Is There a Christianity That Isn’t Toxic? (Guest Post by Morgan Guyton)

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Have American Christians become what Jesus came to stop us from being?

It’s not an unreasonable question after decades of toxic culture war. Growing up Southern Baptist, I used to think there were two kinds of Christians: those who were vocal about God’s desire to burn most of humanity in hell and those who were conflicted and embarrassed about it.

It wasn’t until I walked through the doors of a mostly LGBT United Methodist church in my early twenties that I discovered a very different and much more beautiful gospel. My journey since then has given me a very different understanding of Christian salvation than I had growing up. I wrote a book called How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity that tries to articulate the much more beautiful gospel shared with me by Christians who had been rejected by the church. Here are the twelve touchstones of the gospel they taught me.

1) Worship Not Performance

Jesus says we can only receive the kingdom of God if we become like children. That’s because children know how to worship. They live in a world of wonder and delight without worrying about what others think of them. Until they lose their innocence.

The story of Adam and Eve captures the moment when we discover our nakedness, when we become afraid and ashamed, when we start blaming others. We become performers who are focused on satisfying our critics, the biggest of whom is God. All the time God’s heart is broken, and he wants to rescue us from this toxic mistrust so that we can share in his joy like we did when we were children.

Tragically, so much Christian worship today is a performance where we try to say hallelujah louder than the people around us. God wants us to stop performing for him so that we can bask in his love for us and worship.

2) Mercy Not Sacrifice

One of the most important things God says in the Bible is Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” Jesus pulls out this quote in his argument with the religious authorities. The American Dream teaches us that if we make the right sacrifices, we will have a good life, which means that people who don’t have a good life haven’t made the right sacrifices and don’t deserve our help.

We all have to make sacrifices, but it’s toxic if we expect to be rewarded for them. God wants to save us from the entitlement and bitterness of using our sacrifices to justify ourselves by revealing his mercy to us. That’s why Jesus puts our sins on the cross: not because God needs a blood payment for our sins, but because God wants to replace our self-justifying sacrifice with mercy. The more that we accept God’s mercy and stop trying to earn our legitimacy through sacrifice, the more we can be God’s mercy in the world.

3) Empty Not Clean

Jesus’ greatest argument with the religious authorities was over the nature of holiness. They thought holiness was about staying clean and following a set of rules to prove their loyalty to God. Jesus showed that holiness is about emptying your heart of anxieties, addictions, and agendas so that it can be filled with God’s love.

This is best illustrated in the story of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite walked past the wounded traveler because their religion was about staying clean. The Samaritan stopped because he was “moved with pity.”

A heart full of distracting idols cannot be moved by other peoples’ suffering. Also it’s not enough to spend our lives doing service work for other people. That can turn into another form of “cleanliness” that makes us toxic. If we want our service to come from a place of compassion, we need to engage in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting to empty our hearts first.

 4) Breath Not Meat

The apostle Paul says to live according to the spirit instead of the flesh. This is one of the most widely misunderstood Christian teachings. For Paul to talk about the flesh negatively does not mean we’re supposed to hate physical pleasure. “Flesh” is an inadequate translation of the Greek word sarx which is better translated as “meat.” Meat is a perfect metaphor for dead life because meat is life that was killed for the sake of consumption.

When we live as mindless consumers, our bodies become like a lump of meat. A much richer physical life is attained by those who seek to become the breath of God, rather than a lump of meat. Spiritual life is not unphysical. It is physicality lived with perfect elegance. Our bodies become beautiful temples when we savor life instead of just consuming it.

 5) Honor Not Terror

One of the most troubling things the Bible says is that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So many Christians think we’re supposed to be afraid of God. But the “fear” that is being spoken of here is really a reverence for the truth. It is living with intentionality and integrity. Ironically, many atheists display a much deeper “fear of the Lord” through their integrity than Christians who only believe in God because they’re afraid.

Jesus’ crucifixion is the image God wants us to see when we think about how he reigns over the world. What we should fear is doing further violence to a bleeding man who is gasping for air. People live with much greater honor when they’re afraid of crucifying Jesus than when they’re afraid of God’s punishment.

6) Poetry Not Math

2 Timothy 3:16 says that “all scripture is God-breathed.” Too many Christians read this statement like a word problem in math class rather than a line of poetry. In math class, what you do with word problems is turn them into simple equations to be solved. That’s what many Christians do with scripture. They reduce it into formula. They see “God-breathed,” and they think that just means the Bible is without error.

