Someone recently mentioned a description of church to me in part as "Oppressive Culture". I haven't yet had a chance to clarify that description with them, but it struck me as a very odd description, and I'm seeking to understand what was meant by it.

The only thing I can think of is the idea that's common among the unchurched* of church being a place where we are told to behave, and if we don't then hell awaits. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the goals, actions and role of the Church. I can understand, however, where this idea comes from; we see it often in street preachers and tele-evangelists, we hear it when we think of Westboro Baptist Church* and, of course, we hear it from the unchurched. When we think of "Church History", we also conjure images of crusades, witch hunts and inquisitions. so it's not as if these ideas of "behave or suffer" are unfounded. It's not indicative of the Church as a whole however - merely indicative of vocal minority groups (of which most Christians would not condone), or indicative of horribly mistakes made by the organised Church.

I've been an active church member for around 5.5 years now, and never have I been threatened to go to hell. Never have I been manipulated into doing anything that I didn't want to, with the pain of excommunication or damnation. There has never been a "turn or burn" preached at my church, or any church I've attended. Indeed, I believe that kind of behavioural conditioning is completely unbiblical and anti-thetical to the Christian message.

I struggled with attempting to correct other people's actions for a long time. I would say to coworkers "watch your language," not because it was unprofessional, but because I don't think it's right. I would call people out on piracy and excessive drinking, because I somehow thought that "behaving better" was a goal congruent to Christ's.

I've realised since that my ideas there were completely bass-ackwards (I think I'm far more tolerable/tolerant now!). Christ did not create His Church in order to make people good citizens, or helpful people. His goal was far more radical than that - to bring people unto Himself. You see, it's rather unique as a religion - the idea that no matter how much we alter our behaviour, we cannot redeem ourselves. Everyone is in the same boat - whether they're Mother Theresa or Stalin.

The problem with thinking altered behaviour is a goal is the receding horizon.

Let's say an unchurched person wanders into a church that says don't be bad, or you'll be dining in hell. They start treating their kids with respect again instead of beating them. They stop holding up liquor stores, and get a job instead, because they know that stealing and beating will send them to hell. Is that enough? Are they good yet?

He returns to church, which says that even little bad things will send him to hell. This person stops gambling, stops lying to their coworkers and boss for gain because they know they'll go to hell if they continue to do these things. Is that enough? Are they good yet?

The church now says that it's not enough to simply be "not bad", but they have to be good, or else hell awaits. They start giving to charity, they volunteer at homeless shelters. Is that enough? Are they good?

I'd say a church doing the above has probably done a good job at getting someone to behave correctly, but they've missed the point. The person is not obedient due to a moral sense, but because of fear of reprisal. Outwardly, it may look ok, but inwardly, it's not.

That's why the Church's goal is not to condition behaviour. It doesn't change a person's heart, and it presents a legalistic view of morality. Jesus' main beef against the church leaders of the time (Pharisees and Sadducees) was this legalism. No, Jesus said instead to believe in Him, and the rest will happen. Change the heart, and the body will follow. The reverse isn't strictly true.

Which is precisely why you don't see Churches today saying "Stop doing X or you'll go to hell". It's futile. If X is gone, Y, Z, alpha, beta and epsilon will still remain, and the person won't truly be changed. Plus, the commandments "Love the Lord your God" and "Love your neighbour" (which are the pillars of all the other commands) cannot be done out of fear, or even effort. We are ALL in the boat of not being "good enough", and no behavioural conditioning will change that.

But in following Christ, asking forgiveness for our wrong doings (which is offered freely), and receiving His grace (again, offered freely), we can be free of the cycle of trying to be good enough. And with the love of Christ to guide and transform us, it will come naturally to "behave". THAT is the goal of the Church. Turn to Christ. Then, being good will follow.

The simplest response to this is "Well, you've just moved the line from "Be good or burn" to "Follow Christ or burn". How is that not oppressive? Well, the argument is then moved from morality to the truthfulness of Jesus as God, which is another story altogether.

I heard an atheist claim in a debate which was, in part, about the hope given in salvation. The claim was that atheists do not like the fact that the earth will be kaput in 5 billion years, but are under no illusions that it will remain forever, and it's not a negative thing to be grounded in reality.

