Unquestioned Obedience or Faithful Questioning
According to the Pew Research Center, 70.6 percent of Americans claim a religious affiliation, a drop of eight percentage points in just seven years. Among Millennials (those born between 1980 and the early 2000s) the drop is even more precipitous, down to 64 percent.
Humans need to belong. While we might think the nuclear family is the key to a culture’s health, it is actually a larger entity. It is the tribe that defines the strength of a culture. Being part of a meaningful tribe has always been a basic element of healthy living. We are wired to belong. That is one of the reasons I am intrigued by the decline in church attendance. If we need community to survive, why do Americans choose to build their community around a sports team instead of a church? (This would especially be true for Mets fans.)
When I talk with young Evangelicals about why they no longer attend church, one answer emerges time and again. They feel their churches have taken legalistic views of scripture at odds with their conscience. There was a time when the unquestioned obedience that results from a legalistic view of scripture led people to rape women, kill children, and enslave enemies in the name of God. Today’s young people reject such blind obedience. Their approach is actually very compatible with the teaching of Jesus.
In Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood describes two different types of people in the pages of the Bible. There were those who believed following God meant unquestioned obedience, and others who believed following God called for faithful questioning. Was it really necessary to kill the children of enemies? Was it necessary to view life from a perspective of scarcity, something common to all three desert religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity?
Unquestioned obedience and faithful questioning have always existed in tension among the people of God. If we follow the example of Jesus, we will be faithful questioners. As my pastor Jenny Morgan said in her sermon last Sunday, “Jesus rejected violence by re-orienting, even correcting certain passages. Jesus did this from a place of deep truth. We disarm these passages based on historical, archeological evidence and by following Jesus. There is no revenge in Jesus, so there can be no revenge in God.” She went on to say, “Unquestioning obedience is often motivated by fear, but faithful questioning is motivated by love and trust.”
Someone might object, “But that was Jesus. He was allowed to reframe whatever he wanted to reframe.” Yet the truth is the church has been following Jesus’ example for 2000 years. It is how the church came to accept that the earth revolves around the sun, though they accepted it too late to stop Galileo from suffering. It is how the church slowly and agonizingly came to see slavery as incompatible with Christianity. More recently it is how the church came to see women as equal to men, though that one is still a work in progress. In each case, the hard work of faithful questioning brought about important change.
Since the church has always made painful adjustments in light of new scientific and religious understanding, why would we be so arrogant as to think that kind of work is behind us? How can we think we have arrived at the pinnacle of understanding? There will always be new information, and humans will always adapt to our growing body of knowledge.
I do understand the current religious environment of fear. We live in a world changing more rapidly than ever before. When you add the reality that ethics has had a hard time keeping up with scientific discovery, it is understandable when people react negatively in the face of change. But we are remiss if we avoid the lesson of history. Choosing our battles poorly diminishes the character of the church and causes us to be a poor reflection of the Christ we serve. And throughout history, it is hard to deny the reality that the church, time and again, has chosen its battles poorly.
There must be room within the church for faithful questioners or the church will end up in a silo of its own making, what Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture called, “Christ against Culture.” Others refer to it as the “embattled church.” If we really believe the truth will set us free, we need not fear faithful questioners in our midst. In fact, we should be grateful for them. For it is only by wrestling with the words of scripture that we collectively reach conclusions compatible with the example of Christ. These young Millennials are reminding us what many generations have had to remind those who came before – It is Jesus we serve, not a book.
And so it goes.