what she gotta say

Losing My Religion: 5 Experiences Which Pushed Me to Reread the Bible

It’s time to talk about the theologies which have been percolating in my mind and heart as I’ve continued studying the Bible in various cultural settings. As I’ve mentioned, I grew up in a marvelous church in Portland, Oregon and a major reason I can still call them marvelous, is that they’ve never been intimidated by my questions. There is an underlining sense that the God they serve is big enough to withstand questioning.

I experienced God from a young age. He speaks to me and has always been a close companion, emboldening me to leave a wonderful community in order to go where He led. I didn’t know exactly what theology had sunk into my developing brain until it was challenged by the microscope of church ministry, missions and Bible college.

I’ve identified five major experiences that made me question my understanding of the gospel. Maybe you can relate to at least one.

ONE: Disrespect of Women

Something I’ve never quite been able to shake, was just how horribly the men at my Bible college treated women. It was very manipulative and covert, but certainly demeaning. There weren’t many ladies, to begin with. At one point, I was the only woman in a cohort of twelve. The faculty never meant it to be this way, and always scratched their heads about why so many guys at the school managed to be a-holes. I propose: some of this thinking trickled down from the top.

For instance, the college held strongly to the belief that women can never teach men. This was displayed by the fact there was only one female professor and only girls could take her class. It was also reiterated in that women could, graciously, take the communications course, but guys had the option to walk out when a woman practiced a presentation. Although the theology classes preached a kind of equality guised as complementarianism, the fruit was many males feeling superior to females. We gals were probably just in Bible college in hopes of marrying these gentlemen, so it was only good and fair for them to be mean to those of us they didn’t see as possible mates, in order to not “lead us on”. So thoughtful.

Throughout my time attending this school, I had 10 different roommates. Only one married a guy from the college, three married Christian guys in other states after dropping out. The rest left town, a little bit pushed out of the community, mostly for choosing to date a non-Christian guy who was actually nice to them. Those are not great statistics.

Why is the fruit of applied “Biblical Theology” so detrimental to women? I rolled my eyes and spoke out against much of this, but of course that got me in trouble. Eventually, I served a silent, discipleship-of-women-only role throughout the school year in California, and secretly spent summers emceeing a major camp in Oregon to scratch that itch: functioning within my God-given gifting.

Because these two cultures claimed the same Bible and had different rules, I had to wonder: who was more correct?

TWO: Excommunication

This also happened during my time at the California church which ran my Bible college. There were two major instances of excommunication from the pulpit and both of them royally sucked.

The first was of a dear friend, who had started struggling with homosexuality. He had come forward and the pastoral staff met with him regularly for a few months. Then, when he wasn’t “getting better”, unbeknownst to him, they announced in all four services that he was an unrepentant homosexual and we were all supposed to cut ties with him. The goal was that he would miss the fellowship so bad he would come crawling back and give the whole thing up.

I was his friend, and God has always taught me to love unconditionally, so when I kept being friends with him, I got in a lot of trouble with church leadership. I was undermining the whole operation!

The second was a woman who had become very close with my cousins, as one had lived with her and her family for the year I wasn’t around to be a roommate. This woman’s husband was the missions pastor at the church and had been caught in a form of infidelity, which was, of course, announced to everyone. This mega church made our town really small, and our friend had to leave to escape the shame. When her husband decided he was repentant, the pastoral leadership came around him to “restore” him, then looked to his wife to see if she was going to take him back. She had since moved on with her life, and this decision to follow through with the divorce got her excommunicated as well (they had weirdly decided to crack down on divorces that year).

This whole kerfuffle made me look deeply into Matthew 18:17 and ask, “what is going on here?!” since it had been extensively cited as the validation for treating people this way. “If he refuses to listen to even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” All things aside, aren’t we still supposed to lovingly and graciously pursue Gentiles and tax collectors?

