Over the last couple of days, I have followed – with something more than dispassionate interest – the conversations happening on this blog and around the blogosphere about the way Mars Hill handles church discipline and the ways that people find many of their actions indistinguishable from a cult. I’ve read story after story after story, in blog comments, on other blogs, and in e-mails, that all share a common refrain: this is my story, too. Every one of them breaks my heart. But the story Matthew recounted here means more to me than all the rest. Andrew is my brother. He first started going to Mark Driscoll’s church on my recommendation, years ago when I was first stepping outside of the fundamentalism we had grown up in and trying to find out what my faith would look like. I was attracted to Driscoll’s style that so closely resembled the preachers I heard growing up, only with more of an edge and more cussing, and it took several years for me to realize how small of a step I had taken outside of the fundamentalism of my childhood. Walking with Andrew through this now, I am haunted by the fact that, less than ten years ago, I almost certainly would have followed the pastors demands and broken off all contact with anyone they deemed unrepentant or unworthy of grace and love, with no questions asked.
That is why I decided to write this. – Stephen
One reason I am no longer a Fundamentalist – and I use the term here in its popular and not historical understanding – is because it came easy to me. It allowed me to follow what I see now as my basest instincts. The prioritizing of abstract principles and alleged or imagined biblical truths over the complexities of real life was an easy path for me to take. One reason I count Lars von Trier’s 2003 film Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany, as one of my favorite films, one I’m constantly recommending, is because I see a part of myself in the character played by Bettany, someone more interested in hypothetical situations and ideas than in how they affect the real flesh-and-blood people surrounding him, with the tragic consequences playing out on the stage over the three hours von Trier takes to tell the story.
It is one of my biggest regrets today, when I look back at the years I was a fundamentalist, that when my mother was struggling with the idea of divorce from my father – an action she had been counseled to take by multiple sources for legal purposes, partly so that his inevitable future financial troubles would not destroy the new life she was trying to piece together – that I was for a long time strongly opposed to it, because, I was sure, “the Bible is clear.” It didn’t matter that this course of action was only considered after God, my father said, had told him to kill her and us kids, or that a judge had already issued a permanent restraining order. The Bible was still clear. Sin was still sin. Divorce was wrong.
I was, it should be noted, being faithful to the ideas I had learned growing up in church, convinced that principles are always more important than people, that everything is always black and white, ambiguity be damned.
This demand for perfection, as I see it, ties into how one approaches the issue of church discipline, which almost inevitably is tied into the ways a church or pastor tries to establish complete control over their followers. In this thinking, with this fetish for being perfect, or at least pretending you are perfect, the worst one can do is deviate from the accepted practices of their community. And even if the offender decides to once again confirm, they will continue to be considered anathema if they do not jump through each and every hoop invented purely for the sake of making it clear who is in control and the dark consequences of admitting any further deviation.
“Pervert is a verb,” David Dark writes in The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, in what I see as a caution against the easy dividing of people into groups we can talk to and those we should shun, as church discipline often demands, groups of those who are on the inside and those who are on the outside. “To pervert is to degrade, to cut down to size – and we do it to people in our minds. We devalue them. [But] the reductionism implicit in perversion doesn’t ultimately work. It doesn’t do justice to the fullness of what we are… Like the God in whose image people are made, people are irreducible. There’s always more to a person – more stories, more life, more complexities – than we know. The human person, when viewed properly, is unfathomable, incalculable, and dear. Perversion always says otherwise. Perversion is a way of managing, getting down to business, getting a handle on people as if they were things. A person reduced to a thing has been, in the mind of the perverter, dispensed with, taken care of, filed away. Perversion is pigeonholing.”
When we start to think about how a church treats their members who, either perceived or in fact, step outside of the prescribed rules, it is worth moving past the way Paul wrote about church discipline to see how the church fathers wrote about it. Including the idea, expressed in one form or another by men like Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), that since everything you do either improves or worsens the state of your soul, if there is an unrepentant sinner in your midst who continues to do worse things, you should kill them to save their soul later on. Even acknowledging that Aquinas would have given greater nuance to that argument, it still remains that this kind of thinking is out there, though my guess is that these days you are more likely to hear someone say they’ll pray for the death of someone they think is an unrepentant sinner than try to kill the offender themselves. I’m reminded of a childhood friend breaking down around a campfire one summer at church camp, sobbing that God had killed his brother in a car accident earlier that year, having lost the emotional detachment his parents always exhibited when telling their friends at church that they were glad God had taken their boy, death being a fate better than the path he had started down.
In his 1964 book Beyond Fundamentalism, Daniel B. Stevick outlines the ways he thinks that we should address differences with an argument that I think should be extended to the way we first approach those who we think are not living up to certain standards, one that comes closer to fulfilling what Christ said was one of the greatest commandments, that of loving your neighbor, than other perverse methods do. “An outlook that recognizes the legitimacy of differences can only work through Christian charity,” he writes. “People enter Christian life with different backgrounds and capacities, and they progress at different rates in different callings. Yet all are brothers in Christ – the point of their union is beyond common background, common interests, and common behavior. So in Christ, forbearance, patience, and understanding are called for. Love has precedence over knowledge as a basis for action.” (emphasis added)
Did you catch that last sentence? I don’t think it can be said loudly or often enough, so here it is again: Love has precedence over knowledge as a basis for action.
A fresh reminder of how I viewed the Christian life as a child came last week when I read Growing Pains: Learning to Love My Father’s Faith, by Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University. In the essay Faith of Our Fathers, Balmer writes about a conversation he had with a friend where they parsed the image of God they had as children.
This was a God who demanded perfection. If we hoped to gain entry into heaven, we had better toe the line, otherwise we could expect utter abandonment, consignment to hell. This God of our projections was not a God who gave us permission to embrace life in all of its ambiguity and complexity, let alone to embrace ourselves in all of our ambiguity and complexity. This, in fact, was a God who refused to recognize ambiguity altogether, who forced us to see the world in dualistic categories – good and bad, black and white, right and wrong – with no allowance whatsoever for anything in between. This God, just like the evangelicals who invented him, viewed the Christian life as a steady ascent toward holiness. Once you had been born again, once you had “prayed the prayer,” you could expect to move onward and upward in your faith, and if that trajectory didn’t hold, if you falter along the way, well, you were doing something wrong.
I remember, not long after I first started reading the work of Frederick Buechner (he quickly became my favorite author), coming across the way he talks about faith, a way of thinking that stood in stark contrast to my childhood conception. “Faith is homesickness,” he wrote. “Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting.” Buechner elsewhere describes a Christian as “one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank”.
Maybe there is something to that. Maybe grace is more than an abstract idea, more than something to consider only after every i is dotted and every t is crossed. Randall Balmer articulates this in his own way with the conclusion of his essay.
“I have come to see the Christian life no longer as a steep and steady ascent toward holiness but as a tortuous journey full of twists and turns and switchbacks and perhaps a rockslide or two along the way.
But in the course of that journey I feel the embrace of a God who accepts me as I am in all of my humanity, who loves me unconditionally, in spite of my shortcomings. It is a pilgrimage of joy and sadness, of loving and suffering, triumph and tragedy, but it culminates in sweet union with Jesus, who somehow takes our sad and broken lives and makes us whole. That’s the gospel, I think. That sounds like good news to me.”