In the last post, I talked about how when it came to dating, the church taught people that if (subtext: “and only if”) they kept themselves pure then God would bless them with an awesome marriage. Unfortunately,very few relationships happened the way they described it. The stories they shared, the stories that got air time? Those were exceptions that were carefully selected in order to support the narrative they were preaching.
The fact of the matter is:
A 2005 survey of 12,000 adolescents found that those who had pledged to remain abstinent until marriage were more likely have oral and anal sex than other teens, less likely to use condoms, and just as likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases as their unapologetically non-abstinent peers. The study found that 88 percent of those who pledged abstinence admitted to failing to keep their pledge.1
We never got to hear the stories of couples who had sex before they were married and still wound up with thriving, healthy relationships. On the flip side, we never got to hear stories (like mine) of people who had remained pure and ended up losing desire altogether. In fact, for some couples, even after getting married, they still found sex to be problematic because of the desire-denying teachings of purity culture.
And when it came to tithing, we were taught that if we tithed then God would bless.
But we never got to hear the stories of people who stepped out in faith, tithed when they couldn’t afford to, and then wound up going into debt. Those stories never made it into sermon illustrations.
It took me a long time to see this pattern, primarily because questioning the obedience/faith/reward narrative meant questioning (their interpretation of) the Bible which meant questioning (their understanding of) God which meant I was a bad Christian (in their eyes). And really, there was no room to question because the only stories that got shared were ones that fit the narrative – those people who did A, B, and C and as a result saw God do X, Y, and Z. We never heard the stories of people who did A, B, and C but didn’t see God doing anything so they kept pressing on to do D, E, and F. And when they talked to their pastor about why God wasn’t showing up, maybe they were encouraged to try G, H, and I (or to go back to A, B, and C only with more gusto and sincerity).
In short, we never heard the stories of people for whom X, Y, and Z never happened – the stories of people (like me) who did all the right things in regards to dating (not lusting, not dating, etc.) and still wound up single, or people who faithfully tithed even when they couldn’t afford to and then wound up bankrupt (financially and spiritually).
And we probably never heard these stories because the people who were living them eventually stopped going to church. Or at best, they never got the chance to share.
And here’s the most insidious bit. The pastors who preached this formulaic version of Christianity? Many times they were also people for whom the formula had worked, Sometimes the fact that God came through for them was a large part of the reason they chose to become pastors – so they could show people how awesome (their view/understanding of) God was.
Because if it had worked for them so well, why wouldn’t they want to help others to experience the same?
And then this creates an unfortunate cycle. The pastor lives a certain way and begins to see all the good things in their life as a result of this faithful living. And so they teach their congregation that if they will only live the same way that God will bless them as well. And then when they hear congregant stories that fit this pattern, they get to share their testimony or get mentioned in sermon illustrations.
And the people who keep waiting for the blessings keep wondering what’s wrong. They think maybe they’re wrong or that God doesn’t love them or that the church is full of shit. And so they leave. And then back at church, maybe the pastor points to these people who don’t attend anymore as examples of people who were unfaithful and who would never see blessings.
And the fortunate ones nod their heads in agreement while the (still) waiting ones cower in fear, shame, and expectation.
These people? The ones who stay, who remain faithful to the teachings and yet continue to await blessings? I was one of them for far too long. And all these years later, I’ve met with many friends who were also faithful and waiting. Many of them don’t go to church anymore. Some of them don’t believe in God anymore – and why should they? Can you blame them?
Me? To be honest, I think I’d say that I still believe in God, but barely.
And why do I believe? And what sort of God do I believe in, if not this transactional God-machine/lotery?
I’ll get to that in the next post.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you resonate with any of this, I’d love to hear your story in the comments section below.
For a long time, I was confused about something. The pastors and ministers in my life would tell these stories about how because they lived live a certain way, God brought blessings into their lives – like maybe they left a lucrative job to plant a church and at first they were worried but now they’re super stoked about it. And then they would share stories from other people’s lives about how something similar thing happened. These examples were supposed to illustrate a truth from the Bible – that God will make X, Y, and Z happen when Christians do A, B, and C.
Let me give you a concrete example of this. In my earlier years in church, I got a lot of this sort of formulaic theology in regards to dating. I once described their teaching this way:
IF you set aside your filthy, carnal urges; IF you worry less about finding the right person and worry more about being the right person; IF you spend diligent, consistent, considerable time in prayer and study of God’s word THEN (and only then) God will bring an amazing woman into your life. Just like that. Happily ever after.
Of course that sounds ridiculous now, but here’s the thing. At the time, the people who were teaching me this had lived what they preached. They had lived sexually pure lives, they focused on being the right person, and they devoted considerable time to prayer and Bible study. And then, as they put it, God brought someone amazing into their life.
