A few years ago, I had the chance to spend some time with an African American couple who pastored a small church in an urban area. They were good, kind hearted people with a real passion for God. And they knew the bible better than anyone I’ve ever met. One night we sat down and opened the bible and spent about 3 hours doing the best, most interesting bible study I think I’ve ever been a part of. The really odd thing about it was that they held some of the worst theology I’ve ever encountered.
The worst of it was that they taught that people of African descent bore the mark of Cain and were uniquely cursed among all the people of the earth. Africans had been cursed due to their worship of demonic spirits, their abhorant tribal practices and the division of tribalism which lead to violence and dehumanization of other Africans. Evidence of the unique depravity of African people was their willingness to sell each other into slavery. (Just so we’re crystal clear – this isn’t what I think. This was the teaching of this couple, who were themselves African American.)
Not quite as bad, but still erroneous was their teaching that in order to overcome the curse put on them by God, people of African descent needed to walk the same path by which God redeemed Israel. Emancipation from slavery was their escape from slavery. Next they must receive and keep the law which would lead to them being grafted onto the house of Israel so they could inheret the work of Jesus. Essentially they lived and practiced their faith much like Messianic Jews.
The “best” part of their theology was rejecting all patterns of thought which were part of the mentality of those who were cursed. They identified the mentality which kept them tied to the curse mainly with tribalism which among African Americans was typified by gangs (ie quick to anger and be offended, us vs them outlook, a willingness to resort to violence, rituals by which members gained access to the group, a will to power). They also rejected the sort of legalism which took away their God-given right to do things like drink wine, play cards, dance, go to the movies, etc. Instead, they encouraged, kindness, humility, tolerance, ready forgivess, patience and other Christian virtues. And they threw in some prosperity gospel style “believe and think right, reap the benefits” thinking for good measure.
All in all, I think I can safely say they had some bad theology going. If I had met them a few years earlier, I probably would have been so repulsed by it that it would have kept me from enjoying their company, much less engaging in scripture study with them. I probably would have tried to argue with them; convince them to see the error of their ways. I would have been angry that there were people spreading the sort of theology which defames God like that. Instead, I went to their church picnic, drank wine and covered my head with a scarf to pray with them.
Now, you may not ever have the chance to meet Christians with such wild theology, but odds are good that there are theological beliefs which drive you to the point of wanting to commit violence. It could be neo-reformed theology, partriarchal teachings, pro or anti-gay marriage theology, legalism, liberalism, or some other ism that drives you nuts. We Christians have a very bad track record of being able to tolerate differences in theological opinion. Yet unity among believers is a common teaching of the New Testament. It was one of the things which Jesus prayed for us, in fact.
What I have come to understand is that since our ability to grasp truth fully is limited, God’s concern is less that we believe the right things and more that what we believe is drawing us closer to him. And the truth is that we hold so many theologies not simply because we’re evil or unthinking sheep or don’t care about truth. Rather, we hold so many different theologies because there are so many different ways of being wounded, confused and needy. Different theologies can meet different needs.
That couple I met with their terrible theology? They and the members of their church came from violent, gang infested neighborhoods where the disciplines of the middle class didn’t exist. They had inherited a history of unspeakable cruelty and oppression towards their people. And their theology, mistaken as it was in many ways, was helping them make sense of and overcome all of that. The narrative of God’s curse on Africans helped them understand their history and find a way beyond it. The discipline of keeping the law helped them learn the sort of disciplines which middle class people often take for granted – planning, budgeting, keeping a schedule. Framing the dysfunction around them as tribal remnants or oppressive, slave mentality made it easier for them to recognize and reject the water of dysfunction they were swimming in. It was terrible theology, but it served a real purpose for these particular people in this particular time.
Again, their’s is a rather extreme example. But the truth is that those theologies which make you want to wretch may well be just what someone else needs. And it could well be that the theology which brings you life would do nothing for them. We all need different things on our way to a greater truth.
Of course, bad theology isn’t always so benign for those who hold it. It can, in fact, destroy people. It can engender abuse. It can make people’s hearts hard or shatter them. It’s not always without consequence. And it’s for this reason that a lot of people expend a lot of time and emotional energy speaking against bad theology. Which to a certain extent is fine. I guess. But more and more I wonder if this urge to argue and divide doesn’t really stem from our own immaturity and lack of faith.
First of all, God doesn’t need us to defend him. As Crystal St. Marie Lewis says, “When a god begins to require the custodial protection of those who worship him, he is no longer a god. He becomes an idol.” Without realizing it, many of us think that God can not handle those who defame him without our assistance. That if we don’t step in to mount a good defense, bad theology will win and God will lose. The truth is that God will make himself known in his own way and his own time with or without our assistance.
The second issue is that we have actually underestimated the scope of the problem; there’s a lot of evil theology out there. Much more than you think, in fact. Any theology which isn’t completely true is evil. God is light and in him there is no darkness. If it’s not God, it’s dark and evil. So there’s evil in your theology and in mine. But, whether it’s evil in our theology or in the theology of others, the answer isn’t to search it out, cast it out and rise up against it. Rather it’s to allow God to do that work. The bible says, “what the enemy meant for evil, God uses for good.”
Our part isn’t to fight, but to obey. Jesus said not to resist the evil man. Paul instructs us to keep our eyes on what is good, true, pure, praiseworthy. Evil is overcome by goodness. Do good to those who oppose you.
I know, I know, “all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” And yes, Jesus spoke out against the bad theologians of his day. But consider that doing good isn’t being passive. Often, doing good is an assertive challenge. Especially when working from a position of less power than the one promoting evil. Greg Boyd recently wrote a book in which he argued that God has choosen to do battle through the “weak power of love” instead of by taking hold of the strong power of aggression which we humans prefer to do battle with.
And those bad theologians Jesus told off? They provoked confrontations with him. He wasn’t sitting to the side when these people taught, pointing out all their errors and condemning them. With few exceptions, Jesus followed the edict to promote what you love rather than bash what you hate. We should do likewise.
I know that this seems like really bad advice. God’s instructions usually make for bad advice. Which, I suppose is why we so rarely follow them. But ultimately, we need to put our faith in the power of God and not our own. We need to look at these things with spiritual eyes rather than measure them with human methods. Do you trust in God and the work of the Holy Spirit to lead the bride out of all the bad theology? Do you trust that if you seek first the Kingdom – not go to battle for it, not defend it, not defeat its enemies – that God can handle the rest? If so, then may I suggest that the next time you run into some really bad theology, you simply recognize a brother or sister in Christ and love them the best you can?