That’s the big word now—deconstructing. Some, who have been grossly harmed by their spiritual leaders, are using this word as they realize that they have a lot of unbiblical teaching to unlearn. Others are realizing that their faith was based on a cultural construct—they have no firm foundation. And so, some are using this word as they are leaving the faith, saying none of it is real. It’s also a label being pasted on those who are revealing harmful patterns of an unbiblical, hierarchal anthropology in the history of the church. For example, the recent 9Marks article which affirms Kristin DuMez, Beth Allison Barr, and Jamar Tisby as leaders of the “deconstructionist project.” This tactic is divisive—it villainizes brothers and sisters in the faith, sets oneself or one’s organization up as the answer, and leads by fear. It’s also a distraction.
Can we just stop and take a look at the condition of Christ’s church?
What do all the stories of abuse and cover-up that have been exposed this year alone reveal? What do the church leader’s reactions to survivors who ask for help reveal? What do some of the books, such as the ones written by DuMez, Barr, and Tisby—and the reactions to them—reveal?
On a larger scale than we want to see, instead of evangelizing, the church itself is the mission field.
Instead of giving the world a beautiful picture of Christ’s bride and a glimpse of our telos in communion with him and one another, we see much ugliness and abuse of power. In multiple denominations. How did we get here? What is church supposed to be? What is our witness to the watching world? Some are so battered by spiritual abuse that they can’t bear to walk through the church doors. Some observers of Christianity are glad they never took the leap. And many still within her walls are so factioned and polarized that they’ve lost sight of what church is supposed to be.
I can’t open closed ears or hearts. I’m not really writing to 9Marks, CBMW, or any of these denominations full of wreckage. I’m writing to those who are still trying to hold onto their faith after being disillusioned by or clobbered in the church. Where do we go from here?
In the words of Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
We go to Christ. Because of this, we don’t just want to heal and move on. We can’t. God wants to give his bride the good stuff. Your life may feel like a pile of broken pieces. It’s often hard to make any sense of it or to think any beauty can emerge from it. But God is inviting us into incomprehensible beauty (Jer. 33:3). As a church. So we have some underlying questions to ask. And we can be free to ask them without riding the deconstruction train to unbelief. God is bigger than that. Let’s not let all these labels and name-calling distract us from the work we need to do. One big question is this:
How Do We Face Disillusionment and Abuse in Ways that Strengthen Our Faith?
This is just a blog post. Each of these points needs developed. But here are a few that I hope can be helpful. We need:
- Freedom to lament
I love how the Bible helps us to lament. It shows us that not only is it okay to do, but that God wants us to cry out to him. We have whole books, like Job and Lamentations, we have numerous Psalms of lamentation, and we even have Jesus lamenting: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37).
2. People to listen, safe connections
Sadly, sometimes church is the very place where you discover that you do not have the security that you thought you had. This is a traumatic experience. Peter Levine is helpful in pinpointing how that is so: “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of empathetic witness.” To heal from this, we need safe connections and support. We need friends. Please don’t isolate yourself. It is the people who will listen to our pain and stay in the room that will help us to trust again. We so desperately need that. As Bessel Van Der Kolk says, “Social support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma.” Even Jesus asked his closest disciples to stay with him while he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. And yet the best friends of the Son of God could not even stay awake to pray for him while he was suffering through his deepest sorrow. Just like Job, Jesus had three “steadfast” friends right there in his presence who might as well have been a million miles away. He bore the affliction that none of us could bear, alone. Jean Danielou comments, “Suffering encloses a man in solitude…Between Job and his friends an abyss was cleft. They regarded him with astonishment as a strange being…But they could no longer get to him. Only Jesus could cross this abyss, descend into the abyss of misery, plunge into the deepest hell.”
The friendship of Jesus is a divine blessing. He hears us. Christopher Ash assures the reader in his commentary on Job that because of what he has done in his loneliness, a believer will never enter the depth of the abyss that Job did. But we will encounter suffering. Job points us to the One who gave us a true Comforter. And as believers we can reach out to others filled with the Spirit who will offer us social support.
3. Ask the hard questions
This is the part that gets us labeled deconstructionists or dangerous, or—horror of horrors—liberals. The truth is, we all have things we need to unlearn. We need to start with what matters holding onto, no matter the cost. Truth, goodness, and beauty matter and they are found in Christ. They should be found in his church. We are left with a lot of questions when we come up against the opposite. Here are a few: What do we need? Where are we headed? Who do we want to be with when we get there? Why does church matter? What does healthy discipleship look like? How is sin, repentance, forgiveness, and discipline supposed to work? What does reconciliation look like? What is the purpose of church order? How do faithful shepherds respond to confrontation? What is it about a church culture that perpetuates and enables abuse in its various forms? Is our theology in line with Scripture? How do we cultivate healthier forms of trust? When is it time to leave your church?
4. Learn about abuse
We need to educate ourselves about abuse. It helps us to recognize, name, confront, and navigate through it. And naming is important. Abuse makes you feel like something is wrong with you. It makes you ask if you are going crazy. Abusive people work to dismantle your inner and outer world. As Wade Mullen says, “Freedom comes first by understanding, and understanding means having the language to identify and talk about your situation.” Learning about abuse not only gives us clarity and agency, but it helps us see how it tries to destroy goodness, truth, and beauty. Abuse and abuses of the word are what we need to deconstruct. Seeking therapy through it can also be very helpful. I’ve reviewed several books on this. Here are three:
5. Seek beauty
Beauty captivates us because it tells a story. It’s the story our hearts already know and long for. Robert Jenson suggests, “beauty is realized eschatology, the present glow of the sheer goodness that will be at the end.” Beauty beckons us because it is preparing our souls for love. The good stuff. It also beckons our eschatological imaginations. We are summoned to participate in the great honor and calling of seeing and covenantally participating in beauty. That’s what we really want. And beauty heals. Dallas Willard describes beauty as “goodness made manifest to the senses.” Beauty helps us to see, reminding us of our trajectory—communion with the triune God and one another. So, then, beauty helps us to see others through the eyes of Christ. Pray for God to help you see beauty in your day, in your surroundings, your creating, working, and relationships.
Like I said, I could write much more about each of these five things. And there are more, like wrestling with God in prayer, stepping out of your narrow circles and meeting new people, worshipping in different Christian churches, learning healthy confrontation, advocating for yourself and others, being a gift to others, and using your own sphere of influence to be support for others.
Deconstruction can mean a lot of different things. But others can’t put us on trains to nowhere. We can do the hard work of moving from disillusionment and abuse to find beauty, not only keeping our faith intact, but experiencing all the more that Christ is our treasure. What’s done to his people is done to him. He holds us fast.