Why Christians have lost the argument for faith before it started.

argumentsThis week, a blogger I respect, Tony Jones, wrote a post “Why Are You Still a Christian?” It was an open and honest piece about his personal struggles with doubt and faith. His basic assertion could be characterized as saying that he is a Christian because most people believe in God. Not the best argument in my mind.

He was also unfavourable towards Atheists. A prominent Atheist blogger then shared the post and the comments started filling on Tony Jones blog with arguments against faith.

Tony Jones tweeted that he was feeling a little beat up after it all.

A post like that, trying to give his reasons for his faith, was destined to fail in the face of “rational” scrutiny. But the point of the post wasn’t to give THE argument for God, it was to share what he is clinging to at the moment. However, the responses in the comment section cannot really be faulted either.

The problem is ‘Christendom’  and how Christendom’s argument for faith and for God has been playing out over the last several decades. Now, bear with me for a moment as I try to explain.

I heard Nadia Bolz-Weber last fall in Winnipeg, and one of my favourite “Nadiaisms” that she uses to describe her church, House for All Sinners and Saints is:

We are high commitment, low obligation.”

Theirs is a culture that allows people to participate in planning and leading as they are able, people can come and go as their interest and availability changes.

Sounds like great system, if you can work with change and chaos.

But the issue of obligation vs. commitment is one that has been rumbling about my brain for months, and I am starting to realize it is much more than a quaint idea for a little mission congregation.

Obligation vs. Commitment is at the heart of Christendom’s argument for faith.

Or more precisely, Christians have been trying to obligate society to observe, defend, practice, uphold, and respect Christianity. Then while society pushes back against being obligated in such a way. As a pastor, I get to hear the lament of failed obligation attempts pretty regularly. The lament is for a loss of privilege:

“They used to say the Lord’s prayer in schools, pastor!”

“Stores used to be closed on Sundays so people could come to church.”

“Kid’s play sports on Sunday mornings, and that is why our Sunday School is so small. It never used to be like that.”

“The cashier at (insert name) store said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.””

“People need to start coming to church to fill our pews and give offering! People should be here.”

“This is a Christian nation founded on Christian values.”

“They took the 10 Commandments down from the courthouse, what is the world coming to?”

I cringe when I hear these statements. I would be willing to bet they bother me as much any non-Christian. But they bother me for a different reason.

We have lost of the plot when we think that we can obligate belief or faith.

This is why Tony Jones, who did not set out for a debate, lost before he even began. Christendom got in the way of his point. Christendom has been trying to obligate faith for decades, and people who don’t want to be obligated anymore are rightfully protesting. It is pretty hard to make an argument for faith and for people not to hear the Christian attempt to obligate everyone to follow our religion.

But the bigger issue is for those of us who are Christians.

Is forcing everyone to say a Christian prayer in school or to say ‘Merry Christmas’ or to come to church because the rest of the world is closed on Sundays really a valid evangelism or discipleship method?

I think it is time for Christians to give up trying to reclaim the obligations of Christendom past.

I think it is time for Christians to say sorry to the world for trying to legislate our faith into their lives.

I think it is time for Christians to stop trying to argue people into believing in God. 

Even if there was some argument that could once and for all prove that God is real, and the Trinity is that God, and that everyone should believe… it would be the worst idea in the world to use it. What good is a Christian who has been forced to faith?

I actually don’t like it when people who think they should be there, come to my church. I don’t want people to come to church or be Christian for the sake of filling pews and saving souls.

I want people to want to come to church. To want to become Christians. To want to have a relationship with the Body of Christ.

I want people to feel like church is something they need, not something forced upon them. 

You know who makes my heart leap for joy at church? People who can’t imagine being anywhere else on Sunday mornings. People who choose church over the other options.

But we can’t all feel that way every week. Even the most devout Christian cannot want faith enough sufficiently every day, every week, every month.

And that is where I come back to Tony Jones’ post.

