When Belief Becomes a Work

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For a while, I’ve felt that fundamentalism is works-based.

I don’t mean that as the typical accusation thrown against fundamentalism — the legalistic rules about not drinking or dancing.

I mean that, to me, there’s something in their view of Scripture and belief that makes that sort of Christianity burdensome, wearying, and, well, a striving of one’s own — works-based salvation.

Essentially, they turn belief into a work.

Fundamentalist salvation is knowledge-based. It’s dependent upon knowing and believing the Bible. We didn’t learn spiritual discipline in fundamentalist Baptist Sunday school; we learned apologetics. We learned how to defend Scripture against a secular world which would undermine our faith in the Bible.

Initial salvation came, in part, from hearing the Word rightfully preached and acknowledging it in your heart as true. The rest of your Christian life was dedicated to knowing why you believe what you believe in order to convince — sorry, convert — people to the truth of God’s Word.

And everything, everything hinged on you interpreting the Bible correctly — our country’s future, the survival of the church, the salvation of your friends, and, of course, your own salvation.

The more liberal-minded fundamentalists divided Biblical truths into two categories: salvation issues and non-salvation issues. This comforted us when faced with friends and family who, oddly, refused to acknowledge that the truth as we saw it was truth. If we only disagreed on non-salvation issues, we didn’t have to worry about their salvation. And if we ourselves were confused about a minute issue of theology, no worries — there was room for error with those sorts of non-salvation issues.

Of course, not everybody was as liberal-minded as my friends and family. Not everybody agreed on what counted as a salvation issue.

When I was a teenager, obsessed with the pursuit of truth, willing to believe and fight for anything, no matter how crazy or unjust, as long as I was convinced it was true — back in those days, we debated about whether creationism was a salvation issue or not.

On the one hand, believing evolution was obviously an egregious refusal to recognize the literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2, and, frankly, how can someone with a brain and the Spirit of God not see that? But, theoretically (not that we knew anybody like this, but theoretically), some real Christians might be duped by evolutionist lies. God can save anybody. You never know.

So we decided that there might be a handful of Christians out there who believed in evolution, but yeah, for the most part, it’d be impossible to be a Christian and an evolutionist at the same time.

I discussed this with my college-aged youth group leader, no doubt trying to impress him with my discernment and compassion.

“It’s obviously a huge issue,” I was rattling on, “because there’s really no way you can understand Genesis 1 and 2 as anything but a literal six day creation, but I don’t think it’s a salvation issue.”

“No,” he said flatly. “It’s impossible to be a Christian and believe in evolution.”

And then he questioned my salvation for even considering the possibility that someone could possibly be Christian and an evolutionist at the same time.

I fled, out of the church, behind the brick walls, and sobbed my heart out.

That is the time, in my memory, when the fundamentalist burden first perched on my shoulders.

This wasn’t theology, of course. Nobody said that your salvation depended upon your knowledge, upon a certain set of salvation issues, but it did. We all knew it.

Which is why, I think, I got into theology in the first place. I wanted to know the truth. That was the only way I would know God, and the only way I could escape the torment of wondering each night if I would wake up in hell the next morning.

***

There are several factors for why fundamentalists link correct knowledge (i.e., Biblical truth) to salvation. Basically, their syllogism is this: the Bible is clear and easy to understand to those who are of God. If you don’t find it clear or easy, you’re not of God.

Your relationship to the Bible determines your relationship with God

The problem with this sort of salvation is that somebody always has a more conservative, plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face interpretation of the Bible — a literalism to rival mainstream fundamentalism.

My husband was the first to point this out to me.

A chemist who learned biology from the faculty who sat next to us at College Baptist or St. Anthony’s every Sunday, he never understood my insistence on a literal six day creation. To him, it was both bad science and bad theology: the means of how God created couldn’t take away from the fact that God created.

The other day, he found a PDF of all the reasons why the earth is flat, according to the Bible. It was an even more radical Answers in Genesis, with the same basic argument: the Bible guides our view of reality, period, and the Bible says x. Therefore, x is the truth, no matter what evidence contradicts it. And, by the way, science supports this too — isn’t it funny how God works? Just look at the evidence with an open mind and ask God to help you see.

P.S. Anyone who believes the earth is round isn’t saved. Good luck!

The old anxiety came. My husband found me in the bedroom, scrolling through variation after variation of “Ten Proofs the Earth Is Round.”

“What are you doing?” he asked me. “Stop. Come shopping with me.”

“I have to know if it’s true.”

“Bailey!” he laughed, nervously. “Stop. Why are you doing this? Let’s go.”

I have to know if it’s true.”

He didn’t realize that what was to him an instance of stupidity on the internet was to me the trigger to my sleeping fundamentalism.

