In the last post on this series I discussed why people leave Christianity, focusing on intellectual reasons. This post will focus on theological reasons why people leave Christianity.
Let me quickly remind you of some important prerequisites to understanding where I am coming from and where I am not coming from. I am talking about people who leave Christianity, not simply those who leave the Church. Both are very related, but one evidences a more serious departure while the other can be one step on the road to departure. Please understand that I am a Calvinist who believes in the ultimate perseverance of true Christians. But this does not give me a “get-out-of-jail-free” card with regard to this issue. I still have to deal with it from a human perspective of responsibility, even if I believe that God is in sovereign control of such things. In other words, the response, ”The reason why people leave the faith is because they were never truly called,” may be theologically true, but it is often not only unhelpful but it can be dismissive of our responsibility as Christians in the discharge of the Gospel and the understanding of seriousness of the problem that we face.
One other point of importance needs to be made. I understand that people leave the faith for other reasons besides those of an intellectual and theological nature. It is simply that in my experience and studies, I have found that these two factor in most predominately and form the basis for other reasons of departure.
Theological Reasons: Casualties by Friendly-Fire
Thesis: We have the tendency, left without theological discipleship and accountability, to make God into who we think he ought to be. When that version of him fails, it is not as if the true version has failed, but only the version we created. Therefore, we have not really left God in a proper sense, but we have left the God we made. Sure, this God may be called “Jesus” and he may have died on a cross for our sins, but, for some people, these form secondary characteristics that are not foundational.
The lack of theological discipleship in the Church has created casualties by friendly-fire.
Let me explain.
The “My will be done” type of God named “Jesus”
Imagine a person who finds God through some sort of deathbed experience. They may have been terminally ill and then they pray to God for the first time in their lives. Suddenly, they are healed. Based upon this, they accept a version of God who heals when trouble comes. Ask and you shall receive—according to your will. Their theology may allow for the name “Jesus”, the atonement for sins, and a belief that Christ is God, but they only believe this because God healed them. But what happens if they never grow with regards to their understanding of who God is, his sovereignty to take a life or to spare a life, the ultimate hope of the resurrection, and many other foundational theological issues? What happens when their spouse gets sick or their child has cancer and their version of God does not come to the rescue? Often, these will become disillusioned and skeptical of the God who brought about the previous miracle. If their belief in God is based on his healing intervention according to their will, then this belief no longer has a basis. Therefore, God no longer has a basis.
The personal promise maker God named “Jesus”
My mother went through a theological disillusionment when my sister Angie committed suicide four years ago. She wanted so badly to be assured that Angie was going to be okay and that the depression would not ultimately take her life, so she read the Bible the way that she wanted to read it. She found a passage that, in her mind, said Angie was not going to kill herself. It was in the Psalms. The problem was that this passage said nothing about Angie and gave no promises concerning her life. But my mother was determined enough to find a garuntee to alleviate her fear. She trusted in God and “Took him at his word.” When Angie did take her life, my mother was totally disillusioned with God. She never left Christianity, but there was a version of God that failed her. This version did not exist. God had made no such promises and was not obligated to fulfill promises never made.
The “I am primarily concerned about your success and stability” God named “Jesus”
This is a very common type of God today, especially with the health and wealth Gospel. The health and wealth Gospel essentially creates a God named “Jesus” who died on the cross, but who’s primary purpose in existence is to make sure all the bills are paid and everyone in your family is healthy, including you. Pain and suffering and financial troubles are a sign that you do not have enough faith. This type of God lives and breaths to make you successful and stable. Yet this is not the God of the Bible either. When you do suffer, when the bills cannot be paid, does God fail or simply your version of him?
The “I am about your glory” God named “Jesus”
Although this is a variation of the others, often we create God in such a way that he is concerned only about you and your temporal gain, whatever that may be. I see this often. Sadly, I have seen this from ministers who are being trained for ministry. It was about them and their success. It did not matter whether it was the success of their ministry or their overcoming temptation. God was about prioritizing their glory. When their glory was not attained, where do they go? Their verion of God failed and they seek glory elsewhere.
The “Jesus” who said the world was flat
There are also those who accept Christianity based upon false requirements for Christianity to be true. For example, there are some who believe and teach that inerrancy is essential to Christianity. Others believe that the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope is central to the Christian faith. Some believe and teach that true Christians will not ever struggle with homosexuality. And we all know the story of institutionalized Christianity who said that the world was flat and anathematized any who would dare to disagree. This form of legalism creates boundaries that are unbiblical and become part of the Christianity that people often accept. But what happens when a person does continue to struggle with homosexuality? What happens when they are convinced by a college professor that there is a historical error in the Bible? What happens when the Pope says something wrong? What happens when Galileo’s telescope indicates that the world is round? They can either surrender their intellectual integrity and believe according to these “Christian” boundaries, or they can find another option besides Christianity.
The problem is that these versions of Christianity do not represent true Christianity. If they leave, did they really leave Christ or the version that their bad theology provided.
My question is this: If we allow people to remain undiscipled “Christians,” what do we expect? Are we about making disciples or making converts? If we continue in the same vain, we should expect more disillusionment, more doubt, and more leavers.
We must teach people that God is God, his promises are his prerogative, and we do not dare add to his requirements for Christianity. We must get back to theological discipleship.
In summary, the church needs to look long and hard at its current Gospel discharge methods and see that the lack of intellectual viability presented and the bad theology allowed, form the bed that we have made. From a human perspecive, we may be suffering such loses due to friendly-fire. We need to make sure that if people are leaving Christianity, they are not doing so for all the wrong reasons.