January 15, 2021

Postcards To A Young Theologian 2

guiltbw.jpgPostcard 1

2. Be suspicious of guilt that comes from crossing the perceived boundaries of a group.

In between the lines of these epistles from young theologians, there is a common emotion. It is not a front-burner emotion, nor is it entirely absent. It is the emotion of nagging, background guilt. Guilt related to deviating from the approved path of the group in thought and belief.

These are young men who have read- and liked- N.T. Wright, Brian Mclaren or Karl Barth. They are men who have questioned unquestioned hermeneutical assumptions. They are men who have suggested that revered leaders may be wrong. They are men who have gone, in their minds and in their teaching, outside the boundary lines that define the group’s self-perception and worldview. They have raised questions, and sometimes affirmed answers, that have put them outside the traditions and identity of the group.

And they feel guilt for doing so. Whatever the response of the group, these young men feel the guilt within themselves. They feel they have done something wrong, and they remain within the group, often castigating themselves for other faults, out of a need to deal with that guilt.

Some of the guilt comes from the actual reaction of the group and its leaders to their departure from the beliefs and worldview. But most of this guilt, I believe, is self-inflicted, and exists in the minds and hearts of these young men because they know their own thoughts and deepest convictions. They hold themselves guilty for growing, asking, disagreeing and criticizing.

Guilt and religion are often found together. Critics of Christianity would say they are inseparable; that the use of guilt to control behavior is endemic to religion, and especially to the great monotheistic religions.

As some of you know, my father heard me preach less than ten times in his entire life. The reason was quite simple: because he was divorced and his church was highly critical of divorce, he was overwhelmed with guilt. He felt unworthy and rejected, so he avoided church almost entirely. Ever since I realized what was going on here, I’ve had a low view of the use of guilt in religion.

As a member of- mostly- conservative churches throughout my life, I’ve seen more manifestations of guilt than I could write about in a week. Guilt used to coerce volunteers. Guilt to raise money. Guilt over not supporting projects and programs. Guilt at the altar call. Guilt to create attendance. And most appropriate for this post, Guilt over not buying everything the group had to sell in terms of ideas, beliefs and approved behavior.

I have some advice for young theologians: If you are in an environment where you feel guilty about your personal journey of faith, something is wrong. Be immediately suspicious when your legitimate explorations of the faith we share in Jesus results in guilt because you fear you have “strayed.” Search your thoughts and experiences. What is going on?

There are places in our journey where the Spirit of God may convict of that we have strayed from the path of following Jesus with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. On the other hand, there are many sources of inappropriate guilt that need to be viewed as useless, and their influence ignored.

What are these sources of inappropriate guilt?

-Reading books that do not agree with the dominant theology of positions of the group.
-Disagreeing with teachers and leaders of the group.
-Coming to the conclusion that positions and beliefs commonly accepted by the group may not be Biblically correct.
-Deciding that some aspects of the group’s behavior is wrong or should be altered.
-Raising questions or challenging positions when a “good” group member is expected to simply agree.
-Criticizing the group or its positions in print or speech.

At times, I am stunned by the responses of some on the internet to merely READING and complimenting books by authors who disagree with their own group, or for raising questions and criticisms that the group itself ought to be raising constantly. The amount of “groupthink” that goes on in Christian circles in maddening and self-poisoning. How is a group threatened when a Catholic author, or even a skeptic, is read with profit? How is a group threatened when it’s assumptions are questioned not automatically accepted by new members? How is a group benefitted when those who think differently are labelled as anatagonistic, mocking and opposed to what is good? How is a group made more healthy when its leaders rise to the status of the especially anointed?

Isn’t this just another description of immaturity, insecurity and the need to control those who identify with a group? Is anyone surprised that creating new versions of “the current approved list of people who are OK with the leaders of the group” has become a frequent activity on the internet? I Corinthians 1 seems remarkably familiar these days: Who are the REAL Christians? See our blogroll.

