Thursday, May 29, 2008

I Reject the Church of the Angry God

I have been on a journey the past few years that has resulted in the wholesale rejection of almost everything I grew up believing. I guess this post is the first time I have come out and said with clarity that I AM FREE! Like many of my readers, I grew up in a traditional, conservative Church of Christ. I reject that view of God, I reject that interpretation of the Bible, I reject all of their code words, I reject almost every point of doctrine, and I especially reject the blatantly dishonest mental gymnastics you have to go through to believe some of the most hurtful and nonsensical tests of "faithfulness." Larry James feels the same way, and because he says it better than I have, here is an article he wrote called, "The Church of the Angry God."

"It occurs to me that I haven't spent much time unpacking my theological roots, at least not in any systematic manner, at least not lately since I've moved in such a radically different direction over the past several years. For sure, I have spent many hours dislodging many specifics of the legalistic heritage I inherited from my West Texas farm family.

The strange, almost exotic emphasis on things like how to sing in church, the frequency of the Eucharistic celebration, the mode and meaning of baptism, the organizational details and glossary of the local church, the danger of being too cooperative with other congregations, the hard sell of a denomination that claimed it was non-denominational are all part of the list that goes on and on. And, when you stop to think it through, it includes some other really important matters - things like how to view women, how to treat members of other races, ethnic groups, and nations, the politics of war and peace, social justice and the poor - big ticket issues at home and around the world.

The truth is, I may have spent too much time on these issues in an attempt, both to make peace with my rather bizarre religious heritage and, at the same time, to reform it in some meaningful manner. Most likely, I could have avoided wasting so much time had I stepped back earlier for a longer, more comprehensive view of the theological system passed along to me from childhood. I also realize that to some extent, everyone could find such an exercise profitable. And, I expect almost everyone will find some aspects of their “theological inheritance” wanting.

But, I have mine with which to deal. I grew up in a church that was basically kind, welcoming and friendly - at least, that is how it seemed to me as a child. I later realized that this warmth was not necessarily shared automatically outside the church family. I also came to understand that, for the most part, the members of the church of my childhood were incredibly conservative socially and politically. In fact, many were extreme in their political and social worldview. If you are interested, I have stories! In reflecting on my positive feelings about the warmth of the church, I have come to realize that this was likely true because of the gracious soul of one minister in particular who shaped the spirit of the congregation for over a generation, even though he served for a relatively short tenure.

Back to the longer theological view - it is clear to me now that the community of faith of my childhood envisioned God to be fundamentally an angry deity. A God of judgment, punishment and severe actions was the God we attempted to satisfy on Sundays - morning and night, and then again at mid-week prayers and Bible study. Our concern for the details of salvation, church polity, worship style and religious exercises could all be traced back to this notion that God was a God who was defined and best understood as a deity seated on a throne of harsh judgment. Everything had to be just right or the God we served was bound to make it right at our eternal expense. From an early age I read, studied and memorized the details of the mighty acts of this avenging God. In an interesting twist of theological gymnastics, we spent a great deal of time reading the judgments and punishments of this God as revealed in the Hebrew Bible. At times, His judgments wiped out whole nations. At other times, His wrath focused on individuals or small groups who were somehow out of step with His law - the rules that could not be violated without great personal loss. Then, when we turned to deciding how to measure our faithfulness and acceptability as a church, we focused solely on the New Testament, with an emphasis on Acts of the Apostles as we searched for a “safe pattern” for our community. Ironically, we spent very little time focused on Jesus. We knew all about hell and eternal damnation - down to the sounds, smells and feelings. At one time or another, we all felt as if we were bound for the fire, only to be snatched out of the pit of suffering by completing a series of steps on our way to salvation. We learned quickly that salvation also involved “being faithful unto death” - a feat no one seemed sure how to accomplish. As a result, we threw ourselves into religious observances lined out by a clear pattern that had to be followed if we expected to reach the realms of eternal life. Our religion was defined almost completely by judgment - its single most important organizing paradigm.

Actually, this turned out to be very convenient for us. As most of us moved up into the middle class, we found that our religious system allowed us to escape the hard realities of the real world. We found it easy to ignore the American Civil Rights Movement, the War in Vietnam, poverty, injustice, racism, and countless other matters of here-and-now social importance. After all, we were faithful to the precise pattern we had learned in church and we were on the road to heaven, away from hell. We even sang with gusto that “this world is not my home, I'm just a passing through!” The paradigm of judgment insured our complete irrelevance as a people in and to our community. It is this perspective defined by judgment that I have spent the last 30 years or more casting aside."

AMEN brother!


Mark said...

"Reject" - that's some strong and provotactive words...

Give me some clarification... what haven't you rejected?


Charles North said...

Excellent question Mark. Inevitably, someone will say, "then why don't you just leave Churches of Christ?" Here's why: I still cling to the original restoration plea - that our movement has been a voice of hope and unity. We have always said that if people will submit themselves to the authority of scripture, Christians can be united despite great diversity. Though hope has at times been challenged by bitter sectarianism and legalism, it has never died. I do NOT reject faith, hope, love, grace, and striving for unity. These are also things I learned in Churches of Christ.

Charles North said...

Let me clarify even further - what I reject is the fear of judgement as a motivation. One's view of God influences everything.

jenn said...

My family and other members of the Church of Christ have tried for years to "brainwash" me. I grew up believing, as Larry James did, that the Church of Christ was a very warm and loving group of members striving to be like Christ and that there was/is no other church denomination that will get me to heaven.

