This blog post extends my previous series on “god terms” (things to be defended at all costs) and “devil terms” (things to be fought at all costs)—a series which started here. In this piece I plan to extend this analysis by directly looking at subtle ways in which church too often becomes a “god term” to be defended at all costs, even by more spiritually healthy Christians, and how that can lead to the problems of what I’m about to call churchy exceptionalism. I’ll also be discussing some further nuances and suggested solutions to the problem, both here and in next week’s sequel article.
This is going to take a few minutes to unwrap–thanks in advance for hanging in there with me.
The Origin Story of “God Terms” Analysis
Kenneth Burke, who first developed the framework to understand god terms/devil terms from a rhetorical perspective, did his work in the early to mid-20th century. He was extremely concerned about fascism and the god terms and devil terms that emerged when the church became merged with structures that scapegoated entire populations. My series on this site on these concepts is in part based in his work, and today’s piece, which directly draws on churchy concepts, is no exception.
Burke was very concerned with the damage and exploitation that could be sustained when the church abused both power and language, and if you’ve been following this site you likely already know I deeply share his concerns about that.
My Background and Expertise
Okay, so as I’ve explained many times before, I’m a pastor’s kid from a moderate denomination just on the Evangelical side of the Evangelical/mainline divide. I’m also a scholar of stress, trauma, and conflict communication, with training in rhetorical analysis and other ways to look at language and society, including religio-political language, so all of that knowledge and experience is at play as I’m looking at this concept I’m naming as churchy exceptionalism.
My Background in the Church
So yeah, my life as a child was the church. I mean, yeah, I grew up with people who emphasized the human side of the church. And my family, at least, was pretty firm on the “we’re only human” side of things.
And yet, looking back through the lenses of the current religio-political landscape, I can very much see the ways in which church still became at least in part a god term to us and those around us, and those outside our walls became to be seen at the very least as less than or less to be listened to in many ways.
What I’m Building On Here
I started to write about this when I talked about what I called white Evangelical-centrism here. I also wrote here about the ways I’d seen idolatry of church worship crept in related to the pandemic. The current piece expands on those ideas as well as the work I’ve been doing responding to the type of work done by historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez in Jesus and John Wayne—I wrote about that here, here, and here.
My Primary Focus Here
In this piece I plan to specifically focus on how church as a god term—what I’ll be calling churchy exceptionalism —can particularly mess with our heads when exploitation, abuse, and so on is involved. And why that can mess things up so badly. And I’ll suggest some ways people in the church can deal with these issues. (Hopefully those outside of the church reading this can understand why the problem is so deeply human and yet important to address.)
I Didn’t Grow Up “Above” This Problem
So yeah, here’s the thing: sure, we emphasized the human side of church growing up. And yet my denomination growing up specifically promoted Christian education over and above secular education as well.
I mean, sure, we weren’t the denomination that was most active as seeing “secular knowledge” as a threat. After all, as our theologians saw it, if God was sovereign, then God could work through anything.
The Scriptures that We Overemphasized That Created the Problem
But still, it was important to take it on from a Christian perspective—we wanted, after all, to be “in the world but not of it.”
The same was the case with going to church. After all, “we must not give up meeting together.”
Looking back at all of this through the lenses of Burke and god terms and devil terms along with the work done on Jesus and John Wayne, I can see how all this use of Scripture—particularly those two verses—subtly convinced us of the idea of Christian exceptionalism, or as I’ll be calling it, churchy exceptionalism. In other words, we thought we knew better than others—were exceptional—because we were Christians, and specifically those that were strongly engaged with churches.
Turns Out Emphasis on Original Sin Doesn’t Protect You From Thinking You’re Better than Others
I mean, sure, we were really strong in our emphasis on ourselves as inherently flawed, and we more openly engaged with the outside world than many more fundamentalist denominations did, but we were still creating careful barriers between us and them.
Between what we did and what they did.
Between what we knew and what they knew.
How It Tied into Safety and Hierarchy
In retrospect, this made a space for that idea that we who went to church regularly, who read our Bibles regularly, who were perceived as having a close relationship with God, were automatically safer people than those who didn’t. In short, Christian exceptionalism—or, rather, as I will coin a term here, churchy exceptionalism.