Young people often ask me about the kind of church that they should look for in the future. Of all the things I can say to them, one of the most important is to go where their own spiritual journey, questions, reading and contributions are viewed positively. Go where to be in disagreement is not viewed as sin, and where such disagreement does not result in being ostracized. Go where leaders value diversity, and where open conversation and questions are not “risky.” Go where the group can be wrong and the individual right. As I have said before, go where Reformed confessionalism AND Luther’s conscience are both valued.

Beware of groups that extract loyalty at the cost of the fear of crossing the group’s boundaries and leadership. God does not expect us to compromise our conscience and to lie about our beliefs and questions in order to maintain proper relationship to any group of men.



  1. Excellent series of posts here, Michael. An important question to ask in our preservation of individual growth, especially as it relates to theology, is how tradition should constrain our explorations and what boundaries must be reinforced. Certain aspects of Paleo-Orthodoxy resonate with me precisely because they take the role of tradition seriously. I feel as though I understand the impulse for gatekeeping among the cantankerous reformed – I even affirm its importance. I think for me, personally, the problem is more one of anxiety than guilt, since defining appropriate boundaries remains such a vexing task.

  2. What about guilt when one finds themselves suddenly agreeing with more of what the Internet Monk writes? 😉 hehe

    Well said, Michael. I have learned some of these lessons the hard way, and some of them I am still learning.

    God bless,
    steve 🙂

  3. You have delivered the correct punch. Guilt is not the same as coviction. It seems like many churches feel like behavior, by whatever means, is the important thing. That is why I love the “fruit of the Spirit” list. It deals with heart issues that result in behavior…not just a behavor list. It saddens me to see people feel like they are too damaged for church or Christianity. Thanks!

  4. For various reasons, I’ve been considering leaving my (very much non-Reformed) SBC church, and have been visiting different churches. I’m generally hesitant to tell people that I’m looking at/visiting other churches, because they’re usually non-Baptist churches, and almost everyone that I have told has had an immediatly negative, knee-jerk reaction to that news. For example, my girlfriend and I visited a nearby Presbyterian church some time ago because they were having a Christmas cantata service, and some of my friends from work went there (this was well before I had even entertained the thought of leaving my current church). Afterwards, we met some friends from our church at a restaurant, and they asked why we hadn’t been at service that night. When we told them we’d visited the Presbyterian church, one girl immediately, in a rather nasty tone, asked, “Why?” And that was another Protestant church; imagine what happened when we visited an Orthodox church, and, even worse, liked it.

    Of course, this sort of thing doesn’t exactly make someone want to discuss these things with people at church, since one pretty much expects the response to be the same, and therefore, it’s easier to simply avoid the controversy. However, to some others, this reluctance is evidence that I “realize” that I’m doing something wrong, and I’m trying to hide it out of guilt. Of course, that doesn’t exactly make me more willing to discuss the doubts I’m having…

    By the way, this is a large reason for any bitterness you may have noticed in my posts (assuming you read them of course 😉 ).

    On a positive note, I want to thank you for all the times you’ve put in words what I’ve not been able to. It’s also good to know that the problems I see aren’t just me.

  5. panhandle says

    “At times, I am stunned by the responses of some on the internet to merely READING and complimenting books by authors who disagree with their own group, or for raising questions and criticisms that the group itself ought to be raising constantly”

    Hmmmmm, this from the man that responded to a previous post (https://internetmonk.com/archive/guess-who-on-john-316) with simply “Finney must be avoided at all costs”. Because, of course, we have nothing to learn from authors whom we disagree with do we?

  6. Touche’.

    Read Finney, with my enthusiastic blessing. You got me.

  7. There’s hope! The Men’s Weekend I just attended for a PCA Church retreat featured a speaker promoting the theme of “Simplicity” as espoused by Richard Foster. I’m sure that Foster is dismissed by many Reformed types for being a lib and a mystic, but he’s got some important things to say to all believers. Foster and Dallas Willard could help many TR’s to “restore the joy of their salvation.”

Speak Your Mind