Until recently, however, I did not take this question seriously. After all, I figured, the people who accuse Christians of being mean are typically antagonistic towards Christianity to begin with. Christians never claim to be perfect, and if someone is set on finding flaws, they will not be disappointed. Furthermore, secular society often unfairly interprets our ethical convictions as bigotry. For example, we are said to hate women because we oppose abortion or to hate homosexuals because we oppose same-sex marriage. Finally, not everyone who claims to be a Christian really is one.
I realize now that this response is naïve; Google’s question cannot be so easily dismissed. I came to this conclusion after an experience which is too personal and too painful to relate here. In short, some Christians deeply hurt me. I tried again and again to build bridges with these brothers, but they were determined to see me as an enemy.
The ordeal left me feeling intensely disillusioned with Christianity. I had grown up in the faith, attended a Christian college, gone to seminary, led various Sunday School classes, and taught for years at an evangelical university. At the time, I was entering a Ph.D. program in New Testament. Nevertheless, as I sat in church listening to the songs I had heard a thousand times before, I could not escape the feeling that it was all a tired old sham.
In the end, I was forced to face Google’s question. Why are Christians so mean? Moreover, how can the gospel be true if it fails to produce the transformation it promises?
The Causes of Christian Meanness
I worked for several years in the aerospace industry, where I met a lot of “big men” – men who had climbed the corporate ladder, become experts in their field, and were now the kings of their own little realms. I never, however, encountered anything like the behavior I witnessed in the church. Religion provides something that Harvard degrees, fancy cars, and big yachts cannot provide: a clear conscience. People with strong religious beliefs are often convinced they are on God’s side, and this conviction can short-circuit the normal processes of introspection and self-evaluation.
Ironically, this problem is exacerbated by the tendency which Christians have to emphasize their own depravity. I have often been in services where the pastor will ask, “How many of you have already sinned today?” The entire congregation will dutifully raise their hands, even if they just dragged themselves out of bed ten minutes ago. You will never find a people more adamantly convinced of their own perpetual failure than evangelical Christians, and yet sometimes the truths we repeat the most frequently are the ones to which we are the most immune. The louder we proclaim our own depravity, the harder it becomes to acknowledge our own arrogance.
Another factor in play, I believe, is something I call the prophet syndrome. Many Christians seem to view themselves as members of an embattled remnant, much like Elijah or Jeremiah in the midst of faithless Israel. This phenomenon can be observed across the theological spectrum; both fundamentalists and liberals often speak as if the church is largely off track, and they represent the last defenders of the authentic gospel. In such a climate, relatively minor theological differences can become blood-soaked battlefields, and people who are merely mean can convince themselves that they are brave crusaders for truth.
The Implications of Christian Meanness
So does the behavior described above disprove the gospel? No. The existence of mean Christians is emotionally unsettling, but it does not constitute an intellectually defensible objection to the gospel for the simple reason that the gospel is conditional. Christ offers full salvation – not merely forgiveness, but also transformation. Nevertheless, both the forgiveness and the transformation are conditional. Those who do not believe in Jesus will not receive forgiveness, and those who resist the work of the Spirit will not be transformed. Thus the existence of a believer who resists transformation does not disprove the gospel any more than the existence of an unbeliever who refuses forgiveness. For every Christian who hurt me, I knew many more who embodied the love of Christ, demonstrating in themselves the transforming power of the gospel.
Furthermore, as tempting as it is to demonize those who have hurt us, we have to remember that the transformation promised by the gospel is a process, not a discrete event. Recall that even Peter, for a season, aligned himself with the very people Paul so vigorously opposed. We should never cover up or ignore the sin we see in other Christians; nevertheless, the love we are called to involves an element of gullibility: love “believes all things” and “hopes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). When a fellow believer sins against us, we should be quick to assume that we have seen him at his worst, and that the Spirit is actively at work in his life, bringing more and more aspects of his character into conformity to Christ.
Most importantly, we must remember that we are subject to the same dangers which have ensnared our brothers and sisters. Therefore, when we see sin on display in other Christians, we should not become self-righteous; we should fear. Sin is deceptive. It is so easy to identify in others, and so hard to detect in ourselves.