I didn’t know this until about a year ago, but I’ve lived most of my life squeezed inside a box that I never really fit into. The box I’m speaking about it the Evangelical church. Until I was liberated from the box, I didn’t even know it existed. But man am I glad that I’m outside of that box. For the first time, I feel confident in being myself. I feel like I can finally let down my guard and be who I am and stand up for what I believe without the fear of being cast out and rejected.
The Evangelical church is a box because in order to be a part of the group, you have to fit in. Surely this is true for other branches of the church and even other religions. But I can only speak from my own experience. So from this point forward, I’m not speaking only of the Evangelical church. I’m speaking of any religious group that forces doctrinal conformity.
After months of reflection, I think I’m finally able to put into words what was so freeing about leaving the Evangelical Church. So here is my attempt at explaining what’s so wrong with the doctrinal box and how we can move forward in a productive way.
In Romans 12, Paul describes the Christian life as a life defined by transformation. He says we’re not supposed to conform, but we’re supposed to transform. We’re not supposed to be cookie cutter Christians. We’re supposed to be beautiful butterflies.
And yet here we are 2,000 years later with our handy dandy cookie cutter, churning out likeminded disciples in our modern Christian factories.
Jesus shows us that transformation happens when we create an environment of love and acceptance. When we give people the space to be who they are and empower them to be who they are to the fullest. When we have that space to unapologetically be our authentic ourselves, we can actually embrace who we are and who we were created to be. With an accepting community embracing us and encouraging us, we can double down on our strengths and grow as people. This kind of transformation not only grows us personally, but it also affects transformation in the world around us. This is the kind of transformation we see lived out in the New Testament church.
Let’s contrast this with what we see within the doctrinal box. When we are conditioned to believe, to think, and to act like everyone else around us, our true selves are buried behind a strange, plastic facade. We’re given the comfortable answers to the tough questions. The right words are put into our mouths and the right thoughts are put into our minds. We cannot think for ourselves or speak for ourselves, because we must fit inside the box at all times. Therefore, we can only think for and speak for the box.
Inside the box, there is no authenticity. There is no acceptance. There is no transformation. There is only conformity.
Think about it. If everyone is conditioned to think the same way, when everyone conforms to the same boxy ideals, when everyone is encouraged to suppress their own uniqueness, the church cannot fulfill its mission of becoming the body of Christ. It’s literally the opposite of what Paul tells us the church should be. Instead of a body full of different body parts, the doctrinal box turns us into a whole bunch of identical body parts trying to work together to do something productive.
What happens when we forget that the Church is supposed to be a body of all different kinds of people? Individualism. There is no longer one singular body, whose head is Christ. There is now hundreds of thousands of bodies underneath the head of the Almighty Convention. And since we want each of these individual bodies to working toward the same goal, there is a certain amount of control that the head needs to exert over its bodies. Each person, then, is expected to live up to the calling of the whole church. Which... is a heck of a lot of pressure.
For those of you that have come out of the Evangelical church, do you know what I’m talking about? Do you resonate with this overwhelming pressure to live up to this calling that no one individual was ever meant to live up to? Well, no one individual aside from Christ.
It’s an expectation that is too much for any one person. We weren’t equipped with all the gifts needed to bring transformation in the world. And when we force conformity on an entire population of people, when we take away their unique individuality, and when we place the weight of the world on their shoulders, you get a stagnant church. A dying church. There is nothing sustainable about the doctrinal box.
Compare this with a community defined by love, acceptance, and empowerment. A community where there are no boxes, where there is no conformity, and where everyone is allowed to live as the body part that they were created to be. The only people that need to bear the weight of the world on their shoulders are the actual shoulders! Everyone else gets to bear their own share of the weight in their own unique way. No one person is expected to save the world. Everyone can work together to actually bring transformation, to do God’s Kingdom Work in the world around us. To build something that outlives ourselves. That’s sustainability.
Do you remember how I mentioned that the Doctrinal Box places its own governing body as the head of the body of Christ? There’s another word for that: idolatry. As much as churches under the influence of this box would like to say that Jesus is the center, that’s just not the case. If Jesus was truly at the center, doctrine would not be the defining factor on whether someone was included or excluded.
Jesus made it clear that he came here for everyone. Not just the religious leaders. Not just those that thought like him. Not just those that looked like him. Not just those with similar experiences as him. And definitely not just those that held the right doctrine.
And yet, the Doctrinal Box by definition only accepts people that fit in the box. You have to think the right things and behave the right ways. You have to bow to the will of the box, otherwise you’ll find yourself on the outside.
In the Doctrinal Box, Jesus is like the Queen. The citizens of the box give lip service to Christ. But he doesn’t do much. He stands there. He looks pretty. But everyone knows he’s not really the decision-maker. That’s what all of our ministries are for.
