One of the most dismissive and hurtful statements ex-evangelicals hear from our conservative evangelical family and friends after we deconstruct their walls is: “You must have never been saved to begin with.”
Another way they say it is, “You must have had a head knowledge, but not a heart knowledge.”
The most recent public example of this has been conservative evangelical reaction to Shannon Harris, who shared her story of leaving conservative evangelicalism in her book The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife. The audible version of her story released yesterday.
These blanket dismissals of our spiritual sincerity are made by people who knew us for decades, who served alongside us, who dreamed with us about advancing the gospel. They raised us, walked with us through our struggle into adulthood, held our hearts when we limped through the valley of the shadow of death, and celebrated with us as we experienced the joys of new birth.
Our bodies ached together as we stayed up late or woke up early to serve the least of these in the name of Jesus. Our hearts were filled with wonder together as we explored the depths of our sinfulness and what we believed was the deeper reach of grace through penal substitutionary atonement.
“It’s mind boggling to hear them so easily characterize our faithfulness and sincerity during those years as fake.”
It’s mind boggling to hear them so easily characterize our faithfulness and sincerity during those years as fake.
Their assumptions often point to 1 John 2:19 as a proof text: “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us, for if they had belonged to us they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.”
While their claim based on this isolated text may make sense to them, it fails to acknowledge the deeper complexities of our lives, of the culturally influenced development of Christian theology over the centuries and even of the human nature of the Bible itself.
Categorizing ex-evangelicals as needing correction
In one of The Gospel Coalition’s many attempts to explain those who walk away from their theology, Michael Patton offers four ways evangelicals categorize those who turn away.
- Baptists: They are still saved, no matter where their doubts take them. They just need renewed assurance.
- Calvinists: They never were saved to begin with. They need to hear the gospel.
- Charismatics: They are demon possessed. They need an exorcism.
- Arminians: They are in the process of losing their salvation. They need to stop sinning or be argued back into the faith.
Patton advocates an approach that is more humane than many evangelical ways of responding. He recommends being merciful, recognizing that doubt can be a deepening of faith, refraining from manufacturing cliche answers, being patient and assuming the best.
But he also encourages ex-evangelicals to live as if they still were conservative evangelicals. And he warns them to make sure they aren’t trying to justify being gay. In the case of LGBTQ people trying to “justify” their sexuality, he says, “The mental task of trying to re-interpret the Bible will not remain isolated to this incident. Sooner or later, the mental paradigm that you set up to make your sin viable will corrupt everything else.”
Condemning ex-evangelicals as apostates
John MacArthur offers an even more condemning approach, devoid of any practical or pastoral overtures: “Apostates are those who fall away from the true faith, abandoning what they formerly professed to believe. The term describes those whose beliefs are so deficient as to place them outside the pale of true Christianity.”
MacArthur applies the same logic to churches. “For example, a liberal denomination that denies the authority of Scripture or the deity of Christ is an apostate denomination,” he claims.
Then as if on cue, referencing 1 John 2:19, he concludes: “True Christians do not apostatize. Those who fall away into apostasy demonstrate that their faith was never real to begin with.”
Calling ex-evangelicals non-committal
J.D. Greear, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, questions the commitment of ex-evangelicals.
“Many cultural Christians think church is a good thing, but they are not committed,” he claims. “They are not involved in any ministry. They don’t sacrificially give. They couldn’t tell you the last time they told someone about Jesus. They come to church about once every couple months because they are ‘just so busy.’”
He goes on to claim ex-evangelicals would rather go to their family beach house “whenever the weather is nice,” and envisions they went through “religious motions without their hearts really belonging” to Jesus and they “follow ‘Prozac Jesus,’ who comforts them and is their BFF in a jam.”
Greear joins the chorus of conservative men with the typical assumption, “Not enduring to the end is evidence you never had it to begin with.”
Lack of self and neighbor awareness
What these men are demonstrating is not their depth of wisdom regarding the Bible and ex-evangelicals, but their lack of self and neighbor awareness as they ascribe motives to us that are absurd.
When you realize these men believe the essentials to include biblical inerrancy, penal substitutionary atonement and eternal conscious torment, their calls to renewed assurance and hearing the gospel seem silly to those of us who no longer believe those concepts but still believe the gospel. No amount of exorcisms or arguments will convince us to celebrate as “good news” ideas we now consider to be the seeds and branches of religious trauma and spiritual abuse.
“Condemning us as ‘lost’ does nothing for us.”
Condemning us as “lost” does nothing for us. It serves only to control those who are still in conservative evangelicalism through fear, which is the religious trauma and spiritual abuse we’re talking about.
Claiming we were simply going through the motions or treating Jesus like a drug reveals they are either ignorant or dishonest. Those who knew me in conservative evangelicalism know better. Despite the fact their theology says they have to categorize, condemn or call me non-committal, those who served with me know in the silent unsettled space of their inner being these accusations about me are untrue.
