As a teenager who was baptized into Evangelicalism in the 1990s, I entered an identity and world with strict boundaries. I was formed within a faith paradigm that claimed the Bible clearly taught a lot of things, including what it meant to be a Christian. As I look back and think about all the times I’ve heard the phrase “identity in Christ,” a core message emerges as fundamental to how I was shaped to understand Christian identity.
Being “in Christ” very much set the stage for in/out, us/them thinking. I heard loud and clear: your belonging is contingent on being on the right side of a boundary line; if you cross that line, you will no longer be one of us. Brené Brown distinguishes between “fitting in” and “belonging,” and I would characterize the conceptualization of “in Christ” or Christian identity I was taught as one that required fitting in and that did not offer true belonging. She writes, “[F]itting in and belonging are not the same thing, and, in fact, fitting in gets in the way of belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
A particular doctrine of human sinfulness provides a foundation for an identity of fitting in. The idea that human beings are utterly sinful, without good, and unable to be in the presence of a holy God means God cannot be in relationship with us because we are inherently “bad.” We are separated from God because of who we are. Because we are unworthy of love and belonging, we have to fit in to “get in” (into the group, into God’s good graces, into Heaven). Fitting in requires we hide, deny and/or eliminate whatever parts of ourselves we associate with “sin” or that are outside the boundary lines. Within this system of identity, shame and fear thrive and are often used to control ourselves and others. Brené Brown writes, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection… Shame is all about fear… If shame is the universal fear of being unworthy of love and belonging, and if all people have an irreducible and innate need to experience love and belonging, it’s easy to see why shame is often referred to as ‘the master emotion.’ We don’t have to experience shame to be paralyzed by it – the fear of being perceived as unworthy is enough to force us to silence our stories.”
What does this have to do with the Bible?
In my early faith development, the Bible was used to teach this “fitting in” Christian identity; it was also used to draw the boundary lines that defined who was “in” and who was “out,” how one got “in” and how one might get kicked out. The Bible was the ultimate authority, which depended upon believing it was the “inerrant, infallible Word of God.” Basically, the Bible contained God’s will for humans: said positively, how to “get saved” and maintain one’s insider status; said negatively, how to escape and avoid God’s wrath and punishment. As a teenager, I bought into this Bible-as-rulebook belief, partly because it helped ease the fear and shame I carried. If the Bible is God’s rulebook, following the rules (staying within the boundaries) provides certainty about fitting in. So, I proudly wore my Christian t-shirts, including the one shown below, and covered up my shame and fear with a quest for the right beliefs, answers and rules that would guarantee me a place in the Church and a ticket to Heaven.
Old Testament scholar Pete Enns has written a series of books examining the problems with this way of viewing the Bible. In How the Bible Actually Works, Pete launches the book with the first chapter “The Bible’s True Purpose”:
“My last two books lay out common beliefs many Christians have about the Bible that are actually wrong, not at all biblical, and cause all sorts of spiritual problems. In The Bible Tells Me So, I look specifically at the mistaken belief that the Bible is something like a divine instruction manual, a rulebook, so to speak – just follow the instructions as printed and you’re good to go. In the follow-up book, The Sin of Certainty, I look at a related mistaken notion, namely, the idea that having strong faith is the same thing as feeling certain that the beliefs we hold are correct, and thus periods of doubt or spiritual struggle reveal a weak faith.”
“When we come to the Bible expecting it to be an instructional manual intended by God to give us unwavering, cement-hard certainty about our faith, we are actually creating problems for ourselves, because – as I’ve come to see – the Bible wasn’t designed to meet that expectation. In other words, the ‘problems’ we encounter when reading the Bible are really problems we create for ourselves when we harbor the misguided expectation that the Bible is designed primarily to provide clear answers.”
“Starting with these mistaken notions causes the whole Christian enterprise to go off course… And maybe that’s why a faith that celebrates someone known for his radical agenda of loving one’s enemies and turning the other cheek has a public image, according to a number of opinion polls, for being judgmental, condescending, and nasty.”
Here’s the connection I have been ruminating on: 1) a strictly defined boundary line between in/out + a belief that you are inherently sinful = an identity of “fitting in” that is fueled by fear and shame, 2) a belief that the Bible is God’s direct, inerrant, infallible Word + an “instruction manual” and/or “rulebook” approach to engaging the Bible = a spirituality of submission to an external authority in which the goal is conformity to “orthodoxy” and of anxiety and distrust towards one’s self (especially one’s emotions and body). 1 + 2 = the fruit of fear, shame, suffering, dishonesty, silencing, marginalization, exploitation, abuse, trauma, etc. Basically, as Pete says, “the whole Christian enterprise [goes] off course.” People are leaving churches and sometimes the faith altogether because of the obvious harm those Christian spaces perpetuate.
At the end of Jesus’ life, he gives his disciples “a new command” – one which he’s been revealing through his embodiment of it: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Jesus’ disciples struggle to understand, even after everything they’ve seen and experienced. It is difficult work to unlearn what we’ve been taught and internalized. I think this is what Paul is getting at when he writes to the Roman churches, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
For much of my Christian journey, I was taught that “taking Scripture seriously” was defined only as reading it as God’s inerrant, infallible Word and reading it for the right answers or right theology that would allow me a place on the right side of the boundary line. I wanted to be “in” rather than “out,” “us” rather than “them.” I wanted to be accepted rather than rejected. I wanted a place to belong, so I did what I was taught I needed to do in order to fit in. When I let go of and left behind an identity of fitting in, I did experience great loss. According to the places I once fit in, I am “out” and “wrong” and even sometimes seen as a threat. Choosing a path out of the Evangelicalism that raised me, however, has been a wilderness journey that leads to promise, life and goodness. As Pete’s book explores, “Rather than providing us with information to be downloaded, the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially… That quest is summed up in one beautiful, deep, too often neglected, but absolutely central and liberating biblical idea that shapes everything I have to say in this book: wisdom.”
“Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding… Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed” (Proverbs 3:13, 17-18).
Next on the blog: In my next “Let’s Get Biblical” post, I’ll share how the work of biblical scholar Dr. Cheryl Anderson has been helping me re-imagine biblical authority and engage the Bible differently.