The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse[d] among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries. Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
Documented use of an Abortifacient, Numbers 5:16-22
In May 2022, white evangelical Christians woke up to some rather unexpected news. A draft opinion had somehow leaked out of the Supreme Court, suggesting that Roe v. Wade would soon be overturned. Shortly after, it was. I single out white evangelicals here because, according to a recent Pew Research study, they are twice as likely to want to see abortion outlawed than other Americans (including other Christians). It would be an error though to conclude this means white evangelicals are the most pro-life. No no no, this is not the case at all. White evangelicals are no more pro-life than other religious groups, Christian or otherwise – they are, however, the most autocratic. Yet those who would use the Bible to institute government sponsored morality seem to have forgotten where the bodies are buried: also in their Bible.
The concept of abortion is nothing new. The practice of inducing an abortion as punishment for unfaithful women was once conducted as part of priestly duties in pre-Christian Judaism. A woman suspected of adultery, yet maintaining her innocence would be partially stripped, treated as an animal (right down to the presentation of an animal’s meal offering), and made to drink a type of holy water concoction; it was believed an unfaithful woman would abort her lover’s fetus and die within up to three years were she guilty (Mishnah Sotah 3). Holy water has a long tradition of being used to cleanse and purify, and so the implication was that the illegitimate fetus was evil, and therefore must be purged from the woman. Behind the scenes, this seemed to have more to do with the financial aspects of marriage contracts and intimidation than it did holiness, and the practice was eventually ended prior to the destruction of the second temple. Today’s American evangelicals take the opposing viewpoint of their ancestors – namely, against all forms of abortion – yet still firmly hold onto the practice of controlling women in much the same way. Yet while many other Christians value life just as much as autocratic evangelicals, we differ greatly from them particularly on a solution to the number of unwanted pregnancies in the country. Evangelicals largely believe outlawing abortion and state control of a woman’s uterus is the only solution, while most others believe it is an ineffective and dangerous solution – perhaps just as dangerous as the ancient practice that once caused them (or at least was perceived to; the practice’s effectiveness was highly questionable among rabbis).
Forced morality is likewise nothing new either. In the book of Chronicles, King Josiah breaks down the altars of false gods, tears down carved images, and rids Judah and Jerusalem of the ungodliness of the time. When his priest finds the Book of the Law, Josiah tears his robe and imposes moral rule according to the laws of the book. The chronicler Ezra writes, “Josiah removed all the detestable idols from all the territory belonging to the Israelites, and he had all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God. As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the Lord, the God of their ancestors.” An often overlooked detail in this story is that in spite of a society living under (and clearly practicing!) moral law, God tells Josiah that he will take his life early so that he will not see the disaster God plans to bring about. A useful object lesson can be found here: perceived morality counts for little when it is compelled. At the center of today’s controversy is not really Christian doctrine at all (there is no Christian doctrine concerning abortion), or even morality, but rather the same desire for power; today, that translates to the church’s desire for socio-economic power.
In the beginning wickedness did not exist. Nor indeed does it exist even now in those who are holy, nor does it in any way belong to their nature.
Athanasius, Against the Heathen
I’ve devoted much of the past 30 years as an evangelical Christian “layperson” to Christian studies to try and become an educated one. Greek, theology, the patristics, and Christian history should be in the wheelhouse of every Christian, yet most never study their own religion but merely live confined to the prison of their own prejudice. It is, therefore, of little surprise that what Christianity has become in America is now more or less a product of a news cycle, and less about a gospel of a meek savior. Evangelical Christianity in America has somehow become entirely alien to historical Christianity and lately, basic human decency.
The church can no longer be recognized in her embracing of the racism, hostility, and lies that Christian believers proliferate today. It frankly isn’t a church at all, more of something resembling Christianity, yet absolutely nothing like it; a counterfeit – as if the devil created an impotent, counerfeit religion and entranced Christians into worshipping him as the Christian god. I’m frankly ashamed and embarrassed to have to share the label. The year 2020 brought some of the worst out in us. I’m referring to the mainstream evangelical church – relatives, friends, and people I’ve grown up with – who were once a much-needed example of Christianity to me – have severely disappointed in how they’d conducted themselves, causing me to question if they ever truly understood their own faith.
What more is there for their Expected One to do when he comes? To call the heathen? But they are called already. To put an end to prophet and king and vision? But this too has already happened. To expose the God-denyingness of idols? It is already exposed and condemned. Or to destroy death? It is already destroyed. What then has not come to pass that the Christ must do?
