The Smothering of the Church

On the heels of the tornadoes last week that ravaged a large area of the midwest leaving 38 dead Dr. John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist has made another statement on the will of God within these events. He calls the disaster God’s punishment for America’s sin, saying “If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command.”

Now, there have been many responses to this theology including perhaps my favorite from Bo Sanders, but here I’d like to add my own thoughts to this discourse. I will attempt explain why I think this train of thought is both wrong but more importantly harmful to Christianity and its growth in America.

To understand my thoughts and conclusions first we must explore a little background and a couple definitions (sorry).

First: Piper’s view of God is often called a determinist God. Basically this means every event in history is the direct result of God’s will, and nothing happens outside his or her will. Thus God determines everything.

Second: this leads to a common argument against the existence of God known as the “Problem of Evil”. The argument goes as follows:

1. If God is all powerful he has the ability to prevent evil.

2. If God is all good he wants to prevent evil.

3. Evil exists.

4. Therefore an all powerful, all loving God does not exist.

Under the idea of a determinist God, such as Piper believes in, this argument is completely plausible. In fact I think this is a strong argument against such a God.

Instead I believe God’s greatest desire is love. Love between all humans as well as between humanity and God. However, I believe true love is always self sacrificial and thus cannot be forced, otherwise it is not love.

If love cannot be forced, then there must be multiple independent actors in the world (a.k.a. people have free will, and God does not determine everything). Take this back up to the problem of evil and we see this result: rather than saying God won’t prevent evil, we say God can’t act to prevent free will if he of she wants to give everyone the opportunity to love.

Now we can finally come to the idea I would like to put forward:

The theology of a determinist God is smothering the church.

To show this I would like to put forward an analogy, one that is used often in the Bible: the analogy of God as a parent.

Most people understand the concept and harmfulness of an over-controlling parent. If begin to project this example onto God we come with this: God is the all-controlling parent. In other words, a God who determines everything is like an over-controlling parent taken to the nth degree.

When children grow up under the influence of over-controlling they usually respond in one of two ways: either they rebel against the influence of the parent rejecting anything the parent may have to offer and many times the children do not even want to associate with the parent any more, OR they taking internalize the controlling influence leveled against them and lose their identity, slowly replacing their own thoughts, emotions, and desires with that of the parent.  If this second reaction is allowed to continue for long enough, eventually a child will become unable to survive on his own; having grown accustomed to having an outside source make all his important decisions he becomes paralyzed when faced with the necessity of having to make a decision for himself.*

Now when we take these conclusions about a controlling parent and adapt them to the analogy of God as parent we come end up with these two scenarios:

  1. People read about God sending his judgement through a deadly tornado and decide to rebel against this God. They hate the idea that a supposedly all-loving God would punish people in this way. The result is well meaning people, who also happen to logical and critically minded, end up rejecting Piper’s “God” who sent the disaster as a warning to repent from sin.
    OR
  2. People develop their Christianity with the understanding that God determines everything that will happen or has happened in the world and they become dependent upon this fact. Outside of the wall of the church (or maybe Bible study) they are paralyzed in their faith because they never learned how to engage the world outside of the direct direction of their spiritual elders. They don’t learn how to read and understand and interpret the Bible for themselves, leaving this task to their spiritual leaders who in turn learned everything from their spiritual leaders. They live out a dead and ritualistic faith because they don’t understand how to bring their faith into a world full of pain and suffering in a way that brings hope and healing to a mourning world.

The ultimate effect of both of these reactions is a smothering of the church. It is smothered on the outside every time a person is turned off by a God who wants to punish a fallen world rather than heal and liberate it. And it is smothered on the inside every time a person resigns him or herself to this controlling God who wants to micro manage their life instead of seeking out a vibrant faith working alongside the God of love to restore and heal a broken creation reconciling all things to God in the end.

*I apologize to all my feminist friends for the male dominated language. The sentence didn’t make as much sense in the gender neutral plural voice (they) and became too wordy and confusing with the more proper he or she.

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