And there I was again, as if under brainwashed compulsion, considering a conspiracy-riddled, catastrophized, ridiculous belief…because what if it’s actually true? 

It clicked for me: the fundamentalist link between knowledge of certain Biblical truths and your salvation will never bring comfort. You always have to be studying, always have to be discerning, always have to keep rehashing the same arguments over and over again, because if you get in a car crash today and die and you believe the wrong thing, it’s too late.

You can’t afford to be wrong.

***

Recently, a woman asked a group of egalitarians how to deal with this fear. She liked the idea of egalitarianism, it seemed Biblical, but she couldn’t get over this: what if she was wrong? She was terrified of that possibility.

Because, in fundamentalism, your love for others, your love for God, your good intentions, your desire to know the truth at all costs — none of that matters (because good works don’t get you saved, see) if you don’t actually know the truth.

God doesn’t factor in your frailness, your journey, your intellectual or social or even spiritual roadblocks to understanding the truth.

But by the way, don’t rely on your knowledge either, because even if you know all the right things and do all the right things, Jesus can still say to you, “Depart from me, for I never knew you.”

But don’t worry! The peace of God brings certainty! Stop striving! Why do you feel the need to question your salvation?

That is the most wearying, oppressive part of this whole mindset: even though it demands the unconditional understanding, accepting, and promoting of the truth in order to be saved, it will never be enough.

They’ll get you for something — for doubting, for asking questions, for disagreeing with them, for not agreeing with them as quickly as you should, for just “seeming” to be someone who isn’t saved.

You’re never safe to stop your search. Just when you’ve accepted creationism, you get slammed for believing in a round earth, you heathen.

I heard it from my youth group leader, personally.

My family, one of three families attending the church, heard it from the pulpit: “I just get the feeling that some of you aren’t really saved.”

I heard it last summer, when someone kindly informed me that my intellectualism had blinded me from actually knowing God.

When I got that email, I screamed. I screamed for a lifetime of never knowing enough, not knowing enough, or believing enough.

“Why can’t I just love you?” I screamed at Jesus. “Why is that never enough?”

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36 thoughts on “When Belief Becomes a Work

  1. Elizabeth

    What a heartfelt post. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    My battle was defined between faith and “true” faith, spirituality and “authentic” spirituality. Even now, I can almost feel my hackles raise when those modifiers pop up regarding pop theology and spiritual issues. Those just seemed so un-quantifiable, so ephemeral, and left me very hopeless, feeling like a fraud.

    A couple ideas really helped me find some measure of peace, although of course it still pops up. First was to meditate on my identity in Christ as a child of God. I just thought, what could cause me to pull my love away from my daughter? and meditated on that. Then I imagined God looking at me through that same lens. And then, if I can love my daughter so much, thinking on Luke 11: “Therefore if you, being evil, know to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father who is in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those asking Him!”

    Another is to meditate on Christ as the Good Shepherd. Not just a Shepherd — a good one — and I’m just a lamb! Lambs wander and the Shepherd gathers, that’s the deal. But he’s not just going to let me be snatched into hellfire.

    Lastly, I really liked to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I know its not for everybody, but its reassuring to me that I truly believe my salvation depends more on His mercy, His lovingkindness, His character than anything of my own except my willingness to be saved.

    Also, if you haven’t read Julian of Norwich’s “Revelations of Divine Love” you should. Although I’m sure there’s things to take issue with, I think it would be a really helpful counter-point to those negative fundamentalist voices that have some brainspace.

    I hope something in this may be helpful for you or someone else reading, take anything helpful and feel free to toss the rest! :) I’ll be thinking of you.

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  2. Jasmine Ruigrok

    Sigh. Yeah. When you get the philosophy of ‘unless you know the right information you’re going to hell’ beaten into your skull, it’s hard to grasp a concept like grace. I heard a quote somewhere the other week that went like, ‘the last thing a Christian will surrender to God is their desire to do the right thing’. It stopped me in my tracks, because I realised just how much I rely more on MY right doings than on Christ’s, even though I’m learning more and more how little salvation has to do with me! I think there’s a reason why Paul said, “I know nothing save Christ and Him crucified”. When Christ is all you have, it’s all you need. It is enough, and you are enough, Bailey.

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  3. Karen Wright

    I heard someone once say that fundamentalists believe the Bible is the “fourth member of the Godhead”. At the time, I was pretty entrenched still in it all so it was hard for me to understand what’s so bad about elevating the Bible to the same level as God…in fact, thinking otherwise really felt like blasphemy. But now I find that pretty helpful…is the BIble being treated as a book ABOUT God or is it being treaded AS God? Actually makes a big, relieving difference. Great post Bailey. This is the sort of thing that needs to keep being said.

