There is a psychological positive within any community that has a shared belief system. You believe the same things, and you benefit from the relationships that flow out of those shared beliefs. The dangerous dark side of these communities is when you compromise what you believe because the benefits of connecting with a relational community are more vital to you.
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Christianity is one of those communities where everyone believes the same things, and they enjoy the psychological benefits of their shared beliefs. But is it possible that there are “believers” in your community who accept the beliefs so they can be part of the group? When the benefits of the community are more important than the beliefs of the community, there will be compromises within the community.
Our Communal Dark Side
Being made in God’s image implies—among many things—a desire for a community. Our Trinitarian God is a community, and He made His image-bearers to where it was not good for them to be alone (Genesis 2:18). The gift of a community is essential to living well in God’s world. But after the fall of humanity, the desire for belonging became so significant and twisted that it did not matter what the shared beliefs were as long as we could be part of someone’s team.
For the Christian, what we believe—theology—is the most vital thing about our connection with God and each other. But for every “believer,” what we believe is not the main thing. It would be inaccurate to assume that everyone in the room on Sunday morning holds the truths of God’s Word in the highest esteem. Not so. Many professed “followers of Christ” choose these communities for the personal benefit of them more than the nonnegotiable shared beliefs of the local body.
The method with which you can test my thesis is when suffering or persecution comes to the community. If a believer believes what they believe as the supreme thing, they will endure through the hardship, pain, or persecution while tenaciously holding on to the Christian faith to the bitter end.
They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy-wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth (Hebrews 11:37-38)
The person who seeks “psychological belonging” as the primary thing will peel off when the going becomes rough. They joined the group for “social belonging reasons,” and the perks that came from being part of such a community. It is personal suffering that challenges your faith more than anything else. Persecution is the litmus test that lets you know what you believe.
In most first-world Christian communities, there is no cost for discipleship. We “become believers” for many reasons, e.g., friendship, reputation building, image enhancing, or desire-filling. Let me quickly state that enjoying the benefits of a community does not have to be a bad thing.
The issue in view here is that the benefits of belonging cannot be the primary reason for connecting. It’s about the accent mark; where do you place it: on the benefits of the community or the shared beliefs?
The day of belonging without adverse consequences is passing before our eyes. And if there is a dark side to your shared beliefs, when the disappointment comes, you will probably succumb to the temptation to leave because of the perishable benefits.
Six Communities, Same Temptation
This dark side between shared beliefs (primary motive) and communal belonging (psychological benefit) is not a unique problem within Christianity. People infiltrate every group to enjoy the assets of the group. All of them do not have a “till death do we part” commitment to the organization.
Marriage – Couples enjoy the benefits of their private community (marriage), as they should. But not every spouse is decidedly committed to the presumed shared beliefs of the union, which is holy respect for the one-flesh covenant that they made before God.
You’ll hear this as they talk about the relational benefits. They mention tertiary matters that always change, e.g., communication, beauty, sex, prosperity, and connection. If they don’t have a devout shared adherence for biblical marriage, they may end the union. Then they reset, as the look for the psychological benefits in another relationship—one with less friction.
Gangs – A street gang member enjoys the psychological benefits that come with identification to the group. They have their black jackets, emblems, and tattoos to show the world their communal belonging.
If you want to test the allegiance of a gang member, pull him out of the group and talk to him privately. Perhaps you’ve done this with a rebellious teen. He was fierce in his community while secretly hoping someone would love him enough to help him. His deepest desire was for someone to go beyond his masked hurts—to provide an escape from the hellishness of his life.
Many times, you will find that this “facade of toughness” is not as bold, courageous, angry, resistant, or unwilling to accept your redemptive help. After you separate him from the shared benefits of the group, his loyalty to the shared beliefs is not as strong.
Millennials – You have witnessed two generations of kids, who after turning eighteen, left the church because they found a new community. Some of them went to college. Others started their vocational careers. As youngsters, they played with the other church children, grew up with them, and ate worms in the youth group. Of course, there were mission trips, too.
