A REAL PROBLEM IN THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH
by Rev. Dr. Robert R. LaRochelle
To be honest with you, my original intent in writing this article was to do a followup look at the visit of Pope Francis to the United States. I was planning to look at Catholicism and Protestantism in relation to one another at this point nearly 500 years after the onset of the Reformation. As many readers of this page know, I have written extensively about Protestant- Catholic relations in three different books published by Energion: my autobiographically based Crossing the Street, as well as the Topical Line Drives titles What Roman Catholics Need to know about Protestants and What Protestants Need to know about Roman Catholics.
As part of this post, I intended to reflect upon the lingering anti-Catholicism that exists within some pockets of Protestant Christianity. Yet, upon further reflection and based upon my reading of several posts and discussions in this space over the last couple of months, I have concluded that there is something even more problematic within the Christian church.
Christian FUNDAMENTALISM and its partner BIBLICAL LITERALISM continue to be real problems within the Christian community. Through their assertions, those espousing the fundamentalist, literalist approach to the Bible render dialogue difficult within the Christian community and the opportunity for healthy interfaith relationships essentially nil.
Fundamentalism is marked by the age old conviction that, in reading the Bible, we should be governed by the principle that, in effect, God said it, we believe it and that’s final! Now, while it might be nice if religious faith were as simple as that, we know that it is not. We understand that the Bible often contradicts itself in both facts and theology, i.e., there are different views of God and God’s activity within the Bible. Also there are moral issues which are problematic, e.g., some passages which are used to defend slavery, segregation and the subjugation of women. Then there is the assertion that there is absolute moral authority found in the Bible as applicable to each and every contemporary social issue we face, most recently evidenced in debates about gay rights.
Literally interpreted Biblical Christianity points us in the direction of espousing a God who is too small, a God in whose eternal presence we will bask ONLY if we assert faith in Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior. Extreme Fundamentalism renders the faith of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus inadequate in terms of the attainment of salvation. It renders the path to everlasting life as lacking depth or substance. In my book A Home United, also published by Energion, I affirm the importance of love in the relationships/marriages of those from different perspectives, a love grounded in God’s love for us. Biblical Fundamentalists would disparage that claim- and I think that is a problem. It is the transcendent love of a God who transcends all that has both created and sustained humanity, the world and this universe in which we all reside. It is this love which is the true ground of our very being!
Fundamentalists have defended some of the most abhorrent practices in the life of our nation- and they continue to do so. They have made serious ecumenical and interfaith dialogue less possible than it ought to be.
As a starting point for discussion, I suggest a serious reading of John Shelby Spong’s book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. If you read it or have read it, I would welcome your comments here as well as anything you have to say about this post.
THANKS for giving this topic some thought!!………………
The idea that every faith is a valid attempt to get to God is not biblical and certainly not Christian. To assert that someone must hold to a small view of God if they espouse exclusivism (the only way to be saved is through Jesus) is naive. In fact, you must then assert that Jesus, who was God in the flesh, had a narrow view of God because he said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Attempting to be inclusive when the Bible is exclusive does no favors to anyone. It actually creates the context where people who know the truth (Jesus is the only way) are timid in proclaiming it for fear of being “intolerant.” I’m ok with being labeled intolerant because to sit on the truth is damnable for those who are perishing apart from Christ.
Please accept these questions as asked in a spirit of honest inquiry. I think they are challenging ones and I don’t ask them to fan the flames of religious differences:
I am wondering…………..
1. Do you really believe that a good, faithful Jew who seeks, for example, to be a loving spouse and father, is going to be damned for eternity because he/she has not ‘accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior.’?
2. By what criteria do you determine the infallibility of the Bible? Is it because the Bible says so?
3. Do you really believe that God had a plan to make everything perfectly clear as expressed in the Bible?
What I would say with respect to my own questions is as follows:
1. There is wisdom in Jesus’ words that ( paraphrase not all who say’ Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom but rather the one who does the Will of His Father….I think there are Jews and Muslims and many, many others who do live lives seeking to do what is right, i.e. God’s Will
2. When I was a teenager, I appreciated the words of a wise Episcopal priest who told me that in some churches there is a danger of making an idol out of Mary while in others, a danger of doing the same to the Bible i.e. treating it as if it were delivered directly by God
3. I am not so sure God ‘sees’ the Bible in the same way many Bible beievers do…..Not so certain Go d sees it as having dropped down to us from above….
