Thursday, August 15, 2019

There is an archaic word that is being resurrected of late: apostasy.  Apostasy means to abandon one's beliefs (religious or political or, in the case of U.S. evangelicals, both).

A few weeks ago, Josh Harris, who was a darling of the evangelical world in the late 90's due to his best-selling book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" (which promulgated "biblical" sexual purity standards) and who went on to become a pastor, announced that he no longer considers himself a Christian (he also disavowed the things he taught in his books, apologized to the LGBTQ community and separated from his wife).  "I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus," wrote Harris. "The popular phrase for this is 'deconstruction,' the biblical phrase is 'falling away.' By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now."

This week a new kerfuffle has emerged as Marty Sampson, a worship leader and songwriter in the powerful Hillsong evangelical movement, mused on Instagram, "I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me. Like, what bothers me now is nothing. I am so happy now, so at peace with the world."  Sampson later clarified that he hasn't renounced his faith but that it is "on incredibly shaky ground" in part because he is “struggling with many parts of the belief system that seem so incoherent with common human morality.”

When I saw Sampson's Instragram post, I was impressed by his honesty.  In fact, honesty was a major theme in his post. "I want genuine truth. Not the 'I just believe it' kind of truth," Sampson wrote.  He lamented that there are many tough and relevant questions about Christianity right now--such as immorality among Christian leaders, compatibility between fundamentalist Christian teachings and science, etc.--but, "no one talks about it."

There used to be a guy named Hank Hanegraaff (who billed himself as "The Bible Answer Man") with a nationally syndicated Christian phone-in radio show.  People would call and ask him questions, and he always had an answer (that conformed to fundamentalist evangelical doctrine).  Sometimes people would call and ask Hank about friends or loved ones or celebrities who had "fallen away" from the faith.  Hanegraaff's answer was that if one is truly saved it is impossible to fall away.  Therefore, he reasoned, those who fall away were never really Christians in the first place.  That's pretty dumb (and arrogant) logic, rooted in Calvinism and steeped in tribalism.  Hanegraaff's answer was, essentially, "well, they never really were one of us, so we don't need to grapple with why they eventually rejected their, and our, belief system."

I've learned (from observation and from personal experience) that leaving a tribe you once belonged to incurs far more rage and retribution than having never belonged to the tribe in the first place.  Leaving a tribe stirs up troubling questions about the legitimacy of the tribe (or the tribe's leaders).  And questions coming from those within the tribe--honest and tough and challenging questions--cannot be abided, as they are perceived as a threat.  So honest seekers of truth must often make the painful decision of either leaving the tribe to continue their quest for answers, or shut up and fall into line.

In the fundamentalist Muslim world, to renounce Islam and embrace a different religion (or no religion) is considered an unforgiveable sin.  But a person who has always been a Christian or Jew or Buddhist is generally viewed in the Muslim world with respect (or at least with far less contempt than a former Muslim).  Fundamentalist Christians aren't much different in their attitudes toward apostates.

A few years ago, Vicky Beeching, a prominant British worship leader/songwriter (and Oxford educated theologian), came out as a lesbian.  She remained an evangelical Christian.  "God was still my highest priority and my greatest love," she says.  But her songs were systematically erased from the evangelical world and the invitations to lead worship at churches and gatherings abruptly ceased.  She was shunned.  Her wonderful and heartfelt songs of worship, which had been sung by thousands, were now considered tainted.  "She was never really one of us" was the message.  The same pattern will undoubtedly occur with Marty Sampson.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, coined the term "fallen from grace."  It's the only place this phrase appears in the Bible.  But, interestingly enough, when Paul used the phrase he was castigating the Galatian Christians for embracing legalism and turning their backs on grace.  "You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace," he told the Galatians.  In other words, it was the religious legalists who had fallen from grace.

I would submit that we are seeing an apostasy in our day and age.  It is a terrible falling away.  But it is a falling away from grace.  Like the "foolish Galatians" (as Paul called them), a great many evangelical Christians have abandoned grace and instead embraced legalism and tribalism.  They have rejected the truth-seekers, the question-askers, the agents of grace (not to mention the immigrants, the refugees, the outcasts and the poor).  They have become like the Pharisees depicted in the Gospel of Matthew, for whom Jesus had few kind words, despite their stringent religiosity.  It seems that if folks like Beeching and Harris and Sampson and millions of millenials are indeed "falling away," they are actually falling away from legalism and toward grace. 

Many evangelicals believe that there will be a "great falling away" at "the End-Times."  I, and many other Christians, don't subscribe to that "End-Times/Left Behind" theology, but I do see a great falling away.  As in the days of Jesus and Paul, the ones who are falling away--the real apostates--are often the most religious ones; the ones who claim loudly to be doing God's will while they contradict God's heart.


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