Deconstruction has certainly been a common term for a while, with its hashtags often heralding an exit from the Christian faith of the Scriptures. This article from The Gospel Coalition claims that there are 4 reasons for Deconstruction:
— “Church Hurt,” a term that I believe diminishes the significance of the atrocities that are taking place in churches.
— “Poor Teaching,” saying, “Today’s deconstruction allows bad teaching to have the last word.”
It depends, I suppose, on how the deconstruction takes place.
— “Desire to Sin,” saying, “It’s a bummer if someone’s dealing with church hurt and you hand him a stack of apologetics books to read. Those same books will be useless if, beneath the surface, he really just wants to justify his sin.”
It would be almost unbelievable to me to think that a stack of apologetics books would be useful for someone dealing with betrayal by the church if it weren’t that this is TGC. (But of course, we dare not be empathetic, lest we encourage him or her in sin, right?)
— “Street Cred,” saying, “Doubt is hip.”
But doubt about what you’ve always been taught can be and usually is a very, very important part of the faith journey.
For some, “I’m deconstructing” means, “I’m deconverting” or “I’m walking away from the Christian faith.”
But when you look at the real meaning of the word, you’ll see that it means taking something apart (in this case, teachings) brick by brick, as it were (the “construct” part of the word), even down to the very foundation if necessary, in order to see if the structure is sound. And “soundness” would have to be soundness as compared to . . . something.
So, for others, like my husband and me, it can mean, “I’m reexamining the structure I grew up in, which called itself Biblical Christianity. I’m removing the bricks, brick by brick, all the way to the foundation, and seeing how the bricks line up with the Word of God.” (We would add later, “And with the Christian life promised in the New Testament,” but that didn’t happen at first.)
If we look at it this way, then I would agree with others who have said that this is exactly what Martin Luther did with his Roman Catholic faith before leaving the Roman Catholic religion completely.
Back when Tim and I were going through this process, we didn’t think of it as “deconstruction”; in fact, the term “deconstruction” wasn’t around (just as social media wasn’t around). All we were trying to do was understand who God was and what His Word actually meant.
So it took us a while to see that what we had gone through did match with the actual meaning of this term.
My journey was slightly different from Tim’s but complementary, and as we both progressed, we discussed what we each were learning, so that we definitely were making the journey together. Here is our story, told from Tim’s perspective.
The culmination of my deconstruction might best be pictured with my head in my hands, practically tearing my hair out. At that point I had realized we could never return to the comfortable circles in which I had grown up—or even back to the less comfortable circles of Rebecca’s family. I was sure both groups would now reject me for my beliefs.
This condition was particularly complicated by my enlistment as a pastoral intern at a church we’d moved to New York to be involved with. Indeed, we were very involved, me especially in teaching and discipling people with the pastor’s blessing. He was an old friend who’d asked us to come help, and we had hit the ground running.
But as I studied and taught more week by week, a doctrinal rift was opening. It became ever wider as those in the church reacted to what I was teaching with either enthusiasm or skepticism. The divide deepened until an influential elder sat down with me and sadly informed me that one of us would need to leave the church. Of course that ended up being us.
But the roots of this inevitable eventuality had begun years before.
Deconstructing legalism and focus on “don’ts”
Both Rebecca and I grew up in conservative Baptist churches. Her upbringing was much stricter than mine, but my youth was spent under the teaching of my dear father, a pastor. To differing degrees, both of us were well versed in cultural reactionary legalism. By definition, this meant that we, as Christians, would not do what the world did. The to-don’t list typically included smoking, drinking alcohol, dancing, going to movies, and listening to rock music. For my wife, the list was longer, and for her parents, longer than that. Things such as the use of only the King James version of the Bible near the top.
We met at Bob Jones University—my parents warning that the college was too strict, while Rebecca’s mother worrying that it had compromised in significant ways. Honestly, neither of us was fully convinced of all the points of BJU’s cultural reactionary legalism, but we were willing to go along for the ride to receive our education and early job opportunities after graduation. We were willing, for a time, to stay inside the bubble.
In the early 80’s, before we met, I had worked a summer plus some breaks at Disney World. Though they were hardly identical, I noticed that both institutions had similar cultural rules: hair standards, dress standards, and most importantly, an emphasis on proper stage presence. After discussing the phenomenon with some peers at BJU, I came to the conclusion that both places were catering to basically the same demographic—white, middle class, conservative, suburbanites. The goal? To create a sort of perfect world, where nothing bad could happen (as these people would define it). Both places maintained their “magic” by keeping unpleasant things out of sight and mind. Appearances were paramount, and the “customers” were the parents.