THREE: Christian Nations

The United States regularly boasts of being a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles. I didn’t notice it until I traveled to other countries, but I realized this often breeds a mindset where Christians in those countries put themselves in the shoes of the Jews in the Old Testament narrative. Suddenly they can mow over pagan peoples like Israel mowed the Canaanites. There’s a racial superiority dynamic at play. Suddenly they can claim promises of eventual military victory. Suddenly they are “God’s chosen people” in a way which is unequivocally married to their nationalism. Suddenly someone is Christian because they’re American, like how someone is Catholic because they’re Italian, or Hindu because they’re Indian.

It makes sense until you have multiple nations claiming the same identity, but all have different expressions of what it looks like to be a Christian, which is largely informed by their national history, instead of Biblical exposition.

I was never formally taught church history, but researched it on my own after living awhile in Thessaloniki, Greece. You can read more about what I gleaned on syncretism in this blog post.

Christians in Oregon are much different from those in California, or Texas, or South Carolina, or Mexico, or Brazil, or Argentina, or Colombia, or Costa Rica, or Italy, or France, or Armenia, or Greece. Part of it can be a cultural swing away from Protestant, Orthodox or Catholic roots and some of it has a lot to do with the denomination of the missionary who got there first. The Baptists, Assemblies of God and Presbyterians have left noticeably different marks in their international church plants.

Unfortunately, and I feel it’s important to point it out, much of this proselytizing has roots in colonization. “We must first make the savages {insert nationality of missionary here} in order for them to properly adopt Christianity as their religion.”

Well folks, there is no nationality in the kingdom of God. In fact, it is international (every tribe, tongue and nation) by nature. So if your theology only makes sense in your nation’s context it is, at best, incomplete. That was when I began to aggressively remove American tradition from my faith. Otherwise, it cannot apply, or be good news, to the foreigner.

FOUR: The 2016 Election

I hope I don’t lose some of you here. It’s been a rough time, largely because of how divisive it’s been. I hadn’t engaged in much political talk leading up to the possibility of electing Biff Tannon (I mean DT) as our president. I grew up Republican, because my parents were, and hadn’t really questioned it. It’s too easy to make fun of “those crazy liberals” right? Until the moment my political party–deeply rooted in a love for money and the belief that anyone can create their own wealth (from the privileged perspective of the white middle class who have inherited at least some of it)–became personified in a sleazy, racist, sexist businessman, and those crazy liberals started pleading for their lives.

Most Republicans I know, in the more compassionate PNW, voted for DT begrudgingly, focusing on the issue of abortion. Others liked his brass rhetoric and ideas to close our boarders.

At the time, I was heavily invested in the refugee crisis; feeling the call to help, serve, love and be a good neighbor in a divine calling way. So then, It was alarming to get a kick back from “fellow believers” who venomously insisted on keeping those terrorists (Muslims) out of our country. That was when I decided to move somewhere I could be around them. People called me brave. I tried to bite my tongue.

In the fallout of DT’s America, we’ve seen a lot of things happen: Sure, a hike in the stock market (loud cheers from lovers of money), an empowering of bullies, a caging of children, an increase in gun violence, a persecuting of civil rights movements, a removing of health care from the poor and no statistical change for abortion.

As an American Evangelical Christian, what shook me the most was seeing people like Franklin Graham, whom I had grown up respecting, praise this President. This assaulter of women. Franklin is an evangelist! He’s supposed to share the “good news”! What exactly does he think the good news is??

FIVE: Befriending Muslims

For whatever reason, I didn’t know many Muslims growing up. As diverse as my high school was, it seemed most people were either Christian, atheist, agnostic, Sikh or Buddhist. Looking back, I am sure my Muslim peers felt they had to hide their faith. That is a shame. I had one friend who is Iranian, but what you maybe don’t know is how nonreligious most Iranians are.

Finally, in my thirties, I had the pleasure of befriending Muslims and I felt like I had been robbed, kept out of a marvelous secret. Being an Old Testament nerd, I was fascinated by how the principles of the Torah came alive in them. Most Western Christians like to throw the OT out, because it doesn’t make sense, or it was seemingly made void by the New Covenant. But even a lot of what Jesus said in His parables and Sermon on the Mount goes over our heads. Not so with these guys. The Bible was written to Middle Eastern people! They don’t have to do all the hermeneutical gymnastics I was taught in Bible college to directly apply the Bible to their lives. In fact, meeting them in Greece underlined much of the fact that the task of Paul was to try and explain an Eastern Religion to Western people. That’s why we, in the west, looooooove Paul. Even though he confuses us at times and causes a lot of misunderstandings about how to treat women.