Back then, I was a scrawny, geeky kid who had no idea how to date. I was fascinated by women and desperately wanted a relationship but I had no idea how to approach or talk to them, let alone ask them out. And so here were these Christian leaders talking about how they (and other Christians that they spoke about) had met their significant others and so I took note and believed the same would happen in my own life.
Dating is just one example of this selective way of talking about the Christian life. Another common example is tithing. Often, in sermons that talked about tithing, I’d hear the idea that according to Malachi 3:10, God seems to be saying, “test me on this – if you tithe, I will bless you.” See how that works? If you do this thing (tithe) then God will do this other thing (bless). It gets preached as a transaction and it’s supposed to be bulletproof, a sure thing, quid pro quo.
Whenever I heard these sermons, the preacher would go on to share miraculous stories about how people in the congregation had decided to begin tithing to the church at a time when they couldn’t afford to do so. Their story would often go something like, “we looked at our finances and knew that we couldn’t afford to tithe because there just wasn’t enough room in our budget. But we decided to step out in faith anyway and give, knowing that at the end of the month, we wouldn’t have enough to pay all of our bills. But then the end of the month came and some how, we ended up with a surplus!” Sometimes this surplus came in the form of a rebate check they had forgotten about or a refund from a utility that had over billed them or sometimes just from another congregant (“God told me that you needed this money”). So the message was, everyone needs to tithe because when you do, God blesses you. Always. And the proof of this was in the personal testimonies they shared.
Dating and tithing are just two examples, but this sort of message was pretty common. If you do A, B, and C then God will do X, Y, and Z.
Unfortunately, these were all another example of false church narratives (or at best, highly selective church narratives). The truth of the matter was far more complicated.
Let me close by saying a bit about the theology underlying this message. Whether they mean to or not (they probably don’t), messages like this paint God out to be nothing more than a machine – one that gives out based on what you put in. Seen from the other end, it’s a machine where if you don’t put in, you won’t get out.
But here’s the thing. God really does seem to come through for some people – they do receive the blessings they prayed/worked/gave for. However, for others, the hoped for blessing never appears, and this can be devastating. This formulaic theology can paint God as a cosmic lottery. People plug in various inputs (more purity, more tithing, more prayer, more Bible study, etc.) and hope for the promised blessing. And the bigger the buy in, the bigger the hoped for pay off. And when the church keeps putting forward stories from people who “won,” it perpetuates the belief that the “losers” need to just keep being faithful, keep doing their part.
And that can lead to tremendous disappointment and harm.
…and I’ll get to that bit in the next post
This is a break from the normal sorts of posts I usually put up, but I wanted to make it public and figured my blog would be a good place/way to do it.
Thanks for reading and as always, questions, comments, criticisms, and other feedback welcome.
I am writing this letter because I am here on vacation and have been disturbed by much of what I have been hearing in the church community here regarding the issue of same sex marriage.
Let me say, first of all, that I am a straight, Asian-American, 41 year old male. I was born and raised in Hawaii and lived here for 34 years before moving to Seattle in 2006.
When I first got to Seattle, I remember walking around the Capitol Hill neighborhood (a hub for much of Seattle’s LGBT community) and seeing churches with the rainbow flag flying out front. I remember thinking at the time that I really didn’t agree with churches having an open and affirming stance because I believed that the Bible was clear on the issue of homosexuality – that sex between two people of the same sex was a sin.
Fast forward a few years and I started attending The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology where I was pursuing a Masters of Divinity (I graduated with my MDiv this year). This school actually didn’t have an official stance on homosexuality and so I was able to hear theological positions from both sides of the issue.
To make a long story short, based on much thinking, writing, research, and prayer, I am now someone who firmly believes that it is possible to read and believe the Bible and come away with a position that fully supports same sex marriage. There are a number of ways to do this, but let me outline what I think is one of the simplest ways to see the issue biblically.
Basically, when Paul writes about women and men “exchanging natural sexual relations for unnatural ones” in Romans 1:26-27 or “sodomites” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11, he is not talking about the issue of homosexuality as we understand it today.1 Today, when we talk about an issue like same sex marriage, we are talking about two people of the same sex desiring to enter into a life-long, committed marriage relationship with one another. This is a social relationship that has no equivalent in the time of the Bible (Old or New Testament).
Stated more plainly, when the Bible talks about condemning homosexuality, they are not talking about the same thing we are talking about today.
One of the overarching messages of the Bible is that God’s primary concern centers around two things: 1) love of God and 2) love of neighbor as self (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, and Luke 10:25-28). Significantly, in the Matthew passage, Jesus makes the radical statement that “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” (Matthew 22:40 NRSV). For a Jew, “all the law and the prophets” basically means all of the Bible as it was known at the time (all of the Hebrew scriptures). So Jesus is making the startling claim that all biblical texts need to be read through the twin lenses of love of God and love of neighbor as self.