I long for the day when I do not feel the pressure from my family to attend a conservative Church of Christ. I long for a day when I can worship Christ in a way that I feel is fit for me, not because my family says "this is how we do things." I believe that God is love! Not just a punisher of wrong doing. I'm sorry, but I do interpret the Bible differently than how my parents, other family members, and some friends do. But that does not make any of us wrong in our beliefs.

Is it too much to ask to attend a church where people don't judge you for every little thing? We are all human...we make mistakes! If the members of churches of Christ are "the only ones going to heaven" shouldn't they also be the most loving and forgiving? Is it too much to ask for a church where the people are truly genuine? As of now, it seems it is for me.

I, too, long for the day to shout out "I AM FREE!"

J.R. said...

I agree. I am developing a theory similar to Fight Club. Once I have the basic structure down you can check it out, but the gist is that we all have a place to go to be loved encouraged and held accountable. When I say accountable, I don't mean beaten about the head and shoulders but more of a loving arms, pick you up and dust you off kind. Just look for the Christian Fight Club post.

This is good stuff Charles, keep digging I think we are starting to see gold!

Mark said...

Amen to the hope and unity! Boo scary legalists!

Just do a quick flip through your New Testament and see how many times the writers talk about oneness and unity versus how much time they spend talking about many of the things we split hairs over.

There are things that the churches of Christ practice and hold as doctrine that I really believe are scriptural. The idea of the essentialness of baptism is one of them. But some of the other doctrine like the "silence of the scriptures" doctrine is hard for me to swallow anymore.

What I wish is that we could just be honest about things. On a subject like the Lord's Supper, why can't we say that it is our TRADITION to take it every Sunday morning because the examples we see in the new testament and in the practices of the early church seem to show a similar pattern. Why do we have to go as far as to say, "this example is binding!"

I do worry that we may over react and the pendulum will swing too far into the "anything goes" side.

Kerrie said...

I guess it goes back the unspoken view traditionally held by most Churches of Christ that our salvation and identity are grounded in the degree of perfection in our beliefs/actions/interpretation of scripture and how those are expressed rather than in Christ's love for us shown through his death and resurection.

I cut my own mental ties to that philosophy several years ago but remained fairly quiet about it just to keep peace and not cause disunity. But I'm wondering if being unified at the expense of missing the heart of the gospel and our purpose on this earth isnt't a much greater problem.

I think you do a great job of balancing out the pendulum, at least on Charle's blog, so we liberals don't swing too far to the "anything goes" side!

Charles North said...

The Lord's Supper is one of those areas. I think it is the most important part of our worship, if not identity as Christians. But so often I have heard the verse about "examining" yourself, and if you eat in an "unworthy manner" you bring "judgement" on yourself. So as I child I saw people closing their eyes and thinking about blood, pain, and gore. I also saw people refuse to take the bread because they were guilty of some unrepentant sin that week. That is the kind of fear-based devotion I reject. You have to remove that lens to interpret 1st Corinthians properly.

On the same note, I love that we do communion weekly, but the scriptural evidence that this is required is flimsy. In Acts we read of Christians taking communion daily, on Sundays, even on Monday. The church did not have a uniform practice of taking communion until well into the 4th century.

The Stringers said...

As we are looking for a church here in San Antonio, we are truly confronted with these issues on a weekly basis. We have really had to separate "tradition" from "doctrine" - in fact I'd say we're having a hard time deciding what even the basics are. Obviously, most of the things we choose to do in the CofC are merely tradition, but the New Testament does talk about worship a good bit so I'm hesitant to go with the "anything goes" attitude either. I think I have learned that it's okay to choose to go to a church with traditions you like - as long as you acknowledge that that's what they are. For example, we've visited several non-denominational churches down here and I've come to realize something -I can't worship when someone is playing a bongo. Just can't do it. Instruments fine, bongo and tribal music, No. More power to 'em.
I don't like taking communion on less than a weekly basis because it's very meaningful to me, however, quickly passing a tray on Sundays isn't what I envision either.
We have visited everything from conservative Church of Christ (when we walked in we literally wanted to turn right around and leave. You could just feel it in the air) to what my mother deems "drive-through manna." Come, feel good about yourself, God is love and he wants nothing more than your happiness churches. I feel like I'm rambling here, so I'll wrap up.

Where's the middle ground?


Mark said...

The middle ground starts with us...

Keep on looking! When my family lived in Tacoma, we started attending a prominent Church of Christ there. We even had placed membership. As we spent more time, I began to realize just how legalistic things were. They still believed that a suit and tie was the only appropriate attire for Sunday morning... (that was the tip of the iceberg...)

We decided to find another church home. However, in the NW there are not alot of choices. There was a Christian church not far from our house. I sought some advice from an old friend and we visited the Christian church. You know what... they still baptize for "the remission of sins." They still take communion every week. In so many ways, they believed the same doctrines that I grew up with. The only marked difference was the use of instrumental music in the worship.

We visited there for several weeks and even spent some time talking to the preacher and some of the eldership. I am happy to call these people my brothers and sisters... what an eye opening experience.

We did end up finding a small 100 person congregation and I ended up teaching the teen class and helping organize youth group events. (yes... there were about 10 kids)

The point of the story is don't get discouraged, it may take a while for you to find the place where you can get plugged in. The journey to the right congregation may even be a real growth experience.

David said...

This is not a big revelation into this discussion but I am perfectly fine with doing certain things becuase of church tradition and not necessarily because of Scriptural "examples" or references. Church tradition is important. Tradition dictated many reasons why the church did what it did such as Church on Sundays rather than on Sabbath, the importance of Communion, etc. This along with key doctrinal positions is called the "rule of faith" and it was actually the "rule of faith" as well as what the churches were already using that helped the church form what became solidified as the NT canon in the middle of the forth century.