“Because everyone else is doing it,” is simply not a good reason for faith. Yet, I didn’t hear that in his post.

“Because on the days when I don’t have enough faith on my own, my brothers and sisters in Christ will have enough faith for me” is what I did hear. This is one of the most important theological, ecclesiological, liturgical reasons that I can imagine for why most of us are still Christians.

Because we are committed to each other, because we commit to share our faith and to share our doubt as a community, because everyone is else is doing faith WITH me. This is one of the most important reasons in the world.

Our desire to obligate people to faith is a desire to preserve Empire, but Christians, the Body of Christ, cannot be about Empire anymore.

The Body of Christ does not obligate you, me or anyone to faith. The Body of Christ commits you, me and all creation to God.

This idea changes everything. Wanting people to believe in God is one thing, but what if Christians strived to help people to want to have faith? We would be a different Church if we tried that.

Have Christians lost the argument for faith?  Is there a defense for faith that will help? Share in the comments or on twitter @ParkerErik or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/millennialpastor

Want more drama? Check out the high school drama of Evangelicalism.


41 thoughts on “Why Christians have lost the argument for faith before it started.”

  1. Great post again- I really like your critique of obligation- i’ve never thought of it that way. I was wondering, though: where do you hear “Because on the days when I don’t have enough faith on my own, my brothers and sisters in Christ will have enough faith for me” rather than “because everyone else is doing it”? I certainly didn’t get that impression, but I’m not that familiar with the rest of his body of work.


    1. It isn’t overt, but more in the sense of his doubts. Rather than everyone else believing being a reason to believe, it is more a reassurance that I am not the only one crazy enough to believe this stuff and not the only one weak enough to doubt it.


  2. When I hear the laments about about Sunday Shopping and Happy Holidays, the subtext that I hear is, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” It sucks to wake up one morning realize that you’re in exile in Babylon. Especially when you realize it’s partly your own fault. And the people you thought were your “brothers and sisters”, whom you could count on to bolster your faith, weren’t really your brothers and sisters at all: just hucksters and politicians who were using you. Those of you who were born in exile are right — “ought to” is not and never was a good enough reason. And just like you can’t put more faith in the temple that you put in God, you can’t put more faith in Christendom than in God. But oh — there was a time when we mattered. And it’s hard to let it go.


  3. The winning argument for Christianity began with the Apostles trekking off into the Greco-Roman hinterland to spread the Good News.

    The result was Western Civilization, the greatest, most just, prosperous and technologically advanced civilization in human history.

    Postmodern people argue against Christ and Christian Western Civilization simply because they want to live like hedonistic libertines.

    Mankind has already been there and done that countless times, always with disastrous results.


    1. Ummm… the Greco-Roman world would hardly qualify as a hinterland, especially to the Apostles trekking out of Judea.

      Nor can Christianity claim Western Civilization as its doing. Western Civilization was much more influenced by the Greeks and then by the enlightenment. You could blame the dark ages on Christianity.


      1. The Greco-Roman society was pagan. That’s what I meant by hinterland.

        Christianity was totally new and different.

        Western Civilization is its own unique, homegrown civilization though it was influenced by many.


    2. Ever since your violent threats to me, I’ve been afraid to engage with you, but I write the following, not for you, but anyone who might read this and find themselves misinformed.

      The Islamic world of the thirteenth century was far more advanced than the Christian world of the same era. China, for many centuries, was also more advanced. Western Europe did not begin to exceed the culture of other places until the Enlightenment, an event that some (please note the word some) fundamentalist Christians regret.

      Here’s the Wikipedia entry on the Islamic Golden Age:

      Furthermore, the concept of a “center” and a “hinterland” is a function of ethnocentrism. I wonder what the Aztecs or the Incas would have thought of your description of the world.


