Growth Inhibitors: Changing the Rules

In my last post I suggested that the apparent decline in North American Churches might be caused by the fact that many today think Christians are hypocrites. One writer suggested that believers are “the single greatest cause of atheism today. You know who I’m talking about, right? The type of people who acknowledge Jesus with their words and deny him through their lifestyle.  The ones who preach the importance of traditional family values, all while holding a rally and offering standing ovations…” for corrupt individuals who prey on the young and the weak.[1] Indeed, there seems to be plenty of evidence to support the idea that many of these self-identifying Christians appear to believe one thing and often do quite another thing—enough of them, in any case, to have, as a group, drawn the charge of hypocrisy.

However, this accusation might not be fair. It could only be true if we could show that these individuals actually did believe the teaching of Christ and then at the same time did the opposite. In other words, hypocrisy can only arise if there is an actual disconnect caused by a person knowingly violating the moral standards they themselves claim as their own. But, what if that is not what these Christians are doing? What if their radical individualism made them think that they had the right to re-interpret, modify, replace, or even annul those standards?  They might have come to believe that they, individually, “know or feel” what a particular passaged of Scripture might mean and how it should be applied to any given situation. What if they thought that they themselves and not the Church, Tradition, or Scripture had absolute sovereignty over the moral decisions they make and the behavior they engage in? Again, there does seem to be some evidence of this kind of thing happening. How often have we heard phrases like “to me this bible text means….”, “I feel that this is…”, or “let me tell you my truth.” If this is indeed happening, then we are the ones determining what truth is and the repository of actual truth contained in the Scripture, Tradition, and the very Words of Christ are replaced or, at least, modified to such an extent that Christ would no longer be able to recognize them as His own. In fact, they would not be Christ’s words or teachings, but rather theirs. Presumably, that would create complete agreement between their behavior and the desires, opinions, feelings, interpretations with which they have replaced Christ’s teachings. So, they are not following, or even claiming to follow Christ’s word, but rather their own.  That would explain why these particular Christians would “not feel any sense of internal conflict when it comes to Jesus’”  teaching and their own behavior. They are, after all, doing exactly what they want to do or feel they need to do. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, after a lengthy study of conservative Christians, observed no internal conflict, “no angst or no sense that [their behavior] was somehow a difficult trade-off.” Speaking of conservative Christians Kobes Du Mez goes on to note that they “… are not acting against their deeply held values when they elect [corrupt politicians]; they’re affirming [their own feelings].”[2] I suggest that this apparent harmony between desire-driven (and in some cases fear-driven) behavior and the intentionally crafted self-authenticating standards which have replaced Christ’s teaching renders any charge of hypocrisy mute. As damaging as the evil of real hypocrisy might be, I wonder if something far more disturbing is afoot.

I previously pointed out that conservative Christians willingly embrace hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral lifestyles, things that are clearly spoken against by Christ. I suggested that the evidence shows that divorce is more common among “born-again” Christians than in the general American population, even though the Church has traditionally frowned on the practice.[3] Moreover, only a small percentage of believers tithe even though that is widely taught in Christian communities.  Forty-seven percent of self-identifying Orthodox think that aiding the poor “does more harm than good.”[4] That, while Christ admonishes us to care for the needy and the oppressed (Mt. 6:1-4). White Christians are likely to object to neighbors of another race even as they have been sent out to preach the good news to all nations (ethne, Mt 28:1)[5] and in spite of the oneness that is to characterize the true Church. In spite of the fact that the Church absolutely rejects the practice sixty two percent of Orthodox think that homosexuality “should be accepted.”[6]

So, some conservative Christians appear to think that the moral choices they are making do not conflict with any core Christian doctrines or beliefs. That may be because these “believers” no longer believe in those particular precepts, those principles taught by Christ, beliefs the watching world thinks Christians might be expected to adhere to. In that case, they can hardly be accused of hypocritically violating standards if they no longer hold to them. All they have to do is change the rules (truth) and their choices begin to align perfectly with the new reservoir of moral content with which these self-proclaimed followers of Christ have replaced Christian values.

Hypocrisy? Probably not! No, this is something far more frightening. It is a reflection of or perhaps the natural consequence of capitulating to a darkness that is already overtaking our society (more on this in the next post). Depending on how widespread this darkness is, it could affect the whole the Church, rendering it as morally bankrupt as the world around it with little or nothing to offer, in which case it is no longer an alternative to what everyone can have without it. So, why bother? No wonder fewer and fewer are interested in becoming part of the Church.

[1] “Exposing America’s Biggest Hypocrites: Evangelical Christians,” The Huffington Post, 2017, accessed Feb. 27, 2021, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/exposing-americas-biggest-hypocrites-evangelical_b_5a184f0ee4b068a3ca6df7ad.

[2] “Is evangelical support for Trump a contradiction?,” VOX, 2020, accessed Nov. 16, 2020, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/7/9/21291493/donald-trump-evangelical-christians-kristin-kobes-du-mez.

[3] “Born Again Christians Just As Likely to Divorce As Are Non-Christians,” Barna Research, 2999, accessed Feb. 16, 2021, https://www.barna.com/research/born-again-christians-just-as-likely-to-divorce-as-are-non-christians/.

[4] “Orthodox Christians – Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics “, Pew Research Center, 2020, accessed Dec. 11, 2020, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/orthodox-christian/.

[5] Ronald J.  Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. Why don’t Christians live what they preach? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 5, Kindle (2005).

[6] “Orthodox Christians – Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics “.

4 comments:

  1. I do not think it is not a good idea to rely on statistics. We never know where or when or how the basic figures were obtained so just manipulating numbers will get you nowhere. I think that people are individuals and do not think in groups… but all that is my personal opinion based on experience. The views of many people I have met are a mixture on various subjects , their characters are not all of a piece.
    However I am not American and my views are not fashionable.
    I personally refuse the lable of Conservative, however.

    1. Absolutely! We should not base too much of our thinking on statistics as they can, as you say, be manipulated and thus misleading. In this case the statistics I referred to simply indicate a general trend or a pattern that many of us who work in the Church have observed. The gradual decline is, in fact, evident in the membership and attendance records kept by most Churches. But it is more than numbers. I, for one, am not that interested in the numbers as such, but, as a priest, I am interested in what might these general trends might mean for the spiritual well-being of the people. If there is a decline in growth or health, then why is that happening, That might take some careful analysis and honesty. More importantly what can we do about it.

      As for labels: indeed they are generally unhelpful. If Christ is shining through my life I should not need a label to be identified. What I am (or not) will be evident.

      Thanks for your response.

    1. What you say may be true and I certainly agree that we should not rely on secular sources. However, it is not just secular media and publications that are saying these things, it is also our own neighbors, acquaintances, our colleagues. So, what I am concerned about here is not so much the sources, but rather the fact that so many around us are saying these things (true or not). Why? What makes them say that Christians are hypocrites? What have we done to give them that impression? I think we need to hear this widening chorus of criticism and take a hard look at ourselves.

      It is interesting that on the day I posted this piece one of the lectionary readings was taken from Zechariah 8:19-23. There we read “In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of an Israelite, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” That is what I would like to hear those around us saying about us. If we don’t hear that, we cannot blame them, but should rather examine our own behaviors.

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