Christianity has many brands, some so different than others that it seems a stretch to call them all the same religion at all. For instance Catholicism has Church tradition & community as its source of authority while most Evangelicals claim that only the Bible can be the authoritative source for Christianity. Mormon’s add the Book of Mormon to that mix and “Full Gospel” churches add direct divine revelation to Christians today to their list of authoritative sources. Different than all of these is the liberal Christian tradition. Originating in the Enlightenment period, liberal Christianity endorses what is ultimately an empirical/humanistic philosophy overlaid with the Christian language and social traditions. It is not that liberal Christianity rejects the teachings of Jesus, but rather that it puts the teachings of Jesus front and center while de-emphasizing all the other trappings that have grown up around the Christian tradition over the centuries.
I came from the most conservative branch of Fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. That branch asserts that the Bible that we used (the 1611 King James Version) was literally the very words of God, as if he were speaking to us. Questions about translational errors or even the provenance of the 66 individual books were simply not allowed. Of course despite their claims, in practice they did not actually look to the Bible for all things, but to a conservative (usually Southern) world view and a code of conduct dating back to the Puritans and the antebellum South.
Today I thought I’d chronical my move away from Fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. It began when I was a senior in college. I was at Hyles-Anderson College, a school so conservative it was at the fringes of the Christian Fundamentalist movement of the 1970’s. If you can imagine a school so conservative that in the early 1980’s when I enrolled, I was taught that groups like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority were liberal sell outs. Looking back, I can see that it was more cult-like than college-like, but they presented themselves as a serious place of higher education and no one suggested I look closer.
In my 5th year (I worked full time so it took me 5 years to finish), I did a yearlong study focusing entirely on the words that Jesus said. At the end of that period, I came to the startling conclusion that we were not the followers of Jesus, but were the modern versions of the religious oppressors that Jesus spent his time condemning. That was an earth shattering revelation. However, as I was close to graduating, I could not exactly leave school.
While this changed my inward view of what it meant to be a Christian, outwardly I found few career choices but to go forward inside the Fundamentalist camp. I went to Bob Jones University to earn my master’s degree in Educational Administration. If you are not familiar with that school it was long considered to be the most influential university in the world of Christian Fundamentalism, and it has been in the forefront of the culture wars for decades.
While at BJU and subsequently during my first ministry job I did a deep study on clothing rules and the Bible. I chose this topic because, in my branch of Christianity, clothing and visible presentation was a featured component of nearly every sermon. I began this at the request of my wife who asked if there was any biblical support for Christian Fundamentalists ban on women wearing pants, and the utter condemnation of women wearing shorts. Yes, I know younger readers will say “how sexist”, but you must understand that religious fundamentalist of all sorts see sexism as a good thing, not bad. However, sexism was not my issue at the time, but the claim that the Bible condemns women wearing pants or shorts. I looked in not only the text but the historical/archeological background to fill in what the words would have meant when they were written.
What I came away with was astounding. I found out that not only did the Bible not speak to things like shorts, it didn’t say anything about any clothing being required at all. For instance in Egypt low ranking people (servants and slaves) often went nude indoors, and high ranking people wore sheer cotton tunics. Some Egyptian art shows even the Pharaoh’s wife wearing a tunic that left the breasts fully uncovered. Significantly after the exodus and the long and very detailed list of rules given by Moses on behavior within their new community, there was not a word on how much people should wear. Significantly bare breasts, sheer clothing and communal nudity of the sort practiced in Egyptian homes was not addressed at all. Clearly that meant even to Moses those things did not matter.
I also found that Jesus, like Moses, never addressed the issue of what body parts should be covered. This was significant in that where and when Jesus preached was very much a multi-cultural hodgepodge including Jews, Greeks, Romans and many others; all with their own historic traditions of clothing and sexual modesty.