When we reduce the Bible to formulas, we take God’s breath out of it, which is the one thing that gives it life. Every verse in the Bible has an infinite depth of meaning depending on how the Holy Spirit uses it in the lives of each person reading it. That’s what I mean by calling it poetry. When we make it a formula, we are giving ourselves the authority as interpreters. When we recognize its infinite mystery, the Bible retains its authority over us as a poem.

7) Communion Not Correctness

One of the most toxic things about American Christianity is the way so many Christians are obsessed with having the right answer. Being right has become way more important than being loving. The purpose of Christian doctrine is not to make us correct, but to draw us into the deepest possible communion with God.

It is the witness of the prayers and wrestling of two thousand years of Christians. They weren’t perfect. Some of them did terrible things. But they discovered ways of talking about God that gave them an incredible connection to divine mystery. Christian doctrine is toxic when it turns into a never-ending argument of people who are infatuated with their own eloquence. Christian doctrine is beautiful when it creates a community of people who are deeply connected with God and each other.

8) Temple Not Program

What our society needs today more than anything else is sacred time and sacred space. Everyone is in a hurry to achieve, to climb the career ladder, to get their kids into good colleges, to increase the resale value of their houses. Churches too often play right into this toxic culture of achievement by providing more programs to add to an already hectic week. Too often, we tell people who are trying very hard to try harder.

What people need is not another program, but a temple. They need to hear the voice that says, “Come and rest.” They need for the sanctuary of our churches to be an actual sanctuary instead of a town hall meeting. In a world where people don’t know how to relax, our churches need to teach the world how to sit in God’s lap and do nothing. If church continues to be just another anxious, hyper-busy volunteer group, people will continue to lose interest.

9) Solidarity Not Sanctimony

Another quarrel Jesus had with the religious authorities was about how to define sin. For the religious authorities, sin was two things: breaking the rules and disobeying authority figures. Under this definition of sin, it’s not sin if the Bible doesn’t tell you explicitly not to do it or if you’re at the top of a chain of command. This is why many Christian communities have become toxic, spiritually abusive spaces.

What Jesus calls out as sin is the failure to love. He consistently takes a posture of solidarity, standing up for people, rather than sanctimony, standing up for the rules. This isn’t to say that rules are unimportant. But every rule must submit itself to the authority of the great commandment to love God and love neighbor. Perfect love is our ultimate goal. Anything short of that is sin, but we have a gracious God who is constantly replacing our sin with love.

10) Outsiders Not Insiders

The word for church in Greek is ekklesia which is a compound word meaning those who have been “called out” from the world. The original church was made up of outsiders and misfits who didn’t fit in the culture of the Roman Empire as well as the insiders who renounced their privilege to live in community with them. Too often, the church today tailors its theology and sense of morality to validate the superiority of the insiders rather than create a safe space for outsiders.

When Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow him, he’s not just telling us to stop cussing, doing drugs, and having premarital sex, which is a relatively easy insider version of morality. Jesus is telling us to renounce our worldly status and power to submit ourselves fully to the world’s outsiders. When insiders lose their safety by becoming outsiders, the world becomes safe for everyone. That’s what the church is supposed to look like.

11) Servanthood Not Leadership

Toxic Christianity has a major leadership fetish. There are dozens of conferences every year about Christian leadership, which too often is about maximizing your influence over other people as guru John Maxwell puts it. Our social media age is defined by “leaders” who have a huge influence but no responsibility.

Jesus defines leadership as servanthood. He says whoever wishes to be great must be the greatest servant. He doesn’t make “servant” a meaningless adjective to slap on the front of leadership, because for Jesus, leadership is about washing the feet of those you are called to nurture and empower. Christian leadership is about helping members of a community gain confidence in their gifts so that they can be God’s ministers to the world. Your worth as a leader should be measured by how many people you have empowered not how many people you control.

12) Kingdom Not Stadium

Over the past thirty years, our landscape has filled with giant megachurch stadiums. I’m sure the Holy Spirit has been part of their growth, but I worry how much they have thrived on triumphalist hype, the feeling that they’re winning. I am not called as a Christian pastor to build a stadium of adoring fans who flock to hear the one right gospel. Rather, I am called to accompany people on their journey into God’s kingdom as a fellow pilgrim seeking to enter the kingdom more deeply.

