“Faith is supposed to be about God, not people”
I remember not too long ago being one of those people. You know the ones. The kind of Christian who can acknowledge that there are those who are leaving the church in anger. I would hear them point out the toxicity and the hurt they’ve experienced at the hands of those within evangelicalism. And my thought would always be the same, “You can’t base your faith on imperfect people who are sinners. They will always disappoint. You have to base your faith on God alone.”
I’d worry for them. I’d pray for them. I’d feel sad for what I saw as backsliding faith.
But I would also dismiss their pain and their concern without ever fully engaging in what they were trying to say. The narrative of my faith tradition taught me well to see anger, particularly when it’s addressed to God’s people, as a sign of sin. So that was all I could see.
Then a few years later I was humbled by being that person, filled with anger and hurt over personal experiences and the things I’d witnessed, who was walking out the door. I was done with evangelicalism.
I could hear the whispers trailing in my wake. They accused me of sitting in the sin of my anger. They accused me of basing my faith on imperfect sinners rather than God. Several even tried to reach out and push me towards repentance without really engaging in the actual issues that made me leave.
My leaving the tradition of evangelicalism was proof enough for them that my soul was sick with sin and that I needed to repent. The narratives of evangelicalism left them deaf to my cries. Just as it had left me deaf to others years before.
Here is what I never knew until I was in the position of having to leave: walking away from evangelicalism is not the same as walking away from God or or even Christianity.
Abraham Piper recently posted a video where he was addressing concerns that he holds his platform just to attack Christianity.
Piper states: “[Evangelicalism] is a destructive narrow-minded worldview. And one of the most narrow-minded aspects of it is that its adherents feel as if they are the entirety of Christianity rather than the tiny sliver that they are… Christianity is a big family. I’m just saying that one of the kids is being kind of a brat.”
That sounds harsh, particularly if one is currently in the tradition of evangelicalism. But he isn’t lying when he says that evangelical doctrine purports to be the only true form of Christianity. Or when he says that evangelicalism is deeply problematic.
The truth is that evangelicalism has done a *lot* of damage, particularly in recent history. We really only have to go back mere weeks in time to see the havoc that evangelical nationalism has wreaked on the USA, and the damage it continues to cause.
We don’t have to search very hard to find serious problems of (sexual) abuse that has been covered up by evangelical churches and institutions.
The amount of people in my generation and younger dealing with the trauma of the purity culture movement and doctrines of the end times should be of concern to every person within this tradition.
Perhaps the most shocking thing should not be that people are leaving and allowing ourselves to deconstruct the harmful doctrines we were told were God-breathed, but rather how anyone can listen to these stories time after time and remain part of that tradition.*
I know many people who lost faith, and that is no shock to me after I’ve heard their stories.
So when I hear people say, “your faith can’t be based on people.” It makes me wonder if they’re seriously paying attention to the harm that people have caused in the name of God. Because if these are the people who claim to speak for and represent God while actively hurting others? It sure as hell will have an impact on people’s faith. It’s ludicrous to suggest that it shouldn’t.
I left Evangelicalism. I Didn’t leave God.
For me, personally, I still believe in God and I love Jesus. But I am done with evangelicalism.
I walked away from a tradition, but I never walked away from God.
And where many evangelicals tend to get tripped up is when they confuse the idea of someone leaving their tradition for leaving God or Christianity. They are not one and the same.
Jesus did not start the evangelical church. Paul was not advocating for the raising up of evangelicalism.
On the contrary, Paul was quite adamant that loyalty to such divisions within Christianity were problematic:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.Galatians 3:26-29, NIV
My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”Is Christ divided?1 Corinthians 1:11-15, NIV
Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name.
If we are all truly sons and daughters of the Creator, that will not change when we change traditions. Can God only be found in Baptist churches? Or Presbyterian churches? Of course not.
That also means, by implication, that God can be found outside of the evangelical tradition as well.
How Did We Get Here?
So why do people find it hard to believe that I found God and healthy spirituality in mainline Christianity?
Well, to put it simply, authoritarianism is a divisive spirit. There is, certainly, more to it than this. But for now, let’s zero in on this angle.
