My exodus from fundamental, evangelical Christianity was prolonged and painful. My faith of origin (Church of Christ) was very much part of my identity. My family was at the church building Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and every other time there was a special function. My entire education from kindergarten to Master’s Degree in New Testament Studies was in schools affiliated with the Church of Christ. I was a paid minister in the Church of Christ for roughly 24 years. My love for God and desire to speak things that were true was as fervent as anyone’s.
For those unfamiliar with The Church of Christ, it is a group that widely believes the Bible is the exact and only Word of God and needs to be interpreted literally. While some primary teachings in the Church of Christ would, also, be found in mainstream Protestant denominations, there are noticeable differences. (The Church of Christ would deny being a denomination. The claim is that the Church of Christ has restored the church as it was in the New Testament. All other groups are denominations. As the Lord only has one body, he only has one church. Hence, all other Christians are not true Christians and will burn in hell. Further, members of the Church of Christ who “err” in the judgment of mainstream Church of Christ dogma are “liberal” churches and not true Churches of Christ, thus risking the fiery wrath of God.) For instance, most Churches of Christ forbid the use of a piano or any other instrument in worship. Full water immersion baptism is necessary for, and the moment of, salvation. Women are not allowed to teach men or hold positions of authority over men. A believer must continue practicing the faith as described by the Church of Christ or risk burning in hell. The list of trivial peculiarities is endless.
In the spirit of fairness, some members of the Church of Christ are more open-minded and less judgmental. Some members would agree with the statement that God doesn’t send everyone who isn’t a member of the Church of Christ to hell. Still, the rhetoric remains in the self-description as “The Lord’s Church.” Even the more “liberal” members (conservative in classical religious vernacular) would maintain a literal approach to Genesis, the historicity of Bible stories, and faith in Jesus as the only means of salvation. (This article is NOT a personal attack on every member of the C of C. There are many noble, generous, kind-hearted, wonderful people in the C of C who bless the lives of others. Further, if had I been reared in the theology of Baptist, Methodist, etc., I would still have the same macro issues with veracity.)
There was a sentence I often used while preaching, “You have a brain; use it.” Congregants liked my use of that sentence when I said things with which they were basically in agreement. However, problems arose when I used the same principle in an honest search to the questions I had about the doctrines I taught. Questioning is a good thing. If it weren’t for those who questioned, common conviction would be the earth is flat and the sun revolves around the earth. Yet, religious leaders are afraid of questions for which they cannot provide a defendable answer. Robert Ingersoll said, “Any doctrine that will not bear investigation is not a fit tenant for the mind of an honest man. Any man who is afraid to have his doctrine investigated is not only a coward but a hypocrite.”
For the sake of time, I will list only a few of my questions and doubts. (None of these questions are original.)
Why do I believe what I believe? Because my parents taught me to.
Why do they believe it? Because my immediate ancestors are from a conservative area of the United States that readily accepts Christianity as the standard religion.
Why does the US traditionally embrace Christianity? Because white Protestants from Europe came to the Americas and killed the Native Indians who were here.
Who were the Protestants? They were Christian sects protesting the Catholic Church who condemned as a heretic anyone who questioned their authority.
Why did they protest? Because for the first time they had a Bible they could read in a familiar language.
Why was Europe mostly Catholic? Because Euroasia had been divided between Christianity and Islam by war. Which army won which war determined the official religion of that area. Europe remained Christian when Charles the Hammer stopped the Islamic westward invasion. If he didn’t repel the Muslims, it seems probable all of Europe would have become Muslim.
Why was Europe Christian? Because of Constantine, the pagan who credited his military success to the Christ-god.
What did Constantine do next? He reunited the Roman empire and established Christianity as the official religion.
Which version of Christianity? The one voted on at the Council of Nicea.
What is the Bible anyway? “The Bible is a book that has been read more and examined less than any book that ever existed” (Thomas Paine). I was taught and had taught others that it was the inspired word of God.
What does inspiration mean? That God-breathed the words and they were thus inerrant (incapable of being wrong) and infallible (incapable of mistakes).
How did that occur? No one can provide a consistent answer.
Is it even true that the Bible is the actual word of God? How did it come to be regarded as the Word of God? Must one believe in a six-day creation, a magic garden, a talking snake, a talking donkey, etc.? Did God say he loved Israel more than every other group or did Israel say that about themselves? Did God tell them to kill people and take their land or did they say he did for self-justification? What are the similarities between stories in the Bible and other literature from this time and place?
Does faith get a free pass from other academic disciplines? Should we listen to and study the books written by the leading authorities of anthropology, spiritual psychology, history of civilization, and history of religion? Must any consideration be given to what the brightest minds say regarding the age of the earth, how long Homo Sapiens have lived on Earth, and evolution? Or, is it completely unnecessary for church doctrine to align with anything else widely accepted in academic circles?
The problem is not in the questions. They should be asked and every seeker allowed to study on their own. The conclusions (in my case) led me to determine that my faith of origin was much too limiting of God, and the wider thesis of “orthodox” Christianity suspicious. When presented with historical facts, the leaders of the church where I ministered did not offer one word of intelligible defense. I received blank stares, a question about my sleep habits, and a baseball remark. When I continued to ask for a response, I was finally told, “We have no interest in studying with you.” It was a crushing blow. For all the talk of being people who cared about truth, they were not. Their chief concern was making sure I never taught there again unless I taught ideas that I did not find plausible. It was a painful life lesson that organized religion, regardless of how it masquerades itself, is about control.
So, what does a person like me do? Like the millions before me, I stopped going to church. I read prolifically the books that make a defense of traditional Christianity, but did not find any of them persuasive. Yet, I found myself incurably spiritual, and wanting to believe that there was something else out there. For me, the something else was larger than the God portrayed in Genesis through Revelation, even greater than any one religion. I am a minister at Unity because my heart wants to serve. However, I have to be free to be intellectually honest with what I believe history and science show. I choose to be a person of faith and believe in a God who is universal and all-loving. This God does not send people to burn forever and ever and ever in hell where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth because they did not get the “right” version of God. My spiritual views affirm the innate good in all of humanity. I think there is something to be learned in all of the world’s enduring religions. Uniformity is not the path to unity. Love for all is the necessary component for the continued evolution and elevation of the species.
It isn’t needful for me to convince you of anything. Study for yourself! My message is one of hope for those who think there aren’t any churches available for them because they “don’t fit the mold.” Quite honestly, I believe the mold is broken and is evidenced by the numbers of people turning away from it. Children and teens are far more apt to search Google for answers to their theological questions than to ask a preacher. Open-minded, forward-thinking places exist that will welcome you and assist you in your spiritual journey.
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Rev. Chris Dempsey
To learn more about Rev. Chris, please visit our Meet the Minister page.