“The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor. 3:6)
I was raised right-wing, conservative, Baptist. And one thing I remember in particular from those days was the complete sense of doctrinal certainty that went with the territory. Not just Baptist territory, but in any overly conservative denomination. We had the in with God and were safely headed for heaven – why? Because we had the correct theology. We thought we had all the answers and knew exactly how to interpret the Bible: with a “plain reading of scripture.” We never openly wrestled with difficult questions or admitted to feeling insecure, for that would require being honest about our doubts and fears, which would be a sign of weak faith at best, rebellion at worst. If we ever experienced the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we knew to suppress it and dissociate. Doubt was the Enemy and the Seducer. Any questions or red flags regarding doctrine were viewed as traps to be avoided: “don’t read that author, read this one instead!” If our heart or our ability to reason led us to a conclusion that didn’t square with fundamentalism, we were to see that as the Devil successfully having deceived us (especially if we were women – “Eve.”). So not only did I learn to distrust my own opinions, I also learned that I was even more likely to be deceived due to my gender.
I tell you, the fear and anxiety these mind games cause… The lack of self-confidence. The inferiority complex as a female. I actually felt guilty to use my own brain and form my own opinions. The only safe thing to do in those days was to block conclusions contrary to the evangelical view (read: dissociate) and go back to parroting conservative beliefs. Thinking for yourself is just not allowed. And this is precisely how the masses are indeed controlled: fill ’em up with spiritual pride (accolades aplenty for “correct” thinking), and with fear (timidity that breeds diffidence), and then tell ’em what to do. Obedience is the only acceptable response. If you deviate from the path marked out for you by the church, you’ll be punished with shaming and the threat of lost Salvation (which means hellfire in the next life). It’s quite the lasso.
On the face this sounds malicious, as though such controlling manipulation were deliberate; but the truth is much sadder.
The truth is that conservatives are raised (and assimilated) this way and don’t consciously see their tactics as manipulation at all. It’s more like being cast under a spell by someone else who is already under a spell. They believe they are genuinely helping people by protecting them from the slippery slope that leads to damnation. And for those of us raised in the church, these doctrines are all we’ve ever known – intricately woven throughout our synapses from early childhood (as would be the case with any faith tradition or atheism too – this is not unique to Christianity, and is really quite normal). Teachers are as bound by fear as those they keep tethered. The victim becomes the abuser, as the saying goes; from generation to generation. And such spiritual abuse (specifically, using shame and fear of hell to control and manipulate people) generally comes from a place of good intentions too: being terrified of loving souls straight into said hell by “enabling sin” in those we disagree with. In other words, loving them into an afterlife of eternal conscious torment instead of standing our ground until they repent. Some even see hell as a place of physical torture, as depicted in Dante’s Inferno. It’s as if grace is secretly believed to be not quite enough: perfect theology is required as well. Perfect theology, as in, being in complete adherence to church doctrine.
Of course, no one would ever admit to a works-based brand of Salvation (although, perhaps the more legalistic branches do, and Catholicism), but in one’s heart of hearts, there remains the fear that grace is enough to “get you in” but not enough to keep you there. Thus anything seen as active, ongoing rebellion (such as gay marriage or egalitarianism) means you’re still in danger of hellfire, despite your faith in Christ. But again, the discomfort of cognitive dissonance quickly comes in (since verbally it’s claimed “once saved, always saved”), so to get around this, they then say, “well, I guess he was never truly saved to begin with, and was just a fake convert.” Win-win for their theology.
There’s a price to pay for staunch certainty of this degree. In Matthew 9:13, Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ ” We haven’t. We continue to glorify sacrifice as the be-all and end-all. Women sacrifice their integrity in order to be quiet and submissive, always letting their husbands make the final decisions. They sacrifice their leadership gifts, teaching skills, and talents, to avoid being in a position of authority over men (theologically forbidden in most conservative denominations). Family members sacrifice their unconditional love toward LGBTQ children/nieces/nephews/grandchildren when out of pride, or more tragically, fear, they believe they have to “hate” in order to please God (see Luke 14:26).
But what would mercy look like instead of all these sacrifices?
How do misguided – and sometimes blatantly arrogant – sacrifices fly in the face of agape love, grace, and mercy? “The Sin of Certainty” is what Pete Enns calls it. Now that’s not to say that all doctrinal certainty is sinful – of course not! – but rather only that which stems from a position of pride and self-righteousness. And in some cases, cowardice. The certainty thus becomes a sin. For how can there ever be true humility in the face of dogmatic certainty? How can there ever be true trust in God when everything has already been figured out? Instead, smug certainty acts like a crutch . . . an idol . . . a false god . . . and a form of tunnel vision.