What happens when you fill a room with people who agree on everything? Even worse, what happens when you fill a room with people who are all forced to agree on everything? The Doctrinal Box is not made of cardboard. Yes, my friends. The box is an echo chamber.
The doctrinal box teaches us that those who agree with us are right. It also teaches that God is on our side. Anyone outside of the box is wrong, living outside the will of God. Because the box and the will of God are one and the same. Because the box is actually the one in charge, remember? The whole idolatry thing. So if we teach that we’re right, and those who think like us are right, and everyone else is wrong, we have created a dangerous recipe for disaster. When we interact with people who disagree with us, we have permission to dismiss them and their experiences. After all, they’re wrong. Why take their views to heart?
In an echo chamber, there cannot be genuine validation. People can only be affirmed and accepted insofar as they conform to the formula. And in a culture like this, there is no true acceptance, for this is only surface-level. If acceptance is conditional on what a person believes, then we’re not accepting people. We’re accepting doctrines. By this, we’re indirectly teaching people that our worth and the worth of others is found not in themselves but in how closely one’s personal beliefs adhere to our own doctrinal measures.
Echo chambers create conformity, not genuine transformation. Are you noticing a theme here?
If the Christian Church wants to move forward in any meaningful and productive way, we must get rid of the box. But how? What does this look like?
Humans have been seeking the divine for as long as humans have walked the earth. There are thousands of religions whose billions have adherents have worshipped millions of different gods throughout the millennia. Even in our own Christian tradition, there are a countless number of denominations and schisms, sects within sects. Thousands of years of debate over the nature of Christ, the trinity, the Bible. And somehow, in 2021, we finally figured it out. Well, some of us have anyway.
Every generation in the history of humanity has thought that it was the greatest, the smartest, and the most capable. But with every passing generation, we realize that we didn’t have it all figured out like we thought we did. I’m confident that in a few decades, the church is going to look completely different than it does now. While this could honestly go either way, I pray that it’s a change for the better. But only time will tell.
The point of this is to say that you and I are wrong about something. We’re probably wrong about a lot of things. And the first step to getting outside of our doctrinal boxes and making real change in the world starts with coming to terms with this fact. We must recognize that we’re probably wrong, that someone outside of our boxes could be right, and that honest conversation could actually be a useful tool to learn and to grow as human beings.
Remember that time that Peter decided he’d try to walk on water? When he stopped looking at Jesus, he started to sink. I know you’ve heard this sermon a thousand times. But there’s irony in the sermons that teach us to keep our eyes on Jesus, then place all their focus on the Doctrinal Box.
If the focus of the Church truly was on Christ, the world would be a different place. The words of Christ ought to be sending us out into the world to be the salt and light. Instead, we’re drowning in our own doctrines. We’re at each others’ throats. We’ve lost our saltiness.
When our acceptance within a community is dependent upon our own conformity, our worth to that community is located in our doctrines. When that community becomes our identity, which is so often the case within the church, then our own self-worth is found within those beliefs that have been thrust upon us. This is why deconstruction can be so painful. Because when we question the our doctrines, we’re questioning our own self-worth. If we no longer belong in the community that previously defined us, where do we belong?
As humans, our worthiness is centered in our nature as bearers of God’s Image. As creatures created and loved by the God of the universe. It’s not found in our beliefs or our doctrines.
If that’s the case, then membership in God’s Church cannot be defined by doctrinal boxes. It gives us a false sense of self and a dangerous inclination toward exclusion.
In order for the Church to move forward in the world and make productive transformation, we have to tear down the walls of the doctrinal box. We have to stop defining who is in and who is out. Because the moment that we get to make that call, it’s no longer God’s church. It’s our own exclusive social club made in our image and accomplishing our own saltless purposes in the world.
One of the biggest reasons I’m drawn to the Episcopal tradition is the idea that there are no defining doctrines. It’s not common thought that group Episcopalians together in a denomination, but common prayer. That means it doesn’t really matter how you think or what you believe. Everyone is welcome to the altar, everyone is able to accept the gifts of God, everyone is allowed to be included among the people of God. People can pray together and worship together and do life together even if they fundamentally disagree on every issue. That can’t happen in the Evangelical church I grew up in. That can’t happen in most Christian churches across the United States. That can’t happen because of the doctrinal boxes that we’ve built around ourselves.
Now I’m going to stop writing. I’m going to go take a nice, long look in the mirror. And I’m going to remind myself that my worthiness is not dependent upon pretending to be something I’m not. Because the more I’m able to accept myself outside the confines of the box I grew up in, the more I’ll be able to accept others for who they are. This idea of unconditional acceptance is something I haven’t quite figured out. This flies in the face of everything I’ve believed for most of my life. But I’m convinced this the only way for the Church to make any kind of difference in the world.