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  4. Angela Armold

    This is WONDERFUL. Thank you for being honest about the wrongs of Fundamentalism without condemning to those who follow it… And thank you for being honest about the struggle and anger that comes from being told what to DO and THINK instead of HOW to live and love. I hope this piece helps many people to think and learn… but more importantly to help us grow in love and grace.

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  5. Abigail

    I have a question that might seem dumb, but it’s been on my mind for a few days and I want to ask, how exactly do you define fundamentalism? I have been familiar with it as the historical alternative to the theological liberalism that rejected the authority of Scripture and possibility of miracles. (My church had a great conference once about Baptist history. I was about twelve, and I loved it. I had no idea what a nerd I was, and totally didn’t care.) Thus, I have considered myself a fundamentalist despite the negative connotations in culture, because I believe in Scriptural doctrines. Now I’m rethinking that label, because clearly it encompasses a lot more than a belief in the Bible or being Baptist. I hope that this question isn’t too vague or challenging, but how would you define what it means for a church or an individual to be fundamentalist?

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    • Bailey Steger

      Sorry it took me so long to respond! It has nothing to do with the question; I’ve just been busy. :) I love this question. I’m not sure how to answer this question.

      So, you’re right — a fundamentalist is technically the opposite of a liberal, and I would categorize lots (all?) conservative Protestant denominations as fundamentalist in that sense. But I’ve also heard people describe cults and certain strains of Catholicism as “fundamentalist,” soooo.

      I’m already feeling that this is not going to be a helpful comment. :P

      I think, at least in my experience, that fundamentalism is both an attitude and a set of doctrines, and they feed into each other a lot. I would sum up the attitudes/beliefs as this: our way — our specific, narrow way– is the ONLY way, and there are serious consequences if you disagree.

      There’s usually a big emphasis on hell or suffering in this life as a consequence of not believing as they do, sin, avoiding sin in very specific ways, and a literalist interpretation that leaves no room for even the possibility that another interpretation of Scripture could be an honest one. If anyone questions their interpretation/beliefs, that person is deceived, possesses an evil spirit, blinded to the truth, and, basically, incapable of communicating or understanding truth. And it’s so fear-based. If you try to leave the group or change your mind on doctrine, you can/will be shunned, shamed, emotionally abused, condemned to hell, told you don’t have the Spirit in you, etc., etc.

      Technical fundamentalism feeds this attitude in a lot of ways (the exclusive doctrine that only a certain kind of Bible-believing Christians will be saved, a strong loyalty to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, etc.), but it would be unfair of me to say that all technical fundamentalists are fundamentalists in attitude as well.

      I think there is value in still calling yourself a fundamentalist when talking about it in relationship to liberalism, so no shame there. It’s not as helpful when discussing beliefs in comparison to Catholics or Orthodoxy or other religions or nones/agnostics/atheists.

      Sorry, does this even clarify anything at all for you?? :P

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      • Abigail

        It is a helpful clarification. I know that broad terms like this one are difficult to define, so I appreciate you taking the time explain your perception. It helps me understand how and why people use the label, and also clarifies my experience. My parents and church leaders intentionally maintained the tension of doctrine and human freedom, often mentioning areas of disagreement in different denominations and talking about how we can be wrong in our interpretations, but ultimately just need to know the truth about Christ. That must be why I could grow up learning fundamentalist doctrines about hell, for instance, without feeling as terrified of dissent. I experienced terror of hell based on my moral inadequacies, but doctrines never created fear for me (at least that I can recall). Your post and response helped me better understand that dynamic, and I appreciate you sharing your heart about your experiences. Thank you for your willingness to be vulnerable.

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      • Bailey Steger

        It’s so good to hear of a healthy, nuanced understanding of these issues in a “fundamentalist” church. I appreciate your graciousness and willingness to listen and understand. You definitely aren’t anything like the fundamentalist stereotype. ;)

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  6. shawneelynn

    I really needed to hear this so much. As someone who struggles with my faith on a daily basis, I’m starting to realize that the things I’m doubting and struggling with are minute compared to His love and grace. You are awesome and strong for posting this and I’m extremely blessed and thankful that you did. Thank you.

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  7. Denzil - Life Sentences

    Thank for sharing this. It really resonated with me a lot. Without going into details, over the last four years I have weaned myself off evangelical fundamentalism and embraced a more progressive Christianity, and it’s like being born again, again! Just to mention a few words and phrases that describe it: freedom, liberation, release, smile, laugh, phew, freedom, never again, I’m glad that’s over, was I really like that?, freedom, how could I believe that stuff?, never going back there again, did I mention freedom?, faith with a touch of mystery, the sacred everywhere and in everything, all of nature sings … and freedom! (Sorry for sounding like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. I’ll try not to think of the Elders as a group of English Redcoats).

