic," "infidel," "apostate," "anathema," etc. in regard to others if, for instance, they deny that Jesus is I AM, if they try to impose Law or laws, etc.

But on most issues I think I'm able to disagree relatively politely. I try not to ascribe differences in interpretation to character flaws, dishonesty, emotionally clouded judgment, etc. Usually. ;-)

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

"For in the Devil's theology, the most important thing is to be Absolutely Right and to prove everyone else to be Absolutely Wrong. This does not lead to peace and harmony among men."
-- Thomas Merton, "The Moral Theology of the Devil"

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued–provided you come to predetermined conclusions. . . that doctrine determines academic conclusions.

Isn't that similar to the Soviet Union, where "degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige" were valued as long as they PROVED the Inevitable Marxist-Leninist Dialectic of History?

Anonymous said...

Whenever I read any non-fiction book or web article, I evaluate the evidence and reach a conclusion. Should I not be free to examine the Bible like any other book? I am an atmospheric scientist, and after studying the evidence I believe that the earth is much older than 6000 years.

I am also a Christian. After reading Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell, I decided that the historical evidence strongly suggests that Jesus did indeed rose from the dead. My faith as a Christian rests upon this historical evidence, and not emotional experiences.

By definition, a Christian is a person who believes in Jesus. I am an orthodox Christian who believes in doctrine as set forth in the Apostle's Creed. But I am not currently attending church because many people would attack my faith, and tell me I am not a Christian because I do not believe in a young earth.

Kristen said...

Annonymous, I hear you. If you consider yourself evangelical, you might try one of the Independent Churches of Christ (also called Independent Christian Churches). One of their policies is to allow freedom to differ in any area except the foundational basics as found in the creeds. You could check if there's one in your area.

Connie said...

Bravo!--and thank you. Sharing.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article, thank you from a 60 y.o. Christian lady in Gloucester, MA BLESS YOU

Unknown said...

“..there was fear of the leadership, of course.” - I couldn't agree more. Christian leadership is indeed a crucial task. If your leader doesn't have appropriate training and studies, it'll be hard for them to state the facts. Moreover, they must have strong faith in God to stand against persecutions, hardships, and spiritual challenges. Public rebuke can still be considered, but I think the congregation shouldn't include the new Christians. They might misinterpret the whole demonic battle if not explained deeply. :)

Ja Rosario @

Kristen said...

Ja Rosario-- what are you talking about, and what does it have to do with the topic I wrote about? Unless you can address the post topic and follow my other blog rules, your comments from here on will be deleted.

Kuudere-Kun said...

My being a socially Liberal Christian doesn't keep me from being Theologically Conservative.

What the New Testament says is why I reject any old Earth model, there was no Death before Adam sinned.

And I have even argued on my Blog that modern Homophobia in fact has it's roots in Darwinism.