In Romans 3, Paul asks whether a lack of faith nullifies God’s faithfulness. It’s a rhetorical question that Paul answers this way: “Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true.” (NLT)
Our faithlessness, of course, doesn’t make God faithless. Our actions don’t change God’s character. Though every man be a liar, still God is true.
This is the backdrop to this piece that is inspired by the interview of Lisa Gungor and Alisa Childers by Justin Brierley on the Unbelievable? podcast.
Alisa Childers and Lisa Gungor both grew up with evangelical Christianity. They were both Christian musical artists. They both went through a period of doubt and “deconstruction”. Alisa Childers emerged from that period of deconstruction with her faith intact, stronger than it was before, while Lisa Gungor has evolved into a progressive Christian – holding on to the title “Christian”, while letting go of nearly everything that distinguishes Christianity from other religions.
Of her own experience, Childers says that the flaws and errors in her construct of God, scripture and doctrine were removed in that process of deconstruction and replaced. Instead of giving up on Christianity, she doubled down in her testing of the faith. What could not stand up to the scrutiny, she let go. What remains is a solid foundation.
While the church, and people generally, seem to fear doubt, and shy away from it, the Bible actually encourages us to meet doubt head on. Paul urges us to “test everything” and “keep [or hold fast] what is good”. (1 Thessalonians 5:21) This is the route Alisa Childers took when faced with doubt and challenges to her faith.
More to the point of this article, though, Childers observes that many people who go through “deconstruction” of their faith often cite the behavior of the church, and the people in the church, as a primary reason for leaving the faith. It might be hypocrisy, judgmental attitudes, failure to live up to “Christian standards”, ignorance of modern science, an adherence to a blind faith that refuses to admit facts that are contrary to their understanding of Scripture.
Or worse – it might be experience with the ugliness of sin that we expect should not be present in the church. Church people can be cliquey and unapproachable. Church people can be greedy, petty, quick to get angry, lustful and worse – even church leaders. The evidence of sexual abuse and pedophilia that has come to light in Baptist churches recently reveals an ugly underside to quintessentially evangelical churches that hadn’t before come to light.
I would add that non-church people level similar complaints at the “the church” as former church people who have left. The reasons they give for not going to church, or being “religious”, or having faith in God include apparent hypocrisy, negative personal experiences and bad behavior of church going Christians.
While people may give other reasons for “not believing” or not having faith, the examples of people who hold themselves out to be Christians is almost always one of the reasons given, if not the most compelling reason given by people who don’t consider themselves (or no longer consider themselves) “Christian” (at least in the sense of born again, evangelical (whatever that still means) Christianity).
To this point, I am reminded of what Paul says, “Though every man be a liar, still God is true!” Let me explain.
For some reason, we tend to trip over examples of finite and flawed people when considering whether an infinite and perfect God exists. I guess the common assumption is that a perfect God should be reflected in the actions of the people who believe in Him, however finite they may be.
Frankly, that assumption seems to make some sense at first blush. Shouldn’t they (we) be better than those who don’t believe?
Of course, the Bible tells us that everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Surely that includes everyone in the church. If we are looking for an example of perfection in the church, the Bible tells us we are certain not to find it there. We won’t find it anywhere in human systems and human life.
Yet the flaws of humanity that exist in the church negatively affect people and are a stumbling block for many. It’s understandable.
Frankly, we should expect more. John the Baptist warned the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him to be baptized to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance!” (Matt. 3:7-8) Jesus told the disciples that they would know the false prophets “by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15-20), and he told the Pharisees who were questioning him by what authority he cast out demons that a “tree is known by its fruit.” (Matt. 12:33-37)
Significantly, these fruit references were made in the context of religious people: Pharisees and Sadducees, false prophets and Pharisees again. That suggests that the issue with hypocrisy and questionable behavior in the church today is not much different than religious experience in the first Century when Jesus spoke about it. Jesus even spent time addressing the issue.
Again, the Bible speaks to these issues. The Bible recognizes that all people sin and that there are (and will be) issues with the incongruity of behavior even among the religious people. It was an issue then, and it is an issue now, and we shouldn’t be surprised by it
Jesus specifically warned that would tares grow up with the wheat. (Matt. 13:24-30) He said the tares would not be weeded out because doing so would also destroy the wheat.
If Jesus warned us about these things, and if the Bible is accurate about the character of people, even people in the church, why is it a stumbling block to so many people? I think the answer lies within us.
