In my nine years pastoring in the PC(USA), I never ran across Mark Sandlin. I don’t just mean that I never met him, which is entirely unsurprising; it’s a big denomination, he pastors down South, and I never did. I also mean that for all the conversations/debates I got into online across various websites, I never noticed his name. (As far as I remember, anyway.) Apparently, though, he’s something of a big wheel in the liberal wing of the American church, and this week my amazing wife called my attention to a column of his which asks a provocative question:
At what point do we get to say parts of Christianity are no longer Christian?
Sandlin opens with a brief YouTube clip of a preacher bragging about leading a teenaged boy to the Lord by punching him in the chest. I don’t feel any need to repost the video; my own theology is sufficiently expressed by saying that whatever Lord this guy led that kid to, it isn’t one I know. Sandlin acknowledges that this guy is an outlier, but nevertheless takes him as the jumping-off point for his column. I think this piece deserves some careful interaction, and so I intend to respond to it in several parts; as you can probably guess, I have some critical things to say, but it seems right and proper to begin with some positive comments.
First, Sandlin shows an appreciation of the complexity of Christian doctrine.
Christianity and the theology that goes along with it is a bit ornery and given to doing its own thing. It is, at times, difficult and complicated to sort out.
So, it’s only reasonable to realize that people who are trying to follow Jesus are going to end up with a lot of different beliefs; and each will probably feel somewhat confident that their conclusions are the best conclusions (or at least very good ones).
He manages here to walk a fairly fine line. On the one hand, he treats theological differences among Christians as matters of substance to be taken seriously, where some would prefer to wave them away as unimportant. On the other, he recognizes that good-faith efforts by Christians to understand the truth of God will not end up in perfect agreement; the task of theology is big enough and complex enough that significant theological disagreements are inevitable even when we all have the best of motives. As a general rule, we can’t deal with other Christians whose beliefs we dislike either by dismissing them or by impugning their character and intentions. It is incumbent upon us to take fellow Christians seriously and treat them with respect whether they belong to our particular theological party or not.
Second, he understands that a) the word “Christian” needs to mean something coherent, and b) if it’s going to mean something coherent, it has to be defined by Christians, not by anybody who wants to claim the term. The failure to take these points seriously is how we ended up with the farce of the “Westboro Baptist Church,” which—as Trevin Wax quipped—”is not a church, not Baptist, and not in Westboro.” Wax went on to observe, “If there is any lesson to be learned from Westboro, it is that virtually any organization can market itself and ‘win’ by being recognized as whatever it pretends to be”—but that’s only true if no one is willing to stand up and expose the pretense. Fred Phelps is a disbarred lawyer and religious profiteer who has never been ordained by any body which he did not himself create, and if American church leaders had been willing to expose and disown him as a nasty little cult leader decades ago, this world would be a better place. Sandlin doesn’t mention the Phelps gang, but they ought to be Exhibit A for his case.
There’s a point at which we need to say those folks are no longer practitioners of Christianity. We need to say they may be using Christianity, but they certainly are not practicing Christianity. . . .
Look at it this way, you don’t get to go around town randomly punching people in the face and get to claim you are a peace activist. That’s just nonsense. . . .
There is a point at which active inclusion, the avoidance of judgment, leads to a dismantling of the meaning of a moniker.
That is to say, if anyone can claim to be Christian and are not called out on doing clearly unChristian things then being “Christian” can literally mean almost anything. The word loses much of its meaning.
This is simple logic. The idea that it’s somehow “judgmental” to tell people that they don’t get to play Humpty Dumpty with the word “Christian” and use it to mean whatever they want it to mean has only done the church harm.
Third, I think the examples Sandlin gives are generally fair. It’s appropriate to disavow a pastor who boasts of punching a teenager under his care,
or the North Carolina minister who wanted to fence in all gay people by gender (you know, to keep them from reproducing). Or how about the Arizona minister who advocated just killing all gay people.
These are not men who are rightly dividing the word of truth. To be blunt, they are barbarians, and when there are barbarians at the gates, the first thing a healthy civilization does is name them as barbarians and face the reality that it has barbarians at the gates. To do anything else is to invite barbarism.