So when I share my faith with another person, Christian or not, I expect to be evangelized by them at least as much as they are evangelized by me. Real evangelism is not about inviting people to be an audience in my stadium. It’s about falling more deeply in love with God and expecting every other person to be an angel sent from God to teach me something. God will accept into the kingdom many people who bitterly disagree with me. Figuring out how to share the heavenly banquet with them is the most difficult and most beautiful aspect of the Christian journey.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in learning more, check out my book here and my blog here.

45 thoughts on “Is There a Christianity That Isn’t Toxic? (Guest Post by Morgan Guyton)

    • I’m a fundamentalist (which means I believe God’s fundamental Truths).

      Thanks Mr Guyton. You’ve laid out beautiful Bible Truths. I’m so blessed that you have described my church. We just let God’s Word stand for itself. All our welcome. We take care of ea other while we suffer greatly. We are in agreement (confess) that Gods Word is true. And Miracles happen every day.

      • ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????. Are you sure you read the same article I did—or that you even know what the term “Christian fundamentalist” means? I understood the article thoroughly and thoroughly agree with it. Most of the fundies I have known would have ink-stamped it: GOING STRAIGHT TO HELL. I’m dead serious.

  1. John, Interesting points, but I am confused. Did you write this or did Morgan Guyton whose book “How Jesus Saves the World From Us” is advertised for sale at the bottom?

    • I think because this is his WordPress, John’s name will automatically come up under the title, which is why he put the person’s name in the title.

      I thought this article was very interesting and each point is logical. I wish more people could see Christianity in this way. The world would be a much happier place.

  2. AMEN! But being that I am agnostic and agree with these statements, how can it still be called Christianity? We are basically talking about much more enlightened interpretations of Christ’s message, putting Christianity into a whole other category; aligning more with the foundations of so many other world religions and philosophies. And doesn’t that point to a more universal, more awakened understanding of God/human spirituality? And if so, does it really matter what we call ourselves when the message is the same, and the goal is the same? I just don’t feel like Christians, and what you’ve just expressed, should even have the same title. It’s so confusing.

    • It can’t be called American Christianity, perhaps. But I’m bemused by your characterization of what is really truly fundamentalist Christianity – following the example of Christ as “enlightened”. It reinforces the notion, which I believe, that the bureaucracy of Christianity – the religion that has become the jailer of the faith -has only darkened and closed our hearts and reduced us to following rulebooks and style guides to gain entrance to Heaven. This is not the faith that directs us to open our hearts and ease the suffering of others so that the world can be a better place. This is the exact opposite of what Christ exemplified.

      It’s sad to think that all of the work of the Reformation – that was to disentangle personal faith from the trappings of power of the Catholic Church – has been mooted by its own bureaucracy – our compulsion to build structure, simplify the world, wield power over others, ease our own existence, and secure our own destiny above all else.

      There is much I agree with in this list, but also in detailed consideration much I disagree with; aphorisms like “you must be like a child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” grate on me. One must be present in the moment, to use a Buddhist teaching, and open to wonder; but one must also be aware, compassionate, and skillful in bringing peace to the world. That is the capability and the burden of an adult.

      • Hi Mosswings, I love how John’s work makes us all explore the depths of life towards mutual understanding, even though we get caught up in a little friction sometimes.

        Yes, the essence is very much of Buddhism. Or maybe Buddhism, and all others who grasp this essence and live purely through it, are actually following Christ. And Christ, who sought to reveal the the true light of God so that we may recognize and do likewise for our fellow man (at least that’s how I see it) was simply another means for us to know such love. Not the only means, because that would be ego talking, but one of a great many potentially limitless ways.

        Because I can’t believe, despite what version of Christianity I have experienced to believe is “real” Christianity, that it matters one bit which story we resonate with. It doesn’t matter how well we have memorized the the names and dates or rules in any recorded form. It’s only if we miss the moral of the story – the greater, unifying story – that we are lost. But even lost is not a permanent state. The difficult part for so many is that this unifying story cannot be pinned down and contained with words or institutions. It can only be hinted at, pointed in the direction of.

    • Carmen, what was expressed is what Christianity is/was supposed to be. Not what it has become. That’s why it looks so similar yet so unfamiliar.

