There is a verse from the Psalms which used to haunt me as a child. It is about the terrible experience of being betrayed by someone close to you. The Psalmist is in a situation of conflict and he says that he could bear it if it was an enemy responsible for putting him through pain and insult. ‘But’ he goes on to say, ‘it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship…’ Ps. 55.13-14. The whole psalm is a gloomy one, full of indignation at the terrible behaviour of the Psalmist’s ‘enemies’. It is also a prayer that God will protect the Psalmist from these attacks and allow him to escape to a far away place.
The connection that I want to make between this psalm verse and something we might experience now is not to compare it with a falling out with a friend, however much this may happen. I wish rather to compare it with an experience known to many Christians who, for whatever reason, want to leave the Christian fellowship of which they have been faithful members. Certain conservative Christian groups will close ranks totally in this situation, shun the individual leaver and make them feel as though they had never existed. As long as the member remained in the ‘fold’, they were lavished with affection, attention and Christian love. But then a situation arises which might involve a sense of growing unease with the integrity of the leaders. The individual member realises that they have to question what they have been taught and make plans to withdraw from the community. The so-called friends, the former sharers of fellowship and love, are then nowhere to be seen. No recognition of the pain and sense of isolation is afforded to the leaver nor any kind of understanding. All that remains is an emptiness and cold rejection.
When I was researching my book, Ungodly Fear, I met a couple who described the raw pain of rejection when they left their church. They told me that people would cross over to the other side of the road when they saw them coming. It took quite a long time for this couple to accept that Christian fellowship was not in fact about earning love. There are Christians out there, I wanted to explain, who were prepared to love them without making conditions. Families, at any rate good ones, are bound together with bonds of affection that are unconditional. Love and fellowship are not things that are turned on and off according to our behaviour. While there are actions that can crack relationships, every Christian is, or should be, committed to the idea that the bonds of peace should be fought for. The idea that we can turn from love to hate in the flash of an eye because someone does not conform totally to the will of the leader or group, is appalling.
Why do some Christians behave in this way? From a psychological point of view I think the answer is not hard to find. The Christianity that they have embraced is the black/white variety. They have allowed themselves to believe that they have the unadulterated truth, the correct interpretation of the Bible and the perfect version of Church life and fellowship. Overseeing this ‘perfect’ environment is a leader who has their complete loyalty. In this universe there is no room for discussion or debate. The answers are all there in the Scriptures and the leader can always be trusted to provide the answer as to ‘what we think’. The black/white mentality does not allow for compromise or questioning and so everyone who has doubts has to be rejected forthwith. Doubts undermine the perfect oasis of truth that they have had created for themselves. Any doubts expressed by others are taken as a personal attack and have to be fought off. A single doubt about the perfection of Scripture also has to be fiercely driven away and the best way to drive away doubt is to utterly scorn and reject the individual. Thus the love that binds this kind of paranoid Church is one which is conditional. Unless you believe in the way we tell you and follow the dictates of our group, we will reject you and cast you out.
Christian betrayal, in simple terms, is the discovery that the fellowship and love that one had enjoyed up till that point had always been conditional. It was what we can call cultic love. Cultic love, wherever it is found, is the sort of love that will be instantly withdrawn the moment one questions or in any way rocks the boat in the group. This instant change of attitude leads to pain and a sense of total bewilderment. How can people who had shown real love and understanding one moment then turn around and push one away? Many people never recover their ability to enter Christian fellowship again. They have been too severely hurt.
Out in society there are numberless people who have been through this experience of Christian betrayal. We don’t know how many because they seldom come to the attention of church members. But at least let us be aware of them and when we meet them be able to show some understanding of their sense of having been let down. This blog has all such people very much in its sights. The material in the posts and in our discussions are designed to help such people. While few are reading it at this point, one hopes that the material will eventually be read by some of them and that they may come to know that Christian love is not conditional but unconditional as it pours out from God and from those who worship him.