When True Christians Beat Up on True Christians

A review of Tim Sledge’s Goodbye Jesus
How was it possible? How did I fall from grace so totally, i.e., go from being a Methodist pastor—with a PhD in Biblical studies no less—to denying the reality of God? Well, that’s no mystery according to some devout folks. One Christian blasted my story of how it happened: “‪If he can write a book this full of lying opinions, he could never have been a Christian to begin with! Answer to God if your book leads even one soul astray!”

‬‬‬‬ We can assume that this irate believer hadn’t actually read the details of my departure from the faith, but, had she done so, she would have said, “Aha, I knew it!” From the get-go, as a youth, my approach to Christianity was bookish, and I never had anything like an alter-call moment, ‘giving my life to Jesus.’ Eventually, when I saw through the Christian version of the cosmos, I was able to walk away from it—without too much anguish. I had never ‘belonged to Jesus.’ So by that measure, I admit to the snobbish True Christians, “No, I wasn’t a ‘Christian to begin with.’”

But how many are? By the standards of the intense evangelical folks (“How is your walk with the Lord going today?”), most of the other people in the world who call themselves Christians don’t make the grade. Catholics are seriously off the mark, for example, as are those who consider themselves liberal or moderate followers of the faith. They’re just fakes. Any compromise of the Bible’s infallible status just won’t do.

So how do True Christians explain it when a bona fide True Christian walks away from the faith? That is, someone who really did ‘belong to Jesus’? True Christians, usually at an early age, have prayed, “Dear Jesus, I am a sinner. Please come into my heart right now. Forgive me of all my sins, and take control of my life forever.” To abandon Jesus would imply that the Lord had failed; had somehow, inexplicably, lost his hold on the person. As another Christian said of me recently, “Must never have been saved, you can’t evict the Holy Spirit.” How could that possibly happen?

It turns out that True Christians themselves can be at fault in ‘causing another to stumble’—actually in prompting someone in their ranks to finally see through it all and walk away. It would be difficult to imagine a truer Christian than Southern Baptist preacher, Tim Sledge, who describes his painful path way from belief in his 2018 book, Goodbye Jesus: An Evangelical Preacher’s Journey Beyond Faith. He cites that one-sentence prayer above, ending in ‘take control of my life forever’ as part of his journey into faith; he knew that God sent “Jesus and the Holy Spirit to live inside me.” And he explains how True Christians sabotaged his career, ministry, and faith.

We’ll come to that, but there is much more to his story. On Twitter recently Sledge cautioned critics of religion against generalizing about the clergy, especially demonizing them all as purveyors of mystery and myth—and worse; which is all too easy in our era of sleaze televangelists and predator priests. Sledge’s book allows his readers to appreciate how pastors do indeed help the people under their care. It is absolutely true that he was deeply into born-again Christian belief, but he saw that many of those in his congregations were hurting—and theology alone was not a cure.

Sledge ended up pioneering support group ministries, something unheard of in the Southern Baptist world. He authored a couple of books that were widely read and used by other denominations. So, yes, he was driven by his commitment to God and Jesus, but that doesn’t distract from his accomplishments. We can admire the expansion of this ministry addressing the profound pain and dysfunction that afflict even the folks who feel that they have been born again.

His major, and final, pastorate was with the Kingsland Baptist Church in the Houston area:

“The people of Kingsland Baptist Church sensed that something was different in me, and that difference was drawing new congregants as our reputation began to shift and grow. We were becoming a refuge to people who were in pain and a welcoming place where they could find help. As believers, we had been taught to act as if Jesus had ‘fixed us’ when privately, many of us knew that we still felt broken.

“I had given believers permission to stop pretending by taking off my mask, confessing my struggle with panic attacks, and talking about some of my emotional wounds from childhood. My new message was that we each need to embrace the pain of the past so we can let it go. We each need to find selected safe people with whom we can talk about our emotional wounds. We each need help in understanding how past traumatic events have affected us, and we each need to learn new patterns of thought and action.”

The more Sledge worked with people, the more he understood the complexities of pain and dysfunction:

“The people who were touched by what I shared were typically people with decades of prayer, Bible study, and confession of sins under their belts. But they were still suffering, still acting out, still seeking something to ease their pain and improve their lives. They had tried the ‘God alone will fix it’ approach, and it had not worked.” Sledge was compassion-driven to do what he could to help people achieve wholeness.

But how had be been so caught up in the drill of ‘prayer, Bible study, and confession of sins’ for decades? As was my own case, growing up in rural northern Indiana, that was simply the drill. It was the overwhelming cultural context in which I came to awareness of the world. I often speak of ‘faith brain damage,’ not meaning, of course, that physical damage is done. When beliefs entail huge emotional investment—which inhibits tampering with that investment—the damage is nonetheless real. And when the scare-factor is added, that is, the frightening promise that eternal punishment is the divine reward for rejecting Jesus, the faith can be well nigh unshakeable.

Sledge states it well:

• “Once established, faith plants deep roots. A broken belief system is hard to leave, especially when learned during formative childhood years.”

Eventually he would confess:

• “I felt angry at the religious system that pulled me in when I was a child and robbed me of a more rational process of selecting my vocation. I felt angry at myself for leading others down the same path. I felt angry at the seductive shallowness of what I believed—simple answers that faith taught me to never question, answers that didn’t address life’s complexity.”

The seductive shallowness.

