Needing to Believe
Some years ago, when we were in our early 30s, my wife and I decided to quit our jobs and go into international missions. Or, if you are a life-long evangelical, we were called by God to go to the mission field. Most of our Christian friends thought our decision was thrilling.
But most of our friends in our workplaces thought we needed our heads examined. Take a 90% cut in pay to work in some obscure corner of the earth? Who does that? My boss even offered to give me a raise big enough that I could send someone else to take my place. They were even more puzzled when we told them that we had to raise donations to cover the cost of our work.
The process of “raising support” was interesting indeed. As we went from church to church and Christian home to Christian home we very quickly got used to the inquisition. We were repeatedly grilled to determine whether we had the correct theology to be worthy of their support. Often the questions were similar from church to church but we learned that many churches or even individuals had some pet peeves in theology. Our attitude toward dancing, card playing and consuming alcohol were questioned. One guy even asked me if I “supported the biblical position on mustaches.” Since he didn’t have a mustache I was pretty sure I knew what he thought that position was. Throughout the process there was a repeated theme that “you can’t be a Christian and believe (fill in the blank).”
Once we were out in Sri Lanka we found that new litmus questions kept popping up. Churches would write us and ask if we agreed with some newly published book we had not yet heard of. This was back in the 1980s when news and information travelled slowly to distant lands. Rarely a month went by in which we were not sent some new “you can’t be a Christian and believe” questionnaire. One church sent newly revised one every year.
This trend, where the changing gates of evangelicalism are vigilantly watched, still goes on today. This guy has helpfully given us a list of who is in and who is out in the evangelical tribe. Tomorrow I plan to go to an ordination council where 15 of us are going to pass judgment as to whether some guy is correct enough in his beliefs to be ordained by our denomination. After that there is another review up the line to decide whether the 15 of us were right. This is a denomination that has the word “Free” in its name and prides itself on allowing some latitude on beliefs. But it is clear that there are several non-creedal issues where it is assumed there is only one right answer.
There is no question that evangelicalism has a culture that is dogma-based rather than one that continually is open to re-examining of our faith. Yes, these dogmas come and go; people don’t worry about mustaches any more, but new ones crop up. Our culture is one that encourages us to keep our eyes half-closed lest we see something that causes us to question what we must believe. If you think that it just might be possible that the creation narrative does not require a literal six days then you have no right to say that you follow Jesus.
To be sure, we are not alone in this. If you are a liberal political advocate you can’t let yourself admit that there might actually be something to the idea of charter schools for example. You find yourself needing to cover your ears and hum when someone presents evidence that contradicts your beliefs. But, frankly, I don’t care if religious and political liberals are closed-minded. I am concerned that we evangelicals are not seen that way.
Evidence shows that the problem is not ignorance. There is no cause to call either conservatives or progressives stupid. The problem is that our identities are too often wrapped up in what we think we must believe in order to stay within the tribe and we know that the border guards of our faith are ever vigilant.
We are the followers of an all-wise, all-powerful God. If anybody in the world can stand calmly as our beliefs are questioned it should be us. If anyone can say that needing to alter my human understanding doesn’t for one second cause me to doubt my God it surely should be us.
I’ve been thinking that tomorrow, at the ordination council, I’d ask the question “How much of this 20-page doctrinal paper (Which by the way I think is a very good paper) do I need to believe in order to let you call me a brother in Christ?” But I suspect if I ask it I will be the one who is shown the door.