Last week on Anderson Cooper's show, Elizabeth Esther spoke out against Michael Pearl, who advocates hitting children as young as two with plumbing pipe. Esther grew up in Christian fundamentalism, and previously used Pearl's teachings to raise her children. After several children died at the hands of Pearl-following parents, Esther now speaks out against these harmful practices.
A couple who follow Pearl also appeared on the show, and wrote about their appearance on The Christian Post. The language they used reminded me of the way many fundamentalists and evangelicals ensure a watertight, insular belief system. The couple quoted Pearl, who remarked:
The people who condemn biblical chastisement do not believe the Bible. They judge others by their own experience.
The couple also stated, "The only real issue is whether or not you agree with the biblical precepts that are given to us in the Book." Throwing down the gauntlet in this way is hostile to disagreement. Using the "biblical" label, Pearl and his followers equate his teachings to the very Word of God, so it becomes difficult for other professed Bible-believers to oppose him.
Elevating your interpretation to Scripture itself is only one rhetorical move employed by fundamentalists and evangelicals. Another common tactic is the persecution complex, which Christians often use together with "biblical" rhetoric. Believing you are a victim of a sinful majority is an excellent way to dismiss opponents:
[I]t is incredulous to believe something simply because a majority believes it. [...] Majority does not matter; only the Bible is our foundation and what it has to say.
Also noteworthy is the fact that the majority of the opposition does not come from those duly learned in Scriptures, but from mostly secular psychologist, child advocates (which are rarely biblical advocates), and liberal Christians who oppose a lot more conservative points of view on Christianity in general – know your source and research its roots!
Is this the “crowd” you truly want to be in line with? If the enemy, the world, and secular humanistic followers are against it – chances are fairly high that it’s the right place to be and the right principle to stand for.
Framing the issue this way makes disagreement dangerous. Equating an interpretation of the Bible with the Bible itself, and automatically portraying divergent beliefs as attacks from godless liberals, have formed evangelical identity. Thus, those who don't want to be alienated from a community they love face high stakes if they disagree.
Diverging from your church's core beliefs is often a scary, emotional experience. I have genuinely wondered if I'm going to hell, and whether my disagreement simply means I've been duped by the secular, sinful "culture at large."
David Rattigan, who has great resources on leaving fundamentalism and evangelicalism, shared an essay by P. James Bowen on leaving a watertight, insular faith, and I see much of these rhetorical moves at play. Bowen describes his departure as painful and lonely. In Bible college, he discovered Barth, Bultmann and Tillich. Although alienated from evangelicalism, he was reluctant to leave:
The shape of my faith was radically different from what it had been and there was no going back. But at the time I had no idea how much had changed, and the thought of leaving my evangelical home barely occurred to me. When it did, the thought terrified me. I still wanted to belong. No matter what I thought about charismatics and conservatives now, I still couldn’t bring myself to break away. I had always been one. They were my friends, my family. Where else was there?
Once Bowen accepted he no longer belonged in evangelicalism, he realized his disagreements were often not theological, but
a matter of personal identity. I had become, body and soul, a quite different type of person than the good people in that community. I still had a Christian faith. But the shape of that faith was, I finally realised, just too different from the shape of that community. I no longer belonged there. It took years to get from the changes that took place at Bible college to the day I finally left evangelicalism behind. It was a fight between my desire to belong and my inability to belong.
Many evangelicals (often unintentionally) view disagreement with evangelical beliefs as tantamount to heresy, because evangelicalism's identity has been grounded in unwavering "biblical" interpretations of Scripture and portraying dissenters as sneering liberals.
Although the past decade has shown much promise, there's still little wiggle room for us questioners, even for those like Bowen who have no theological qualms. As a questioner who has joined a local evangelical church again despite evangelicalism's troubling flaws, I hope to push against this insularity and create some wiggle room, because I know I'm not alone.
How, then, do I handle truth claims? I like Rattigan's approach in his FAQ section. He's not abandoning truth claims, but rather acknowledging that many beliefs "are open to being thrashed out, tested, verified, debated and evaluated."
When Rattigan makes theological claims, he's honest about their "tentative, provisional and subjective nature." He doesn't insist others accept his interpretation, "or that there will be divine consequences (i.e. punishment)" for those who disagree.
That evangelicalism's "big four," anti-abortion, anti-evolution, anti-homosexuality, and anti-environmental views, are actually identity-markers--rather than high-stakes "musts" that can't be separated from the gospel--is a freeing, healthy realization. There are no divine consequences if I don't toe the line. And many other beliefs, such as gender roles, pro-Republican views, pro-capitalism/consumerism, and pro-violence (including corporal punishment) are just as prominent as the big four in some circles. It's just as freeing to realize that not toeing the evangelical line on these issues will not condemn me to hell.