Last week, I found myself on the outside of a Christian community.
It’s a strange feeling. I honestly didn’t know what to make of it.
I was angry. Confused. Not sure what was going on.
It was, after all, a simple Facebook group and therefore inconsequential. But the circumstances felt very prescient and significant.
A short while back, a different ecumenical Facebook group imploded. It was a pretty innocuous group with some 10,000 members with the ubiquitous name: Christian Bloggers Network. This was a kind of free-for-all space for writers to post what they wrote. It was open and unregulated. When I’d post there I’d occasionally get a comment or two.
Before any of us knew it, it was a war zone.
Several progressive writers who shared their writing there were harassed. Often for supporting LGBTQ persons or egalitarian relationships.
These same progressive writers would also comment on others’ writing.
The comment threads would get pretty heated. In other words, normal internet behavior. But in this Wild West atmosphere where the sheriff was forever off duty, the trolls rode in.
And their comments went well beyond “conversation.” We’re talking stalking, rejecting, and collaborating to frighten anyone supportive of LBGTQ persons.
In fact, they seemed to target anyone outside a particular strain of evangelicalism who didn’t share an absolutist approach to scripture.
After much pressure from all sides, the long-checked-out administrator passed on ownership of the group. He handed it to one of the group’s participants who is from a conservative Reformed tradition.
Shortly after taking over, the new admin imposed new rules and inconsistently enforced them. The most outspoken progressive voices and the trollish conservatives were banned as if equal. Then, after a month or two, the trolls were invited back in and many of us were removed without notice. No personal message or explanation. No warning or instruction.
In my case, it was immediately after I objected to an article the administrator had posted. It was a hit piece about the Episcopal Church. The sort of thing which is obviously inappropriate for an ecumenical group. I told him I was personally offended and would never support such a piece written about anybody’s denomination, including the Reformed Church in America.
That night, I couldn’t access the conversation anymore.
The same thing happened in a second group this past week.
This time, it was after a conversation over a post I had written about the diversity in Christian thought. I argued the minority of Christians shouldn’t define the whole. Several members expressed their love of the piece. One member started a conversation with me about it. I would love to share with you what we said to one another, but I can’t. When I came back to Facebook a few hours later, I couldn’t access that conversation.
The gist was this.
He didn’t like that I had listed a wide variety of differences in theology together: what he called primary and secondary beliefs.
I asked Who gets to say what’s primary?
Clearly the Bible, he said. Because other things are subjective.
Our back and forth was four or five comments each, max.
My last comment was to say that Christianity is defined, not only by the Bible, but by historic, international agreements. In other words, Christians define for Christianity what is Christian through mutual agreement. That’s how we do it globally and historically. While our understanding of the Bible is just as subjective.
Apparently that got me banned.
I know that getting kicked out of two ecumenical Christian Facebook groups after defending mainline churches and globally accepted Christian tradition is really not a big deal. My writing can provoke and I often wade into less orthodox Christian arguments. But my writing actually reflects a pretty traditional view of church. Particularly in the grand scope of history. People get banned for less. And for a whole lot more.
But it has me thinking about this moment we’re in. A time in which all decisions are pushed into a hyper-partisan, dualistic frame. In which Left and Right means more to our understanding of our faith than Catholic and Protestant.
In this hyper-partisan moment, biblicism is extremely dangerous.
Rather than continue a fruitful conversation about how our mutual faiths both embody Christianity (that was my original post, remember), I was removed. It was me who was removed from the ecumenical group of refugees from a Facebook group which was supporting trolls and kicking people out who expressed mainline or catholic beliefs.
Because I said the Bible wasn’t the only definer of Christianity.
How is this statement the least bit controversial? Christianity is defined by councils and agreements, not random dudes on the internet!
This isn’t subjective or partisan. It isn’t liberal or some strange new strand of thinking. That’s how we do it. And how we’ve done it for nearly 2,000 years.
His argument wasn’t only about the authority of scripture, but the authority of personal religion. He was making a claim to personal authority. To claim what the Bible says and define what is “primary.” And perhaps ultimately, who gets to participate in a conversation about it.
This is the danger of biblicism over understanding.
These ecumenical spaces give us a chance to dialogue and speak to one another. To share what we believe and test those beliefs against and with others.
But our beliefs aren’t just personal, they’re also collected and corporate.
They represent local churches and denominations; movements and regions. The are informed and guided by many influences, and ultimately judged by the global Christian community. And we use a simple agreed-upon metric, which may only be “are you down with what’s in the Nicene Creed?” And maybe “are you not a disturbing cult?” Or “Do you play well with others?”
But it’s really, “do you think you’re Christian?” Yes? Then you are!
We have such a broad understanding of what makes a Christian because the alternative is abusive and dishonest. And would neglect the differences we’ve lived with for centuries.
Even worse for us if we let our authority simply be “the Bible.” What does that even mean? Because there is no way to give Scripture that authority. Why? Because it doesn’t know how to type.
The Bible’s problem isn’t that its stuck with dial-up. Or that it “doesn’t do Facebook.” The Bible doesn’t have fingers. It can’t answer for itself in comment feeds on Facebook.
Biblical authority is just another name for personal authority. And with that measurement, the gap between the World Council of Churches and a random Internet troll becomes a bunch of 0s and 1s.
The bonds of Christianity go well beyond the Bible.
They have to. Because biblicism ultimately leaves Scripture meaningless.
If an internet troll becomes the arbiter of Christianity, there is no communion. There is nothing shared in common and no space for conversation.
If it’s all about his belief, then what becomes secondary are all of Jesus’s teachings on love and shalom-making. The mission to serve and love and feed the hungry take a back seat.
While sitting in the front are the individual’s “sincerely held beliefs.” They become primary.
Not the promised presence of Jesus in the midst of gatherings of people. Or the Bible’s extensive and constant calls for feeding the hungry and protecting the poor and releasing the captive. None of it would be expressed in human action because some jerk thinks his personal religion is all of Christianity. Too political, perhaps.
Personal religion is a threat to all religion.
Personal religion is a threat to communities, churches, and devoted people of faith. Through it, all that we share in common is destroyed. Truth becomes subjective. Not because of the spread of 20th Century postmodern philosophy, which drives the fringe crazy.
Through personal religion, individual experience becomes equal to evidence. Scientific discovery is weighted equal to opinion. And personal beliefs of individuals become more important than the common good. This is the real threat to truth.
Don’t blame philosophy. Blame the arrogance of unmeasured personal belief elevated to peer-review study.
Here, the things which connect us become even more important, not less. The institutions and structures of our world take on a renewed importance. In part, because they anchor us against these wild speculations and their untethered individualism.
But our institutions struggle to be our means of building unity when we continue to use the same mindset which is destroying them.
We must stop using our institutions to empower our personal religion. Or allow our most vocal minorities to guide our focus and demand unity from threatening disunity.
Our best counter to this division is trust, not order. And it’s found in respect for our differences, rather than mandating unity. And most of all, it’s found in talking through things, not just expressing ourselves.
We grow in faith together when we connect in common space, rather than expect identical theories of all individual participants. It comes when we build a common identity together focused on building up the common good.
The Bible can’t define Christianity. But we can and do. Not merely in what we personally believe, but in who we are to one another. As individuals and as all the groups of which we are a part.
Who we are in love and joy and blessed community.