Why are Christians so mean?

I’ve been reading a lot of Dallas Willard lately, and at some point I’ll write at length about the reason. Meanwhile, here’s a passage from his book Renovation of the Heart which reflects his overarching theme namely: Jesus told us how to behave, and what he said wasn’t so hard to understand—so why don’t we do it?

Warren Wiersbe tells how he was approached by an older gentleman at a church where he was to speak. The man expressed awareness that Warren sometimes quoted a certain popular paraphrase of the Bible. Warren replied, “When I write, I quote whatever translation best says what I want to teach at that point in the book, it doesn’t mean I approve of everything in it.” To this the man replied, almost shouting, “Well, I’m not going to sit and listen to a man who has no convictions about the Word of God,” and he “turned and stormed out of the church in anger, disobeying the very Bible he thought he was defending.”

One of our finest Christian college presidents recently devoted his periodic mail-out to the question, "Why are Christians so mean to one another so often?" He quotes numerous well-known Christian leaders on this theme, and says for himself:

As a leader of a Christian organization, I feel the brunt of just this kind of meanness within the Christian community, a mean-spirited suspicion and judgment that mirrors the broader culture. Every Christian leader I know feels it …. It is difficult to be Christian in a secular world …. But, you know, it is sometimes more difficult to be a leader in Christian circles. There too you can be vilified for just the slightest move that is displeasing to someone.

And he continues on with the details.

This is one of the most common points of commiseration among our leaders. The leader of one denomination recently said to me, "When I am finished with this job I am going to write a book on the topic, Why Are Christians So Mean?"

Well, there actually is an answer to that question. And we must face this answer and effectively deal with it or Satan will sustain his stranglehold on spiritual transformation in local congregations. Christians are routinely taught by example and word that it is more important to be right (always in terms of their beloved tradition) than it is to be Christlike. In fact, being right licenses you to be mean, and, indeed,requires you to be mean–righteously mean, of course. You  must be hard on people who are wrong, and especially if they are in positions of Christian leadership. They deserve nothing better. This is what I have elsewhere called the practice of "condemnation engineering."

When Willard writes that “there actually is an answer” to the question of why Christians are so mean, he isn’t pointing to the usual, “Well, we’re all fallen and imperfect creatures and will continue to be so this side of heaven..” He means that there are actual specific things that we could do, have failed to do, and need to do to conquer our meanness. Who knew?

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4 thoughts on “Why are Christians so mean?

  1. “Christians are routinely taught by example and word that it is more important to be right (always in terms of their beloved tradition) than it is to be Christlike. In fact, being right licenses you to be mean, and, indeed,requires you to be mean–righteously mean, of course.”

    How timely. We just left the church we’ve been members of for seven years, largely over this issue. It’s been bothering us for years but we’d hoped that we’d be able to sell our house and move closer to our mom, so leaving the church wouldn’t be seen as a result of bad feeling, it would just be a logistical thing. But for the last two years it’s been increasingly apparent that we’re not leaving Virginia any time soon, and constantly being subjected to “righteous anger” over other churches and constantly being told that our church is the only faithful one, constantly being reminded about how the country is going to hell in a handbasket (and the specific activities that are taking us there) was just wearing us down. Why the heck can’t people just be nice? Or if you think things are this bad, shouldn’t you be sorry for them and pray for them, instead of constantly talking about them in such a hateful manner? It’s such an infectious attitude that I’m feeling and doing it myself right now just writing about it.

    Lord have mercy.

  2. Kelly,

    I’ll be writing about this at length at some point, but what I like about Dallas Willard is that he is the only modern writer I know who accurately diagnoses the character deficiencies which lead to such behavior. He goes deeper than the rest, and as a result is able to point the way out. As I read through Willard now, I find myself repeatedly saying, “Yes, I’ve done that, and it really does work.”

  3. There must be a way to express truth, even about the sad condition of our culture, without being mean. Yet I doubt very much that the prophets of old were often seen as “nice”.

  4. Angela,

    I certainly think we can grow in Christlikeness to a point where we know how and when to (or not to!) offer pointed comments about the culture. Jesus certainly did, as did others in the Bible. But folks often prefer to cut to the chase and get on with the prophesying, rather than first building the godly character required to deliver those prophecies accurately and lovingly.

    Whatever may be possible, the actual talk I hear around churches fits Kelly’s description pretty well. It’s hard to imagine Jesus saying such things–and if He had, it’s hard to imagine he would have attracted the following He did.

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