    • Carmen, I am challenged by your questions. No one really knows God’s name. We christians have been told the real God is the God of Abraham. But perhaps our Creator is the God of everyone…. no actually God is the Creator of everyone. So when we peel back all the ideologies we find God present there and we have to beleive he is love, what else could be behind it? And, not a love that separates people but a love that cares about people even those we think are in opposition to us.

      And, that’s about all I can focus on these days in the face of the cold hard reality of suffering, greed, chaos and violence mankind creates in this world.

    • I’m not offended if you agree with me and you’re agnostic. The point of Christianity as I understand it is to become authentically human. If you use a different story and a different set of metaphors to get there, that’s cool with me.

  3. John,
    Overall I agree with most of your missive. One question, when you wrote “They see “God-breathed,” and they think that just means the Bible is without error”, are you implying or stating that the Bible does have errors? I would like an answer, but don’t expect one.

    Your generalization of mega churches in number 12 seems to be off. The Holy Spirit was involved in part but I worry….Why do you worry? Is a single pastor with 10 members more effective than say 12 pastors at a mega church? I don’t think so. I believe you’ve done a disservice to mega churches in general.

    • The frequent issue with megachurches is that they are manifestations of point #1 rather than manifestations of point #10.

      The Bible is a collection of visions and experiences of devout followers of Christ that is often contradictory . It may correctly reflect their experiences, so in that sense it may be inerrant.

      However, given the great distance in time and circumstance between the authors and the readers, many scholars, secular and clerical, consider it to be something to energize our own journey to enlightenment, but not a book of inerrant laws spoken directly by God.

      The Quran is more of that sort of thing, as was written by a single prophet, Mohammed, ostensibly dictation from Allah.

      The Jews have a wonderful saying: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.

      So too the Bible.

      Characterizing the Bible as a poem instead of a formula is a wonderful recasting of this saying.

      “When we make it a formula, we are giving ourselves the authority as interpreters. When we recognize its infinite mystery, the Bible retains its authority over us as a poem.”.

      This acknowledges that the Creation is greater than the Bible can hope to encompass; that its passages are but projections, and that there is still more truth to discover beyond its covers.

    • Hi Greg. The Bible does have errors and numerous internal inconsistencies and contradictions, and it has even more errors when the text is read literally. The following is one of the best explanations I have ever heard on why the Bible cannot be read literally in all places (excluding obvious allegory) and why it has errors, internal inconsistencies, and internal contradictions. See video below. I think megachurches are a celebration of collective personal wealth and social status—a place for what we used to call “Yuppies” in the 1980s to sing:

      “Praise us into which all blessings have flowed. Praise us with our BMWs and Mercedes here below. Praise us from above ye corporate CEO hosts. Praise father law school, son medical school, and holy business school.” A-a-a-a-a M-e-e-e-e-n. It is no accident that most of these churches are in fast-growing, affluent cities and nearest the neighborhoods with the most affluent people. Here is the video presentation I mentioned earlier:

      • Thank you for posting this video. I listened to it a long time ago and have been looking for it ever since in order to share with friends. He is a scholar that explains the history and foundations of the current fundamentalist church in a way I had never been exposed to and am thankful to finally understand.

        • So you can keep it forever, it is available on You Tube. When you get to the You Tube main page, just enter the search term “Keith Ward Fundamentalism” and click search. The video is the first of a two-part presentation. the second part should be on the same You Tube page. Keith is a well-known Christian scholar and an ordained priest in the Church of England (Anglican Church). He is retired now at about 77 years old but is apparently still in high demand as a public speaker.

      • Charles, thanks for posting. I listened to parts 1 and 2 and will be viewing more of Ward’s videos! I grew up in a fundamental church and attended a fundamental Christian high school and college, so I was well-trained. I find that examining the Bible with fresh eyes requires discipline and a desire to continue to learn. In the last few years, I have gone from knowing all the answers to asking all the questions, and I revel in the questions! How wonderful it feels to be curious, to learn, and to think critically again. And how sweet to consider in a new way the revolutionary, amazing grace practiced by Jesus.

        I’m curious… Have you ever read Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus J. Borg?

        • Thank you. No Zoe. I have not read that book, but I agree with you that somewhere along the line, the Christian fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches lost the Jesus of the New Testament and substituted a Jesus of their own fallible, human, earthbound creation in his Holy place. A Christian acquaintance of mine out in Oregon has referred to this new creation of theirs as the “domesticated Jesus.”