These are real differences, for sure, on the intellectual level and in terms of how we develop faith. What troubles me most, in light of such tragedies as the Holocaust, is how one can say that a faithful person might be sent to the gas chambers of Nazi Germany and is then destined for eternal fire because he/she is trying to serve God as a good Jew?
I can’t make moral sense out of that argument, honestly…..but it is where Fundamentalism has taken much of the church…..sad…
NOTE: I meant father or mother
I think your assumption is that whenever we read a saying of Jesus, it means LITERALLY what we read in print. What needs to be taken into account are the different theologies in the different Gospel and the historical contexts in which they are written. I know that comes across to a Fundamentalist as ‘not accepting the Bible’ I am just saying that the Bible is not as simple as Fundamentalists make it out to be. I also believe God reveals God’s self in the Bible—as well as in creation, the world and the life of persons, inside and outside ‘the church’
Michael, you are a good pastor and an honorable man. I respect your commitment to your notion of Christianity. I know you will take exception to my use of the word “notion,” but that is what it is: one way of reading the Bible among others. I do prefer my non-exclusivist understanding, but understand it to be just that–my understanding.
We have lost whole generations of people who are turned off by such exclusivist Christian claims. “My way or the highway” only works for a certain kind of mindset.
I could appeal to my own set of proof-texts to make my case, but will limit myself to just one, the judgment scene of Matthew 25. How do you account for those “anonymous Christians” who were received by Jesus, yet did not know they were his followers?
You will likely respond with a well-crafted argument to dismiss my reading. That’s just my point–you have your reading and I have mine. I ask you, how can we live together in this world with our differences and not be equal in Christ regardless of our points of view?
Matthew 25 is focused on the works of true believers (those who have authentic faith in Jesus). Authentic Christians will be known by their fruit (Ephesians 2:10).
Yes, I recognize that you may read that passage differently but you must acknowledge that there is only one true reading. You may think I don’t have it and I may think you don’t have it but the reality is that there is one reading that is accurate. Truth is not relative.
Historic Christianity has always set forth the truth that the only way to be saved is through Jesus…primarily because that is what he said himself. Which means those who propose multiple ways to the Father may be very spiritual but they are not Christian. I’m more than willing to work with spiritually minded people on humanitarian efforts but, clearly, we will disagree when it comes to evangelism.
My advice then would be for a person who believes their are multiple ways to the Father to call themselves spiritual and not Christian. Historic Christianity has always been exclusivistic.
I will acknowledge that there is one true meaning, but I must also acknowledge that not one of us will ever attain it. Not you, or me. We are finite creatures who cannot hold the infinite. Absolutes are not in our realm of apprehending. Even Peter, who uttered what most Christians believe to be the sine qua non of truth (“You are the Christ….”), didn’t understand what he said.
This is not relativism, it is reality. Given this, it behooves us to humble ourselves before the Truth and each other. Those who know only think they know.
Your insistence that the whole world come to your understanding is exactly what is wrong in our world today. You pit yourself against all others. All others are forced to pit themselves against you. If this is what Jesus had in mind for how to love the world, and especially our enemies, it’s a strange way to love–we forsake being servants and insist on being masters.
I think that one who seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus and to be Jesus’ disciple may quite legitimately call oneself Christian while still believing others may attain ‘heaven’ who happen not to be.
One of the sad effects of Fundamentalism has been how ready many are to simply deem others as ‘ not Christian’. Just look at the way some people define ‘ Christian colleges’, excluding from their listings schools with Christian affiliations, usually Catholic or mainline Protestant, that do not meet the conservative Christian criteria.
I am grateful for the many who have been raised in conservative, often Fundamentalist, Christianity, who have developed a more inclusive evangelical perspective.