Authoritarianism tells us that we must have hierarchy in our lives in order for our souls to be safe. So we choose people (usually White men) who appear to know what they’re talking about and we give them authority over our bodies, our minds, and our souls. We blindly (and it is truly blind) trust that God has anointed them with special discernment to be able to speak truth into our lives.
We are taught that these leaders are the only ones we can trust. We hand them platforms. We pay money to buy their books and attend their seminars. We loyally show up each Sunday to take our notes to learn. We have been turned into those who are always learning but never arriving at the truth. Spiritual development is often paused at the level of the child who always needs a parental figure to tell us where to go.
We are taught to distrust our own capability to think critically. We are taught to distrust our feelings. We are taught that sin has so completely stained our instincts that we can no longer listen to them, and so we choose sinful and fallible human beings to tell us how to live, what to think, and what to believe.
We are told through implication, if not directly, that to question these leaders or what they have taught us is equal to questioning God Himself. So we lose the ability to ask meaningful questions.
There’s so much fear within White conservative evangelicalism about treating one another as full human beings complete with feelings, thoughts, or agency of our own. To trust that we all have the same access to the Holy Spirit. To trust that just because our spiritual lives may look different, that doesn’t mean we’re any less saved.
Understanding “the other”
So, in that context, it makes sense when a member of the community begins to push back or even leaves, the assumptions are always going to fall to the negative. That person disagreed with the leaders. That person had the audacity to interpret Scripture in a way that wasn’t allowed. That person actually left the safe and protective covering of the community and its leadership. Why would they do that unless they were in a spiritual crisis or in sin?
It rarely ever occurs to those still within the community that perhaps this person has actually read the Bible and done their homework. It doesn’t seem likely to the evangelical that this person might actually be hearing from God and followed Truth out of that community.
Because the world outside of that community? Thats the big scary unknown. That’s where we were told the unbelievers reside. That’s where we were told the devil prowls and waits to devour us. That’s where we were told was unsafe territory. What kind of Christian would choose danger over the safety of our leaders’ protection?
Looking at the issue with these nuances, it’s easy to have compassion for the position that our evangelical friends and family are in. Of course they are afraid for those of us who ventured away. Their world has taught them that hellfire is waiting for us.
I would worry too if I still believed that Hell was a literal place of eternal damnation.
What does that mean for those deconstructing?
Does this mean that we, the deconstructing, need to endure the evangelising or the “coffee dates” meant to save our dying souls? Of course not. We need boundaries for our own healing and safety. For many of us who grew up in evangelicalism, that world was our home. Leaving it was traumatic. We have every right to do what we need to to create safe space that allows us to process and heal.
But we can also understand that many of the friends and family that we’ve left behind are grieving for us. We can acknowledge that they grieve for the relationship that has changed without warning or reasons that they can comprehend (until/unless they join us in the wilderness of deconstruction). We can acknowledge that they are afraid for us and for our salvation.
We can acknowledge that the feelings they are feeling are real and valid, even if the narratives that invited these feelings were not true. We can acknowledge that we aren’t the only ones hurting.
And we can hold firm boundaries.
If they are attempting to interact with us in harmful ways, we get to tell them, “I know you’re feeling these big emotions, but the way you are handling them isn’t appropriate.” We get to tell them to stop.
We get to hang up the phone or physically walk away from unhealthy conversations.
We get to distance ourselves from people who cannot respect the boundaries we’ve set. We even get to end those relationships if we have to.
We don’t have to make space to manage to emotions of others; that was never our job. We have enough emotions of our own to handle.
Deconstruction is just messy. For everyone.
Deconstruction is a messy process all around. It’s messy for those going through the process. It’s messy for the people left behind in our old faiths. It’s traumatic for so many people. And it is okay to acknowledge that its hard for all sides of this.
There are no quick or easy answers to any of it.
We just have to do the best we can to take care of our souls and our mental health as we feel our way through the mess.
*I must acknowledge here that the subculture of evangelicalism I grew up with (white conservative evangelicalism) does not form the whole picture of what evangelicalism looks like. I only speak of what I personally know.