When Christians won’t even let you think.

Some Christians get awfully dogmatic.

Dogma is another word for doctrine, Christianity’s fixed ideas or official beliefs. It’s an old-timey word, so you tend to only hear dogma in older churches, or used to refer to that one movie about fallen angels who try to take advantage of a dogmatic loophole. But while the adjective doctrinal tends to mean “deals with doctrine,” dogmatic tends to mean “demands we follow doctrine.” Dogmatists are the doctrine police of Christendom.

And while the older churches have a settled, limited, fixed number of dogmas… certain Christians kinda crank out a new doctrine every week.

Fr’instance this one Texas pastor I know; I’ll call him Alfons. He has a newsletter called “These Doctrines,” in which Alfons goes over all the things he expects the Christians of his church—and really, Christians everywhere—to believe. For the most part they’re typical Fundamentalist principles: God’s a trinity, Jesus is both God and human, Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to him, the bible’s infallible. But Alfons mixes in a lot of other beliefs he considers settled and fixed and non-negotiable. Divorce, in almost all circumstances, is sin. Alcohol is sin. Women who aren’t subservient to men is sin. Hip hop is devilish. The pope’s an antichrist. And so on.

Speaking of the pope: Like a lot of Fundies, Alfons loves to mock Roman Catholics for believing the pope to be infallible. (Which they do only under certain circumstances. But Fundies don’t always know this… nor care.) Yet Alfons claims papal-level infallibility in every sermon and newsletter: He’s right, these are doctrines, and don’t you dare challenge him or you’ll find yourself fighting the God who anointed him pastor. It’s not so much about the pope being wrong, and more about professional jealousy. But I digress.

What’s the difference between Alfons’s church and a cult? Enforcement. How gracious is the leadership of a church when you respectfully disagree with them? (Emphasis on respectfully. If you disagree with them, don’t be a dick.)

  • If they figure okay, you don’t agree; they’ll be patient and over time, win you over: Not a cult.
  • If they figure it’s not okay, and you have to leave before your heretic stank gets on ’em, and they banish you to hell: Totally a cult. Just be glad they let you go, and don’t drag you to the basement to reprogram you. (’Cause some cults will. I’m not kidding.)
  • Letting you attend their services, but debating you every chance they can: That’d be proselytism. It’s not cultish… but it’s not fruitful either. Argumentativeness isn’t of God, and a Christian who thinks they can win you over by wearing you down, still has some maturing to do.
  • Letting you attend, but your beliefs disqualify you from membership and leadership: Not a cult. It only makes sense for churches to have expectations and qualifications for their leadership, and make sure you’re all on the same page. If you’re on a different page, you really shouldn’t join or lead ’em. (But if their qualifications defy the bible, i.e. they’re racist, or you gotta pay membership fees: Cult.)

Alfons’s church isn’t a cult. He’ll totally let you attend his church even when you disagree with him. He will debate you, though; he lacks maturity. He thinks he’ll win you over with clever arguments. He doesn’t let up though. So what really happens in his church, is when the people of his church disagree with him, they hide it. They never let it get back to him. And kinda mock him in private for some of the dumber stuff in his newsletter.

It may not be a cult, but it’s definitely a breeding ground for hypocrites.

Secular debates.

While quite a lot of Americans aren’t control freaks when it comes to religious opinions, quite a lot of us absolutely are when it comes to other opinions. Might be about favorite teams, brand names, or music. Definitely true of politics.

I’ve heard Christians claim this is because these other things—sports, possessions, politics—are the control freaks’ idols. They’re what people really worship; if only they were as zealous about Jesus! Thing is, overzealousness of any sort—even in the defense of Jesus—is fleshly. Paul specifically listed hostility, strife, partisanship, and division. Ga 5.20 Standing up for Jesus with such behavior is wholly inappropriate, and we’d better not see any such behavior among Christians. But when it comes to secular interests, it stands to reason we’ll see a lot of fleshly behavior.

Unfortunately, we bring a lot of these behaviors into the church with us. I regularly, regularly, hear Christians trash-talk one another’s baseball and football teams. They claim they’re doing it in jest, as friendly rivalry, but I’ve seen it cross a line here and there.

I’ve watched Christians debate, sometimes angrily, politics. Or preferences: Which computer is better, which truck is better, which restaurant is better, which phone is better, which Christian worship band is better. Come election years, some Christians straight-up stop talking to one another. I have Christians friends who refuse to be my social-media “friends” because they can’t abide my politics.

And Christians can be just as dogmatic about these secular things. Alfons is convinced you can’t be a legitimate Christian if you don’t support the president like he does. And he jokes he’s not so sure about you if you’re not a Dallas Cowboys fan… but considering his devotion to the team, y’gotta wonder whether he truly is joking.

It’s downright uncomfortable when you’re in a church where everybody, leaders included, loudly praise people you think are awful human beings. People switch churches over this sort of thing. Not that any partisan church is a good thing; the only kingdom a church should ever support is God’s. Anything else is treason to King Jesus. When he returns he’s gonna overthrow those other kingdoms, y’know.

But even well-meaning Christians slip up and treat their idols as if they’re mandatory expectations for fellow Christians. And if anyone says otherwise (or dares rebuke ’em for the obvious idolatry), they’re not welcome in church any longer. ’Cause teams, bands, parties, candidates, and affiliations are among their dogmas.

Freedom in Christ.

Christianity does have certain fixed beliefs. I’m not saying we don’t! I’m not saying Christians are totally free to believe whatever we please, yet still call ourselves Christian. If we’re not Christ-followers we’re not Christian; if we don’t make any effort to reform our thinking so we think like he does, bear fruit like he does, and walk like he does, 1Jn 2.6 it doesn’t matter how we brand ourselves.

And churches are right to encourage Christians to follow Jesus. Absolutely right to go digging through the bible, find out what Jesus teaches, find out what Jesus expects, and hold the attendees (and especially members and leaders) accountable to that. That’s kinda why the church exists! We help one another follow Jesus better.

But does it help when we police one another?

Only to a point. Fr’instance children and newbies: They don’t always know what’s appropriate. I had a newbie friend who swore a lot. I had to remind him more than once: His colorful metaphors were freaking out certain Christians who lack the grace to forgive such behavior. “You gotta watch out for weaker Christians,” I reminded him. “You and I can hear such things and think nothing of ’em, but it’s horrifying them.” Ro 14.13

But I never threatened to penalize him for swearing: That’s not for me to do! He’s gotta learn to govern himself. We all do. Fining him for swearing, or threatening he might lose his salvation over swearing, is cult territory. At most, I can ask him to leave a group till he gets control of himself. That’s it.

In leadership, we always gotta consider grace. The goal is never to punish the wicked and kick people out; it’s repentance and restoration. What’ll get ’em to follow Jesus better, and get back into our group? That should be our only consideration.

And yeah, we also have to give grace to those weaker Christians—the snowflakes who insist we can only share their teams, their politics, their dogmas; that “no good Christian” would wear makeup, drink beer, watch R-rated movies, play cards, listen to rap, or other Christianist taboos.

If Christians can’t practice grace, they’re wholly unsuitable for Christian leadership. Christ is nothing but gracious, and his church should be so too. If your church is led by graceless Christians, who pick apart every stray word which comes out of your mouth, I don’t blame you for not wanting to go to that church. I don’t wanna go there either.