You can’t come away from reading this book and fail to see that Sledge is a smart guy, so what gives? Faith brain damage means that defenses are securely in place:

“I approached any troubling issue concerning the Bible or faith with a simple goal: How to prove it was not a reason to stop believing. Despite ample capacity for critical thinking, when it came to faith, my reasoning was constrained by a very short leash.”

But there was erosion—or potential for it—early on in Sledge’s religious journey. He makes repeated references in the book to “exceptions to the rule of faith” that he noted along the way: things that ought not be if believers have welcomed Jesus into their hearts.

• For example, if Jesus is in your heart, how could there be room for lust? Sledge reports that, at seminary, he discovered that an attractive female student was the topic of graffiti in the men’s room, just by the chapel: “…I was stunned. Along with her full name was a crude statement about the ‘luscious’ nature of her genitalia. Who would write such a thing here? How could such a vile message end up on the wall of a seminary bathroom?”

• And who needs meds when you have Jesus? “One afternoon, standing in a hallway waiting on a meeting, I couldn’t help overhearing two professors I admired, deep in conversation. They were chatting about tranquilizers, comparing notes on their experiences with anxiety-reducing medications. I was shocked. These were towering figures who consistently—in their teaching and sermons—focused on the power of God, highlighting the significance of the Holy Spirit and emphasizing the incredible power of prayer… the students who followed their teachings would undoubtedly see taking such meds as a sign of spiritual weakness. The incongruity between their public teaching and their private anxiety prescriptions was striking, and overhearing their hallway talk was a hard pill for me to swallow.”

The exceptions to the rule of faith accumulated steadily as his experience in the church moved forward. All these eventually rushed back to his mind—he had always made the pledge to think about them later—when he confronted a few of the biggest violations of ‘Jesus is in our hearts.’

By almost any measure Sledge had been successful as the pastor of the Kingsland Church; there had been phenomenal growth, he received high grades on his annual reviews, and there were satisfying salary increases. He notes, however, that there were actually two congregations: the ‘forever’ members who wanted the focus on Bible, prayer, and confession of sins, but also the new members, the strangers, who had been attracted by the support group focus.

Sledge was sabotaged by a conspiracy of deacons who proved to be masters of Machiavellian maneuvering—and was forced out—but, of course, they were convinced that they were being guided by Jesus. “…as my demise at Kingsland was unfolding,” Sledge was told: “We have bathed this in prayer.” Translation: “Don’t challenge this decision because we’ve been speaking to God about it, and we know it is God’s will.”

This gave him pause: “How can individuals who are supposedly connected to the same God—changed by him, talking and listening to him, and using the same book he has provided for guidance—be so at odds with each other so often?”

He had also witnessed the intrigue and blatant dishonesty of a nearby mega-church that wanted to absorb the Kingsland church. The political ruthlessness—and his own exhaustion—left him with no desire to find another pastorate. He was on the exit path, although he tried for a long time to find a church home, without success; his faith eventually unraveled.

• “Once I stopped going to church, an odd thing began to happen. Although there were moments of sadness about the loss of fellowship, there were more moments of lightness. I felt as if my mind had been unshackled; a 10-foot-tall circular wall around my thinking was beginning to crumble.

“And as it did, I saw it for what it was—a kind of prison, a barrier that was keeping light out. As I let go of some of the restrictions that had been imposed on me—as I permitted myself to think honestly about what I believed—my path became infinitely easier.”

• “Although I wanted to keep believing, as much as faith had been my bedrock—the steady ground on which I had built my life—I had now traveled to its unexpected edge. I found myself dangling from a precarious cliff as my grip began to loosen, and eventually, I fell—or perhaps it would be better to say—started to fly.”

• “…my collection of exceptions to the rule of faith refused to be ignored. It was too late to claim a need for more time, more study, more commitment, or more faith. Not only had I watched Christianity from a front row seat for decades, but I had participated in the spectacle. And now, I was arriving at the decision that it just doesn’t work as advertised.”

• “Why did I stay so long in a belief system that is so obviously not true? How could I keep my eyes closed for decades to such evident fatal flaws in my faith? I’m not stupid, but that’s how I felt once I finally let myself think without restrictions.”

In the final chapters of the book, Sledge offers a few helpful tutorials on the problems presented by the gospels, Jesus, and the apostle Paul. It doesn’t take a seminary degree to figure these out; a commitment to reading the texts carefully, meticulously, critically is all that is required. Edging away from the faith—“Haven’t we been conned?”—is not an uncommon response.

Hint to laypeople: your pastors and priests might not still believe all the crap they learned in seminary. There are now almost a thousand members of The Clergy Project, the online support group for clergy who have abandoned faith. They all have their stories to tell, and we can only hope they do so with the same eloquence that Tim Sledge has brought to the task.

Goodbye Jesus is a welcome addition to this expanding shelf of books by the faith-experts who decided to walk away. There are so many contradictions, improbabilities, violations of common sense. There are too many yawning gaps, too much that is missing, for Christianity to make sense.

Sledge dropped the leash constraining rational thought, and developed a knack for skewering silly evangelical formulas:

‘Think of the irony of a person who used to hang out with Jesus when they were both in their twenties, but died an early death and went to hell because he had never heard the gospel since Jesus hadn’t yet started his ministry: ‘Yes, I knew Jesus quite well, but he never mentioned anything about being born again.’”

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was recently reissued by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© here.