I sit here with a bit of a conflicted soul. On the one hand, I got the new issue of Christianity Today and found that it is devoted to the importance of doctrine in spiritual formation. Giddy. That is what I was when I read it. However, I also received an email yesterday that serves to curb my excitement, reminding me of the reality of our desperate condition. (I’ll get to the email soon).
Christians often scare me. Really, all religious people scare me. But Christians in particular because they are the ones I have to deal with everyday. I have a deep empathy for the so-called “new atheists” such as Daniel Dennet and Christopher Hitchens who find religion repulsive and counterproductive to the betterment of society. While I completely disagree with them for a variety of reasons that will not be covered here, I can put myself in their shoes and find myself saying the same things. Namely: Christians can be so bizarre.
Seriously, we can produce the craziest nutcases the world has to offer. Sadly, it is often our beliefs that are the issue. From the “God told me to kill my children,” “I cannot talk to you because you are going through a divorce,” “If you say the earth is going around the Sun we are going to put you in jail,” to “Our ministry needs a million dollars or I am going to kill myself,” we have our embarrassments. The things said and done in the name of God are astonishing and disturbing. Yes, I know. Everyone has their nutcases, but we have the tendency to breed a special variety. I have already, in times past, talked trash on my own breed: Calvinism. But now I am going to get after the species in general: Christians.
In the interest of full-disclosure I must tell you something. I have Gail Riplinger’s book Which Bible is God’s Word sitting right in front of me. Its basic argument is that all Bible translations other than the King James Bible are from Satan. Oh yeah, I am serious. The sin is not that I have this book, but that it is representative of times past when I was, for about six weeks, a KJV Only advocate, believing that all other Bible versions were from Satan. To make matters worse I was actually an outspoken evangelist of this belief. I told my family, my friends, and everyone who would listen about Satan’s plot to get you to read another version of the Bible. I can only imagine what the conversation sounded like. I had “evidence” that I thought was solid, but as I look back on this “evidence”, my face turns red. I guess I keep Riplinger’s book in front of me to keep me humble and always aware of how bizarre I can be.
Christianity is dangerous. The Bible is dangerous. Please don’t get me wrong. I believe that both, rightly understood, are wonderful and true. However, the “rightly understood” is so hard to come by. The difficulty is not that one has to be a super-genius to understand the Bible or the Christian faith. Quite the opposite. The Bible is wonderfully simple and so is the Christian faith.
I believe that the difficulty lies in two areas:
1. Christians believe that the Bible is God’s word.
2. There is not a bolt of lightening that strikes you when you interpret it wrong (i.e. there is no immediate evidence of or consequence for wrong interpretation.)
The reality of these two make a potentially lethal combination. They don’t make good bed-fellows and hence the Roman Catholic cry for an imperial authority to regulate such things. Although Catholics have their share of bizarre teachings themselves, their problem is bigger in my opinion since their bizarre doctrines get dogmatized and everyone must believe them. At least in Protestantism we can both recognize and repudiate our weird uncles. Catholics are stuck having to defend them for all time. (Another story, another time.)
Now for the bizarrity of the moment. . .
This is from an email I received from a concerned follower of our ministry. It is a phone message from his Bible Study leader. Every time I listen to this, I am reminded of the movie “The Jerk” when Steve Martin is getting shot at but he naively thinks the guy is shooting at the cans beside him. “Its the cans. He hates the cans!” Well, in this case: “Its the buildings. God hates the buildings.” Listen and you will see what I mean:
(Please note that the audio has been altered to protect the identity of the caller.)
Buildings are the whore of Babylon? Really? Satan is luring people into buildings which is the great apostasy? Really?
I want to be careful here since I know what this guy is actually a part of. It is a belief that he has about the local church vs. the universal church. It is a belief that he has about what the church really is. I get it. But the way he is using the Scripture to sound an alarm is, well…, alarming. It is bizarre. Sadly, this is not the first time I have heard such stuff. Not only have I seen people make such arguments about church buildings but I have seen others make the same type of arguments about pulpits, pews, steeples, and even clerical robes. But the real issue is not just their bizarre beliefs, but the level of importance they attach to them. If you are in a church building, you are a follower of Satan, not a follower of Christ.
Chill out. What ever happened to grace in theology? Even if you were right, do you think God really cares that much about buildings?
Why do these types of issues become central to people’s beliefs and passions?
Christians believe that the Bible is God’s word. Yet we don’t have a healthy fear of the Bible and truth. This is why we can get away with such things. Protestantism is based on the supposition that we need to have a personal encounter with Christ though a personal understanding of the Bible. I agree. But I also agree that this opens the door for such abuses and bizarre beliefs. Again, these people believe that the Bible is God’s word. They really believe it. That is not the issue. The issue is that there is not a bolt of lightening that strikes them down for misguiding God’s people. (BTW: If there was, I would have been dead a long time ago).
I don’t know how many times I have listened to a sermon or lesson from the Bible where the person next to me (usually a family member) says, “Pastor so-and-so is so smart. I would have never see all that from the Scripture that he just preached from.” More often than not, I usually think to myself, “Yeah, because it is not there!” We are masters at seeing things and teaching things that are not there and don’t really matter.
I think we should have some type of discipline for people who go theologically haywire. Gracious discipline! It should be part of the discipleship process. When the theological hormones begin to stir and bizarre stuff begins to spew out of our mouths, we need to be taken aside and theologically slapped. Someone needs to tell us to “Get a grip, chill out, and grow-up.” Why not? We do this with teens and they need it. I needed more of it. However, when we let things go, we allow people to find comfort in their theological immaturity and then propagate it’s symptoms as signs of maturity! “Satan is in the buildings!” “The New American Standard Bible is from the devil.”
Folks, let us reserve our passions for those things that really matter—those things about which the Bible is clear and those things that the history of the church has held central. These doctrinal sideshows do nothing but bring shame to the name of Christianity and provide illustrations for those like Daniel Dennet and Christopher Hitchens to make their case that we are all nuts. This type of theological immaturity is counter-productive to the central Gospel message which has to do with the person and work of Jesus Christ. We need to be sensible, rational, reflective, and wise. In order to seriously advocate this type of “its-the-buildings” theology, we have to intentionally repress all four.
To all of you who, like me, have said that “Satan created the NIV” and the like, isn’t life bizarre enough without our adulterous affairs with sideshow freaks? Do like me and keep a copy of Gail Riplinger’s book in front of you to scare you into maturity.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]