It was 2005. Rob Bell had just published Velvet Elvis, the Emergent Church was still emerging, and I was freshly out of college with a little bit of biblical training and a large amount of ambition and hope for the church. Like many young adults considering the source of their church traditions for the first time, I started asking a lot of questions. Why do we practice church this way? Why do we believe this about the Bible? Why, why, why? My questions came not from a desire to disprove the faith I had received, but to genuinely understand the reasons for my beliefs and practices. Sometimes I was satisfied with the answers I received. Other times questions led to other questions, which led to even more questions.
During this time, I had good resources to lean on in my family, local church, and community of faith. Some beliefs I held were strengthened and reinforced. Others were challenged and refined so as to remove the sharp edges off of what I would now consider to be unruly, imprecise doctrinal awareness. The Lord really hammered me hard while I was in my twenties and, looking back, I am grateful for the lessons learned during that time. I continue to reevaluate the beliefs I hold in light of God’s ultimate revelation in the Scriptures. Today, some in the church are employing a modern term to describe the process of development that the Spirit of God led me through: deconstruction. But not everyone uses this term in the same way; deconstruction has assumed a broad range of meanings.
I want to insert a quick disclaimer here. In this article, I am not discussing the application of the term deconstruction to institutions and systems, although some in our culture do. That is a broader conversation than I desire to engage with here. I am interested in the way the term is employed by individuals within our churches and within the community of faith. Neither do I want to cast a blanket judgment upon the term for the very reason that it is used in such diverse and distinctive ways. This article is not meant to be comprehensive in scope but more pensive and reflective based on observations of the use of the term deconstruction in our churches today. In what follows, I’d like to highlight four different ways I see this term being utilized and briefly comment on each.
Deconstruction as Refinement and Sanctification
This is the version of deconstruction I would say aligns with experiences that I went through in my early twenties. The core components here would be coming into one’s own faith, owning it as their own, and seeking to understand reasons for beliefs and practices. Sometimes, certain elements of our beliefs and practices might be unbiblical, unhealthy, or even toxic and therefore detrimental to our spiritual growth. This version of deconstruction is like putting one’s faith under a microscope and inspecting it, analyzing it, perhaps dissecting it, disassembling the pieces, and then reconstructing it to see how it all fits together.
If you find this true of your own experience, good! I believe part of the Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives is that we should constantly be examining ourselves, our beliefs, and our practices in light of God’s perfect revelation through his holy word. None of us have arrived at perfection, nor will we on this side of glory. Ask your questions and seek your answers. Let the Spirit of God do his work of refining your mind and heart. Yet you should know that although the culturally trendy term deconstruction might be appealing to apply to your experience, the biblical terms are transformation (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18) and sanctification (Rom 6:19, 22; 1 Thess 4:3). If you should choose to use the term deconstruction, be aware that others use it in very different circumstances and sometimes far less God-honoring ways.
Deconstruction as Doubt and Struggle
Another way the term deconstruction is used today can be seen in the sincere struggles of those who are encountering doubts about their faith. This form of deconstruction can result from experiences of pain, suffering, anxiety, sorrow, and/or loss in one’s life. Our thoughts about God, his works, and his ways are challenged by real-life experiences, sometimes incredibly difficult or traumatic experiences, and the result is a reexamination of faith.
Those using the term from this vantage point might ask difficult questions about the character of God (i.e., how can God be loving/just and allow me to be suffering in this way?). There might be sincere questions about the veracity of God’s word, its supernatural character, and its inerrant content. Those using the term in this way might not be entertaining thoughts of abandoning their faith, but they are very much interested to learn how their faith can be reconciled with their life situations.
When an individual expresses doubts or difficulties in their Christian life and thought, it’s important to respond carefully. Giving simplistic answers in haste without nuance and love is not a wise approach to handling doubts. In our responses, we should be humble and honest. Our faith is built on the character of God and his perfect word, and so we shouldn’t feel threatened by questions of those genuinely seeking truth, but neither do we need to put on a facade of knowing all the answers.
Let’s be honest, not everything recorded in the Bible is always crystal clear at first (and sometimes even second) glance. But the veracity of the Scriptures is not ultimately dependent on my ability to understand each and every part of it perfectly. There is a good opportunity here for those who have lived as followers of Christ for a while and have thought carefully about the word of God themselves to come alongside those struggling through the difficulties of life and be quick to offer their friendship, comfort, love, and support.
If you find yourself defining deconstruction in this way, don’t isolate yourself. Express your pain, sorrow, fear, anxieties, and doubts both to the Lord and to others in your church, community, and home. Trying to reconcile the trials and tribulations of life with the word of God can be an immense task, but it becomes a nearly impossible one when attempted alone.
God is not threatened by your doubts, your tears, your pain. The Lord is our good shepherd who wants to walk closely beside us through the difficulties of life so that on the other side of the valley we might know him more intimately than before. Furthermore, you can have doubts as a Christian without becoming complacent with doubt. The goal of the Christian life is not to always be doubting, but rather to live in confident trust. Our doubts should give way to the truth we find in Jesus as revealed to us in his word. Jesus wants our default condition to be one of faith, not of doubt. We must learn to pray with the father of the epileptic son, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
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Jonathan J. Routley (JJ) serves as Professor of Bible and Theology at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa. JJ also serves on the Board of Directors for the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR). He holds a PhD in Theological Studies from Columbia International University, South Carolina. JJ and his family reside in Dubuque, Iowa.