But their commitment to the shared beliefs was not nearly as important to them as the fun found in the community. And when their friendships shifted to the next context, i.e., college, they left their well-worn community for the psychological benefit of the next adventure. This problem is why the most vital thing that any parent or youth leader can teach a young person is sound theology.
Long after the games, noise, and outings fade to black, it will be what they know about God that will tether them to the community. If you win them with games and activities, you will not keep them because there are always more fun things to do in other places after they grow up.
Political Groups – It is impossible to escape the political noise in our world today. The Twitterverse is a hot, angry cloud of political opinion where keyboard warriors are boldly proclaiming their beliefs while enjoying the benefit of camaraderie with other like-minded combatants.
There are scores of video interviews from those who have challenged the belief systems of these angry warriors. What you see in those interviews is how what they believe is inconsistent at best, and incoherent at worse. What they say they believe is nothing more than a safe passage into a community where acceptance and respect are the vital things. They will “check off” on the belief system, even though they can’t articulate the core tenets of membership.
The Lonely – When I was a teen, I chose a dark community because they let me be part of the group. I did not care what they believed as much as my craving for their acceptance. Their “shared beliefs” centered around such things as beer drinking, weed-smoking, and vandalizing. It sounded good to me.
It was only after landing in jail that there was a confrontation between the things we shared in common—breaking the law, and their approval of me—the psychological benefits. At that point, the consequences of our shared beliefs became insignificant. So I chose the path of an “unbeliever in our shared beliefs.” And they promptly lost interest in me.
Vocation – My adverse reaction to my criminal community sent me in search of another group, which I found in the workplace. The type of job did not matter as long as I found belonging inside the group. I learned the ropes, did as they did, and became like them.
Once I discerned all the do’s and don’ts, I found new belonging, which was the main thing, even though some of my supervisors taught me things that bothered my conscience. The main thing was belonging and corporate advancement.
Many Christian employees sacrifice their shared beliefs of the Christian community and replace them with the shared beliefs of their vocational community—at least between the hours of nine and five. This false dualism folds in on them at some point. You can’t press the truth of God out of your life without consequences (Romans 1:18).
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24).
Time to Prioritize
The American Christian is facing a new day where our shared beliefs are no longer the social, accepted norm. We are a shrinking minority that millions of fellow Americans are growing to hate. This time in history is when what we say we believe goes under the angry surveillance, scrutiny, and reaction to the God-hating mob. They are the ones who determine what is acceptable. The persecution of believers will break many from their communities because there is no more psychological benefit for being part of them.
Your reaction to persecution is the dangerous dark side that will challenge you to rethink what you believe. The earthly perks of Christianity are diminishing by the minute while the vital need to know that you “believe what you believe” has never been more life-threatening.
It would be natural to think that everyone who is part of any relationship is in it for the long haul. You could presume that there is nothing that can tear these folks away from their communities. This perspective is short-sighted. Surgical suffering and persecution will be the instrument in the hands of the Lord that will cause you to rethink why you believe what you believe. And it will determine whether or not you will continue with other like-minded believers.
Are you part of your community because it’s more about what the group believes, or is it about the shared benefits of the group? Things like fellowship, understanding, opportunity, and personal growth. These “psychological benefits” do not have to be wrong, but they can’t be the main things that you want.
There is an order to them, and you must know this. What you believe about God is the foundation upon which you stand. And if this is true for you, when the benefits of Christianity are not coming your way, you can continue to stand firm.
Call to Action
- Think about all your social communities. Who are the individuals and groups with whom you’re part of the group? E.g., marriage, family, dating, church, work, school, sport’s teams, hobbyists, military.
- What are the psychological benefits of those communities? E.g., friendship, acceptance, respect, reputation, image, personal fulfillment, understanding.
- How do the beliefs of those communities line up with God’s Word? Are you part of any organization that compromises the Bible, but you belong because of the benefits?
- What if the benefits began to wane? Is your adherence to God’s Word holding you firm? Is God’s Word more vital to you than any benefits that may accrue from being true to His Word? You’ll know the answer to this question when the persecution takes away the benefits, and all you have left are your doctrinal beliefs.