A dead-end theology for everyone
The lack of awareness in conservative evangelical theology creates an impossible situation for everyone involved. The men on the top floor who have to protect their towers are either ignorant or dishonest about those who leave. The friends and family of those who remain have to live with the cognitive dissonance between what they believe and the people they’ve known and loved. And those of us who leave have no way of convincing either group they’re wrong about us.
The moment I start mentioning all the stories of faith we shared together and examples of how deeply committed I was, they’ll accuse me of having believed in a works salvation and then they’ll point to Matthew 7 where many say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?” To which Jesus responds, “I never knew you; go away from me, you who behave lawlessly.”
If somehow I can convince them I truly did understand and believe the theology, they’ll point to James 2:19 and say, “Even the demons believe and tremble.”
“If somehow I can convince them I truly did understand and believe the theology, they’ll point to James 2:19.”
Then with my family and me ending up burning in hell forever, those who knew and loved us have to lose their humanity by forgetting we ever existed or by celebrating our just demise.
No matter where the conversation goes, the outcome is a dead-end theology that results in exile for everyone involved, including for the ones who claim to be saved.
Christianity has grown in the soil of contradicting communities
Christianity was born in a world where Jews and Christians each treasured the Hebrew Scriptures but separated over how to interpret them and over how to define God — especially in relation to Jesus. The pantheistic nature of Greco-Roman religion clashed with the formless, passionless God from Greek philosophy, which influenced the debates among the church fathers about the nature of God and creation.
After the apostles died, the apostolic fathers continued the tradition of writing letters to bolster their authority to shape morality, while the apologists defended Christianity against pagans and promoted Christianity to Roman political leaders.
As Christianity continued to expand into North Africa, the church fathers differed with one another over how to respond to or integrate ideas from Platonism, Gnosticism, Stoicism and even Hinduism.
Throughout the centuries, these culturally informed conversations and contradictions affected how those in power developed such key ideas as the Trinity, the Scriptures and the atonement.
As these culturally informed and contradictory communities collided with one another, their ideas began to get categorized as heresy, heterodoxy or orthodoxy. While heresy is a belief contrary to Christian teaching, heterodoxy is simply a deviation from it without being completely wrong. Ultimately, orthodoxy was determined by those who won the competition of perspectives in their consolidation of power.
Even within the Bible itself, we see the authors wrestling through these contradicting conversations. The idea that there always has been a single, united Christianity is a myth conservative evangelicals like to push in order to control the narrative. But the reality is from the very beginning, no matter what period of church history one zooms in on or incarnation of theology one finds, one message the different factions of the church seem to share in common is, “You’re not one of us.”
What does 1 John 2:19 mean?
1 John was written to a community dealing with quarreling and division over theology. While it is not completely clear who left the community, it would seem to be a group of early Gnostics that doubted whether Jesus came in the flesh.
Ironically, even though many believe the community responsible for the Gospel of John is the same community that produced 1 John, there are differences between those two books as well. In John’s Gospel, the Advocate is the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), while in 1 John it is Jesus (2:1). While John’s Gospel focuses on the Word in Creation, 1 John has more of a future eschatological perspective.
It is totally understandable, given the church’s history of communities separating and given the complexities of the first century church itself, that some division would take place. It is also understandable that emotions would run high. Perhaps that could explain why the author of 1 John uses such charged accusatory language as calling them children of the devil, liars, deceivers, haters, murderers and false prophets, among others.
When someone resorts to name calling today in order to keep people in their group from exploring questions, we might consider this tactic to be a coercive control strategy of ad hominem or gaslighting.
But for those who feel a bit uncomfortable accusing an author of Scripture of gaslighting, 1 John 2:19 could simply be an example of one first century community saying, “We were never really on the same page with those particular people who left us.”
That does not mean those of us who leave conservative evangelicalism today were fake or disingenuous. In many cases, we were committed, often far more than those who stayed. It’s possible we’ve simply changed our minds about things we used to believe. So to use 1 John 2:19 in order to dismiss and demonize us is gaslighting.
Valuing a Christ who comes in the flesh
The irony in all of this, of course, is that the schism in 1 John was due to a group leaving who denied that Jesus came in the flesh. Those who remained had a vision of God that valued flesh and was embodied. But when conservative evangelicals today condemn ex-evangelicals, they often condemn us for being embodied, especially in our sexuality.
In the world of conservative evangelicalism, women are reduced to disembodied roles of submission rather than being able to live out the gifts they uniquely embody, LGBTQ people have to remain single without ever experiencing sexual or even family fulfillment at all, and everyone has to walk on eggshells, fearing women’s bodies and trying not to become sexually aroused.
In today’s world, it’s the conservative evangelicals who reflect the disembodied values of the ancient Gnostics who left the community of 1 John. But how is it valuing an embodied God to promote disembodiment?
Perhaps rather than using the Bible to gaslight one another, we should grow in self and neighbor awareness, deconstruct our dead-end theologies of hierarchical power and exile, and be willing to learn from and love those we differ with.
And in the occasion that we discover our differences run too deep to be in close community, maybe we can be secure enough to let people go without demonizing them as having never been genuine.
Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a Master of Arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.