So yeah, churchy exceptionalism simply means that on some level we believed that those who were most engaged with the church were closer to God (maybe more sacred or higher up on the spiritual hierarchy?) and more trustworthy than others.
I Mean, We Believed in Fallibility Too
I mean, don’t get me wrong. As I said, as a PK I also grew up being fully aware of the fallibility of the humans around me in the church. I was fully aware that the church was a human institution that could hurt people. And we emphasized a LOT of the fallibility of humans and our reliance on God in my upbringing.
And yet, under the surface there was this idea that we were still better and safer than non-Christians, and that those who were more fully engaged in church were better than those less engaged with church.
Ah, “The Bubble” Language
We actually joked about it a lot—this idea that we were living and growing up in a “bubble” of sorts. In the bubble, there was safety—out there, as the old maps used to say “there be monsters,” was the idea.
In short, we believed that sure, we were fallible and all that, but at the same time, that we were more okay somehow than those who didn’t “have God.” And somehow had more of the truth than those who were less interactively engaged with the church.
And that our bubble, while it might be somewhat laughable, was somehow a powerful protection against the traumatic stuff going on “out there” where “the monsters” might be.
That it was fine to drink information in from those outside places, as long as it was filtered through our perception of God’s view somehow (much in the same way that filtering water protected us from unhealthy elements). But our space and our views were both safer and closer to God somehow than those things outside.
I Mean, My Peops Did—and Still Are Doing—A Lot of Things Well
Now, in some ways, many in my denomination have done well in fighting the things that genuinely did filter into our churches that were unhealthy, and I applaud those movements. Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s work is a great example of that, actually.
But There’s Still a Lot of Room for Growth
And yet, looking back I can see how damaging this underlying perspective of churchy exceptionalism can be, even for those who come from more moderate denominations such as the one I grew up in, for those who sustain spiritual trauma or abuse. And it helps me understand why church leaders are too often being given a pass for perpetrating it.
Churchy Exceptionalism And “Not All Christians”
It also helps me understand why more progressive denominations might feel reluctant to fully care for the spiritually traumatized when they might be asked to shift their language to care for those in their midst.
And why they may feel very “not all Christians” just now when the damaging specters of fundamentalist Christian nationalism and white supremacy suck up a lot of the air space in the religious world.
How All of This Ties in to Stress Responses
See, as I’ve mentioned before, our stress responses are our physiological responses to felt threat or challenge. If you grew up being conditioned to see the church and its surrounding bubble as a safe space, with everything outside being seen as a threat, that conditioned your stress responses to expect to primarily find threat outside the church walls and safety within. That attitude leads to defensive behaviors when the church is critiqued.
This Doesn’t Always Apply the Same in All Groups
I mean, you might be able to take some critique, even in areas that made you uncomfortable—after all, we were all fallible, and you knew that the church and its people were not actually God. That was, after all, part of the theology!
But I can see how easy it would be, if you came from the church and skewed toward the politically conservative side of the coin, to accept the persecution narrative offered by white Evangelical leaders. To accept the terms of the culture wars.
And I can see why, if you came from the church and were trained in a theology of conflict avoidance, that you might find it hard to acknowledge that your lack of speaking up against the theological bullies—either inside or outside of your specific denomination—might have been part of the problem.
Way Too Easy to Slip Into, Whatever Kind of Church You’re In
After all, it’s super easy to slip into seeing the church (either more broadly or just yours specifically) as pure and of God. And everything outside of it as monsters or devils to be fought at all costs. Of the church—and we may define that differently depending on what we find it better to defend or want to separate ourselves from—as better and safer than the rest of the world.
From that position, it’s easy to start to think that the church is somehow purer than that which lies outside of it.
Why This Tendency Can Be Damaging
And that tendency can, let’s be clear, cause all sorts of problems. To make this deeply personal for a few moments, I didn’t even realize how much it had become a problem for me until I had to confront my own spiritual trauma and step away from church for a time.
I was deeply thankful, however, that I had been introduced, albeit through a filter, to borderland figures like Rachel Held Evans.
Making Space for the Sacred Outside the Church
By the time I needed to step away from regular church attendance to heal from my own spiritual trauma, RHE’s work in the book Searching for Sunday, which I had already read years before, helped me understand that I wasn’t “less than” for being wounded by abuse of spirituality and religion. She had hospitably created a space for the sacred that wasn’t tied to church attendance, and for that, I was and am truly thankful.