I went through my own season of struggle and deconstruction, which I may write about in the near future. My deconstruction wasn’t necessarily driven by doubt or by the flaws I saw in the church… if I am being honest. The root of my struggle was the sin I allowed to remain and increase unchecked within me.
As a side note, I think the “deconstruction” might have happened with or without those struggles. The flawed thinking that accompanied my faith would have likely been challenged either way. The struggle with sin, doubt, or whatever only makes it easier to let go of “difficulties” for faith that present themselves. Some of those difficulties exist, though, only because of our flawed thinking, not because they are inherent components of the Christian faith.
While the hypocrisies and bad behaviors of church people might have added food to the root of sin within me, it was not the cause of my struggles. I was already drifting away from God in my heart. I was distracted by worries and concerns and a related desire for security and comfort. I stopped resisting the sinfulness rooted deep within me that was not (and still is not) completely eradicated.
The flaws that I saw in my church experience did influence me, but they were not the cause of my deconstruction. Rather, they were an easy out. They became an excuse for not resisting sin, for not drawing close to God, for allowing myself to wander. They also influenced me to loosen my grip on the structures of thinking that girded my faith – good and bad.
Very briefly, I joined a church after graduating from college that I thought it was the perfect church. It grew out of the Jesus People movement in the 1960’s. These were people that were earnest and authentic.
In the beginning, they lived communally, sharing everything in common. When I came along, there was only one communal house left, which is where I lived for 3 and a 1/2 years. They emphasized “New Testament Christianity”. They has a passion to live authentically like First Century Christians did in the early years of the church. Worship was incredibly poignant and moving, and evidence of the presence of God in our midst was undeniable. I truly did think this was as perfect a church as could be humanly mustered.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. In fact, it fell apart. The men of God to whom I looked up with respect and trust began to fight among themselves. The man who pastored me through those 3 and a 1/2 years of communal living and his wife separated and divorced. She has remarried several more times since, and I have lost all touch with him.
These things weighed heavily on me. They grieved me. They did influence me. The primary influence, however, was the struggle within me. The personal difficulties among the church leadership exasperated my own struggles, but didn’t cause them.
I can’t say that my experience is exactly like what anyone else has experienced. Maybe there are people for whom the primary influence in their deconstruction was the flaws in the church. I doubt it, but it’s possible.
I think, more likely, it’s an easy out. More likely, those flaws we see in others hastens our own deconstruction.
Just as the writer of Hebrews urges the reader to consider the “great cloud of witnesses” (people of faith) in throwing off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us”, fixing our eyes on Jesus who is “the author and perfecter of our faith”, we are influenced by the examples in our lives. Those examples can be good and bad.
Significantly, the thing this “great cloud of witnesses” did is have faith! They fixed their eyes, as is suggested by this passage, on God. God is the one who saves us, rescues us, perfects us. We only consider their example of faith – not their behavior. Faith is the only thing that matters.
All we have to do is consider Abraham, who is considered the father of saving faith. (Rom. 4:6) He is the supreme example of faith offered in Scripture. But if we carefully examine his life, we find deep flaws. He didn’t even always have robust faith! He sired a child with his wife’s handmaiden because he doubted that his wife could give him the child God promised him.
We all know, even by looking hard at our own hearts, that people are deeply flawed. Even people who are born again have the “old man”, the old sinful nature, living side by side within them. It’s a daily battle. Paul described it well when he said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Rom. 7:15)
It’s fundamental to the scripture that informs Christianity that we are all sinners and have all fallen short of the glory of God. There is nothing in scripture that suggest that we should base our belief and our faith on other people, even the church. Jesus warned that there would be tares growing up with the wheat. (Matt. 13:24-30) They remain because they can’t be weeded out without destroying the wheat.
The letters of Paul, Peter, James and Jude all focus on the flaws that were appearing already in the cracks of the foundation of the church within the first generation after the death of Christ. Should we think the modern church would be any less flawed 20 centuries later?
The Bible is exactly right about human nature. There is no one good, not even one person. (Rom. 3:10) God alone is good. (Matt. 10:18)
If there is one thing I have learned through my experience of being a lawyer, it is that humans are deeply and irrevocably flawed. Human systems are imperfect and incapable of true justice. The Bible gets it exactly right.
Ultimately, our hope must be in God, and God alone. God alone is true, though every man be a liar.