I am with you on working with all on humanitarian efforts, even where there are theological differences!
Matthew 25 is focused on the nations. It is not focused ‘on the works of true believers’.
The nations are separated on the basis of their works (25:31-46). Authentic believers will be known by their fruit.
Thanks to you, Dr LaRochelle, for the post. Shelby Spong was among many voices I read in my middle years. I don’t find his writing accurate or his arguments getting to the crux of the matters at hand. I am not a fundamentalist though I have been there as part of my journey.
What is the critical thing? The more I read, the more I think the critical thing is our ability, as humans, to govern ourselves – to assume the role we are given in Genesis 1 and Psalms 8 and 144 and Job. I would put it around a single word for purposes of the social problem and that is the Hebrew יכח. Ticciati in her book on Job (Job and the Disruption of Identity) does an admirable job of teasing out the sense of this word. We find it also in Isaiah 1:18 – come now, let us referee together. Following Ticciati, I chose the gloss referee for my reading. Job refuses to take the role, Elihu approaches, ultimately God must do the job of referee. Christians believe this role to have been fulfilled by Jesus, and the problem of human inability and refusal to govern to have been sufficiently explored and presented in the Old Testament.
It will not do to refuse to govern.
The Bible is an important source book for the human approach to and admission of its own problems and failures. The way we have been shown in Jesus is indeed the only way: that is to give our lives for the life of the world. But this ‘only’ way does not exclude ‘the other’. And it does not require anyone to become ‘Christian’. God shows no favoritism. (Acts 10:24-25)
When required, Jesus preserved and protected himself and his disciples. When called, he gave his life for the life of the world as did his followers. So also a refugee father gives his life for his family, the world that he knows. So also a mother gives her life for her children, the world that she knows. Even a child unknowingly may have give its life for the life of others.
How then do we perceive our call? It may not be that we have do to the impossible (as they have done). We do not have such trials but we may have to open our hearts and lives and wallets to someone we are afraid of or prejudiced against. That’s a tough call. But if we are so called, this is what we must learn to do with love.
Thanks, Bob. I appreciate your comments. FYI, I am not advising that one accept Spong hook, line and sinker. By the way, I heard him lecture in person a couple of weeks ago and was deeply impressed but also tend to come at many issues differently.
Having said that, I find the book I cited as a great resource for helping people start asking really good questions about the Bible…
Is it possible for Fundamentalist and non Fundamentalist Christians to find common ground as Christians? I hope so…
As you might expect, I disagree with most of your post and you touch on so many issues, it is impossible to really respond in any details. However there seems to be an underlying premise to your position that we cannot really know what the Bible teaches, and if I followed the flow of the comments correctly, you agreed with Steve’s comment that “Absolutes are not in our realm of apprehending… This is not relativism, it is reality. Given this, it behooves us to humble ourselves before the Truth and each other. Those who know only think they know.” I apologize in advance if this is not your view.
Yet, you write, “Christian FUNDAMENTALISM and its partner BIBLICAL LITERALISM continue to be real problems within the Christian community.” This is an absolute. Given the underlying premises, how can you know this? Why isn’t Biblical literalism just another equally valid view? Of course what I am pointing out is a fundamental problem with most relativist views. Relativists frequently want relativism to apply selectively. There are no truths, except of course for the ones they think are important.
As a side note, I heard Spong interview several years ago, after he had written the Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. He made a comment that the Gospel of John was anti-sematic and when challenged on it said he did not now any scholars who would hold otherwise, at which point he lost all credibility. It is one thing to say he disagrees with scholars who differ, it is quite another to be ignorant of them on such a key issue.
Finally, I would be interested in your definition of a Fundamentalism and Biblical Literalism. I ask because, I consider myself to be an evangelical, not a fundamentalist, nor would I consider myself to be a literalist. But the number and impact of fundamentalist is small. I find often people will say fundamentalist while speaking of evangelicals. Thus my question.
Thank you for contribution. While we usually find ourselves on opposite sides of the issues discussed here, I find you to be very scholarly and thoughtful, as well as deeply sincere and committed to being a faithful disciple of Jesus.