I saw a fear of the LORD in them that I rarely see in believers. Not in the way that you might assume either. Fear, as in, “I care more about what God thinks, than what you think.” I think we, western, NT loving evangelicals miss that wisdom.

SO WHAT IS IT?

I read the Bible every day. Not out of a religious obligation, but because why wouldn’t I? The more I read it, the more I need it. God’s words and laws are right and true. There’s a reason the “Shema” (Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:4-5) is instructed to be everywhere (6:6-9). We need constant reminders of truth in our daily life.

After years of pondering why these five things didn’t sit right, I’ve decided: it is because they all come down to abuses of power. Men’s power over women. Religious power over laypeople. Social-political powers over the poor and oppressed. How do these power plays have any place in a group of people who are fundamentally supposed to:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians‬ ‭2:5-8‬)

Jesus was granted all authority in heaven and on earth by proving He could be trusted with that power.

I rewatched “the Jesus film” a few summers ago. It’s an old movie from the 70s on Jesus’ life with all dialogue being direct quotes from the gospels. My main take away was, “Man, Jesus will not shut up about the poor!” He was all about meekness–strength under control–and humility. He directly told His disciples that their leadership style would be servanthood (Luke 22:26) and His major introduction into being a teacher was claiming he fulfilled Isaiah 61 (Luke 4:16-21), which is good news for the poor, release for captives, and sight for the blind.

Something which has helped me put in to words some of theses thoughts, is a podcast I’m listening to called “Almost Heretical“. They’re not end-all experts, but they’ve done their research. And my spirit resonates with so much of it.

One assertion they made was how rich slave owners adjusted “the gospel” to be good news for them. It seemed to be for their slaves, but bad news for them. That’s nothing a new theology can’t fix! The idea of penal substitutionary atonement, I’m sure, isn’t that new, but making Jesus the volunteer in the court room who takes the death sentence from God, gets a lot of people off the hook. The Mosaic law theme of restitution was cut off. When slavery was “over” we “forgot it” and we didn’t have to give anyone “40 acres and a mule”. We didn’t even apologize.

Jesus wasn’t saving us from his angry dad, He was showing us a new way to be human. He was surgically removing a heart of stone and giving us a heart of flesh. He was radiating the cancer, without killing the patient. He was showing us how to walk out our God-ordained roles as King’s and Queens in His kingdom. All of us. Every tribe, tongue and nation. Jesus was restoring our identities and setting things right.

We, His people, are supposed to be ministers of reconciliation. Serving as unto the LORD, in all humility, submitting to His designs because He’s smart, created us, and knows what’s cancer and what’s benign.

He made Christ Jesus the judge, not any of us. Maybe it’s time we stop policing each other and answering violence with more violence.

If your definition of the gospel isn’t good news for everyone–if that pesky limited atonement theology keeps creeping in–maybe it’s time to prune it out. Even when I considered myself a Calvinist, I could never wrap my mind around that one. Too many places in the Bible indicate that Jesus died for the whole world, not just for some of us. It felt more like a forced then after a series of possible ifs.

To my friends who have lived in one culture and haven’t had to consider any of this: Think about it! Study the Word! Jesus is looking for people who can live like Him in meekness, humility and service for others.

