Spiritual Malpractice

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, March 26, 2012

Spiritual Malpractice

Billed as “the largest secular event in world history,” this past weekend a “Reason Rally” took place on the Washington Mall to galvanize the nation’s atheists.

What makes someone an atheist?

I know, the “Reason Rally” would say “reason.”

I’m not so sure.

One of the more tucked away stories related to the rally was that of Nate Phelps, the estranged son of Westboro Baptist Church Pastor Fred Phelps.  Yes, that Westboro Baptist Church; the one that has become infamous for picketing military funerals in order to hurl such epithets as “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates fags.”

Nate, now a professing atheist, spoke at this weekend’s event.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Phelps discussed his childhood, the events surrounding his departure from the church, and his views on religion.

After reading the interview, I could only think of two words:

Spiritual malpractice.

This is not a descriptive term often used, but it should be. The world is full of the walking wounded - people who have been terribly abused by those in spiritual leadership who have misused power, become sexual predators, fallen into greed, or spewed legalism - who have not only fled the church, but who struggle with their faith.

Less talked about is spiritual malpractice in the home which, in the context of a deeply secular culture, creates a breeding ground for skepticism and disillusionment.

Consider Nate Phelps.

It’s a delicate matter to judge any family’s internal dynamics.  Even those within it can disagree as to its evaluation.  Yet this has been a family – and church – that has paraded itself out for public consumption, and the children have spoken with an increasingly unified voice.  Fred Phelps has 13 children.  Already four of those children have left the church and, apparently, the Christian faith. 

Taking the interview with Nate at face value, it's easy to see why they've gone astray - and to learn some valuable lessons about how not to raise children if you want them to embrace faith in their lives.

1.         No questions allowed.

Nate: “It was not an option to openly discuss any doubts which you might have. It wasn’t safe, physically or otherwise, to even consider such a thing.

“So I learned early on to keep my thoughts to myself. And, you know, plus there was a component, you know, we heard regularly that we were just dumb kids and didn’t have any idea what we were talking about.”

One of the most important practices for spiritual health and wholeness is the encouragement of spiritual questions; questions about the faith, the Bible, theology, philosophy, logic, as well as social and ethical and issues. 

Questions like, “What does the Bible mean when it says that?  Why is this the church’s position on that social issue?  Where does it say in that in the Bible?  Why would God allow that?  How can Christians hold to that when the world is the way it is?

Children need an environment where there are no wrong questions, bad questions, or illegal questions.  If Christianity is true, it will stand up under any amount of intellectual scrutiny.  If questions are disallowed, then there can only be one conclusion: there must not be answers.  If you don’t know the answer, simply say, “That’s a great question.  I don’t know the answer, but I’ll find one!”

2.         Behavior before acceptance.

Nate: “I mean, the general attitude amongst the Christian community is, as it has been for centuries now, that if you don’t believe in god, that you are the enemy and there’s something morally degenerate about you.

“And you know, that attitude’s been around for a long time. It’s not going to go away. But I think if we’re ever going to change it, just like some of the other misperceptions throughout our history, we have to be honest about it and try to have dialogue with people.”

One of the fundamental differences in approach between the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and Jesus Himself, was that the religious leaders demanded anyone wanting to come to God to clean up their act on the front end.  Jesus, on the other hand, encouraged them to come to God as they were, and then allow God to change them from the inside out.

Jesus would eat with them and be their friend, go to their parties and weddings, accept them relationally and emotionally, long before they made a decision about His life-changing message.

One of the great needs of many today is to “belong” before they “believe.”  When people go through periods of doubt or disillusion, and almost all do, they must not be demonized.  When conformity comes before acceptance, a toxic atmosphere develops that breeds condemnation over grace.

Acceptance, love and grace provide the context for faith development, not exclusion, rejection and judgment.

3.         Narrow, rigid theology.

Nate: “The actual theology is called Calvinism. And at the centerpiece of Calvinism is this idea of absolute predestination, that God is the one that picks the saved, as opposed to us making that decision for ourselves. And it was, you know, the environment was such that whatever our father defined as the doctrines of the Bible was what we were required to believe. So there really wasn’t any choice in the matter.”

Let’s not get into Calvinism vs. Arminianism.  That’s an honest, in-house theological conversation.  What haunted this young man was a theological environment so defined by a father’s persuasions that there was no room for him, or anyone else, to differ.  And as anyone who has studied theology knows, once you get beyond the “mere Christianity” C.S. Lewis so wisely espoused, orthodox Christians have differed on tertiary matters for two millennia.

Any environment that majors on the minors quickly falls into a lifeless dogmatism that can reduce spirituality to an empty embrace of theological constructs as opposed to a life in Christ.  Faith becomes a matter of intellectual assent, a system of thought that is more head than heart, more religion than relationship.

4.         Authoritarian Control.

Nate: “As far as the relationship with my father, the best way I could describe it was I was afraid of him from very early on. That never really changed, growing up. But it never got to the point where it was a sense of having a, you know, father like you might imagine that was an educator, a helper, you know, that kind of father figure. So he was always the disciplinarian and a threat in my mind.”

A good father is both firm and tender; a person who bears authority and compassion.  A father who breeds nothing but fear, brings nothing but judgment, and drives through intimidation rather than leading through vision, is a poor father.

And an abusive one.

Jesus went out of His way to tell His followers not to “lord” it over anyone.  Fathers are told in Ephesians not to “exasperate” their children through overbearing leadership.

All to say, there is a difference between a director and a dictator. 

In the case of Nate Phelps, the spiritual malpractice resulted in his rejection of the Christian faith.

“I left on the night of my 18th birthday, literally at the stroke of midnight.

“I bought an old car, used car from one of the people that worked at the high school, and I packed all my stuff up without anybody knowing about it. And on that night, when everybody was asleep, I went out and got the car and put it in the driveway and loaded the trunk with my boxes and then went back in the house and waited at the bottom of the stairs, watched the clock go up to midnight, and I left.”

This weekend the “Reason Rally” can pat itself on the back all it wants about the intellectual superiority of atheism. 

I, for one, will use the time to mourn the spiritual malpractice that led so many of them to attend.

James Emery White



Notorious pastor's atheist son speaks out at Reason Rally, Kim Geiger, Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2012. Read online.

On the rally itself, see “Richard Dawkins to atheist rally: 'Show contempt' for faith,” USA Today. Read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Spiritual Malpractice