Though I couldn’t have put it into words this clearly at that time, this observation was an unsettling one that stayed with me.
A willingness to let go of anything but God’s truth
When it became apparent that we needed to leave BJU and Greenville, we ended up in beautiful southern Indiana and settled on a small Mennonite church in a rural community called Bean Blossom. They were loving people, with fewer rules than you might expect—and the ones they did have were different, like no earrings or makeup for women. Huh?
I started teaching the youth as I had done in Greenville, then soon graduated to team teaching the adult Sunday School class.
The book of Galatians tells us that Paul spent three years in the wilderness relearning the meaning of Scripture under the teaching of the Holy Spirit. Rural Indiana served a similar purpose for me.
We had left Greenville with no warm feelings regarding any of the fundamentalist influences in our lives. I knew I believed the Bible and trusted Jesus as my Savior, but I was pretty sure Christianity wasn’t supposed to look like that.
And as a beginning freelancer without much work, I had a lot of time on my hands.
So in my mid-thirties, with no deadlines or required papers or assigned reading, I began reading whole books of the Bible, especially the New Testament, reading them over and over. My goal wasn’t to memorize (which always got me on a different track of getting everything in order, etc), but to deeply understand the book.
I read, and then I meditated as I walked through the countryside, or as I rowed across the lake and into the wild creek beyond it.
The meditation on the walks and lake rows involved wanting to understand the Scriptures I had been reading and studying. It also involved the fact that I didn’t know the big picture of God’s plan, and I wanted to know it. (We had been presented with long charts up front of church that claimed to present us with the big picture in 7 complicated stages, but by this time both of us deeply doubted that perspective.)
I used commentaries and other Christian writings very little, seeing them as a resource but not authoritative. I read the Bible.
As God’s Spirit opened my eyes to its truth, God’s Word became clearer. As a result, my teaching for the adults of this little church became deeper. They were not only attentive listeners, but they asked deep and thoughtful questions, which made me feel even more responsible to them. I read and meditated more.
Seeing that the problems were on both sides
As much as we loved this church and these people, there were some problematic liberal theologies within the Sunday School literature—and I prepared to address them. But in doing so, I had an epiphany.
As I mapped out the problems in liberal theology, I saw that there were just as many problems on the conservative side. Finding the truth was not a matter of rejecting one side and favoring the other, nor of finding the middle, but rather it was rejecting the errors that either side misrepresented as God’s way.
Taking away from God’s word and adding to it both have harmful effects. The Pharisees, famous for their own brand of legalism, were Jesus’ main adversaries during his years of earthly ministry. Many modern legalists distance themselves from that charge by saying, “The only real definition of legalism is believing in salvation by works.” But they then proceed to quantify sanctification by a list of works (mostly a to-don’t list, accompanied by several significant to-do’s).
I even volunteered to preach a sermon on it—the only one I’ve ever been asked to repeat to the same church. Ultimately my meditation and teaching, and their reception in the church, led to a sense that I was called to the ministry.
But I still hadn’t come to the point of nearly tearing my hair out. I was deconstructing, brick by brick, but I hadn’t yet realized the implications of what I was doing.
No, that happened not in Indiana, but in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York, where we went in 1995 for me to be an assistant to the pastor, an old friend of mine. This is the place where, two years later, we were essentially asked to leave.
How did something that started off with such high hopes end so poorly? And yet, it brought us to a place where we were more assured in our faith and better equipped to understand and explain the Scripture.
Deconstructing an entire system of theology
Something else needed to be deconstructed in order for us to see the big picture of God’s plan of salvation. Ultimately that was an understanding of the agreement He had made with us as his own people—the children of God under the New Covenant.
But we came into that understanding through the back door of eschatology—the study of end times. By then, I was planning to be a pastor, which I figured meant going to seminary, and I realized I had to determine my eschatology before making that decision. We had definitely put this one on the back burner, because how the world was going to end didn’t seem that important to us. But now it was brought to the front.
So I had to read the different views directly from the perspectives of the people who believed them, with my growing understanding of Scripture as the lens through which to interpret those perspectives.
