Over the years, God’s people have been brought into the faith through two basic yet very different paths.
On one hand you have those believers who came to a salvific knowledge of Jesus during their adult life. For many of this group, it stems from asking life’s big questions, “What is the purpose of my life?” or “Is there really a God?” Often it is at these crossroads where a person is receptive to the revelation of God’s truth.
Then on the other you have those of us who have, for the most part, grown up in church. Those of us who had parents or grandparents called by God in their adult life. Those of us who were dressed up in our Sunday’s best from youth on and were taken to church as a regular routine. Those of us who attended Sunday School and memorized verses and prayed before meals simply because that’s just what people do. This happens to be how my spiritual journey began.
I do not hold any contempt for this fact. Being raised as a part of the Church has a number of advantages, the most important of which is, perhaps, that I have been constantly familiarized with “the basics” of Christian thought and practice. Much of the Bible has been ingrained into my mind and, while I might not be able to quote all of those Sunday School verses I memorized, I am extremely familiar with just about every major Biblical narrative. Having this solid foundation has been a huge blessing, and I count myself as lucky to have been raised in a Christian home.
However, despite the many benefits, there are also distinct challenges that “church kids” have to face in their latter years. Unfortunately, some people raised going to church develop a sort of callousness to the beauty of the gospel message. I have seen it happen to friends of mine who grew up right alongside me: friends who sat in the same Sunday School classes, worshiped to the same songs, and heard the same sermons. Over time, it seemed as though church became background noise in their life, like when the television is on but your attention is preoccupied with more important matters. I would rather not speculate in this post on why this happens, but it is something that those who are raised going to church need to be mindful of.
The great challenge for me has been something of a different nature. I paid attention during sermons. I took notes and meditated on the truths presented to me. I loved hearing the Word of God and worshiping with fellow believers. Yet, much to my detriment, most of my early theological construction was established from what I had learned in church rather than on what I was getting out of my own reading and devotion. Despite what I thought to be true, not every sermon I heard from behind a pulpit was as inspired by God as the book from which it came. If a pastor is not careful, opinions and interpretations can easily get mixed in with the Word of God. The churches I attended were of the Church of God denomination, and various aspects of their beliefs were taught as certainty. I was taught that without the evidence of speaking of tongues, there is surely no indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I was taught that every sin I commit in the future needs its own personal confession before God. There were more than a few other things taught to me that I eventually examined further, and perhaps I’ll write about them later, but this last teaching proved to be particularly damaging. Now none of this is said to ridicule any of the pastors I grew up under, they are fantastic men of God who remain some of the better preachers I’ve listened to. But pastors are human, like the rest of us, and one’s personality, issues, and personal beliefs can’t help but leave an impact on sermon presentation.
We receive our thoughts about God from more than just our pastors. While they are certainly responsible for their flock, it is the God given duty of parents to raise their children in the way (Proverbs 22:6; Ephesians 6:4). A part of this instruction includes delineating between right and wrong, and rightly so. As a child, when I did right I might be rewarded and when I did wrong I was surely punished. In all honesty, I do not have a better recommendation for how to teach right and wrong to children. But somewhere along the way I connected being good or bad directly with my status before my parents. If I did good, I could expect a closeness between us. If I was bad, I would be exiled to my room with the dreaded words, “You’re grounded!”
It is no small stretch to say that because of this aspect of my relationship with my parents, combined with how closely I connected them with my spiritual life, I projected this same relational style onto God. When I committed a sin I felt so guilty, so condemned, and so far away from the presence of God that, like the Israelites before Mount Sinai, I cowered away from Him even further. I was afraid that He would look upon my sin in anger and punish me by exile to some spiritual place where He was not, or worse. Every time I sinned anew, I thought that my sonship was in jeopardy, that I could lose my place of promised adoption. Of course I had already committed my life to Him and asked Him to place my sins upon that beautiful body of Jesus, but I had been taught that this only applied to sins I had committed in the past. I believed that every new sin I committed would not be covered by the blood until it too was atoned for through confession. This, my friends, is not the gospel of grace by faith alone that Paul teaches.
And so now I come to what I believe is the greatest problem facing those raised in church like myself: breaking away from false embedded theology. Of course, you don’t have to have been raised in church to have false theological beliefs, but when you are child, they seem to go oh so much deeper. It took many years, much heartache, and finally the divine intervention of God to break down this perception of mine; no doubt there are more still lurking in the shadows. Before I open up this discussion to everyone and welcome you to comment below about your own struggle with false embedded theology, I wish to end with a lovely verse from Romans.
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Romans 6:12-14