In this blog, I have outlined my spiritual journey from the time I became a Christian to the present. That journey began in a relatively safe place, namely a Lutheran Vacation Bible School I attended just before I entered junior high school. Even though the journey was somewhat interrupted during high school and my Army tour, I found myself on the path again in my early twenties, having been brought back on course through the writings of C.S. Lewis, among others.
My Lutheran experience and my reading of Lewis led me to expect a Christianity whose chief aim was to produce people of Christlike character, in which a Christian man's chief business in this life was attending to the process of that character growth, and displaying that character to the world. In such a view of the faith, the Church was to be simply one of many aids in this process, along with Bible reading and good Christian friendships and prayer. Church involvement was not to be some life-draining, leech-like affair that sucked up all of a person's spare time, money and energy! This was the viewpoint from which I started life just after the Army, as a new college student.
However, I was soon hoodwinked into involvement in a church that was everything the Church should not be. It was abusive, cultic, authoritarian, and very demanding, and it sucked my life away like a parasite. Its leaders also twisted the Scriptures in order to justify their actions. It was a prime example of a religious group created by someone whose primary aim is to trap sincere people as they are trying to make their way from earth to Heaven, in order to exploit them for one's own uses.
Upon escaping from that group, I received lots of advice through books and the Internet concerning recovery from an abusive church experience. One frequently repeated bit of advice was that survivors of an abusive church experience need to find a “healthy church,” because such a church would aid survivors in their recovery. Yet in the years since I left my old abusive church, I have found the supposedly “mainstream” evangelical churches to be a lot less “safe” and “healthy” than advertised. Many of these churches, and the evangelical culture they have fostered, are increasingly characterized by the same exploitative personalities that are typically found in leaders of abusive “fringe” churches. They also twist Scripture in order to move people away from a Biblical Christianity toward a condition where they can be easily manipulated and exploited.
The result is that the pilgrimage from earth to Heaven is becoming lonelier and lonelier for pilgrims as time passes. The places to which such pilgrims would turn for mutual encouragement are now largely unsafe. They look for helpful inns and traveling companies whose members are also on the journey, and instead they find one big mess, a mess created by people who are hostile to the whole pilgrimage. Who can fix this mess?
The ultimate answer to that question is found in God alone. He is the One who calls people to become pilgrims, through repentance from sin and faith in Christ. And He is very, very concerned about those who seek to trip up pilgrims while they are on the path of pilgrimage. Matthew 18:4-6 says, “Whoever therefore humbles himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him that a huge millstone should be hung around his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea.” And Matthew 13:41-42 says, “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will gather out of his Kingdom all things that cause stumbling, and those who do iniquity, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and the gnashing of teeth.” Truly, gasoline has a better chance of surviving the day of judgment unburnt than those who have created this present mess!
Because we are all naturally fallen, this world is a dangerous world, a world of people who are naturally selfish and exploitative, a world in which pilgrims must be as shrewd as serpents even while being harmless as doves. Because the Church must function within this world, the Church is a place in which repentant people who are trying to learn to be wheat must mingle with hypocrites who are trying their hardest to be tares (Matthew 13:24-30). Yet there will be a day in which God judges the world and removes from it everyone who insists on being a threat to his neighbor. That judgment will also include those who call themselves His people. On that day, He will establish His people as a pure and harmless reflection of Himself, because those who are intent on harming others will have been removed in judgment (Ezekiel 34).
But in the meantime, pilgrims must learn to conduct their pilgrimage in the midst of difficult circumstances. And because companionship with like-minded fellow travelers is an essential part of the pilgrimage, pilgrims must learn to form associations which are resilient and reasonably immune to being hijacked by hostile interests. This is the same sort of challenge faced by humans who want to associate in any other context in this present fallen world – how to build connections, groups and societies which manage to accomplish some sort of good while preventing their fallen participants from harming each other. And it is a challenge which must be constantly faced, since as social systems are created and used over time, people who are bent on evil eventually find ways to “game” the system to get what they want.
The next two posts will present some ideas for Christians who want to build reasonably “fault-tolerant” associations or communities of faith. Take them as my personal ideas, the ideas of just another man on the street. I do not present them as some promise of Utopia, since I don't believe Utopia is possible as long as this present fallen world lasts. Nor am I trying to start or lead a new movement, although I'd be pleased and a bit flattered if these ideas caught on in any way. Rather, I present them as talking points and stimulants for further reflection. Stay tuned!