I hope what I write here will answer your questions:
1. When I think of a Fundamentalist and look back on the history of the movement, where I focus is in how Fundamentalists view Biblical inerrancy and inspiration. I see the term Evangelical as more centered on the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of one’s life. Having said this, I acknowledge that I am more inclusive with the word ‘evangelical’ than many conservative Christian evangelicals these days. I would focus on the recognition of the
church as evangelical in mainline Lutheranism and the United Church of Christ. Many evangelicals in conservative denominations would quarrel with that.
2. I do not agree with all of John Shelby Spong’s work, much as I do admire his contribution to American Christianity. To be honest with you, Elgin, I could cite several examples of my differences. There is certainly better research on John’s Gospel than he provides. Having said this, I DO like the book I cited and find it to be a helpful resource in discussing issues such as these.
3. I also agree with Steve. I believe that we all see ‘dimly now’ and one day we shall’ see face to face’ ( I Cor 13,as we both know). My critique of Fundamentalism and its accompanying Literalism is that there is too much coziness in those perspectives with the claim that those who espouse their views possess the real truth.
I am more inclined to say that I really don’t know the answer to some of life’s greatest questions—-BUT I believe in God, the one who creates, the one who redeems and the one who sustains. I beleve passionately in Jesus and urge all to take a hard look at what He taught and stood for. I am troubled that witha ll our doctrinal fights, we as church have all too often missed what Jesus has to teach us… On this earthly journey, I walk by faith, with limited sight….
Thanks again, Elgin…
Elgin, there is a world of difference between knowing absolutely and having a certain belief or understanding. Yes, we cannot know anything, even the Bible truths, absolutely, but we can come to certain understandings, understandings that need to be examined for their usefulness and/or intrinsic value. When Bob said, “Christian FUNDAMENTALISM and its partner BIBLICAL LITERALISM continue to be real problems within the Christian community,” he was sharing his understanding. Given your definition of “absolute,” all propositional statements would be absolutes, which is obviously false.
This realization does force us into a relative world. Statements are relatively true compared to ultimate truth, which since the time of Plato is elusive. (Even for the apostle Paul, as Bob noted.) This does not mean that we cannot derive important understandings and values in our limited apprehensions, but it does mean that we are not entitled to claim absolute truth and demand all others agree or live in error.
In looking over the variety of responses to this post, I find that a central question is this, not just for those who have contributed but for anyone who might read what is written here—
Do you believe one HAS to be a Christian tolive in heaven for eternity? Of course, this raises specific questions, as I noted in previous posts. How one answers that question has all kinds of implications for the work of the church.
Related note: While I would NOT answer yes, I am pleased to affirm all that is taught about Jesus as expressed in the historic creeds of the universal church. I affirm Jesus as Savior of my life. At the same time, I affirm that God works in many ways in the experiences of peoples’ lives and in the ways they appraoch the ultimate mysteries of life!
When it comes to being forced into a relative world, I think our difference may be more semantic than actual. I would agree that no one has all the truth, but then I do not know any who would make such a claim, and as I have written before while I believe the Bible to be inerrant, that belief does not extend to my understanding of the Bible. I also agree that we can “derive important understandings and values in our limited apprehensions.”
Where I begin to disagree is that I see very little difference between a fundamentalist saying those who disagree are wrong, and a liberal who says that fundamentalists are wrong; between saying “Christian FUNDAMENTALISM and its partner BIBLICAL LITERALISM continue to be real problems within the Christian community” and “The Bible teaches X.” Sure we could be more accurate by prefacing all of our statements with “I believe” but would become cumbersome.
More importantly there is a log vs splinter issue here. It is mostly the left that is not only saying those who differ are wrong, but taking actions to try and ruin their lives. I will take a fundamentalist saying I am going to hell any day over the left that would seek to get me fired, fined thousands of dollars, etc. The real threat to free speech and open exchange today does not come from fundamentalist but from the left.
True, no one would say they have “all the truth.” But they say that the Bible has all the truth. The problem arises when they equate what they think the Bible says (their interpretation) with ultimate truth. Then they insist that all must agree, because “the bible says….”
