On November 7, a roomful of Christians will interview me for an hour on the subject of why I left the faith. Starting with this post, I’d like to get a head start on the discussion. I hope some people who will attend the forum will read these posts and leave comments or questions.
Let’s start on an optimistic note and observe that my story, of leaving the Christian faith in middle age, is actually very rare. (It is far more common for young adults to leave, but I won’t have much to say about that.) We midlifers are notorious for our crises. Why don’t more of us leave the church?
There are obvious reasons, such as decades of sensing God’s presence, of seeing answers to prayer, and of forming Christian friendships, but in this post I’d like to focus on some less-obvious reasons.
Evangelical doctrine includes many tenets that have the side effect of making it difficult to leave the faith. I say “side effect” because I don’t think for a moment that these dogmas represent some sort of conspiracy to keep people from leaving. They arose for other reasons, such as to glorify God, but they have also served well to preserve people’s faith.
- Subject your thinking to Christ. Verses such as Colossians 2:8, 2 Corinthians 10:5, and Proverbs 3:5 encourage the believer to “take every thought captive” to Christ and “lean not on his own understanding.” If the believer has doubts, this principle implies that he does not have an honest question, but a spiritual deficiency. This logical jiu-jitsu throws the doubter to the mat where, in the final analysis, he simply needs to submit his mind to Christ. If he’s not ready to do that, the next point can be even more powerful.
- Behind every doubt problem is a sin problem. I heard that exact sentence more than once during my years as an evangelical. It is based on verses such as John 7:17, where Jesus says, “Anyone who is willing to do God’s will will know whether my teaching is from God or merely my own.” In other words, if you’re not convinced, it can only be because you would rather sin than do God’s will. This is one of the most pernicious verses in the entire Bible, and I will have much more to say about it in a future post. For now, I’ll just observe that many believers are afraid to admit their doubts because they know that their Christian friends will take those doubts as evidence of moral failure. Leave the faith? That would indicate total moral collapse. If you’re not ready for most of your close friends to think you’re a moral failure, then you’d best stick with the program.
- You are worthless without God. The Bible teaches that we were spiritually dead before being saved (not just dim-witted or sick, but dead, as I have heard from the pulpit), and that apart from Christ we can do nothing. After enough years of hearing this, you believe it.
- There is no basis for morality apart from God. Most people, believers, doubters, or atheists, have a deep moral sense and generally want to do the right thing. The prospect of unmooring oneself from the only anchor of morality one knows can be terrifying.
- Your good works are worth nothing. If one manages to do something good, the Bible teaches that it doesn’t count. Indeed, “all our so-called righteous acts are like a filthy menstrual rag in God’s sight” (Isaiah 64:6, New English Translation). This reinforces the believer’s feeling of worthlessness. When I told one Christian that I no longer believed, her immediate reaction was an astonished “Don’t you feel you need a Savior??” I made my way out, but she probably never will.
- If you leave, you can’t come back. Hebrews 6:4-8 teaches that if you leave the faith, it is impossible to be brought back to repentance. Although interpretations of this passage vary, when it is combined with the ill-defined concept of the “unpardonable sin” (Mark 3:28-29), it can be very scary.
- No true Christian would ever leave. This doctrine, known as “the security of the believer,” is meant to glorify God as the author and finisher of our faith. It has the side effect of making the doubter wonder whether he is truly a Christian, in which case his doubts are entirely unsurprising because even the Bible acknowledges that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” So once again, the doubter’s honest question has been turned into a moral or spiritual deficiency. Not only does this tend to keep the doubter in the church (“I must be doing it wrong. I’ll keep trying.”) but it provides everyone else with a ready dismissal of the doubter’s objections — keeping them security in the fold.
In the next post, I’ll say more about the security of the believer. For those who adhere to that doctrine, there is an unexpected problem that I have never heard anyone mention.
Good post! Looking forward to reading more!
I’m currently in the middle of the very thing and the outlook is stormy, especially with my worship leader/psalmist spouse.
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I find that in the discussion of leaving church or Christianity, it seems like the Christians enjoy avoiding the issues… I say this as a Christian. It appalls me the anti-intellectualism that people have. If you say something smart, you are no longer in faith. If you start expressing doubts because you have actual questions, you no longer are practicing faith… So, whether you deeply believe or struggle with doubt, often the rebuke is that you aren’t “practicing faith”. I left the church-building-system-thing because of this. I don’t personally think atheism is the correct answer, but certainly what is promoted as “biblical Christianity” isn’t either. My wife and I have found that outside of the camp, simply reading our Bibles and experiencing life as a poverty stricken couple who can’t afford bills has been the greatest evidence of Christianity. Somehow we make less than our bills require, and we pay them every month. Anyway, sorry for the rant. I agree with you and sympathize with you, while at the same time somewhat disagreeing.
I think it’s a terrible burden to put on Christians to not allow them to have doubts. I know that many well meaning Christians do just that, but not the Christians I know and hang around with (thank God). It seems to me that exploring our doubts and grappling with them can lead us to greater understanding and humility, and not just in Christianity but in all intellectual, emotional and spiritual endeavors.