In evangelical Christian communities where self-deceit is prevalent, this dysfunction manifests as particular sets of expectations and codes of conduct that are tacitly created and act as “standards of faithfulness” for that community. So whether similar to my previous examples or varied by type or degree, the creation of self-deceit based standards of faithfulness effects not just this community but vast numbers of Christian communities. Yet these standards are not designed to develop Christ-likeness or to further God’s kingdom but to insulate deceitful practices within Christian contexts from identification and reform (and to protect those who participate in them from exposure and rebuke).
As such, each of the above examples demonstrates one or more of such “standards of faithfulness” at play. Often this means the same handful of “standards” recur in various forms and are actually mutually reinforcing. Or as I have stated before, they tend to “run in packs,” such that where one is present others are likely to be found as well. Further, we can decipher “themes” within these standards of faithfulness and these “themes” appear almost designed to cultivate a lack of attention to the deeper currents and norms within the community. These “themes” include: beliefs that promote inactivity and a lack of reflection, Bible-reading strategies that reinforce rather than challenge such beliefs, creativity in areas except those that would threaten conformity to these “standards of faithfulness,” individual expressions of discontent with the status quo without accompanying action, leadership that avoids critique or denounces those raising it (without ever addressing the critique itself), over-emphasis on a distorted notion of unity, risk viewed as “threat,” and the group or “tribe” prioritized to the larger body.
Notice, then, how each of the above themes compounds or reinforces at least one other theme, almost acting as fail safes that provide overlapping “protection” against any one standard of faithfulness receiving too much critical attention. Which leads to several crucial points.
First, it is crucial to understand that not ever member of a community will or even should adhere to every standard or promote each of these themes. Rather, it is only crucial that no member of the community should overtly and persistently threaten any one of these “standards” or criticize any one of these themes. So the overlapping or mutually reinforcing nature of theses “standards” allows a diversity of views to exist while nevertheless ensuring that all views always remain “in check,” or subservient to, the majority of the community’s “standards!” For example, it allows an “over-emphasis on unity” to quiet any real concerns that believing in effortless, guaranteed Bible-reading is problematic. Or it allows an aversion to risk-taking to cover over what might be seen as a “sectarian” commitment rather than a Christian-body commitment.
In short, these standards of faithfulness (and the themes that underlie them) allow diversity in areas that don’t matter while tacitly enforcing conformity in areas that do matter. Thus to those within the community these standards of faithfulness essentially go unnoticed, and only their effect is perceived. This effect is to give the appearance of health and commitment to those within the community, yet the effect they give to those on the periphery / outside of the community is rather different.
For those outsiders on the periphery who are church-goers or who have church background the effect is to create alienation—to erect barriers to honest conversation and therefore even to church attendance, such that those with valuable insights into these issues and potential willingness to offer productive feedback are necessarily excluded. For those outsiders who are agnostics or atheists, however, the effect is merely to reinforce their existing view that Christianity has no credibility and, as a result, is simply irrelevant. For this reason, attempts by Christians to convince agnostics or atheists of the value of Christianity are necessarily non-starters: apologetics will continue to be meaningless until evangelical dysfunction is admitted and work to remedy it is embraced and embarked upon.
And to those who overtly and persistently threaten (or even question) any of the community’s standards of faithfulness? The result is being ostracized and even castigated, as I experienced with the church in my final example.