Such statements as, “Christian FUNDAMENTALISM and its partner BIBLICAL LITERALISM continue to be real problems within the Christian community,” taken in isolation, make your point. But, it is a qualified statement, even as you ask of us all, by the immediately following sentence: “Through their assertions, those espousing the fundamentalist, literalist approach to the Bible render dialogue difficult within the Christian community and the opportunity for healthy interfaith relationships essentially nil.” Having had innumerable conversations with people who are convinced of the literal meaning as the true and only meaning, Bob hit the nail on the head. Dialogue requires being open to another. Fundamental literalists are only open to their views.
As for there being little difference between conservative and liberal attitudes, the right would take oppressive actions should they take power. Gays would not be tolerated, the safety net would largely disappear, minorities would lose their protections (affirmative action, etc.), and guns would proliferate, just to name a few. Talk about ruining people’s lives! Of course, this greatly alarms me, but may be pleasing to conservatives. I would prefer the oppressive acts of the left (if that’s what in fact they are) over these any day.
Both fundamentalist, liberals, and pretty much everyone else for that matter, argues for what they believe to be right for a whole range of reasons and justifications. I guess my problem is that in terms of attitude, I don’t see much difference between the fundamentalist and those on the left who are just as closed to dialogue because they see any disagreement as hate speech. Clearly you, Bob, and the others on this forum do not fall into the category, but it is a major factor on many college campuses and a recent poll I saw said that support for free speech has fallen below 50% among students.
You are perhaps correct that “the right would take oppressive actions should they take power” though I would certainly disagree with the characterization on your list and/or that they would be oppressive. But it is the left that is in power and they are using that power to suppress disagreement. In addition in those places that the right is dominate you do not see the same thing but in reverse. You do not, for example, see speech codes that label liberal ideas as impermissible.
I would also point out that the right is far more tolerant of the left, then the left is tolerant of the right. Again compare how Bernie Sanders was treated at Liberty University. In contrast, conservatives are rarely invited to speak at liberal universities, often have to have their invitations cancelled when they do speak, their speeches are disrupted and they need to have body guards.
In addition, there are two key factors that would limit any oppression by the right. First, the right strongly believes in the freedom of speech, and the other freedoms in the Bill of rights. Second, the right believes in limited government, and thus is limited in its ability to be oppressive.
The simple fact is that the left is becoming increasing intolerant of any dissent and they are in power and have the ability to do something about it. Personally I think this is because their ideas are failing. It is just a coincidence that the cities and states dominated by the left are doing so poorly? They are reacting by trying to blame others and thus suppress them. But whatever the reason, the left is growing increasingly intolerant and oppressive.
The left is far more prone to oppression because they do not value free speech, at least not over their agenda, and they believe in a large government that has the ability to do the oppression. Thus the proliferation of speech codes, and codes of conduct that mirco-manage human interact far beyond anything the right would ever even dream of.
Say what you want about “the bible says…” but it is fundamentally an attempt at persuasion. I prefer this far more than the tactics of the left where a misstep can cost you your job, get you fined thousands of dollars, or get protesters at your front door screaming at your family. These are not acts of persuasion, but acts of intimidation. The closest you can get to with the fundamentalist is the threat of hell. But if you do not believe the fundamentalist, such a threat has no meaning. The threat presented by the left is both very real and much more immediate. You cannot just ignore suddenly losing your job.
Concerning your specific question, “Do you believe one HAS to be a Christian to live in heaven for eternity?” The ONLY way into heaven is by the death burial and resurrection of Jesus. As for does someone have to be a Christian to go to heaven, that also is easy. No. None of the Old Testament Saints were Christians, but they still got into heaven through Jesus’ sacrifice. As for those in other faiths today. I believe God is just, and he will take everything into account. For the classic problem of those who have never heard of Christ, I believe they are in basically in the same position as those in the OT.
As for those who have “heard” of Jesus, for me it comes down to the question can someone accept Jesus, and reject Jesus at the same time. A lot of this will depend on what they have heard. None of us really knows Jesus and much of the Christian walk is coming into a better understanding of and relationship with Jesus. Nor do I believe that getting into heaven requires passing a test on theology.