We were both raised in Dispensationalism, a view of Scripture that features the Old Covenant nation of Israel as always preeminent in God’s plan. It considers the Church a temporary stand-in until national Israel is brought back to the forefront of God’s attention. According to Dispensationalism, aspects of the Old Covenant are still unfulfilled, unfinished in God’s work. So in some way, the Law of Moses is still in power for the people of God?
Of course, this Old Covenant-dominant view strengthens the legalist influence upon the lives of Christians. And it raises questions about what Christ’s relationship is to Jews who reject Him, as well as Christians who are not Jews.
Thankfully, the New Covenant fully answers all those questions, but if our idea of God’s plan is presupposed otherwise and used to filter a reading of these explanations, these Scriptures can become clouded and confusing. Thus, Dispensationalism resorts to many “experts” to explain their various complications of the Scripture. It never set right with us that God’s plan would be so complicated.
I’d read the filtered explanations, the charts, and the many proof texts taken out of context.
This is when I came downstairs from my study with my hair askew. “I can’t believe this anymore,” I said to Rebecca. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
“Great,” she said. She had been doubting it since her teen years, so she was ready to move on.
“You don’t understand. We’ll lose everyone in our lives. We’ll lose our friends.”
“We’ll make new friends!” she responded glibly.
Little did she know how hard it would actually be. But I pressed on, since my paramount desire was to understand. I was looking for a perspective on the Scriptures that simplified, and glorified, the Scriptures that I had been reading and meditating on for years.
Constructing a new system of theology
With the help of a few teachers who shed light at pivotal moments (like the teacher at the John Bunyan conference who said to read the Old Testament in light of the New), we ultimately came to an understanding of a more linear concept of God’s plan—one in which the Old Covenant with all its physical stipulations was completely fulfilled in the New Covenant in far greater spiritual ways. It gave our reading of the Bible greater unity and unfolded God’s plan in a fully Christ-centered manner.
The temporary purposes of the Old Covenant Law and its people—most who lived in various degrees of fleshly “obedience” or disobedience without true faith—fell away in the bigger picture of God’s purposes for his believing New Covenant children (from every tribe and nation) who live by faith, guided by his Spirit.
The implications are huge, but perhaps are most manifest in God’s work of sanctification—His work in bringing his children to maturity by the work of the Spirit through faith. The strength and determination of our flesh is simply insufficient, even though it might be a handy tool for manipulative guilt wielded by power brokers in spiritual garb.
Believers live in the light and power of the Spirit, not the shadows and weakness of the Law. Even as Jesus said, “This is the New Covenant in my blood.” As Hebrews says, it is a better way, a better agreement, to make for himself a better people.
But obviously, this new understanding didn’t set well with many, including the Dispensational church where I was interning and could no longer agree with their view of eschatology, or the covenants. So at age 40 our circles would have to change once we left the church where I’d interned. But where would we go from there?
Trying to find where we belonged
If we weren’t Dispensational, we reasoned, we must be Reformed. Because there are only two choices, right?
Because we believed that our Covenant could be entered only by faith in Jesus Christ (and not by being born to Christian parents), we knew we couldn’t be Presbyterian, so we must be Reformed Baptist. Process of elimination, right?
We were wrong, but that’s how we proceeded.
A painful year in a Reformed Baptist church with its own peculiar brand of legalism [more about that here], with an angry pastor who was eventually arrested for embezzlement, led us to several years of wandering in the church wilderness.
At the same time, I was very active on the internet forum called Baptist Board, trying to convince Baptist pastors of what had become so evident to me in the Scriptures: the New Covenant was the final covenant, and it was better than the Old.
Their responses were the same. They had been to seminary and I hadn’t. They were pastors and I wasn’t. Who did I think I was? Their responses, combined with the response of the elder at the church we had to leave, combined with the rejection and even scorn we experienced from others, left me deeply discouraged for a time.
As we continued to study, we finally learned that what we believed did have a name, though there didn’t seem to be many proponents of it: New Covenant Theology.
We had deconstructed legalism as having anything to do with our faith. We had deconstructed from the system of theology we were raised in. We had built a new belief system, as much as we were able, entirely on the foundation of Jesus Christ. And through the years, we have continued to learn the Word of God and get to know Him.
There is hope in Deconstruction. It’s found in taking each part of the system you were raised in to the true God, through His Word. “Tell me who You really are. Tell me what is from you and what isn’t. Show me your glory.”
And even though the Christian Deconstruction journey can be arduous at times, what we see when we see the Big Picture is beautiful.
The beliefs that we settled on became part of the statement of faith that I posted at this website.
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.