A Few Words on Top-Down Theology

By | May 22, 2012

By now, you’ve probably heard about Pastor (and I’m using that title loosely) Charles Worley’s “Kill-All-The-Gays” rant. It took several days for me to actually watch the utterly vile video for myself because I couldn’t bring myself to press the “play” button. I didn’t see a clip of his hate speech until I stumbled upon this CNN article which records the minister saying:

“I want to read it out of the Bible, and then we’ll go from there.”

“Listen, all of the Sodomites, the lesbians, and all of the … what’s that word? Gays – I didn’t wanna say ‘queers’ – that say we don’t love you, I love you more than you love yourself,” Worley said, according to WBTV. “I’m praying for you to be saved.”

When I first read this article, the words “I want to read it out of the Bible, and we’ll go from there” jumped out at me like the boogeyman. While I have not personally experienced the kind of Bible-based oppression that many of my LGBT friends are enduring, I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of some pretty harsh Bible-thumpery.

For instance, I was once told that my chronic illness (which I’ve had from birth) could not be healed by God because I was involved in some kind of secret “sin”. According to that person, once I rid my life of that “sin,” God would oblige my request for healing. While I now understand that this is actually a ridiculous, spiritually abusive teaching, I was too far under the influence of that Bible interpretation to reason my way out at the time. I didn’t realize that it would not have made sense for God to “punish” a newborn baby with an illness throughout her entire life, all the while demanding that she discover the mysterious reason why. Instead of immediately freeing myself from the leaders who propagated that awful teaching, I embarked on on several severe periods of asceticism to atone for my unknown “transgression,” earn more of God’s approval, and–as I once hoped–score a supernatural “healing”.

There were other not-so-great experiences during my former life as a devotee of extreme Bible teachings. I was once told to “line up with God’s word,” which is a politer brand of Fundamentalese for “Shut up and do what we tell you to do”– and I complied until I couldn’t anymore. I walked away from that life with a sense of tremendous dismay. I was spiritually drained and emotionally exhausted.

I understand the disillusionment that comes from irresponsible “Bible instruction” at the hands of ministers, so when I see remnants of those negative behaviors (like the behaviors displayed by Charles Worley) I’m instantly turned off.

One of my biggest issues with such an interpretation is that it requires us to use scripture in a way that is so different from the way Jesus used scripture. For example, have you ever noticed that when those in power used their influence to entrap people with doctrine, Jesus used compassion to release them from it? Yes– when the powerful sentenced an adulterous woman to death by stoning, Jesus protected her. When those with religious power ostracized the “infirm,” (the lepers, the “unclean”) Jesus reached beyond the “Law” and touched them. When the religious leaders of Jesus’ time sought to esteem precepts over people–like refusing to allow hungry men to harvest grain on the Sabbath–Jesus broke the rules. He seemed to be saying that their “old way” of using scripture wasn’t working anymore, and that it was time to use it in a new way.

It’s obvious to me that the powerful religious elite preferred to read scripture from the Top-Down, meaning that they interpreted scripture in ways that would protect their societal and religious privilege. Jesus, however, employed a Bottom-Up method of scripture interpretation. He read scripture in ways that empowered those on the edges of society… the oppressed… the “unclean”… the forgotten. I’ve come to see this as the challenge of today’s theologians and ministers. I think there should be more of an effort to help people use scripture as a tool for empowering those who are being pushed to the Bottom. We need to start imitating The Master, even if it’s unpopular. Even if it’s inconvenient. Even when we’re afraid.

Christianity has a reputation among the non-religious for being a hatred-producing propaganda machine because we have yet to master the art of using scripture in the way that Jesus used it. I hope this changes in my lifetime.

You May Also Enjoy Reading:
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3. A Snapshot In Time: What More Christians Should Consider

8 thoughts on “A Few Words on Top-Down Theology

  1. dangerouschristian

    I hope so too, Crystal. Or else we may find Christianity devolving into a curiosity that will have no relevance in future society. As always, another great post; thanks for sharing. Peace.

  2. Vince

    I thought I would share this response from over at The God Article:

    I decided to ask a few thousand friends that I have on The God Article’s Facebook page to help me come up with a reasonable response – something to call attention to the fact that not all Christians are like Pastor Worley and something to possibly make a difference. There were plenty of suggestions, but I thought one really stood out. Michelle McBriarty suggested, “We should all make a donation in Pastor Worley’s name to their local LGBT group.” That’s just brilliant.

    Suggested groups are in both the post and several of the comments.

    I thought this was a great way to respond.

  3. Curt Naeve

    Another brilliant post Crystal! Your reasoning and christology are spot on and more more importantly your love shines through with brilliant clarity. You have again encouraged my faith in the coming generation of pastors.
    Don’t let seminary steal your gifts.

  4. Dave

    Very good post, as usual. I’m please to say that I haven’t heard about Charles Worley until now, and I don’t intend on learning anything more about him.

    I do agree that Jesus frequently saught to release people, but I think it’s a distortion to say that he did that all the time – or even most of the time. He almost certainly made a lot of people feel entrapped, and continues to do so today.

    What about the people he told to cut out their eyes or chop off their hands because their sins were so grave? Gee, talk about making people feel like scum. Any psychologist will tell you that that that is NOT a good way to encourage people to make healthier decisions, since it disempowers them by eroding their self-esteem with guilt and negative self-talk.

    Or the people who he refused to open up his message to, such as the ones he told the parable of the Sower to, deliberately obfuscating the message so that they wouldn’t get it. If I was one of them, I’d feel pretty pissed off that Jesus saw me as unworthy of his message, instead teasing me with it and mocking my inability to comprehend, while reserving the true message for a selected elite of his own choosing. Talk about getting a slammed door in your face.

    Or when the Caananite had to berate Jesus just to get him to treat her with a modicum of respect? After his first racist insult, she didn’t even bother insisting on racial equality – instead, she simply begged him to take pity on her as one would a dog who gets crumbs from a table.

    Or the rich young ruler, who Jesus said couldn’t be accepted by God unless he turned his lifestyle completely upside down. That might have been comforting for oppressed Palestinian peasants to hear. It’s less comforting for modern Westerners like us who are wealthier beyond the rich young ruler’s dreams, and have the Chinese underclass manufacturing all our clothes, computers and smartphones for us.

    Or what about the poor Pharisees, who history suggests weren’t anywhere near as bad as they are made out to be in the New Testament, and actually had some lovely teachings to offer. Yet the gospels have Jesus slandering them, calling them broods of vipers, children of Satan, and so on. This doesn’t leave much room for people feeling empowered to better themselves, it just slams judgement onto them and writes them off as unredeemable. This is a far cry from the tolerant, gracious behaviour one finds today in modern day progressive Christians such as you. It actually reminds me more of the Charles Worley approach.

    I think we still have a lot to learn from Jesus, but I also think that in some ways society has grown since his time in such a way that even some of his own teachings and methods seem archaic, unhelpful and just plain unfair by comparison. Yet people are very quick to transpose modern views back onto Jesus, and try and paint a man who threw around racist slurs and discipled only men as some sort of paragon of social equality.

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  6. Michelle McBriarty

    “…you ever noticed that when those in power used their influence to entrap people with doctrine, Jesus used compassion to release them from it?” You hit the nail on the head and that is why as followers of Christ we need to keep acting on kindness to make the world a better place!

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