To my friends who have experienced some of these same things and are losing your religion: Lose it! And instead, “press on to know the LORD” (Hosea 6:3)

8 Responses to “Losing My Religion: 5 Experiences Which Pushed Me to Reread the Bible”

  1. Suze

    At last..another woman who attended a seminary and came forth THINKING! You were so right about the men’s attitudes, and i can only surmise they were more gentle with your generation than my own. I attended a seminary (Bible college as they are now known) in the 70’s. I was the only woman in my college. The ONLY female student. All the other women around were in adjunct positions…clerical, librarians, cashiers, cooks and nurses. No professors were female. Talk about a fish out of water…boy was my first year difficult. I saw friends excommunicated in public settings, had professors ask me outright if I were a homosexual or an agitator……..heck all I wanted was to be a light upon a hill to others. I have been in the middle east….studied there for a while…met Muslims,Hindis, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews (etc etc etc) lived with and studied with people of all religions. I no longer consider myself to even be a christian. The one thing that every single religion that is monotheistic in nature has in common is the Shema. Simply take out the “hear, O Israel” part and it becomes part of Islam’s daily prayer, part of the Buddhist chant, the first corner of faith for a Sikh. It is the only universal teaching I have found. I now have no ‘religion”..but a much deeper faith in God. And I became free when I learned this.

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    • bethanycetti

      Wow, thanks so much for your comment! I would love to sit and pick your brain for hours! You were so brave to attend seminary as the only girl. Not surprised they questioned your sexuality. Been there! And cornered in the student lounge being “evangelized” by a guy who had been a Christian less than a year. I just had to laugh. I laughed off a lot of horrible things, and I think I’m learning that doesn’t work forever. I’m ready for the LORD to teach me who He is, truly. Outside the airtight theological walls of Bible College.

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  2. Traci Emerson

    So, I didn’t want to read this without giving my two cents. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. My take-away: we should be friends. I appreciate you articulating all of this. It might not surprise you that, while our backgrounds are slightly different, we came from a “similar” cocoon and ended up with some of the same conclusions. I particularly resonate with number one (though I didn’t go to seminary, I ended up in a very “good ol’ boy’s club” field–it’s eye opening) and number four. 2016 was a rough year for me, and left me wrestling with…well, a lot of what you talk about and more. Anyway, applause from my corner. 🙂

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    • bethanycetti

      Thank you Traci. Yes I’m not so surprised. I think anyone who is thoughtfully paying attention, especially when living in a foreign context, will come away with some questions. We should be friends and I hope this just encourages people to know questions are good and we shouldn’t be afraid of them, because the One True God can’t be fragile.

