When I was a Christian, I believed the Creator of the universe brought together a library of 66 books on how He relates to humanity.
Whenever I opened the Bible I felt like warmth was emanating from its pages, and God was right there, perhaps reading over my shoulder, excited that this small human was attempting to catch a glimpse of the foundations of reality. Although parts seemed paradoxical or hard to understand, that was expected when engaging with a Being so much greater than myself.
As my faith unraveled in 2012, a friend asked, “What do you think it means to be a Christian?” and trying way too hard to prove something I said something like this:
To be a Christian would mean I believe I am a sinner, deserving of judgment, without hope for earning reconciliation with the one true God in three persons who created everything. Jesus, the second person of the trinity, came to earth as a baby born of a virgin, performed miracles, and died on a cross as a sacrifice to pay for my sins and rose from the grave.
Those who accept God’s gift will be indwelt by the Holy Spirit in this life, guided to a deeper personal relationship with God. To be in a personal relationship with God leads to transformation and living a life that moves towards what pleases God, not in order to earn God’s love but in response to securely experiencing God’s love, a process that continues into the afterlife. Those who do not accept God’s gift in this life will be eternally punished according to their deeds in a realm separated from His presence.
My friend added that being a Christian isn’t necessarily the same as believing a set of teachings.
Being vs Believing
Indeed, four years before that in 2008 I met a group who showed me what happens when one only grasps the latter. I was a freshman looking for a church. After attending church, Bible Talks, and hanging out with them for a month and a half, the Campus Minister met with me. On paper, his church’s stance is that no one is born again until they are a baptized disciple of Jesus. His view was different from mine, and I respected it and wrestled with the Bible verses he used for his case, years later, for example Acts 2:38. But his doctrine didn’t stop there.
Although he recognized I chose to be baptized in grade school to symbolize a greater commitment to Christ, loved Jesus, and was trying to follow Him, he said I was still going to hell. Based on conversations with other members and ex-members of the church after this, I figured out that the minister needed me to be baptized again, this time in a church like his, with the proper doctrine in my head, and in the heads of those around me, at the moment of my baptism, for God to be able to apply the work of the cross to my life.
He shared Matthew 7:21-23 to point out that not everyone is going to heaven who thinks they are, and that my church camp worship experiences might not assure me I’m saved. I pointed out to him that according to that passage, what gets you into heaven is not doing stuff but to KNOW Jesus.
GIF of Nacho Libre saying, “And they don’t think I know a buttload of crap about the gospel, but I do.”
If that was all, even that would have been fine with me in the sense that people are free to disagree. But his methods didn’t stop there. He really laid on the shame asking pointed questions about lust, made fun of me for not finding the book of Titus fast enough, and for not being able to prove my beliefs using the Bible right on the spot. At that point I wished I had brought my most worn-out study bible from Junior High with the Sermon on the Mount falling out instead the new one I was using! When it became clear I wasn’t going to change my mind in one session, he said,
“if you don’t figure this out soon, things will get awkward between you and your new friends. When you’re not around, they’re probably going to talk about how you’re not saved. I’m telling you this now instead of letting you discover it months later. There are other groups that may be a better fit.”
Hold on. His church believes that only the purest baptisms count, right? So why is he using fear of rejection as a strategy to motivate baptism? Wouldn’t a baptism produced by fear of rejection be illegitimate according to what he believes the Bible teaches?
So, there’s this group of people going around who say they believe only the purest of the pure baptisms count, and their ministers are making it harder for some people to have pure baptisms by muddying the waters with fear of rejection! Talk about straining out gnats and swallowing camels!
While I avoided the leader, I didn’t stop hanging out with members of the group right away. However, my attitude towards them quickly changed when I met former recruits and members who shared what happened to them. This wasn’t a fluke or misunderstanding, they have an international reputation for stuff like this, and worse, on many levels. Other colleges warned their students about groups like them.
Trying to Fix it
I was fortunate in that I was able to detect what was wrong with this group so quickly, and find a home in healthy Christian groups. In the healthy groups, we did what we could to mend the broken hearts this cult left behind. In my mind, I was trying to sort out why God wasn’t invading the unhealthy church to transform them, perhaps by reaching them through the Bible they studied. I met people who left Christianity entirely because of this group, and it was hard for me to see how this could fit into God’s plan. It disturbed my own faith a bit, and I had to work through it.
As a Resident Adviser in later years I made a bulletin board to equip students to recognize and overcome abusive recruitment tactics, because this group targeted and met in my dorm.
I knew saying “this list of churches is bad” wouldn’t work, because in their Bible Talks they prepare recruits to hear that. They say if you’re in a true church, maybe even your own family will criticize it, like Christ said in Matthew 10:34-36. This way, if someone says “your church is messed up,” new recruits will see it as evidence they’re on the right track.
This is a logical fallacy called Affirming the Consequent. It’s like seeing the sidewalk is wet, and declaring it must be raining, when in reality there’s a variety of ways the sidewalk could get wet.
At the beginning of the school year in September (maybe October) 2011, here’s what I told residents:
At many colleges, including this one, there are great groups and clubs. There are also High Pressure Groups that will use aggressive recruitment tactics as you transition into this exciting new chapter in your life. They can come in many forms. Most of them are Money-Making Ventures like pyramid schemes, or they are Religious.
Most groups about Finance are great, and most Religious groups are great, and if you choose to participate in them they will be a wonderful part of your college experience. Healthy groups are open, proud of who they are and won’t mind if you’re asking for information on their history, looking them up online, and taking seriously the opinions of friends and family back home. A high-pressure group targeted me when I was a freshman, but I did find that most other groups were healthy. So that’s why I share this.
I don’t offer this experience as a reason to doubt Christianity, but I think this is something important. In my next post, I’ll switch gears a bit and offer what I regard as the most clear contradiction in the entire Bible. A friend of mine got it tattooed.
My goal in this post though, was to give an idea of what sort of Christian I was. And so I’ll summarize what the two most important features of my faith were:
- The Bible is the inerrant word of God in its original form (some parts were discovered to be added later as footnotes indicate)
- Doctrinal details are important, and Knowing God personally and following Jesus’ example is more important.