Even more condemning to what I’d been taught, I found that in the early Christian community all baptisms were public affairs; and, all were of adults being baptized fully nude. The convert to Christianity would strip nude at the side of the river and then wade in and be baptized to represent their death to their old way of life. Then upon leaving the river the Christians would help them don new clothing to represent their new birth. This Christian practice continued into the 3rd century, and it was the pagan’s who demanded the Christians stop nude Baptisms because it was seen by officials as being disruptive and provocative. What further surprised me was that the oldest pictures of Jesus are all baptism scenes, and all show full frontal nudity. These were indoor baptisteries and they showed Jesus’s penis and scrotum clearly. Further in my studies, I found the only original document from an apostle of Jesus is one that notes the Christians had been excluded from the public baths in Asia-Minor (modern day Turkey). Archeologist are sure that in Asia Minor, unlike Rome, the baths were co-ed and fully nude.
While all this might seem esoteric, it was very important in that it utterly undermined my ability to trust what I had been taught about what the Bible said and did not say. By extension, it made me face the simple fact that the church for which I worked was systematically lying to the young people to whom I was assigned to lead as the principal of the church’s school; worst of all, it meant that I had to choose between my employers and the truth.
All this came to a head some ten years after I’d first realized I was on the wrong team. After I fully grasped that on the issue of clothing, the version of Christianity I’d been taught was no more biblically based than the much despised Catholics, I began to look at other issues. This systematically destroyed any confidence I still had in the leaders of the fundamentalist and/or evangelical communities to know (or teach) the difference between conservative culture and the message of Jesus. However, because my educational credentials were all tied to these people, I did not know how to leave their orbit.
I took my last job in the evangelical community in 1996. I thought by going from the fundamental Baptist to the mainstream evangelical community I would be able to put most of these behavioral issues behind me. That last job was in an industrial city in Indiana as High School Principal of a large Christian School that was not tied to any church or denomination. I thought, surely the silly notions such as Puritanical dress and behavior codes would not follow me at a place like that. Of course I was wrong.
I led that school for three very successful years. The students were thriving and the school was growing; however, there was a sense of discontent from the conservative members of the Board of Directors. I began to get complaints about the length of boy’s hair and girl’s skirts after visits from conservative Board members. I ignored them. My teenage students had many challenges and I didn’t think hair length or skirt length was one of them.
Worse yet, my theology was becoming ever more humanistic and existential in nature. My sermons in the school’s chapel services or in churches around the region as a guest speaker gave me opportunity to articulate my new vision of how to live out the Christian life to a wider audience. I made the fatal mistake in the spring of 1999 to preach on “Love over Law” when I was guest speaker at the Chairman of the Board’s church. He had already been quietly advocating a “change in leadership” for the school because he was unhappy with my liberal leanings. So, not a month after I preached at his church he’d organized my ouster. I was told the school would not renew my contract for the following year. No criticism of my performance or the state of the school was even offered, only that the board wanted new leadership.
While that put me and my family in a very difficult spot; it also gave me the freedom to flesh out my openly liberal vision of Christianity. Additionally, my move into “secular” educational social work I was able to reach a much wider group of people to help. This move led inevitably to my full transformation into what I am now, though it would take another decade to begin to articulate it.
It was only once out of the evangelical community did I begin to look at the Bible itself and to question that it was indeed the word-for-word expression of God’s will and vision. I looked into the how’s and why’s regarding the addition of the epistles to the four widely accepted gospels of the very early Christian movement. After this, my faith in the authenticity of the claim about the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible being literally the words of God simply disappeared. I embraced the concept of the first Christians that the Christianity was build around the Gospels, they literally were followers of Jesus. Even the writings of Paula and the other apostles were simply commentaries on how to live the Christian life. This is quite different than the assertion put forth hundreds of years later that Paul’s words are actually God’s words. Focusing on the accounts of Jesus in the four gospels led me to conclude that Jesus was indeed teaching a vision that stood in clear opposition to the one put forth by Moses and the Jewish prophets. I could not figure out why mainstream Christianity simply ignores the decision by Paula and the apostles not even to teach the Mosaic law to the Greek & Roman Christians. Jesus and Paul both rejected the concept that the way to spirituality was through religious structure. They both countered by teaching that only through compassionate love for those around us can we find spiritual fulfillment.
Thus I went from fundie to the Jesus Philosophy