The church as an institution is an organizational structure that almost everyone believes they are against…until it does something they like. This is the reason we experience the constant hypocrisy of people within it. During the early months of 1999, I heard a female church official complain about the sickness of the world in which we live. Why? Because the U.S. Senate failed to remove Bill Clinton from office.
A few years later a large fundamentalist church near where I served wanted to “forgive” their pastor for adultery that occurred at a church where he previously served. “The Bible demands forgives,” was the claim. A young man – an aspiring pastor – asked my thoughts on the matter. It was easy to answer. I replied, “I wonder what they thought about Bill Clinton.” His eyes widened. And I knew it was something he never considered beforehand.
Church is often the place where people go to have their prejudices confirmed. It is uncomfortable when the prevailing opinions of the group are challenged. The feeling of discomfort is even worse when apparent hypocrisy is challenged. One congregation I served had a poster on a classroom wall that said, “Don’t follow the crowd.” It was a black and white photograph of German soldiers of the Nazi era that showed only the backs of their helmets. Another time, at the same place, a congregant asked in wonderment, “how could a whole nation follow someone like Hitler?” I found it interesting because the same person along with most of the congregation’s members were overjoyed when their “Christian” President George W. Bush launched a war against Iraq in 2003.
Now the church rejoices in the Presidency of Donald Trump – a reality TV star, failed businessman, serial adulterer, and narcissist. Many people within churches are blind to this inherent sickness. As so many lefty Christian friends of mine observed, “These people do not read the Bible.”
Polite society allows us to claim, “real Christians do not behave this way.” Implied in the statement is that “real Christians” behave differently. The question left open is, “Do they?” Just how does a Christian behave? What are the moral goals? Are such goals in anyway different than what society considers to be goodness? What then does it mean to be holy?” And then why is it that many of the Christians who claim to be true to the faith do not allow the same consideration for members of other faiths who act contrary to the tenets of their own faith?
I will not answer any of these questions. Someone else may wish to do so. Nor will I offer the challenge that the Christians who hold different values simply are not reading the same Bible as me. Why? Because values are formed by other means than religious instruction.
The preeminence of the Holy Scripture in many Christian traditions is simply a faith statement. Adults who wish to learn more about the Bible from their churches tend to hold a high view of the Bible before the study begins. A clergy friend once told me the only people interested in the Bible are “fundamentalists.” I believe he was referencing people who had a high regard for the Bible who only heard from so-called fundamentalist media savvy preachers. Yet, even those with a high view of scripture, did not get that view from the Bible (after all they want to know more about it). They received this view from some other authority.
Personal values come to us from those persons we view as authorities. Family, teachers, medical people, government officials, military structures, and religious leaders all help to shape values. Authors and artists are those who challenge and reshape those values. Consider the unusual situation when a person is confronted by a novel or play that challenges and reshapes that individual’s values. Something very deep has happened in that person’s soul. Or consider how a visual representation can evoke a sentiment that destroys a veneer of intellectualism to make a change in one’s perception. The statue at Baba Yar outside of Kiev evoked such an evolution in my sense of compassion and justice that an evaluation of everything took place. And still there is the role of philosophers, historians, scientists, and other humanists that help us open our minds to other possible ways.
When these values, having been formed and reshaped, are applied when reading the Bible then something different from what one has “always believed” can be understood. Those spiritual and moral insights will be informed by the previously held values of the reader. It is not often that the Bible will alter those values.
Here is where the inherent sickness affects the people in churches. If a person holds values different from those of the church, that person lives with a dissonance far broader than the mere cognitive one of holding two different ideas at the same time. This often happens when that individual hears a teaching that differs significantly enough that it cannot be reconciled with the values one holds. The authority of the church is not significant enough for you to change your view.
Actions church leaders take are often more significant in the conflict of values. They often cause more anger too. Clergy members often value engagement outside the congregation and give the reason as “what they are called to do.” Whereas church members want to spend time engaging with each other and give as the reason the importance of “Christian fellowship.” Rarely does either side believe that they are saying. Clergy want to escape while laity want to hide. One side wants to be involved in some larger community. The other wants a sanctuary from that community. It makes for a conflict. Yet, it is the larger “visionary” projects that cause the most angst. Money is spent. Commitments are asked for. Time is begged for. And still the conflict of values is the problem. What is right? Who gets what out of this? Is this even workable?
The church as an institution is regarded by those who benefit from it as being in the Will of God. For those who draw no benefit or negatives, consider it unnecessary and a blight on society. Many within the latter group look for some other form of connection to other people. Often it is now said, “liberals don’t go to church” because churches are conservative. This is untrue. People, including professed believers, do not go to church because it is not where their actual values are formed or even challenged. They only go if they find some benefit. This benefit may be the goodwill of family and neighbors, a feeling of being a “leader” or “in charge,” or having a sense of prestige for participating. When churches do not offer their members who attend these benefits the church dies.