A friend sent me an email about a Bible Study in a local coffee shop. Tithing, the subject of the discussion, caught my attention, but I was only mildly interested until I read three words: “All opinions welcome.”
I like to hear differing opinions, and then make my own decision about a subject. Unfortunately, church groups rarely listen to “all opinions” and dissenters to the accepted norm are ostracized. I decided to attend hoping to hear a lively discussion about tithing and planned to leave early if this turned out to be a group of disgruntled Christians complaining about their church.
The group of four men and one woman were from various churches. One of the men and I had attended the same church for a season. He no longer attended church but had never stopped studying the Bible. The woman attended a church whose pastor I knew. The other men were from the same church. One of them, a deacon, had been appointed by his pastor to lead the Bible Study.
The meeting opened with prayer, and they began a discussion about what they were going to discuss. The email had said tithing would be the subject, and I decided I’d made a mistake. I stayed mostly because it would have been rude to leave. I did not expect to come face to face with myself before the night was over, but I did.
One of the men, who I will call Al to protect his privacy, shared the same concerns I have about church doctrine and was making the same mistakes I did. Al was vocal about Pastors who teach questionable things and was known for confronting them through emails and at times in person. Jesus confronted the teachers of his day, and Al believed we should do the same. He was particularly concerned about the lack of teaching on Matthew Chapter 18. He claimed that “no one” was teaching the vital truths in this particular chapter and implied problems in the church would be resolved if someone did.
Before the discussion was over, the conversation turned a bit rude. Al offended the only other woman in the group by discussing the flaws in her pastor. She told him if he didn’t stop talking about her pastor she would leave. He told her to leave. The deacon objected to his “tone.” I was hoping for a lively discussion and was not disappointed.
To Al’s credit, he apologized to the woman. She asked him why he was against pastors and reminded him that pastors make mistakes like the rest of us. I didn’t get the sense Al was against pastors. He was against pastors who lead people astray. I understood how he felt.
At the beginning of my Christian walk, I believed whatever the pastor taught. Doing so led me to do stupid things that brought decades of pain into my life. Bitter experiences often cause young Christians to turn their backs on God and abandon Christianity. I was reluctant to release something that had salvaged me from drug addiction. Instead, I stopped believing everything a pastor taught and diligently studied the Bible to understand its message. As I sought to work out my own salvation the fog of lies I had been taught by well intention but flawed men cleared. I remained in the church, but my attitude toward pastors and organized religion is markedly different.
As I questioned pastors through emails and in private conversations about the things I learned in personal study a friend accused me of being against pastors. I wasn’t against pastors anymore than I believe Al is. Jesus said if our worship of God is made up of manmade rules we worship God in vain. He also warned us that many will say Lord, Lord let us in your kingdom but will be denied entrance because they practiced religion, but never pursued the will of God. The stakes are high. What we believe about God is very important.
The Bible is a long history of religious leaders corrupting and the prophets who resisted them being treated like traitors and outcast. If more people like Al were willing to challenge the things they are being taught there might be less corruption in the church. If more pastors were willing to examine their doctrines when they are questioned they might prosper in ministry.
When the Bible study was over, I remained to talk to Al about some of the things I’ve learned in my pursuit of the truth. First, Jesus had no sin in his life to cloud his judgment like we do. Rebuking religious leaders like Jesus did is dangerous because we are not sinless. Second, the doctrines we have embraced might not be as pure as we think they are. Third, corrupt leaders serve a good purpose. The pain they inflict in our lives teach us to worship the God we cannot see instead of men that we can see. Fourth, God’s ministers are God’s business. He will rebuke and judge them severely when they do wrong. There are a number of stories in the Bible that reveal the goodness and severity of God. King David is a good example that God does not play favorites. Fifth, applying our limited experience to the entire church yields inaccurate conclusions. I had taught Matthew Chapter 18 in a church, as I’m sure many ministers have throughout the church’s 2,000-year history.
I don’t know if I helped Al. He listened quietly and intently. I left him my card in case he wanted to talk further and emailed him Debtors Have Rights, which explains the parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew Chapter 18.
I posted this article to NOLA.com’s faith blog and Al contacted me to complain. He was a writer so I offered to give him blog space on NOLA. He declined, and I never heard from him again.