            1. [DELETED]
              The culture of the Islamic world was far more advanced that that of Christendom for much of the period we call the Middle Ages. In fact, why the Islamic world sputtered and the flame died out is a question that has puzzled scholars. Some people consider it a result of intolerant religious fundamentalism. Beside the culture of China, the Aztecs and the Incas, we can add the culture of India and African cultures such as that of Mali, also an Islamic culture but sufficiently different than that of the Middle East to generally not be grouped with it. The was a very moving story earlier this year about how the people of the town of Timbuktu risked their lives to save the library when fundamentalists staging a coup d’etat in that country tried to burn it down.

              Since the Renaissance occurred in a Christian context, there is nothing inherent in Christianity that would prevent a culture from flourishing, but since it took several hundred years I tend to not see it as the cause, either. The word Renaissance referred to the rebirth of classical learning.

              I am, myself, exceedingly fond of Western Culture, but one’s fondness for one’s own culture should not blind a person to achievements of others.


              On of my favorite historic stories concers the creation of a popular writing system for the Korean language.


              This is not meant to be in anyway comprehensive. It simply reflects my own peripatetic exploration.

              It made me feel good to compile that little list. It shows how many wonderful things are in this world.


              1. Fo,

                Western Civilization is the only civilization in human history to develop past the beast of burden and manual labor which included slavery.

                Western Civilization is the only civilization in human history to develop free market economy which enabled the creation of infinite wealth thus freeing the common man from a short brutal life.


                  1. Fojap and silenceofmind,

                    I appreciate that you continue visiting my blog and engage in relatively respectful conversation. I will not delete or censor comments unless they become abusive or contain foul language.

                    But I would ask that you keep the conversation somewhat related to my post. I don’t recall referencing ‘Western Civilization’ in my post.


                    1. Respectful! He called me a liar!

                      I’m the atheist and he’s the Christian, so why should it not surprise me that you side with him.


                    2. Trust me, I don’t side with “him” in anyway. To be honest, I haven’t much more than skimmed the exchange between the two of you. If I find something objectionable I will delete it however.

                      EDIT: I deleted any reference to lying in both of your comments, in my attempt to be fair.

                      Again, I will not prevent any conversation here, but please try to stay on topic. Thank you.


  4. I thought it was pretty good up until

    Even if there was some argument that could once and for all prove that God is real, and the Trinity is that God, and that everyone should believe… it would be the worst idea in the world to use it. What good is a Christian who has been forced to faith?

    Only a theist would view being exposed to an irrefutable argument or conclusive evidence as being forced. What could be more freeing than actually having a choice to make, instead of always having to affirm that there’s no reason to believe in a god.


    1. I think I am following you, and I can see what you mean. I actually agree with you in the sense that conclusive evidence or an irrefutable argument is not really forcing someone into something. My point is more of a polemical one, aimed at the hoards of Christians running around trying to claim irrefutable evidence (the Bible or creation or whatever fundamentalist issue du jour) as reasons for everyone to believe in God.

      In fact not much could bring more peace of mind about our metaphysical choices if there was conclusive evidence for God… in a world where more people are rational actors. My anecdotal experience is that most people are not rational, even in the least.


        1. I’d have to agree that most people are rational, but in addition to poor self-awareness of the basis of our reasoning (not limited to theists), I would add faulty epistemology. Not only do our beliefs hide under post facto rationalizations, but the rationalization may be grounded in errant knowledge.


          1. Well… again I get what you are saying, and in some sense I would agree that we have the capacity for rational thought and behaviour, but my experience of people is that we far more controlled by fear and anxiety. I wish it was just a matter of fault epistemology. I wish that presenting greater knowledge or better arguments would help better come to better understandings, but it doesn’t. People are often so threatened by change, physical, emotional or epistemological, that they irrationally resist and chose to stay the same out of fear of what is different.


        1. Thanks! I am just trying to be reasonable about Christianity’s own baggage. While this may be surprising, as a Lutheran Pastor, we see our job as more to help church people figure their own stuff out, rather than to be out winning souls for Jesus. Unlike the fundie hoards running around the internet, I would actually tell most people that Christianity is probably a bad life choice. I don’t even believe in hell, and while I am not a universalist, I suspect God is.

