When John Lennon imagined a world where the brotherhood of man could end many of the world’s problems in his song “Imagine”, unbeknownst to him, he was describing a world where the church is executing its intended purpose. Can you imagine a world where two billion Christians come together in unity to create a spiritual snowball so large it could provide food for the entire world so that no child ever die of hunger again? Or a woman ever become the victim of domestic violence again? Or any child ever be abused again so they could all grow up in an environment without turmoil and nurtured by love? Imagine what that would be like and what it would take to create it.
Unfortunately, that can never happen as long as the church is as fractured as it is, having been broken into hundreds of different brands over the centuries. While the problems of the world have gotten larger and more complex, increasing the need for unity within the church to create an even bigger snowball, the various brands of Christianity, instead, have spent over a trillion dollars on land and buildings erecting walls, separating themselves from each other. Children dying of hunger don’t really care why the walls are being built. They don’t even care about the doctrinal differences between the various brands which has caused this disconnect between believers. Food, among other things, is what they need, and the disunity in the church is the reason they aren’t getting it.
Although just about every church on the planet talks about their desire for unity as one of the tenets of Christianity, the reality is that the pursuit of unity within the body of Christ is almost non-existent. While preachers and church leaders may pound the table about the need for adherence to other biblical commands ad nauseum, similar instructions about the command for unity are typically only given lip service. That is because in order to achieve it, most of the doctrinal differences between each brand of Christianity would have to be jettisoned. That is, we would all have to learn how to be on a team with people who see the Bible differently than ourselves. It’s ironic that people on athletic teams are able to form bonds with each other even though the differences between these teammates might be greater than the supposed teammates who attend various churches. The doctrine of each particular brand of Christianity is what created the walls between believers so that now anyone going to church on Sunday morning is likely to pass a dozen or more other churches on the drive to their own.
To our credit, it was not actually our generation who developed these doctrinal differences between each brand of Christianity. Nor was it our parents’ generation, nor our grandparents’ generation nor even our great-grandparents’ generation who built the doctrinal walls that divide us. That credit goes to well-meaning but misguided shade-tree theologians centuries ago who, in times of ignorance, superstition and illiteracy, imposed their interpretation of Scripture onto other people by trying to scare them into submission of their way of thinking. Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” presented over 250 years ago, is an example of this type of manipulative oratory by trying to get people to do things or not do things through fear and control. To our discredit, we have done nothing to break down these doctrinal walls that prevent unity within the body of Christ, from which today’s young people are running away. I think that defines how ingrained these doctrines have become over the centuries. It seems we would rather keep teaching the same things that were taught in the Dark Ages and chase away our young people, than reconsider whether those doctrinal teachings are worth losing our kids over or whether these doctrines even hold water in the first place.
Just as the free flow of information is what ultimately brought down the Berlin Wall, the free flow of information in the church would bring Christians of all stripes together by tearing down the walls that divide us. Having said that, there was probably a greater likelihood of Communist leaders allowing their people to question their teachings than for church leaders to allow their members to question or challenge their doctrines or teachings. Strange as it may seem, neither the church nor any of its various brands has ever allowed its members a forum to challenge its own doctrines. During interviews with young people who had left the church while doing research for “Heaven’s Gold”, many of them said one of the factors for their leaving was that they were never allowed to question the things being taught. In fact, two young ladies said they were told they would go to hell for even questioning those teachings. It doesn’t seem anything has changed. I am not aware of any group of believers of any stripe being allowed to challenge their leaders’ teachings in a forum where change might result.
Whether we want to admit it or not, this particular means of instruction is called indoctrination. Yes, indoctrination. While atheists and agnostics categorize our methods of instructions as brain-washing, that is neither true, nor fair. However, “indoctrination” is an appropriate description of the church’s teaching methods because of the way its doctrines are presented. When only one particular interpretation of Scripture or doctrine is presented while also describing why the other interpretations are wrong, that is indoctrination. Does anyone really believe their church fosters an atmosphere of discovery, where all aspects of a given topic or issue are freely and openly discussed? Consider this illustration. Imagine that a fourteen year old girl in your church read the Bible for herself and came to the conclusion that boys and girls, men and women, husbands and wives are all equal in the church; walk me through how that would play out in your church, especially if she has leadership skills beyond everyone else? What are young people allowed to think and what are they commanded to do or think while they are still under our roofs? How does that change once they go off to college?
We are losing our young people simply because we are force-feeding them antiquated doctrines that will not hold up under scrutiny so we don’t allow them to challenge those doctrines for that very reason. The church will always be a shell of what it could be as long as it envelopes itself in teachings that divide instead of teachings that unify. Hundreds of years ago, men such as John Calvin, Barton Stone, Alexander Campbell, etc., frustrated by the church’s interpretative inflexibility during the previous millennium, set out to update church teachings by incorporating existing knowledge, information and common sense into their interpretations of Scripture. Well, that wasn’t their intended method of interpretation, but that is how it unfolded. Perhaps it is time for another church reformation to bring it into the 21st century.
It’s not that the Bible needs to change to accommodate this generation. Rather, it is time, again, to consider Scripture through the lens of information available to us that was not available to the authors of Scripture, just as the first church reformers did. In fact, in this Internet age where knowledge related to neuroscience, astronomy, biology and archaeology is common place, it is important for the church to make this an integral part of its DNA to keep the teachings of Jesus as fresh as the day he presented them. It may not prompt church members to storm the Bastille and compel church leaders to quit trying to indoctrinate a generation of young people not interested in learning the Bible that way. However, it might shine the light on how much more effective the church would be if it were unified in spirit like the team we are supposed to be.
While indoctrination involves presenting only one interpretation of a given topic or issue, teaching involves presenting all available viewpoints and then facilitating a discussion to help the audience frame their own interpretation of the subject matter. After all, since faith is such a personal aspect of life, shouldn’t everyone be allowed to formulate their own foundation of faith without having it crammed down their throats? For example, how flexible is your church about women’s roles in the church? Or whether Satan exists? Or what rituals should be observed and when? Or the differences of science and church teachings? Typically, indoctrinated people, which includes just about everyone who grew up in the church, only see these subjects through narrow viewpoints, mainly because that is how it was taught to them, and as far back as anyone can remember.
Unleashing the power of God on a world in dire need of it will require God’s people to join forces to create an enormous spiritual synergy. Doing so will require tearing down the doctrinal walls that has kept this from happening throughout our lives and what is now driving away the church’s young people. So for the next few weeks, we will evaluate all of the church doctrines that keep God’s people apart to see if any of it should still be applied. It’s not about telling anyone what they are to believe; it is about allowing everyone to form their own faith by pulling the camera back and seeing the Bible through a wider lens, absent the indoctrination that has dominated the church’s teachings for centuries and generations.
Imagine what a unified church would look like. Imagine.