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  3. Randy Steele

    This is one of the many many reason why I have always loved you – even back in high school youth group. You never let a thought pass by without bravely asking questions and challenging the assumptions. Even if others got freaked out by it. After reading this I am glad we encouraged that quality in you. May your kind increase. You are part of the reason why we still are a church that believes that God can handle our questions – even the angry ones.
    In your post you have brilliantly articulated many of the questions I, as a pastor, have had as well. I agree with your conclusion regarding power. It is a conclusion grounded in history.
    Jesus was crucified because he threatened the tenuous hold the Jewish religious leaders had on their power. Rome had allowed them a degree of power as long as they kept the people in control and it is obvious that part of what worried them about Jesus was that he threatened to undermine that arrangement. But getting rid of Jesus did work out the way they had hoped thanks to his resurrection.
    We see evidence of that same attitude in the same religious leaders’ response to the early church – telling them to quit preaching about Jesus – flogging them, putting them in prison and even hiring a pharisee with the job of stomping out the followers of Jesus (which apparently did not work out well for them).
    Ironically in a handful of years the church itself repeated the same mistakes and became a powerful religious machine desperate to stay in control. When it was challenged by the likes of Martin Luther or William Tyndale they tried to destroy them and their followers but once again it did not work out very well for them because the protesters (or Protestants as we call them) emerged stronger than ever despite their persecution.
    And so here we are again – the Protestant Church (especially in America) has become a powerful machine and once again are making the same mistakes. Once again those who challenge the broken assumptions are threatened to be punished. Once again it will not work out well for them unless they repent.
    Max Lucado got huge pushback when he challenged evangelicals endorsement of Trump. Pastors lost their job just for voting for Hillary. We at our church even received a handwritten note of warning when we put a man in leadership who happened to also be a democrat.
    One thing I have noticed is that when churches stop experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit then the power of politics is a tempting alternative.
    Influencing a society the way Jesus told us to do it will always mean sacrifice which is painful but legislating morality seems to be an alternative that allows you the “change” a society the sacrifice (I put “change” in quotes because laws do not change our hearts).
    In the 80’s we saw the formation of the “Moral Majority” that captured this perfectly. (Even the name sounds like a bully) In the 90’s we had an offshoot of the Moral Majority in Oregon that tried to pass legislation against homosexuality. One Sunday we came to church to discover they were camped out in front of our church to get people to sign their petition. We knew that would send a loud message to our neighborhood that we wanted to avoid so we asked them to leave. They replied that they had a legal right to be on the sidewalk. We acknowledged they had the legal authority to be there but we were appealing to them as Christians and asking them to respect the wishes of our church. We were appealing to a spiritual authority which is far great than the authority given to them from an earthly government . They still refused (I really should have reminded them of the story of Ananias and Sapphira). But I realized that they were simply wrapping their political agenda in the flag of the church to get at a big voting block like christians so they could pass their law. They were not really a Christian organization. (The measure failed by the way.)
    The only way to influence a society is by passing on the stunning sacrificial love that we have received from God.
    I too am so saddened by what you experienced in your school regarding women. Oddly I grew up hearing “missionary updates” from single women missionaries all the time – the updates were insightful and challenging and gave me a better understanding of who God was. No one was ever threatened or upset but recently I asked one of our women’s bible study leaders to share a powerful insight that God had revealed to her on Sunday morning – for the most part the response was very favorable but I received a report that one couple got up and left. I can’t help but wonder if the lady had come from a foreign land and was sharing the same insight she had realized on the mission field, would they have stayed? Would it have changed things for them if she and her husband had shared the same message together?
    To be honest I have always read Paul’s teaching regarding women to be an encouragement for the men to get off their butts and step up to being good leaders not a punishment on women. (By the way – do a study on Paul’s co-worker Phoebe some day – you might be surprised at the role she played in teaching the church).
    One of the most attractive aspects of early Christianity was their high respect of women. They were not considered property but bearers of the image of Christ. (Paul’s message in Galatians influenced this – there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus).
    That perspective greatly increase our influence.
    In Rome when a baby girl was born they would often discard them in the streets because they only wanted boys. The Christians would take these baby girls in and raise them as their own. Interestingly when these Christian girls grew up they were the only ones in Rome to marry. This greatly influenced the men of Rome to more closely consider the message of the gospel.
    One of the other appeals of early Christianity was our respect for those outside of culture or our way of thinking. The basis of the good news of the gospel was that God embraced “the outsiders”. The early Jewish Christian leaders’ minds were blown at this idea yet it was one of the most powerful insights that the Holy Spirit revealed to them. Peter was most dramatically challenged on this point in Acts 10. So why would we turn up our noses at any other nations? We can’t without abandoning the core of the good news that we preach (especially as Gentiles ourselves.) In fact, almost every missions organization I know of has admitted how foolish syncretism was. My brother works for an organization that is fully dedicated to training people how to avoid syncretism called culture bound – one of their quotes is “We teach you how to learn from the most expert people on earth — the people who already live there.”
    Your post is in keeping with the tradition of challenging a religion that has become powerful (but not a spiritual power but politically powerful) but just like those you follow there is a price to pay. There always has been – but be encouraged. According to history the reality of the Christ will always emerge – humble and loving. He loves his bride -the church but the enemy is always trying to “scatter the tares among the wheat”. The temptation is to start tearing everything up. We can get angry and want to just blowtorch the whole thing but Jesus cautions us to avoid that. He tells us to be patient – to keep feeding ALL of the field because often what we thought was a lost cause emerges as the real thing EVENTUALLY – the same is true of a church or even a school. Keep praying for repentance. Continue to speak the truth in patient love. Live your life on the words of Jesus and in time …. sometimes ….well you never can tell. In fact sometimes a crazy, wild, pot-stirring curly headed high school girl turns out to one of the most passionate world traveling life altering woman of God that I have ever had the privileged knowing. You just never know

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    • bethanycetti

      Thank you very much Randy. That means a lot. Well said! I am so thankful for your example of humility and meekness, and for never giving up on me.

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