Spiritual Manipulation

I remember as a young person being invited to a praise and prayer service.  In all honesty I went because I thought it might be a good place to meet a particular girl.  About a half hour into this service the leader started speaking in tongues.  I had witnessed this from a safe distance at other events.  This time was different because I was right in the middle of everything.  Eventually one of the leaders leaned over and whispered that I just needed to believe then I would receive my spiritual language.  I honestly tried, but nothing happened, and eventually it got a little embarrassing.  I wanted to be like everyone else; I also wanted to impress that girl with my spirituality.  So I did what any self-respecting 16 year old teen boy does – I faked speaking in tongues.  It worked- people were happy for me, they saw a new level of “Jesusness,” and I finally had a conversation with that girl.  All-in-all, a smashing success. That evening has stayed with me for over 30 years.  I can’t recall the girl’s name.  But I vividly recall feeling spiritually inadequate.  The leader of that meeting made it clear that unless I received the gift of tongues I would never become a fully grown Christian.

For me the manipulation was tongues.  I have talked to others for whom it was the music they listened to, people they hung out with, political affiliations, sexual orientation, or believing a particular theology.  Regardless of the manipulation, the damage is devastating.

Why is it that we have such a hard time believing that God’s world view might be larger than ours?  Every once in a while I am asked to sign a confession of faith.  The reasoning usually boils down to “we want to make sure that you aren’t teaching false doctrine.”  The more I read these statements the more convinced I become that confessions of faith exist mostly to put God into a box and make me feel bad for asking questions.

Spiritual manipulation, whether it is requiring someone to prove their faith by speaking in tongues or asking an individual to sign a confession of faith, is dangerous.  At best it just makes God small and at worst it creates a guilt that turns people off from even exploring a life of faith.

Confessions of Faith

The other day I was talking to a potential funder.  The conversation was going well until he asked if DOOR could affirm the confession of faith from his evangelical tradition.  I always struggle with responding to these requests.  From a certain perspective I can affirm almost any confession of faith that sincerely attempts to understand scripture. I am also a Mennonite; we are historically “non-creedal.”  This means confessions of faith are at best a moving target.  They tell us what a group of people believe about faith, life, and God at a particular point in history.

Confessions of faith have the power to be both healthy and destructive.  At worst they attempt to homogenize the Christian faith - if only we could all believe exactly the same then we could worship the same and look the same, be identical to each other.  Can you imagine a church with no differences?  A place where we always agree about everything, always worship the same way, always approach social concerns with one unified mind.  To some this may sound idyllic.  To me this sounds boring, uninteresting, and the complete opposite of the Apostle Paul’s vision of one body and many parts.

It is our differences and disagreements that help to make the church healthy and effective.  When we use confessions as a starting point to have a conversation, we use them well.  I have a friend who is fond of telling me that creativity occurs at the intersection of diversity; when the diversity and differences increase so does the creative potential.

I would like to suggest that the church is best when it refuses to use confessions as a litmus test for admission into fellowship or leadership.  When we use confessions to explore how we understand faith and life differently it becomes possible to find common ground in unexpected places.