As I’ve alluded to previously, Christians continually succumb to the tendency to coerce others into accepting their understanding of God, Jesus, the Scriptures, and religious practice. They’ve been doing this since Jesus left earth, and they continue to do so today. This practice leads to monolithic oppression when one group is in power, such as the Roman Catholic Church from ≈AD 500-1500. It leads to wide-spread disunity and the small-scale oppression which has continued unabated in Protestant circles from AD 1500 through the present. When the Catholic Church’s monopoly was broken, the oppression became embodied in hundreds of disparate factions that we now call denominations. The glaring result is the dramatic disunity found in American Christianity.
Every so often, an ecumenical, para-church movement attempts to bridge the gap between denominations. These efforts frequently begin with an enthusiastic following, but are always short-lived, because they address the problem with a programmatic solution rather than a ground-level mindset change. The movement becomes a thing itself. Once the emotion of the moment fades, the movement either dies or coalesces into another denomination.
What drives this obsession with thought control? I think there are two primary driving factors: arrogance and fear, and these two enemies work together to captivate the believer and destroy unity in the body.
The first primary factor, arrogance, stems from the fact that once a person arrives at a point of belief, he of course, thinks that he is correct and that other views on the issue are incorrect. Almost everyone, when he thinks he is correct, feels the need to correct others whom he believes to be incorrect. It is easy to let this feeling of certainty develop into arrogance. We must be extremely cautious of allowing arrogance to petrify our worldview. We should be willing to reexamine our views and determine whether or not they are based on evidence or on misunderstanding or bias. I’ve had many of my own views and beliefs change over time; and I expect that through continued study and life experience, they will continue to evolve—hopefully from a less correct position to a more correct one. Yet, I still have to avoid the tendency of allowing a sense of arrogance to cloud my judgment and adopting a feeling of superiority over those who do not agree with me. We must not allow the presumed correctness of our beliefs to become a breeding ground for arrogance.
The second primary driving factor is fear. When a person holds a belief that they he is emotionally invested in without having a rational basis for the belief, any challenge to that belief feels threatening. Suppose you believe that Jesus is God’s Son and your basis for that belief is “the Bible says so.” You know the Bible is true because there are verses in the Bible that indicate that the Bible came from God. It feels true; plus, all of your Christian friends believe it’s true. If someone were to then tell you that Jesus was a historical figure who had divinity gradually attributed to him by His followers over the first few centuries AD, would your answer be, “Well, I happen to believe the Bible is true?” This is not an argument for your faith. It’s a statement that is neither persuasive nor intellectually honest. How many Christians have you seen get indignant and defensive when challenged? This mentality is the product of a paralyzing fear. I say paralyzing, because many Christians when challenged, rather than objectively looking at the evidence and following where it leads, simply double down on their belief and cling to it as a matter of faith.
Arrogance and fear drive the need for control over the narrative. In order to preserve the structural integrity of institutional Christianity, a homogeneous base of likeminded followers must be assembled. Remember, the number one priority of any institution is survival. That’s why religion cannot tolerate dissent in any form. Indeed, schisms are frequently lauded in Christian circles as being necessary for “the preservation of the truth.” Hence the need for creeds, statements of faith, and idealogical restrictions on church membership. Christians of every denomination cling to their pet theories and force others to agree, or they don’t let them into their club.
Now many Christians will argue vehemently that while this may be true of some institutions, it certainly isn’t the practice in their church which would never force people to believe a certain way–except where the essential elements of salvation are concerned. The “fundamentals” if you will. I would ask that church how its clerical leader was selected. Was it by majority vote? Was it by appointment from higher headquarters? Either way, this individual was carefully selected to ensure his beliefs were in accordance with the prevailing opinion of the denomination or congregation. Are clergy who don’t entirely subscribe to the statement of faith of an institution ever brought in to bring a fresh perspective to the congregation? I highly doubt it. Imagine someone offering a dissenting voice from the pew during the pastor’s sermon. How long would that individual be tolerated in that congregation? Many articles have been written by Christians that discuss how to address a disagreement with the clergy. Almost universally, they prescribe a confidential, closed-door meeting to discuss the matter one-on-one. They then go on to prescribe a dispute-resolution process, as if a committee-vote is going to authoritatively adjudicate the truth of any issue. Heaven forbid that you disagree with the Man of God in a public forum. Do not offer the argument that those that are seeking the leading of the Holy Spirit are going to divine the correct solution. That’s been tried already—by almost every denomination; and the denominations clearly don’t agree with each other. If a Christian approached any Evangelical or Catholic church in America (or most Protestant Churches for that matter) and stated that they didn’t agree with the need for the ritual of water baptism, thought the church’s communion ritual as practiced was unbiblical, thought that the congregation should not pay their clergy a salary, and offered to teach a Sunday School class, is there any chance that that individual would be welcomed into the “fellowship”? Not a chance in the world.
These attitudes of arrogance and fear are primarily what drive divisions between denominations and frequently, even between institutions in the same denomination. They feed the obsessive need to “fight for what you know is right.”
Even if, for the sake of discussion, one is 100% correct in his beliefs, is it really preferable to ostracize those that are less mature in their understanding? Rather than allowing discussion of difficult issues for the sake of education, spiritual development, and mutual edification, Christians more often than not attempt to silence dissent and accuse dissenters of promoting heretical views or, even worse, “liberal theology.”
Mandatory caveat for those that are bristling at this discussion: I am not advocating for you to assent to every doctrine, theory, or belief that pops up in Christian circles. I simply want to encourage followers of Jesus to seek the truth and show love to others that are doing the same thing yet have a different understanding.
There is no need for followers of Jesus to fight among themselves over differences of opinion. Disunity is more detrimental to the followers of Christ than false doctrine. I know this statement will make many Christians angry, but remember from my first post, the truth stands on its own. Those that are intentionally deceptive will eventually be exposed for what they are. Does God ever defend Himself in Scripture? I can’t find any examples. God is the source of all that is true. He doesn’t need you to defend Him. Christians will zealously latch onto a handful of verses from a few New Testament writers that speak of defending the faith in some manner (Jude 1:3, I Peter 3:15) and use this as ammunition to justify the verbal bludgeoning of others who would dare to disagree with them. I can’t find any record of Jesus saying, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye are proficient in theological and ecclesiological debate.”
Read John’s record of Jesus’ prayer that those who follow Him would be unified (John 17), then look around at American Christianity and evaluate whether or not it is meeting Jesus’ intent. If our immediate response is, “Sure, collectively, we’re not meeting Jesus’ intent, but it’s the fault of all those heretics that don’t understand the Bible,” then we are the problem. Followers of Christ must maintain an attitude of humility and seek to be always learning. Follow your own path of discovery as you seek to deepen your understanding of God, and avoid the trap of making adherence to your opinion a mandatory criterion for fellowship with other seekers.
By the way, here is an excellent discussion on the evidence for the gospels being eyewitness accounts.