          So, responsible expressions of faith mean living with many ambiguities and tensions, even the possibility that I am wrong and Atheists are right.


      1. My experience is that people are rational, but first you have to accept the idea that their goals may not be the same as yours. Also, it helps to realize that people have multiple goals.


              1. I am not sure what your goal here is silenceofmind, but you are not really helping your cause or Christianity with the argumentative tone. You are not going to berate anyone into the Kingdom. You may not respect the views of Fojap or Ignostic Atheist, but hopefully you will give mine, as an ordained pastor, some credence. I would encourage you to show some humility, grace and mercy to those with different faith perspectives. Consider how Christ was hardest on those of his own faith tradition and showed the most mercy to gentiles, women, the unclean, and those on the margins.

                I appreciate your passion, but your approach needs some tact.


  5. It all boils down to the fact that it doesn’t matter what your neighbor believes – as long as that neighbor isn’t blowing up buildings or terrorizing the local neighborhood watch. And militant atheists have to cool it on the vehemency against religion. Yes, religion is abused a lot, but is it religion itself that is the issue? There’s nothing wrong with having faith and feeling that faith and belief in belief makes a person feel better. Again, as along as it doesn’t bring harm (such as the often fatal belief in faith healing), it’s all right!


  6. Jones did not receive waves of anger and contempt because of a weak statement of personal belief.

    He received them because he classifies us by the colour of our skin and packaged us as something we are not. It was dismissive, insulting, degrading, and dehumanising, and it revealed his true colours.


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  8. Wow. This post is my first exposure to your writing and I quite enjoyed it. Many thoughts but only two comments. I am an atheist and assure others I do not think everything happened by itself. Nor do I believe there has to be a purpose behind existence, life, or events.

    Second, an average human brain is capable of producing rational conclusions with the information available to them. However, the vast majority of humans are uninformed of events or facts outside their limited education and exposure to the experiences of the world outside the region in which they live. Therefore, their ultimate conclusions and actions are often at odds with the other 99.99% of the population and are often counterproductive to their own needs and desires.

    Thanks for keeping the tribe civil!


  9. Erik,
    This really doesn’t have anything to do with the Argument for or against faith, but I have been struggling with what a “High Commitment, Low Obligation” parish would look like. I LOVE the concept. I would love to see an entire parish take “ownership” of something that they see needs doing. I would LOVE worship matters and the life of the church to be that organic, but the ramifications from a planning perspective scares me. Take Music Leadership in a parish. I have seen this in action in choirs where people don’t come to practices because of their busy lives, but they are faithful on Sundays. The Music Leadership plans accordingly and “pares down” the role of the choir. Choir gets upset that they aren’t an “Anthem Choir” anymore and says, “What’s the point of going to practice any more…” and on and on it goes. It seems to me that there are people in a “High Commitment, Low Obligation” parish that have to oblige themselves even more in order to be prepared for whatever they have on Sunday. I understand that we have the assurances that if we leap, the net will appear, but it is still a scary prospect to take that step.


    1. House for All Sinners and Saints does this : http://houseforall.org/

      They have a choir that practices before worship, but they sing the liturgy (all their singing is accapella) and they sit among the congregation so as not to remove all the singers from the rest of the congregation. So who ever shows up for choir is the choir that day.

      They do worship planning the same way. They set a day and whoever wants to show up to plan, say Advent is the agenda, plans it.

      Now they have been a mission congregation until the just very recently, which meant the pastor chose the leadership team ie., council. As a new plant they don’t have decades of baggage, family history, power systems and culture to work around.

      A wiping of the slate and a new plant is way easier to develop this philosophy than in an old congregation. Introducing this kind of change in an established parish would mean small incremental change towards high commitment, low obligation. And many congregations would prefer to die than implement this kind of change.


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