The truth is that I can see now, and truly repent, of the ways my churchy exceptionalism had unwittingly othered those who either chose not to go to church or could not.
Thankful for What My Church’s Theology Did That Was Helpful
I’m also actually really thankful for the part of the theology of my upbringing that claimed that sacredness could exist everywhere in the world, including in science and other academic disciplines. Having been exposed to that helped me feel like stepping away from the church to heal didn’t leave me fully stranded in the wastelands—but instead helped me find concepts in other disciplines that helped me grab hold to important spiritual concepts from my upbringing even while I was allergic to others.
Let’s Talk about Those “Exvangelicals” and “Nones”
At any rate, it’s not all about me. In recent years when Christian nationalism and other forms of church abuse have run rampant in the US and elsewhere, many people have stepped away from the church, either temporarily or permanently. These people have given themselves—or been given by others, a variety of labels, including “Exvangelicals,” “Unfundamentalists,” and “nones.” Some of the first two end up in some form of church, but not all, and the latter group does not.
Some Messaging That Can Continue to Harm
As one of those people who has needed to step away recently, AND as a PK AND as a scholar of stress, trauma, and conflict communication, I’m deeply concerned when seemingly well-meaning voices inside the more reasonable denominations suggest that these folks “shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” and “should give other churches a chance.”
These remarks show me that many parts of the church, including the progressive church, have a long way to go in their understanding of what’s at play with both churchy exceptionalism and spiritual trauma.
Why Defensiveness Around Spiritual Language Can Be a Problem
And to be honest, I see some of the same problems in arguments such as those made by Jonathan Merritt in his book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—And How We Can Revive Them. I reviewed this book awhile back, or rather responded to a reactionary conservative review of the book, but I myself have some mild critiques of the book’s ideas in terms of this churchy exceptionalism concept—and most of them have to do with taking the idea of spiritual trauma seriously.
See, Merritt argues against both what he sees as conservative and progressive views of spiritual language, arguing that instead of well, throwing spiritual language out with the bathwater, as it were, we should go back in history and recover the historical meanings of the spiritual language, thereby redeeming it.
Learning to Be More Trauma-Aware
The truth is that from a trauma-aware perspective, that this approach has merit for some, but will only work for some people at some times. See, if someone’s been deeply hurt in church, and has a strong trauma response to certain spiritual language along with other elements of church, it’s not quite as easy as just redefining things to help heal those wounds.
Some will be helped by this at some stages, but some will not. And that’s okay. These people are no less worthy or spiritual or deserving of care and concern because they can’t listen to some spiritual language regardless of how those in the church may seek to redefine it.
Why It’s Tempting to Dismiss the Voices of the Spiritually Traumatized
The thing is that sometimes spiritual trauma strikes unpredictably—and the church shouldn’t take that personally. After all, sometimes a big portion of trauma involves hypervigilant stress responses—in other words, sometimes traumatized people see too much threat and can’t handle things that would be fine at another stage of healing.
Unfortunately, it is too easy to defensively dismiss all critiques by the spiritually traumatized as hypervigilance, or only the property of some other group of Christians. (I talked about this kind of problem here and here.)
And it’s important not to do that. See, the bruises that come from a particular domestic violence situation can tell us not just about that individual case, but also about broader issues inherent in our unhealthy systems that enable such abuse.
And the bruises of spiritual trauma can often highlight real problems and threats from within and without that people within the church may not be able to see. Which is why sometimes the insights of the spiritually traumatized point to unhealthy patterns of theology that may be more widely embedded in Christian thought at the same time they speak to unhealthy fundamentalist theologies that live in very specific quarters.
Stay Tuned for More Solutions
Well, I’ll be addressing solutions to this problem and the broader question of how it becomes embedded in sacred language and theology more in the next installment of this series, so stay tuned for more next week. In the meantime, let’s continue identifying and speaking up against churchy exceptionalism wherever we find it, including inside ourselves.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak back against the toxic crap, including churchy exceptionalism, toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
Looking for more resources toward speaking up for what’s right and dealing with the conflict that results?
Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you. It actually helps you with conflict both online and off. To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. As soon as we feasibly can we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.