Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and discusses what might be an appropriate Christian response. To read my first two excerpts, link HERE and HERE. For an overview of the book, link HERE.
Those of us who identify as Christians are in no position to judge secular society when it comes to polarization. We often stand justifiably accused of stirring the pot ourselves — and not in a good way.
Granted, it’s irritating to hear atheists refer to our God as “your Sky Fairy.” But realistically, how many atheists have been brought to Christ through exchanges like this one, which appear all too frequently on social media sites?
Atheist: Your “god” is imaginary.
Christian: Your mind is of a reprobate.
Atheist: I suspect even you know your own criminal religion is a joke.
Christian: In the name of Christ, you are condemned. Make no mistake about it, with your beliefs you will positively burn.
And we’re not sparring solely with atheists. Here are just some of the things I’ve heard Christians say about other Christians in recent years:
That church is nothing more than a glorified country club. Their minister preaches heresy so as to avoid offending the rich people who support the congregation financially. … It would be nice if the folks at that church spent more time actually reading their Bibles and less time thumping on them. Maybe then they wouldn’t be so bigoted toward anyone who is different from them. … That church doesn’t preach the gospel. It offers entertainment. … You need to stay away from that church. Those people are not real Christians. … I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that church is the Great Harlot mentioned in the Book of Revelation.
A couple years ago, I joined an invitation-only Facebook group made up of people from a denomination that shall remain mercifully nameless — and felt like I’d entered the Twilight Zone. From the “About This Group” description, it was clear the administrator envisioned this discussion group as an outreach and evangelism tool. However, several conversation threads consisted of little more than name-calling and expletives NOT deleted. You are the anti-Christ and Were you born that stupid or do you have to practice? were just two of the lovelier sentiments expressed by commenters. F-bombs dropped on people left and right. Whenever someone responded to the nastier threads with the observation that we could all use a bit more civility, they were met with the kind of hostility one might expect if they’d suggested we all start cooking and eating puppies.
Progressive and conservative Christians regularly maul and skewer each other on Web sites such as Patheos, both in the articles themselves and in the comments sections that follow:
“Progressive Christian” is an oxymoron. … The Christian Right is neither. … Anyone who would vote for [a Democrat, a Republican, fill in the blank] has no right to call themselves a Christian.
Though I suppose nothing should shock me in the current political climate, I must admit I’ve been more than a little taken aback as I encounter these flame wars between Christians on the various social media sites. Even more disturbing is the fact that some of the ugliest vitriol has come from seminary students and members of the clergy.
As with the Culture Wars in our larger secular society, staying off social media does not necessarily keep us out of the line of fire.
Pastors or congregation members who bring up moral issues ranging from abortion and gun violence to racism, immigration and economic justice are accused of “getting too political.” If we don’t believe this, we can go to a service where the gospel message is Matthew 25, Isaiah 1:17, or the Beatitudes and see how long it takes for someone to say, “Let’s not bring partisan politics into church.” Got a stopwatch?
The Worship Wars transcend denominational boundaries. For years now, Christians of all stripes have been locked in an unyielding struggle over whether a congregation’s worship and music style should be traditional or contemporary:
Okay Boomers, if you want to attract young people to your congregation, you need to lose the geezer music. … When I attended a contemporary service recently, I felt like I was in a bar rather than a church. … I do not want to see drums in the sanctuary!
Of course, one could argue that bickering among church people is nothing new. It’s been going on at least since New Testament times, judging from 1 Corinthians 1:11-13:
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
In the Middle Ages, some Christians burned other Christians at the stake or subjected them to imprisonment, starvation, thumbscrews or the rack for alleged “heresy.” Depending on where one lived and which denomination’s leaders had power, one could face these forms of execution or torture for being a Catholic, a Lutheran, a Calvinist, an Anabaptist or just about any other sect in existence at the time.
While we no longer burn people alive in the 21st Century, we continue to divide ourselves and judge each other relentlessly. One reason we have literally hundreds of Christian denominations lies in our inability to agree on much of anything. The various sects and denominations offer contrasting teachings on everything from baptism (Sprinkling or immersion? Infant or older?) to communion (Wine or grape juice? Open or closed?) to how one gets “saved” (Baptism or personal decision?). Whether our brand of Christianity is conservative or progressive, some of us are very quick to label those who disagree with our interpretation of the truth: Heretic! Apostate! Satanic!
I have to admit I’ve been guilty of waxing snarky about other Christians myself at times. One day in Sunday School class, someone asked the group, “Do you think [well-known person] is really a Christian?” I replied with the proverbial wink-and-nudge, “By their fruits we shall know them,” and was gratified when several people laughed. I probably should have deposited a $20 fine in Rachel Held Evans’ Jar of Contention for that one. (For more about the Jar of Contention, link HERE.) I also have to admit several less-than-charitable thoughts came to mind as I wrote this blog post about divisive behavior among Christians.
But in the end, this all leaves me feeling more sadness than anything else. Name-calling, flaming, trolling and other rude behavior stop genuine discussion in its tracks. Lashing out with insults toward those who disagree with us only gives others an excuse to discount us and dismiss our message. For those of us who claim to be people of faith, spewing hurtful and gratuitous snark gives people ammunition to call us hypocrites and declare they want nothing to do with either us or our religion.
Yes, I get that church is a hospital for sinners and Christians need to attend precisely because we are less than perfect. In fact, most of us, myself included, tend to need forgiveness of the seventy-times-seven variety. But there has been a lot of talk in our congregations in recent years about the increasing numbers of young people who identify as “none” when asked their religion. If we were an unchurched young person and came across the behavior described here, would we want to come to church?
I’m certainly not suggesting we must all paste fake smiles on our faces and agree with everyone about everything in the name of civility. I’ve witnessed lots of sincere and intelligent Christians taking opposing stands on various hot-button issues and backing up their positions by pointing to relevant Biblical passages. Perfectly honest people can honestly differ. But to say that people who disagree with our own interpretation of the truth aren’t “real Christians” simply doesn’t strike me as helpful.
Christians could show love for our neighbors by offering the secular world an example of how to disagree without being disagreeable. We need to start now.
Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? How do Christians avoid becoming part of the problem? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on the article itself. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).