          The fundies have succeeded almost completely in one other thing. That is ignoring all the passages in the New Testament (and Old Testament) about LOVE—the LOVE Jesus, John, and Paul speak about so frequently. In addition to ignoring most of it, they have shoved the rest of that LOVE over into a dark corner and redefined it out of existence—to be something completely different from what Jesus, John, and Paul meant when they talked about this LOVE.

          Numerous fundies, when I bring up the subject of this LOVE, respond by saying (paraphrased): “We do not ignore it. Sharing the gospel of sin, salvation, and burning forever in Hell IS LOVE. That is all there is to LOVE. There is nothing else to LOVE but this—and this alone.” That is at complete, total, sold-out-to- Satan, 180 degree variance from the presentation on LOVE in the Old Testament and ESPECIALLY in the New Testament. All you have to do is read the LOVE passages throughout the New Testament. They are all about an attitude and way of life from one day to the next—not just in our dealings with fellow Christians—but in our dealings with 7.5 billion people who desperately want to see that love from us Christians—and who want to experience that LOVE in their own lives and exude it out to others. LOVE is about sharing the gospel of reconciliation with God, but it is vastly, vastly, vastly more than just that and that alone. The fundies have ripped that vast rest of the the LOVE out of the Body of Christ like a swollen appendix and thrown it down the storm sewer.

          Let me offer you a suggestion. Go on-line and find an electronic Bible. Use the authorized KJV if you wish (my favorite version) or any other version—and do a word search on three words “love,” “charity, and “poor.” Stop and carefully read in context the use of those words at each stop in your word search. When you complete this, you will understand why there is so little Christian LOVE in a world that desperately needs it—and you will understand that Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism preach a revised and severely amputated version of the real Christian faith that started out 2,000 years ago.

          Come back later—and I can give you the history of how this happened.

    • The point is that “God-breathed” means a lot more than simply “without error.” We need to understand that phrase in its poetic richness rather than reduce it to a formula.

  4. This is a very helpful and thoughtful piece. Thank you for writing it.

    I feel there is a reawakening to the original spirit of Christianity taking place in this country and there are many places and hearts where it is thriving. I am grateful for every evidence wherever it may be found of Christliness.

  5. Pingback: Is There a Christianity That Isn’t Toxic? (Guest Post by Morgan Guyton) — john pavlovitz | Talmidimblogging

  6. I cried reading this because I feel so similar and have not seen it written so eloquently. I believe that the bible is like poetry and that each reader will get the message as they need to hear it and not just how one person says it should be. Thank you for that!

  7. I loved this, Biblical, loving, & to the point. When I became a Christian this is what I thought it was supposed to be like. This is what Evangelicals are supposed to be like, evangelizing, sharing the good news. Of all the so-called “mega” churches I have visited I only know of one that is big because it is good, good by being loving, worshipful, & so full of out reach to so many in need of help in the surrounding communities that it can’t help but to grow in numbers too. But they are the very rare exception.

  8. I enjoyed reading this as well. Maybe because it sounds so much like my background, except I did not find a loving church in my 20’s like Morgan. It was not until I was close to retirement that I finally found a place that brought me peace. We had sooo many rules in the church I grew up in, we could not even go to a movie, or a dance or a pop concert and we were told we would go straight to hell if we listened to “Rock & Roll!” It seemed so shallow to me. Still does. But reading this piece makes me hopeful for the future.

  9. I can’t believe they call themselves Christians. We are not to judge, I believe that if we say that we are Christians and talking the talk we better be walking the walk.

  10. Quite frankly, I am appalled that there are so few comments on this main post about the true essence of the Christian faith. Do we fall silent in the presence of Jesus, or do we shake his hand, hug him, bid him to enter, offer him a glass of wine, have some laughs together, eat a good meal, and discuss the essence of the faith. I would have 100s of questions. Why does it take a controversy like gun control, abortion, or transgenderism to run up the comment count. I think that is really sad.

  11. Pingback: An End to Fundie Triumphalism | Flee from Christian Fundamentalism

  12. Kathy, thank you! I think you are expressing some of the truth that leads us to the bigger table. It’s a challenge for sure, but possible in His love Who made all people.

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