Returning to Paul and his words about homosexuality, when Paul writes against same sex relations, he is writing to a time when same sex relationships were not based on love; rather, they were primarily based on dominance (pederasty). Thus, it is no wonder that he condemns such behavior. However, that is not the situation we have today. Today, same sex couples are seeking to enter into life-long, committed, loving relationships and based on Jesus’ hermeneutic of love, I don’t believe that either Paul2 or Jesus (were they writing or teaching today) would stand against same sex marriage.
Now let me be clear here. I’m not saying that my theological/doctrinal position is the one, right, absolute way to understand the issue, but I am saying that it is possible for Christians to take the biblical text very seriously and to support same sex marriage.
This is not an issue where there is only one settled theological position and to present the issue as if standing against same sex marriage is the only correct stance for Christians to hold is disingenuous and disrespectful to those who believe otherwise.
I am writing this letter because I want to profess loudly and clearly that there are many Bible-believing, God-loving, committed Christians, like me, who wholeheartedly support the right of same sex couples to proclaim their love for and commitment to one another in marriage before God, the people of God, and all their friends and family.
Sincerely, a committed follower and lover of Jesus Christ,
In my twenties, I attended some really conservative churches. I’ve written a number of times about how their teaching have been tremendously unhelpful in a number of different ways. And it seems like every time I identify a new kind of harm that was sown into my life and begin to work through it, I find another deeper layer of hurt.
A lot of this harm was based on what I’m going to call false church narratives.
The second narrative was based primarily on Luke 9:23-25, and this one taught me that the life of a good, faithful Christian is one where I deny not just my sexual desires but all my desires. In this narrative, the goal of the Christian life is to deny my wants and needs for the sake of saving non-Christians. Then (according to Luke 9:24), the more I denied myself, the more God would bless and fill me to make up for all that I had given up.
Now combine the first (sexuality denying) narrative with the second (wholly self-denying) one and you wind up with a narrative that says a romantic relationship is one where each person denies themselves for the sake of the other. This third narrative said that if I denied myself and gave 110% of my attention to the needs of the other person then that other person would deny themself and give me 110% of their attention… and then somehow that was supposed to make for a beautiful relationship.
I’ve actually known for a while now that narratives like these are bunk. Unfortunately, it turns out that unlearning something false isn’t as simple as deciding that the old ideas are wrong. For me, even though I’ve been trying to do and think differently by taking my own needs/wants/desires into consideration, it turns out those old self-denial teachings go far deeper than I thought.
I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been seeing someone. It’s been just over three months now and for the most part it’s been pretty freaking amazing. One of the really great things about our relationship is that we both check in with one another on a regular basis – we ask each other how they’re feeling about life in general and about the relationship. And we’re both brutally (yet kindly) honest with each other. And here’s where the toxic nature of those old narratives really comes into play.
Sometimes she asks me how I’m doing and if there’s anything she can do for me or if there’s anything I’m wanting/needing from her. And when she asks me this, sometimes (far too often) I don’t have an answer.
I pause for a moment, look inward, and try to identify an issue/need/desire/want and there’s nothing there.
Now let me be clear here. Sometimes I’m just content with life. Sometimes I’m just happy to be there with her and so I don’t have any needs to communicate. But sometimes… sometimes I’m unsettled because I can sense that there is some kind of vague concern that I have but just can’t connect with… but that’s not it either.
It’s hard to explain.
See, sometimes, she asks me what I want and when I stop to think about it, there’s just nothing there. It’s like I don’t know how to want, how to need, how to desire anything for myself and so I don’t know how to answer her.
Because there is no answer.
And so I say, “I don’t know.”
Now here’s how wonderful she is. Sometimes she’ll take “I don’t know” at face value but sometimes she pauses and insists on an answer because she knows how the church has damaged me and wants more for/from me. She cares and so she wants me to reconnect with myself and my desires. And when I can’t, it sucks for me and it sucks for her. And sometimes she gets frustrated or I get frustrated. Or sometimes we just end up sad because here she is wanting more from me – wanting me – and there’s nothing there.
And all this because all those years ago, I did such a good job of being a faithful, self-denying Christian.
I wish I could put a nice ending on this post, but the best i can say is that as hard as it’s been to unlearn old shitty narratives, it is kind of cool (though not easy) to be able to write new ones. And I’ve got a sensational writing partner (re)writing with me.
New post up on the Best Practices site.
Part two of my critique of purity culture:
Just put up a new post on my Try Best Practices site.