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
Christianity introduced me to a God who interacted with humanity to offer a life greater than myself. This made a lot of sense to seventeen-year-old me. It still does. Christianity in America comes with a lot of baggage, though. Along with the powerful message of the gospel come a lot of strange ideas about the creation and destruction of the world. Depictions of a violent and terrifying last days are often portrayed in both Hollywood fiction and from the pulpits of American churches. I spent many of my younger years friend to a fireball end-times preacher, who sadly died of COVID recently. Having been immersed in a church community with end-times motifs often present, it became apparent over time that evangelical Christianity seemed to have conflated faith with magic, losing touch with historical Christian beliefs. Modern interpretations of end times prophecy have become increasingly more embellished within many churches, incorporating new themes from current events into a sort of theological composite to explain present-day unrest. Such theories divorced the pattern of a historical Jesus, who advocated non-violence, with one now seemingly the perpetrator of pointless violence, judgment, and terrifying death. These beliefs have altered the entire world view of the evangelical church to adopt a militant, warfare-influenced mindset.
The concept of a violent and militant Jesus probably had its origins in the medieval period1. The idea was first codified at the Council of Nablus in 1120, where Canon 20 permitted a clergyman to take up arms in self-defense without bearing any guilt; this was during turbulent times when Christian pilgrims were often massacred by the hundreds along their journey, leaving their rotting corpses along the road from Jaffa into the Holy Land. This one concession, intended to be a temporary measure, seeded militant movements in Christianity starting with the Papal legitimization of the Templars movement (“God’s Holy Knights”), extremist groups such as Alfonso I’s Brotherhood of Belchite, the Pastoureaux, and now reaches into modern day militant Christian ideals. End-times theories today evolve within evangelical churches to reinterpret current events into an apocalyptic context. They attract fringe groups with similar mindsets, as they include the same elements – oracle-sourced apocalyptic theories that lead to violent, anti-establishment outcomes. Yet this is in conflict with the teachings of Christ and hundreds of years of church fathers about martyrdom, pacifism, and government non-involvement. The obvious contradiction of a Christianity asserting a struggle that is “not against flesh and blood” somehow ending up with a literal war against flesh and blood is the result of a theological evolution that influenced how the church interprets scripture and forms doctrine today. To not believe in a brutal and imminent end times means, in many churches, that you don’t have a Christian faith at all.
Theories about masks, vaccines, the World Health Organization, and a new president are popular topics of recent end-times discussion within churches. The idea that anyone can speculate on end-times prophecy has attracted conspiracy groups like QAnon, which now represents up to 25% of white American evangelicals. Denominationalism, while having some benefit, has also become a significant enabler of confirmation bias in the church, allowing for tribal systems of otherwise fringe beliefs to find support. These beliefs have become more extreme as a result of the social dysfunction created by COVID and deep divisions in politics. Beliefs about masks, vaccines, and other current topics are now loosely joined to end-times concepts of one world government, the mark of the beast, eternal punishment, or other themes in Revelation. Conspiracy theories within the church’s walls have had very real consequences. A study from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed that only a mere 41% of white evangelicals believe scripture provides no reason to refuse the COVID vaccine – that’s 59% of white evangelicals who think otherwise. The same polling organization found that 18% of all Americans believe in the QAnon conspiracy the “government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation”. The most extreme example of end-times prophecy going off the rails was seen on January 6, where insurrectionists attempted a coup within the congress, driven by QAnon conspiracy theories. As one evangelical pastor put it, “Right now QAnon is still on the fringes of evangelicalism… but we have a pretty big fringe.”
The modern-day evangelical end-times posture can be walked back to a shift in theological interpretation of the mid-1800s. The interpretive biases that posit this theology have altered Christianity in many significant ways. Yet concepts of a sudden secret rapture, seven years of tribulation, and a thousand-year earthly kingdom all rest upon theological pillars of highly questionable origin. Such last days concepts have no support in historic Christianity, and could be divorced from Christianity altogether. Many evangelicals, having been raised in this mindset, will deny vaccines and literally die on the basis of the theological system under which they were taught, firmly believing that they are honoring God in doing so. Yet it is a flawed and unfalsifiable system of theology – not Christianity itself – that is to blame. Let us attempt to tease those two concepts apart.
“For no property of God which the mind can grasp is more characteristic of Him than existence, since existence, in the absolute sense, cannot be predicated of that which shall come to an end, or of that which has had a beginning, and He who now joins continuity of being with the possession of perfect felicity could not in the past, nor can in the future, be non-existent; for whatsoever is Divine can neither be originated nor destroyed. Wherefore, since God’s eternity is inseparable from Himself, it was worthy of Him to reveal this one thing, that He is, as the assurance of His absolute eternity.”
On the Trinity St. Hilary of Poitiers
I’ve often been asked why an intellectual type guy such as myself would believe in God – a figure most Americans equate to a good bedtime story, or a religious symbol for people who need that sort of thing. After about 30 years of life as a Christian, my faith in God is the only thing that’s peeled me off the pavement through many hard times in my life, and helped keep me grounded during COVID. What God has to say about me – as a human – having intrinsic value , and deserving love (even in times when I didn’t love myself), is likely the only reason I hadn’t pulled the trigger a few times in my life. But it is far from a crutch; it has pushed me to conquer my own selfishness as a human, to learn to forgive, to suffer myself to be defrauded for the sake of my testimony, and to serve something greater than myself. Striving to understand God, especially through all of the American nonsense that is in the church today, has been a thought provoking and captivating journey as well. I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, nor did I have any real preconceived notions about concepts such as church or the Bible. I didn’t really understand Christianity at all through my youth, other than from the perspective of an outsider – all I had figured was that he was a religious symbol for religious people.
