Many congregations lately are frowning on people turning to outside influences to help them understand the Bible. Outside is defined as anything other than acceptable doctrine. Often they mean their own particular interpretation of the Bible. Of course, this isn’t anything really new. The “us versus them” attitude has plagued Christianity since its conception.
There are a lot of problems with this view:
1) It prevents people from identifying and understanding others. By labeling other views as “outside” and to be avoided or at least cautioned, people are labeled as wrong or somehow less. This can easily give the doctrine followers an untitled sense of superiority, of correctness, that prevents them from having empathy with others. Jesus fostered compassion. Anything that shackles compassion’s development isn’t proper doctrine. The key to compassion is identifying and understanding other people and their views. Religion is part of the fabric that makes a person who they are. Labeling it as wrong prevents the connection of empathy.
2) Never going outside accepted understandings of the Bible prevents proper study. The Bible is a series of documents wrote by people with far different cultures and mindsets than our own. While it is true people are people, we live in a very alien world compared to the people presented in the Bible. For us to understand them, we have to understand their lives and culture. That requires us to study and learn archeology and history. That requires us to read letters and books that didn’t make it into the Bible and authors contemporary to the Biblical books we are reading, such as Josephus or Philo or even Clement. Taking the Bible at face value isn’t enough for us to truly understand it.
3) It smacks of being a cult. It is easy for people to fall into unhealthy cults that disguise themselves as Christianity. While most congregations are benign, every so often one turns out to be a cult. The first things cults do is cut members off from all contradictory information. Any church that demands its members start to do so should raise questions in the members. 9 out of 10 times, it isn’t anything completely dangerous (damaging perhaps, but not dangerous), but proper questions can prevent that 1 case.
4) Finally, it alienates people. I ran across a “one sentence sermon” that said:
“If you want to know what is wrong with the church, ask someone who hasn’t attended in several months.”
It is quite a condescending sentence isn’t it? It is also the distaste for the outside view. It often takes an outside view to be objective toward the actual problems that congregations have. That is exactly what Paul presented in his epistles. The outside view is important for the general health of a congregation. People won’t go the a church that has a poor reputation for haughtiness, exclusivity, judgmental attitude, and similar. People who have stopped coming to a church often have reasonable criticisms. Sometimes they are malicious, sometimes out of concern. A congregation should ask itself what it has done to garner malicious criticism from even one person.
Being “Down on the Outside” is something I personally understand. I am labeled as “fallen away” by the church I used to attend. It’s a nice euphemism for “going to hell.” I stopped going to the church because I grew uncomfortable with the often judgmental “us versus them” attitude and the absolute certainty of their “rightness.” I actually wish I could attend again. But until they fundamentally shift to a focus on compassion, understanding, acceptance, and deep historical study of the Bible, I will remain on the “outside.” I have to follow my conscious. Of course, it doesn’t help that I have pretty bad social anxiety and work with the public. By the time Sunday rolls around, I don’t have the social energy for any sized group gathering. I can’t even visit family when the anxiety acts up. I need a day (or 7) for solitude and silence.