Even if you’re not used to studying the Bible, I hope you’ll stick with me for a brief look at a passage that was of critical importance in my journey out of the evangelical church.
Romans 8:5-14: 5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.
9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.
…13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. 14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.
One thing on which Christians of all persuasions agree is that faith in God will make you a better person — not perfect, but at least better. The passage above explains why: Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (verse 9). That automatically and inevitably puts them in “the realm of the Spirit” (verse 9 again). The Spirit is the king of this realm, “leading” them (14) and “governing” them (6) to live in accordance with his desires (5).
In contrast, those without the Spirit do not belong to Christ (9). They have their mind set on fleshly desires (5), leading to death (6, 13). In fact, they cannot please God (8).
The broader context of this passage is that to simply know the rules of good conduct (the Law of Moses) does not give one the power to be good. That takes an inner work by the Spirit of God, which only Christians experience.
If you have not lived in the evangelical church (let me emphasize that I’m not speaking of more-liberal versions of Christianity), it may be hard to appreciate the full thrust of this. As a group, evangelicals believe that they have both a motivation and a power to be good that is simply absent from the non-Christian world. The motivation is love for God and the power is the Holy Spirit. The fifth point of the National Association of Evangelicals’ Statement of Faith makes this clear:
We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.
But forget about the power. I don’t know how many times I heard that non-believers don’t even have a reason to be good. I even heard that coming out of my own mouth! We attributed any good behavior by non-believers to God’s continual restraint of their human, sinful nature and his common grace. Were he to withdraw his hand, the world would plunge into chaos.
A turning point for me came when I became friends with the man who ran the convenience store down the street. Pravin was from India, where he had been a doctor, and was a devout Hindu. When anyone had come into his clinic without shoes, Pravin knew that person was even poorer than average and he would treat him free of charge. He would even give him some milk for his family. That was in India. Pravin also told me of the time here in the USA when a man had come into the convenience store in the dead of winter, begging for milk for his children. None of the culturally Christian storekeepers on the street had given him anything, but Pravin was glad to do so.
Being a good evangelical, I had been considering how I might share the gospel with Pravin, but as I got to know him I realized that he was already a better person than most of my Christian friends. It seemed ridiculous to tell him he was “destined for a Christless eternity” and needed to repent and be saved.
I had known many fine non-believers during my life. Why hadn’t I felt the same way about them? I’m ashamed to say it took a Hindu who had come from a country where the influence of Christianity was almost non-existent to shake my categories thoroughly enough.
At any rate, I finally learned that non-believers could be just as good as believers.
I had also been learning the opposite: believers could act just like I had always imagined non-believers would.
If you’ve been with me through Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series, you’ve seen how I became disillusioned with evangelicals’ dishonesty. It seemed that the more committed someone was to the brand of Christianity I was part of, the less honest he was. Instead of handling facts with integrity, he was likely to twist, misrepresent and ignore them.
And then there was the outward behavior. As an evangelical, I had seen it up-close for nearly 40 years. If I were to catalog all the ways we showed no evidence of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, I would seem to be claiming that evangelicals are worse than everyone else and that’s not my point. I am only saying that we were no better.
Even when we tried to improve, I could not perceive anything supernatural at work. It seemed to be no easier for an evangelical with a short temper to control it than for anyone else, even if he or she was praying for God’s help. Likewise for lust, sloth, or other sins.
This is not my experience alone. As my pastors used to lament from the pulpit, survey after survey shows that evangelicals do not behave much differently from the rest of the population. The image often used was that society was sliding down-hill and the church was only a little behind. As Ronald Sider wrote in the January, 2005 issue of Christianity Today,
Born-again Christians divorce at about the same rate as everyone else. Self-centered materialism is seducing evangelicals and rapidly destroying our earlier, slightly more generous giving. … Born-again Christians justify and engage in sexual promiscuity (both premarital sex and adultery) at astonishing rates. Racism and perhaps physical abuse of wives seems to be worse in evangelical circles than elsewhere. This is scandalous behavior for people who claim to be born-again by the Holy Spirit and to enjoy the very presence of the Risen Lord in their lives.
Sider saw rays of hope in a 1992 Gallup survey that showed certain “heroic and faithful” Christians did behave better than average, but to cite this as proof of the Spirit’s power would only be to commit the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. Besides, I have a hunch that heroic and faithful secular humanists are exceptional people, too.
I knew and still know some truly wonderful evangelicals. However, my anecdotal experience with evangelicals as a group was that we were no better than anyone else, and had no special power to improve our character even when we wanted to do so.
World-class pollsters such as George Gallup, Jr. and George Barna (both devout Christians, by the way) reached the same conclusion more scientifically.
I was forced to admit that one of the central claims of evangelical Christianity is false. There is no Holy Spirit who indwells and empowers only the born-again.
[Edited to add:] In case I haven’t made this clear already, let me say it again. My point is not the usual whining about Christians being “such hypocrites” so now I will take my toys and go home. This is all about a central proposition of the Christian faith having been proven false.
But what of God? Surely Jehovah is good, and worthy of worship! Maybe, but I had been proven wrong on many other counts. I was now ready to take a fresh look at the character of God as revealed in the Bible. The answer I found drove me, screaming, from the faith.
More on that next time. [Edit Dec 13, 2012:] No, there’s been a change in plans. I’m going to highlight some of your comments first.