The same can be said for a Christian. We don't like the idea that people don't take the a gift of eternal life, freely offered, and thus have to face up to God's other side - Justice and Holiness - and held to account for it all. But we're under no illusions that this is the not case.

I made claims here that some will have scoffed at. Accept that under the Christian world view, these views are all internally consistent (with itself) and externally consistent (with reality). There's no incongruency at all. At this point, the only beef you can have is with the truth of the claims of Jesus Christ. Saying "you will burn in hell if you don't follow Jesus" is not immoral if it is true. Maybe it's not sugar coated, tactful or politically correct - but it is the height of morality.

If anyone has any statements, questions or responses to this (or indeed, anything I've written), I would love to hear - either by comment, email, twitter, whatever. I'm putting my views and beliefs out there as a way for others to gain understanding of my point of view. I'm very interested in learning other's point of view too, so please, let me know!

I think I'll move away from these morality posts, and do a bit about evidence and rational reasons for believing. I believe following God is more rational than not, given the evidence (and lack of any real response to them - so often the response just comes back to morality).

Thanks for reading :)

1. I will use the term "unchurched" throughout this, as it's the most neutral word I can think of to describe someone who has never been an active member of a Christian congregation.
2. Wow, I just noticed the wiki article for that 'church' says it's a hate group. Not that I dispute that as such (I find their actions abhorrent), I would have thought that kind of description was against wiki's NPOV pillar. Maybe not though, reading the wiki entry for "hate group".

Old comments


Hi Steve,

I think you’ve gotten the correct gist of what I meant by “oppressive culture”. To clarify: I was referring to the church as an institution, rather than individual churches, or churches in general. I gather that individual churches have enough independence that they don’t have to preach the ‘party line’, so to speak, and you’re right that directly telling people “Stop doing X or you’ll go to hell” would be counter-productive.

Even without explicit threats however, you can still tell people how to think. If they don’t think that way, then they must be ‘sinning’. Sure, they could ask forgiveness, but they’re still going to be left with the guilt that they’ve somehow wronged Christ (never mind whoever else they may have affected). And so they try not to think that way anymore. I would argue that the stick of immediate guilt is much stronger than the stick of distant, and abstract, hell, which can be avoided by asking for forgiveness anyway.

There will also be an effect of peer pressure within an individual church which makes it difficult to speak out against authority. This is by no means unique to religion of course. Authority by its nature creates this kind of environment - more often than not, if you disagree with the authority, then you’ll be wrong, right? They wouldn’t be in charge if they were wrong, surely. The difference here between the church and say, the workplace, is that the church teaches morals, which you will use as the basis of your behaviour, while the workplace teaches how to properly fill out your TPS form, which has a much more shallow effect.

How open to disagreement is a church? If your priest makes a point with a passage from the bible, do you feel able to question him about a contradicting passage? If he teaches a certain morality that you don’t necessarily agree with, do you feel free to debate him? I’m not talking about you asking him a question, and him giving you an answer, but rather a proper rational debate.

Oppression does not have to be in overt form, and this is why I used the phrase “oppressive culture”. The teachings of a church can be purely positive, but still foster an oppressive culture, if the negative aspects are not openly discussed.

I’m not really trying to refute your assertions here, I’ll leave that sort of thing to your future evidence and rationality-based posts, where arguments on both sides can be more direct. I just thought I would attempt to give you a better idea of what I meant by “oppressive culture”. Obviously it would have been difficult to fit all of this into 140 characters :).

  • Simon

PS. I have actually been ‘churched’ somewhat while I was in school in England. We were taught that Christmas should always be spelled with a capital C, and never ever X-mas, because Christmas is about Christ. Of course no mention was made to its roots in paganism. Anyone who didn’t agree with singing the weekly christian hymns, or reenacting the nativity play, was politely asked to leave for the rest of the assembly/class. Everything was kept positive of course, but free-thinking was hardly encouraged. This is just my brief experience of course, and I don’t put too much weight into it. You can still count me as one of the unchurched.

Tue 13 April 2010, 18:20 AEST