As you may have gaged from my previous posts, I was duped a few times by some pretty questionable theology in my 20’s. My story is quite similar to those of my collaborators from the previous two posts, so I thought it better to focus on a more “now what” type of post regarding my experiences. I want to detail a few signs/ tell tales that should have made me either run for the hills or raise an eyebrow and seek help regarding the situations I was involved in. While this post is by no means a “bad theology” buster, I want to draw from my own experience, first on what made me venture out to look for “other” teachings, then on what made me realise when I was in bad theology and finally, how I got out.
The rationale for the quest for “weightier” things
The teachings at my church just did not seem to encompass the whole canon of scripture. While the bible was preached thematically at the mercy of the preacher, it was not exposited. This meant that every week we were subjected to some topical series, which would draw on a verse at worst, or various passages, at best. While this was all good and fun, I always left church feeling ill-equipped, and in need of studying the bible deeper. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but what I was seeking was less entertainment, and for my church to help me feel more equipped with a good framework of studying the bible by myself. When I could not find this, I kept looking outside of my church to see how I could supplement this need. As I looked to Youtube pastors for spiritual guidance, I had a growing desire to attend churches that would meet this need. In that quest, I was in for a bumpy ride as you already know.
Tell tales that should have made me raise an eyebrow or two
The list below is by no means exhaustive, but I want to share some of the more concerning signs that should have at the very minimum, warranted a raised eyebrow and for me to go seek clarifications from the church leadership.
1. The bible was not the sole authority on issues
One of the churches I frequented used to subtly equate the teachings of their prophetess with those of scripture. Any argument could easily be ended with a line from one of her books. The logic was that her inspired texts were taken from scripture and therefore aligned to it, and so quoting them was essentially quoting scripture. The danger here was the elevation of commentary to the level of scripture and therefore creating another bible instead of the one passed down from the ages. No other writing, no matter how beautifully written, is scripture. Churches that equate the writings of their favourites to those of scripture should be called out for this. If the text is so closely aligned to scripture, then why not just quote scripture in that case?
2. Preaching of a different gospel
A common act in a church I attended was to make other things salvation issues over and above those detailed in scripture. This meant that those things which were not a requirement for salvation were suddenly viewed as fundamental to salvation. The red flag here is in how they were making salvation completely different from that which we see in the scriptures. An example from my experience was about obeying the law, and how that was somehow made a salvation issue. “You don’t keep the sabbath? Well you need to obey it for you to be saved”.
3. We graduated to “higher trues” from the gospel
Another common and pervasive experience that I had in a few churches was the seeming “moving on to deeper trues”. Understanding the gospel was inadvertently equated to “milk drank by babes” while those who had matured had moved on to eating meat. Therefore, to “grow the church in solid food”, the sermons became less about what Jesus has done and more about what we should be doing in light of all our expanding knowledge. The biggest danger with this is on cultivating a works-based salvation as a result.
4. Scripture was not used to explain scripture
Another danger I was a exposed to was seeing churches build entire doctrines out of one passage that was not backed up by everything else we saw in scripture. As a case in point, the sanctuary message that was taught at some camp I went to was all based on one text in scripture, and led to a whole doctrinal position of how Jesus still atoning for our sins in the heavenly sanctuary. Another example is how the popular idea of “doing greater things than what Jesus did” is based on taking a few verses out of scripture without considering the rest of the bible and the consistency of this doctrine with the wider canon.
5. “God told me” trumped scripture and reason
A concerning and quite disheartening practice that a lot of us may have experienced is where the “spiritual experiences” of the church trumped the clear verses in scripture. An example of this is when churches insist on having people speak in tongues during a service without an interpreter, or having people be disruptive during the service as a result of being “moved by the spirit” when scripture calls for orderly gatherings. These common practices were always explained by telling those of us who were concerned that “the things of the spirit cannot be understood without looking with spiritual eyes”. The idea that the spirit comes and undermines scripture by manifesting in ways that are inconsistent with what we see in the bible is one that we should vehemently disavow.
6. Attempts to bind the conscience of believers on issues of liberty
A less obvious danger is where churches attempted to bind the consciences of Christians where scripture doesn’t. This could be on issues concerning eating, drinking, dress etc. Although the church elders may have wise counsel for congregants, we should all be concerned when people think they know more than God and restrict things where he left it to liberty. Classic examples of this would be churches prohibiting dating, drinking of alcohol, wearing of certain clothes, getting tattoos etc. While scripture gives mannier warnings and sound advice about what love for our God and neighbours should look like, churches cannot override scripture and say definitive things that are not said in the bible.
7. Manipulation as a form of “winning souls”
Another subtle thing that should have made me raise my eyebrow is the emotive way in which people were coerced into things. Most of us have been in services where the piano sweetly played in the background, and got everyone emotional when it was time for an altar call. While this may not necessarily be sinful, when it was coupled with someone making an emotional plea for people to come to Jesus, after a service that did not even present the gospel, what I saw were people going to the front to accept a salvation that they did not understand. This emotional reaction is arguably one of the leading reasons for those people backsliding. When people do not count the cost or understand the gospel that they are being called to accept, they are bound to backtrack from that decision when the rubber hits the road. This emotional coercion is one I also observed during offering. Not only was the offering message a mini-sermon in the service, but it also made people offer haphazardly, merely giving to the measure of how they were moved by the person sharing an offering sermon, instead of coming to the church services having decided what they were going to give, as we are directed in the scriptures.
Now what? Getting out of bad theology
If I could give one advice to anyone looking to get out of bad theology, it would be to find a good church. I cannot even begin to explain how much joining a bible-based church helped me mature in my walk. If you are not sure where to start looking, try the TGC church directory. The directory shows sound churches near where you live that you can try out: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/churches/
Some may still be wondering how they can assess what a healthy/ good church looks like. I would direct those people to the 9Marks website here: https://www.9marks.org/about/the-nine-marks/. They give some really helpful things to think through in terms of what a healthy church actually looks like.
Personally, 3 basic things that I try observe when I visit a church that I am not familiar with are the following:
- They preach through the whole bible, even books that are not popular or the pastor’s favourite
- They are commitment to living out the calls of scripture
- The elders are transparent and accessible – you can reach out to them should you have things you want to clarify before joining the church and for any questions about the church
While this whole article is by no means exhaustive, I hope it is helpful to your journey of leaving unhealthy church situations and finding good and healthy church homes. Ultimately, we rejoice and take comfort in the sovereignty of the all mighty God. His providential hand is always at work, and we can always always rest in that.