Christianity… so many ways of being Christian, so many ways of claiming that name, so many fences.
I grew up in a mainline church, pretty typical for the denomination — Presbyterian, PC(USA). I learned Bible stories as moral tales, along the lines of fables or Little Golden Books. This Christianity was about being good in some broad generic way, couched in particular language but not seeming to depend much on that particular context.
I came to personal faith in that church, thanks to youth group staff and events and starting to read the Bible for myself and talk to people about stuff. And, casting around for other people who actually believed stuff (people in church just seemed to talk it without thinking about it or caring much or even knowing all that much), I mostly found believers in somewhat fundamentalist circles. I was unaware of that terminology; all I knew was that these folks were vibrant believers who cared about what we believed and tried to live it out. In my desire to be faithful and true in my belief and life, I absorbed pretty much everything from these circles — literalism, a bit of creationism, premillenialism, and a sense that the mainlines, the liberal denominations — the only other Christians I really knew about — were not really believers.
I attended an unusual Pentecostal church during the first three years of college. It was Pentecostal because they believed in the continuation of the more spectacular and miraculous spiritual gifts and in a distinct and tongues-evidenced baptism of the Holy Spirit. It was unusual (if I understand rightly) in that the Bible was held — practically as well as theoretically — as more foundational, more important, more normative, than any ecstatic experientialism. And while people did dance (in place) and raise their hands and call out “amen” and pray and sing in tongues and lead out hymns and songs, the pastor was soft-spoken and not given to dramatics. I studied the Holy Spirit and his baptism and gifts quite a bit during these years, but was unpersuaded. Still — I felt that these folks were sincere and faithful in their belief and practice, and that even if what they were doing was not quite what the Bible described, it didn’t seem sinful, and it was certainly not intentionally deceptive, manipulative, or artificial.
I discovered the conservative Presbyterians in college, and attended a PCA church my last year, and continued in that denomination through early marriage. I was finding that many of the fundamentalist things I’d picked up were not necessarily uniquely tied to vibrant faithful belief and practice. I learned what fundamentalism was. I became an ex-fundamentalist. I learned about dispensationalism, and covenant theology, and Calvinism, and Arminianism, and, thanks to the most excellent World Harvest Mission’s Sonship materials, came to rest in covenant / Reformed theology. Sonship emphasizes the core — that Jesus died for sinners, that we’re more in need than we know, and that his grace and love are greater than we know.
We moved — attended a non-denominational church where eventually we felt so awful that we dreaded Sundays — switched back to PCA and felt so much more at home. Our experience thus far in the PCA lined up well with Sonship — but it seems to be somewhat fringe for the denomination, which seems to have a somewhat more harsh atmosphere and perhaps loses that sense of wonder and awe and liberation in grace.
We moved again — no PCA. Another branch of conservative Presbyterians, the OPC, had a church in a nearby town. We went there — then to a Church of Christ (the one that traces its history to the Restoration movement) — back to the OPC — and now to an Evangelical Free — and while there are things we appreciate about each of these churches, we aren’t quite at home. Maybe even if there were a PCA nearby we wouldn’t feel at home — it might not be as Gospel-oriented as the ones we’ve been in — and / or we might have already slid down the slope too far to feel quite at home with the whole of Reformed theology anymore.
One of the things Fundamentalists and many Evangelicals talk about is the danger of the slippery slope — that once you start asking questions, allowing non-literal interpretations, allowing for errors in transcription and even editing or compiling (some books really seem to be pieced together in places) — you start slipping — sliding — losing essentials (there are so many essentials, it seems) — moving further and further from orthodoxy.
So what? Well, when you start out convinced that orthodoxy is a fairly narrow box, fairly homogenous, and that other boxes are heretical even when they are labeled “Christian,” then leaving orthodoxy is a scary prospect. If you want to be a faithful Christian in belief and practice, and you find yourself on the slippery slope, you get scared that you’re going to end up an atheist, or some kind of false Christian. Today, you wonder about the role of women in the church. Tomorrow, what if you stop believing in hell? Maybe you’ll end up convinced that there was no Jesus in history, and you’ll still think you’re a Christian. Who do you trust to assure you that you’re still being faithful, albeit in a new way? Your old authorities have become suspect, but the new ones are still unproven.
Cognitive dissonance — when what you used to believe is confronted with new or different evidence and ideas that challenge the old beliefs — is uncomfortable, to say the least, even when it’s something relatively minor like whether or not eggs are healthy or discovering that you were wrong about what inertia means. When cognitive dissonance reaches the core of your worldview, it can be pretty traumatic.
In some ways, the slippery slope feels exciting and liberating and it rings true, resonating with hunches and desires you’ve had all along but thought were wrong. In some ways, it feels terribly risky and awful, because it seems to — or does — conflict with what you are still quite convinced is truly biblical. You read the arguments and evidences of those further down the slope, and they’re appealing, and they seem to be just as committed to biblical faithfulness — and yet — what a change it would be! People advise you to use common sense, follow your own intuition, seek the truth, but in cognitive dissonance your own sense of knowledge, wisdom, and intuition is in upheaval.
And if you scrabble for a foothold and halt your slide, you risk much. You’re shutting the door on what felt like freedom and deep truth. You’re accepting more fences, making fellowship more narrow (again). And you might be in error — you might be siding with the wrong camp after all.
But if you keep following the questions and the challenging ideas and evidences, you still risk much. You might become so hopelessly out of fit with your church that you feel you can’t stay — either because your heretical ideas are unacceptable to others, or because their ideas have become unacceptable to you. You might lose friends.
On the other hand, you might follow and give full ear to the new challenges, and end up still persuaded of your original position. This feels pretty safe and solid — you haven’t plugged your ears — you’ve listened willingly and openly — so you’re being fair to that side. And yet, after all that, you ‘see’ that your side has been right all along, so you’re not alienating or being alienated there.
Sometimes that happens — and then a year or two later the same issue(s) comes up again, and doesn’t stay neatly resolved, and you have to open that can of worms again and you’re back in the dissonance.
Ultimately, I trust God. He has promised to finish the work he began in me — I will trust that promise even if it turns out differently than I expected in the beginning — or the same. He has promised to lead me into all truth — even if some truth awaits me in the future that I presently think is falsehood — or even if I die as orthodox as any PCA elder could wish. I will keep doing the work I know to do — to face reality head-on, however uncomfortable; to think, read, discuss, reflect, and pray. I’ll try to remember to actually keep reading the Bible itself and not just about the Bible, and to actually pray and not just think and read and talk about God, and to actually endeavor to live out what I believe, especially the more solid basic core parts, and not just think and write about it, especially the more esoteric or problematic parts.