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  8. Allison Caylor

    Have been short on time and missed your weekend adventures here, but I hope to catch up in the next few days. I just had to say how insightful and gripping of a post this is. I’ve never read or heard such a to-the-core rebuttal of the fundamentalist mindset, and I truly appreciate it. Well done.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Thanks, Allison. I’m glad you found it those things! It’s good to hear from someone who’s not necessarily progressive or uncertain about their denominational leanings still recognize where things can go really, really wrong with fundamentalism.

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  9. Mandy PS

    This is a great post! My husband and I have been actually talking about this idea a lot recently. It’s like people think there is a spiritual test you have to pass in order to get into heaven. “Oh you didn’t understand the Trinity, you just loved Jesus. I’m sorry, you’re not welcome here.” And yet I grew up in the exact same kind of Fundamentalism you’re describing that would say “Yes, you don’t understand, so you can’t really be saved.”

    I’ll never forgot the time my mother questioned my salvation because I asked her (I was a kid) if Jesus would have gotten the chicken-pox. And she was like “Absolutely not, because he was perfect, and if you believe otherwise, you’re not a Christian.” That’s just always stuck with me, and is perhaps one of the reasons I’m so lenient these days in what I consider a “salvation” issue. I’m not a universalist by any means, but I think there will be a lot more kinds of people in heaven with varying beliefs about things in the Bible than the average fundamentalist can even fathom.

    (Also just found your blog thanks to Samantha Field today, and I’m really enjoying it! Keep up the awesome writing!)

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  10. anonymous

    Thank you for your honest post. As an ex-evangelical I still experience the obsession to find the right answer and the doubt that I have, as you described. And my youth was filled with experiences like the one you describe with the youth pastor.
    I would encourage you to check out a number of resources which may further challenge your faith but also expand your worldview, and, from the sense I get of you, likely add to your freedom and growth.
    They include 1) the Joseph Campbell video series with Bill Moyers (especially the first two episodes) which is likely available at your public library and is sold on Amazon 2) Carl Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections which addresses all manner of internal processes including his Christian upbringing, & speaks deeply to existential and theological concerns while being engaging and even funny 3) The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor, a Christian author and academic 4) In Defense of Doubt by Val Webb.
    Best wishes to you!

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  11. theclosetatheist

    I think it is interesting that you believe that true Christians can’t believe in evolution. Personally, I agree that bible-believing Christians ought to interpret Genesis literally and reject evolution. That being said, obviously I am not a Christian, and I do believe in evolution and not in the biblical creation account.

    The reason I find your statement interesting is because a lot of my Christian friends believe in evolution. I expect that they merely interpret scripture differently, and they take it as allegory or some kind of symbolic rather than historical teaching. I know that some theories that Christians use to incorporate the bible and evolution are the gap theory (there was a long period of time that occurred between the creation of the universe and the creation of mankind, which is when millions of years of evolution occurred) and the day-age theory (each “day” in the creation account could have been an indefinite amount of time, and life evolved over the course of the 6 ages).

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    • Bailey Steger

      Just to clarify, that’s what fundamentalists believe, and what I believed when I was fundamentalist. I am no longer fundamentalist, I no longer believe in a literal six day creation, and know lots of Christians who accept evolution as compatible with Genesis. :)

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  12. montanapreacher

    I consider myself to be a fundamentalist. However, the way you described fundamentalists really didn’t sound like any of the churches I have ever been apart of. Fundamental baptists preach and teach that the only method of salvation is by the belief that Jesus Christ was God’s Son, that He died on the cross for their sins, and raised Him from the dead – and of course asking God to save them. That comes from the scriptures. We don’t teach that you have to know so much about your Bible to be saved or interpret things the right way. I believe there are denominations that teach some of the things you mentioned in your article, but it’s not all fundamentalists that feel that way or teach that way. We do teach that if the Bible says something is wrong, it’s wrong – but that has nothing to do with a person’s salvation. Just thought I would add my two cents worth.

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    • Bailey Steger

      To clarify, I don’t believe any fundamentalist denomination straight up teaches that you must know all the right answers to be saved. I was describing more of a mindset, an attitude, an unspoken rule that most fundamentalists would wholeheartedly deny if you asked them. Like I said, I grew up in fundamentalist Baptist churches. Nobody ever preached from the pulpit that you had to know certain things to be saved. That unspoken rule arose from a strong emphasis on Biblical literalism and separationist beliefs.

      And I think children raised fundamentalist feel the effects more keenly than an adult.

      BUT I do not want to dictate to you the experience YOU have had. Not knowing you or your congregation, I trust that you’re accurately describing your experience — that you never encountered the mindset of having to know all the right things. That’s awesome. The point of the post was to validate the many many many people who HAVE felt that way about fundamentalism, not to denigrate all the positive experiences people have had with fundamentalism.

      Liked by 1 person

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