People’s lives are complex and we are all influenced by a number of factors. Some, for example, have a knowledge of Christ shaped by false notions presented by either critics, or misguided Christians, or even by those who claimed to be Christian but were not. Thus if they reject this false notion of Jesus, are they really rejecting Jesus? I would say no. Of course this still leaves their relation to the true God in doubt.
But the bottom line for me is that this comes down to a matter of the heart, and only God knows the heart. So I am quite willing to proclaim that Jesus is the only means of salvation and that to truly serve God one should be a Christian. But as for the fate of others, I leave that to God. At times there are clear factors that would allow me to make a good guess, for I believe the passage is applicable that by their fruits you shall know them.
Thus I do not have much doubt about the fate of some. I think Hitler’s fate is pretty easy to guess. Suicide bombers who kill in the name of Allah are, at least to me, a clear cut case. (Note this would not include those who are force into being suicide bombers) But I would not say that of all Muslims, or even those in other religions, for as the saying goes, that is above my paid grade.
Thanks, Elgin…I am in a time crunch right now, but I am grateful for your thorough answer- and for your deep love of God. That certainly comes through!
Unless we post again, a blessed Thanksgiving to you and yours…
I am heading out for dinner with my kids, and thus it may be several days before I can check back. My you and yours have a blessed Thanksgiving for we all have much to be thankful for.
The same goes for Steve and for all here.
Elgin, there is hope for you yet 😉
After reading how you labor to understand the fate of all others, I’m so glad to be relieved of all that, as I do not believe in eternal damnation. Having to weigh “fruits” for me is an assessment of one’s value here and now, not about qualifying for an afterlife.
Dualism as translated into God versus Satan is possibly the largest contributor to the problems to the world. We are forced to take sides and make enemies. Shalom will never be realized as long as the world functions on that level. BTW, Shalom as a concept is articulated in the Old Testament for which dualism is a foreign concept.
I sure hope so 🙂
I do believe in eternal damnation. Not just because it is, I believe, taught in the Bible, but because I believe that God is a just god as much as he is love. I have a lot of trouble with the idea that Hitler would share the same fate as the 12 million he sent to the gas chamber, or that Stalin or Mao the same fate as the tens of millions they each murdered. Thus I would much rather labor to understand how a good Muslim, Buddhist, etc. could still go to heaven than labor to understand how a Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. would share the same fate as their victims.
To be clear, I do not believe that fruits in any way determines our ultimate destiny. We are saved by faith through grace, not of works. Our works are a byproduct. If the Holy Spirit is truly working through us, it will have some effect. It is not a matter of a standard, or particular acts, but direction. Thus, I can see (or not see) the Holy Spirit working in a person’s life and this gives me some indication as to their destiny.
As for the greatest problems in the world, I would say it is sin, i.e., our rebellious nature that puts ourselves above all else and particularly God.
When it comes to dualism and taking sides, I am again puzzled, as I frequently see the left arguing we should take sides. We should side with the poor and the oppressed. We should side with the 99% over the 1%. Black lives matter as opposed to All lives matter. The left seem, from my point of view, grounded identity politics where people are put into groups and pitted against each other. This is so much so that many on the left have a difficult time understanding how a lot of these categories are irrelevant to the right which is more ideas based.
On the other hand I do believe in good vs evil, but I apply this more to actions and ideas, as opposed to individuals or groups, except when the evil actions and/or ideas comes to define the person. Thus I have no question in my mind that Nazism is evil, and in that light Hitler was evil. I am less likely to say that all Nazi’s were evil, and certainly would not say that all Germans were evil. In today’s terms, all Muslims are certainly not evil. Those radical Islamists who go into a town, kill all the males and older women, strip all the remaining women and line them up for assessments of thier bodies to be parceled out to the fighter and/or sold as sex slaves are evil and I have no problem siding against them.
Ultimately, I do accept a form of dualism. I agree with Victor Frankel’s view that there are only two races of people, the decent and indecent and that these can be found among all groups.