Today’s perception of Christianity in America is that of a hate-filled group of racists that are too stupid to take a vaccine. A title that many so-called Christians have rightfully earned for themselves. This doesn’t represent Christianity any more than the other extremes do, though, and even atheists know this. There is a real standard we are called to meet as Christians, and much of this country has fallen short. It doesn’t mean that God isn’t who he said he is, and it doesn’t move the bar of accountability for those that profess to be Christian. There are countless people who are not of this stereotype, who strive to love and to do good, who won’t judge you, and who try their best to walk out a life worthy of the Christian faith.
I’ve been a Christian since 1993, and am convinced, based on my experiences and my understanding, that God is more than just a story. But it takes looking outside of the white American evangelical culture that’s often portrayed as Christianity to understand what God is about. I think most people already know in their heart who God is, and that’s why they’re so averse to the church. In recent times, there has been a cognitive dissonance between historical Christianity and the way the church behaves. Christians are equally mystified by this – but it does not invalidate everything that’s been written about God.
Joshua Harris, the author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, recently renounced his faith and apologized for his awful book. I remember when it came out in the late 90’s, and still see the lasting damage it inflicted on two generations of young men and women. Harris ended up creating a toxic culture inside the mainstream church that would take two generations of Christian men back into the dark ages of devaluing women based on their level of sexual indiscretion, and helped fan the flames of homophobia and exclusion. His “sexual prosperity gospel”, as it’s been called, led to a life of guilt and shame for many, and created lasting scars that caused some to abandon their faith or their marriages later on in life.
Christianity teaches that a person’s worth has nothing to do with their sexual history (or orientation), but from Jesus, who was willing to die to reconcile humanity to God. We’re not defined by our sins, and we’re not defined by our past; we are defined by Christ. This is a far cry from the cultish fundamentalist legalism that Harris’s church taught for decades; the purity movement amounted to nothing more than a way for Christians to measure themselves and others up. It’s no surprise that Harris renounced his faith; if the faith he was practicing was grounded in such a flawed understanding of grace and intrinsic human worth, then by any measurement it was not Christianity. The truly sad part is that he convinced millions of Christians to adopt this same world view for more than 20 years, allowing it to hurt a lot of people before it became popular for leaders to finally speak out against it. Sorry, Josh, but an apology doesn’t let you off the hook.
But this failure wasn’t just of Harris’s own making: It was the complete failure of church leaders everywhere in elevating Harris’s status to a Christian leader. Harris was a mere 21 years old, and hadn’t even been to seminary yet when he wrote the book. Rather than rightfully dismissing his book as yet more of the trash writing of that era, the inexperienced youth leaders of that time (many of whom also lacked formal training) saw a way to get kids to act responsibly, without considering the consequences of his legalism. From piecing together accounts online, Harris’s own church reeked of a world of deep-seated problems, including sexual abuse coverup, abuses of power, control and manipulation of their congregation, and legalism running rampant. The church had become so damaging, much of his congregation ended up leaving, and there’s an entire blog dedicated to victims trying to recover from Harris and the rest of his church’s leaders. Indeed, it’s very telling to see the kind of culture his book came out of, and the horrifying fruits of it. When you read that Josh Harris has departed Christianity, this appears by all accounts to be a very good thing for Christianity.
Countless sermons have been preached instructing people to give, and God will let you have the car you want, the house you want, and the life you want. Amusingly, my web logs indicate that this essay is found frequently by pastors Googling for prosperity sermons to preach on Sunday. It seems strange, though, that a people who profess to follow Christ are so anxious to convince the church that God wants them to be rich, when the Bible teaches no such thing – God has promised us no such prosperity, but only trials, tribulation, and possibly martyrdom. James teaches us that there’s something profoundly wrong with a miser, treating the notion of being rich as a sign of poor character in their lack of generosity. So are pastors just in error, wanting to see their congregation blessed in this consumer driven American culture, or are they preaching up promises of breakthroughs and finances because they know they’ll reap some of the benefits? In either case, Christians shouldn’t be so naive, given the role models we have in Jesus and the apostles.
I’ve spent many late evenings over the past month translating and researching an intriguing early Christian manuscript called the Didache. Greek for teaching, this first century Greek manuscript reveals the life and heart of the early Church. It has been the center of much academic interest and controversy since its rediscovery in 1883. Prior to this, it was once thought lost to history, although many early church fathers including Athanasius, Rufinus, and John of Damascas cited the book as inspired scripture. It was also accepted into the Apostolic Constitutions Canon 85 and the 81-book Ethiopic Canon. Many early church fathers including Barnabas, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen either quote or reference the Didache.