The Bible is a library of books, complicated and diverse, with many different literary styles and authors employed, and spanning across millennia of generations and ever evolving cultures. The New Testament book of James says, “if any man is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.” So, how can anyone, therefore, claim to have perfect doctrine (a.k.a perfect Biblical interpretation) at all times? We’re inevitably going to get some things right and some things wrong, and to varying degrees. Personality, perspective, intelligence, family tradition, attachment relationships, and life experience play an enormous role.
Is it any wonder then, that there are more than 33,000 denominations within Christendom?
There is a spectrum here, with Liberalism on one end and Fundamentalism on the other, and a mix of everything in between. But Galatians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace as you saved, through faith and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.” So how could perceived doctrinal technicalities/errors damn someone who believes in Christ? Who is saved and who isn’t is really just an opinion. Because since no one is perfect, and no one could possibly have 100% of his theology correct, how could perfect doctrine be the measure and security of one’s Salvation?
Yet Conservatives have so much to lose if they deviate from the rigid doctrinal box they’ve been locked in.
The consequences are enormous, particularly for those in ministry positions such as pastors and church leaders, seminary teachers, authors, and musicians. They will be fired and lose their livelihood, and if famous, be tarred and feathered as well. And for any Christian whose theology is in the progressive or liberal direction, their friends and families will view them as backsliders or even outright heretics (which causes shame and the perpetual psychological fear of damnation). If they are LGBTQ Christians, they will be, if not completely exiled, barred from participating in ministry in any form of leadership (again with the overt shaming and ostracising). Their orientation will always be the elephant in the room (especially if they date or marry), and something to be ashamed of whether one is banished from the family table or not. They are labelled as oxymorons, rebels, and heretics even though they share the very same faith in Christ.
And for all Christians, the cold eye of judgement and condemnation must be endured in order to be open and honest about theological leanings and questions that aren’t within the conservative box. This fosters fear-driven dishonesty in the name of conformity: always having to censor and edit one’s self and others out of the fear of rejection.
In the early days of spreading the Gospel, Peter struggled with fundamentalist conformity too.
It was difficult for him to accept Paul’s radical view that God was welcoming the Gentiles into the Kingdom of God. So God had to speak to Peter directly through a vision before he could bring himself to step across the “unclean” threshold of a gentile’s home. He obeyed God, stepping out on a shaky limb of faith, and the result? The whole house of Cornelius (a Roman) was saved and baptised. But here’s what happened later on: When Peter travelled to Antioch, he was intimidated by the Christian Jews there who insisted that Christian Gentiles must be circumcised and adhere to Mosaic Law in order to be truly saved. Galatians 2:12-13 tells us that Peter pulled back from the Gentiles and began to “separate” from them because he was “afraid.”
Does this seem familiar to today, for many of us? Who are we currently afraid of? Who do we separate from, insisting they must adhere (conform) to this or that before they can be welcomed in?
Paul had to publicly confront Peter about this, calling it hypocrisy. He reiterated that Salvation is by grace alone, not by works, that Christ had fulfilled the Law, and that the Old Covenant had passed away. In Ephesians 2, Paul explains further what Christ had done:
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (vs. 14:16)
I believe that many right-wing conservatives today are making the same mistake that Peter made when they twist the words of Paul (!!) into a Salvation Plus, works-based doctrine that excludes LGBTQ Christians and restricts women from true gender equality.
The reason I feel it’s the same mistake is because just like Messianic Jews originally had the most power in Christendom, today it’s the conservative evangelicals and Catholics who do. And just like the Messianic Jews who intimidated Peter into preaching a works-based gospel he knew in his heart was wrong, many Christians today are also intimidated into preaching a works-based gospel, even when their hearts are telling them that it’s wrong. We’ve replaced circumcision and kosher laws with “traditional marriage” and a male over female hierarchy. Like Peter, we fear the dominating authorities, so we conform. And the dominating authority puts the fear of God (hell doctrine) in us whenever we question these doctrines, in order to keep the cycle perpetual.
Ironically, the iron fist is no longer Mosaic Law but Pauline Law, even though Paul who was the one who rebuked Peter for this very thing. History repeats.
In conclusion, I want to stress that letting go of prideful theological certainty does not mean having no theology at all. Rather it’s about holding our beliefs a little more loosely and humbly in our hands, willing to let them go whenever we discover we’ve been wrong in one way or another. Its a willingness to adapt and change and grow. It’s about trusting God enough to drop the crutches of certainty whenever he asks us to, and to take his hands instead. Sometimes this means being “despised and rejected by men.” But if we examine our hearts closely enough, many of us will discover that that’s actually what we’ve been doing all along – despising and rejecting.