I was raised in a hellfire-and-brimstone Baptist megachurch, complete with all the rules, prohibitions, fear, guilt, manipulation, and self-righteous certainty that goes along with it. Not only were Baptists the only right ones, our particular collection of churches (the Baptist Bible Fellowship) was “the best” and our particular church (Temple Baptist of Detroit) was the pinnacle. Or so we thought.
I went knocking on doors trying to convert people for the church, gave much money, time, and talent to the organization. I sang in their choirs, performed solos of original music, and even became an ardent “Bible Believer” (code for those who believe the King James Version is the only God-inspired translation of the Bible in English, and the only one that matters).
I went to their Christian school for junior high and high school, then went to a BBF college (Liberty University, home of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority). I read the books, studied the theology, surrendered my life to their version of spirituality. I wasn’t perfect, but learned how to hide my “moral failings” like any good hypocrite.
The more I read the Bible, especially the book of Acts, the more I came to see that the church I grew up – actually the entire fellowship of churches – looked nothing like what actually happened in the Bible. There were always rationalizations, reasons, explanations, excuses given for this disparity, but in my late 20’s my wife and I started looking for what we considered “authentic Christianity”.
This search led through a number of smaller church communities, including some of the Nazarene tradition. The main difference between Nazarenes and Baptists is that Baptists believed once you were truly “saved” you could never lose it; Nazarenes, on the other hand, believed you could lose it (but Baptists figured those people were not “truly saved”). Nazarenes also believe you can reach a state of “sinless perfection”, while Baptists don’t worry about that at all.
We noticed that people were the same regardless of which tradition they held. We also noticed that we felt more love, acceptance, and grace from non-religious people than we ever did from the religious types. That was confusing. In our continuing search, we tried out a home Bible study that in a short while turned into a home church.
Feeling that we had finally find a community of people who authentically practiced what we read in the Bible, we stayed with these people for six years as it slowly morphed into what we now realize was a cult. It was led by a charismatic, intelligent, and very arrogant person who was a gifted teacher and expert manipulator. We became entrenched in a Calvinist perspective of scripture where only those previously chosen by God (“the elect”) were saved, and your evidence of your election was that you lived faithfully to the end. Anyone who left the group, therefore, was deemed unfaithful, unelect, and clearly destined for Hell. Fear is a powerful motivator.
We finally began seeing through the distortions, lies, and manipulations of the leader, and decided to confront our fear and put our destiny in the hands of God. We discovered through this that God is not a tyrant or psychopath demanding to be loved or else, but that God is a tender father/mother who loves us, cares for us, provides for us, and desires what is truly best for us.
The Search continues
We continued our search for authentic Christianity. I explored Eastern Orthodoxy – the most ancient Christian tradition – on and off for several years, but came away from my studies realizing that nothing of substance is really documented for about one hundred years after the formation of the church. As entrenched as the Orthodox were in their tradition, no one knows if their practices were passed down from the apostles or if they were invented in that hundred years as something that “seemed right” to the practitioners or leaders. Church tradition became very suspect.
I can appreciate the symbolism and beauty of both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions – perhaps more so than regular attenders – but that doesn’t mean it is the one “right” way. We explored the Plymouth Brethren tradition for over a decade and came away with the same reservations, only worse. Their focus on weekly communion, dispensationalism (that gave us the whole “Left Behind” phenomena), and their approach to interpreting scripture felt more like we were back in the cult at times. And seeing that their whole brand of teaching and worship was invented less than two hundred years ago, it can hardly be argued to be ancient or apostolic.
We have Lutheran and Presbyterian friends with whom we’ve shared in depth, even attending some of their services. We’ve experienced worship with the Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals, and a number of other spin-offs and splits. And yet, didn’t Jesus pray that his followers would all be one? Certainly these churches weren’t helping that cause, but were rather encouraging the distinctions, differences, and division.
So who is right?
They can’t all be right. And based on our experience, none of them is. So the megachurch we currently attend (mainly for their ministry to kids and teens, not for it’s “correctness”) launched a campaign over a two-year period to unite churches in southeastern Michigan to promote the good news of Jesus primarily by acts of service, but also by words at times. This looked promising – especially the service projects – but in the end it just felt more like marketing and manipulation. If you’re doing something for ulterior motives, it comes through as disingenuous and isn’t love at all.
Along the way I’ve also read a lot by authors from emerging/Emergent Christianity and modern bible scholars who question a lot of the perspectives held dear over the last 400-500 years. N. T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, Rob Bell, Shane Hipps, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Erwin McManus, and many others have much to say that for me adds context back to the Bible that has been lacking for a long time. Instead of reading scripture as if it were written to the 20th century white American middle class, they’ve insisted we do the very hard work of understanding what the original author intended the original hearers to understand in their culture using their shared stories.
I came to understand that much of what I have been taught by men that the Bible “teaches” it doesn’t actually teach. Instead, men have interpreted it (incorrectly) and taught their interpretation as fact and even as absolute truth. The interpretations of men, not the “word of the Lord”. This is what divides people into denominations and sects (this plus fear). But Jesus said that love would be the hallmark of his followers, and it would be evidenced by unity. So whatever it was that Jesus actually meant, it can’t be what has led to this proliferation of religions and traditions.
That begs the question -what did Jesus actually teach, and what did he actually mean by that? What was his actual “good news”? Was it really “believe these facts and prayer this prayer and you get to go to heaven when you die?” Is that it? Read Matthew chapters 5 – 7 (it’s not that long and you may even find it enjoyable – but don’t read it in the King James Version, try the New International or New Living Translation or The Message or the God’s Word translation). See what his essential good news really was and we’ll pick this back up in a day or two.