In the first installment of this article, I made the argument that the term deconstruction is used in a variety of ways today. We examined the first two of four ways the term is used among Christians: deconstruction as refinement/sanctification, and deconstruction as doubt and struggle. These uses of the term point to its potential legitimate contributions to spiritual growth in the life of a follower of Christ. It was alluded to, however, that these are not the only uses of the term among Christians. In the second part of this article, we turn to the darker side of deconstruction that raises concerns about the overall employment of the term.
Deconstruction as Spiritual Disillusionment and Despair
There is a fine yet subtle line between the second and third uses of this term. This third use of the term deconstruction shifts from a positive aspect of the term which appropriately asks real, felt questions and seeks honest answers, to negatively and critically appraising the Bible and Christian beliefs as archaic, inaccurate, and unconvincing. The difference I observe between those who use the term in the sense of doubt/struggle and those who use the term in the sense of disillusionment and despair is the heart attitude toward the things of God. Those in the second category have genuine doubts and real struggles, but they approach those questions from a default position of “I want to believe, Lord help my unbelief.” In this third category, the predisposition is toward faithlessness.
The causes of spiritual disillusionment and despair are numerous and varied. For some, a traumatic relational event (sickness, death, divorce, abandonment, etc.) creates a bitterness of heart toward God and/or his people. Perhaps this hurt is more emotive than rational. A wound inflicted from one member of a local church upon another member may lead to disillusionment with the body of Christ in general. Others might have been presented with what seems to them as overwhelming logical evidence against the veracity of the word of God, making them feel ashamed to continue to believe the perceived naivety of the Bible. When something like this happens, lived experience becomes the primary lens through which one now understands the things of God. Scripture begins to take a back seat to “real life.”
Key indicators of this type of deconstruction are a critical attitude toward Scripture, an intolerance of spiritual things, an abandonment of biblical standards, and an elevation of personal, lived experiences over biblical teaching. Perhaps you are reading this and asking, “Is this me?” Now is a good time to pause and reflect on the condition of your heart. The Lord welcomes questions, doubts, fears, but we must never forget that he knows our hearts and motivations. When the Sadducees asked Jesus about marriage and resurrection in Matthew 22:23-33, they asked not out of a genuine desire to understand, but out of a sinful, critical spirit that Jesus sharply rebuked. “Jesus replied, ‘You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God,’” (Matt 22:29, NIV). Operating with an assumption of knowledge and sitting in judgment upon God’s word are very dangerous positions to take. If your heart is hard toward God’s word, God’s people, or God himself, abandon the foolishness of your deconstructive efforts and repent of this sinful attitude.
How can we minister to persons we see deconstructing in this way? First, several things we should not do. We should not approve of the critical and unbelieving spirit behind this type of deconstruction. It operates from an assumption of unbelief. Nor should we promote or encourage spiritual disillusionment or despair as a normal part of spiritual growth. Though it might be common in our society, we should not deem it to be normal. Disillusionment is not a fruit of the Spirit. Instead, we should patiently respond to critical questions in love, knowing that the root issues involved may not actually be logical or rational at all. Responding harshly and defensively will only serve to further persuade individuals in this category that they are right in their negative appraisal of Christianity. Above all, we should pray for the working of God’s Spirit in the heart of these persons, to convict them of their wrongful attitudes and convictions and bring about true repentance.
Deconstruction as Deconversion and Apostasy
Just as there is a repentance that leads to salvation, there is also a deconstruction that leads to death. This fourth use of the term deconstruction is virtually synonymous with the process that leads to the outcome that the Bible calls apostasy. In contemporary Christian circles apostasy has been relabeled deconversion. If sanctification leads true followers of Christ on to glorification, in the minds of those who employ the term this way, deconstruction leads one-time followers of Christ on to apostasy. It is the process by which, in their “enlightened” thinking, they remove from their life the lies of God, Christ, Scripture, and Christianity, and are “born again” into the pagan religion of secularism. An individual who has deconstructed in this way might view their departure from Christianity as a defining moment in their life, similar in many ways to how a Christian would view their salvation experience. There have been a number of high-profile “deconversions” in recent years.
The darkest side of deconstruction occurs when someone guts their theological understanding through endless doubt and criticism without allowing the Spirit of God to shore up faith through the truth of Scripture. When this happens, there is no longer any foundation upon which to fall back. All that is left is biblical cynicism and resentment toward Christ and his followers. Believers who have walked alongside these types of individuals are left wondering whether or not these persons were ever truly believers in Christ (which is a perfectly and biblically appropriate response, cf. 1 John 2:19). Sadly, those who deconstruct unto deconversion are seldom satisfied to keep their stories to themselves. Rather, it seems they want to share the “good news” of their spiritual demise with any who will listen, and often the result is the falling away of others from the faith.
The Bible is not ambiguous when it comes to apostasy. These individuals are in danger of eternal destruction. There are a number of warning passages in the NT that highlight the need for perseverance in Christian living as a demonstration of the internal reality of saving faith (cf. Col 1:21–23; 1 Thess 5:23–24; 1 John 2:19; 3:9–10). Anyone who does not exhibit the fruits of the Spirit yields no evidence of the Spirit’s presence in their life, and if the Spirit of God is not present in one’s life, they do not belong to Christ, nor do they possess salvation (Rom 8:9). If you or someone you know has deconstructed to the point of deconversion from Christianity, it should be the question on everyone’s mind as to whether that person ever actually had been saved from their sins.
How can we help those who have deconstructed in this way? First, while continuing to love these persons, we should be realistic about the possibility (probability?) of their unsaved condition and seek to interact with them as such. If a close friend deconverts, the amount of time spent with that individual must necessarily shrink and conversations should take a more evangelistic shape than the fellowship that may have been shared in the past. As hard as this might be, it is meant to call the unbeliever to faith in Christ. It is ultimately unloving for a follower of Christ to continue to have a close relationship with an apostate because they are either openly or passively approving of their unbelief. Second, we must not glamorize the experiences of those who have deconstructed in this sense. Why would we want to highlight their journeys toward spiritual destruction? This is why I typically lean away from even using the terminology of deconstruction, because of the way it romanticizes apostasy. Why would I want to applaud and support what is anti- and opposite the mission of Christ in this world?
Final Observations and Admonitions
In these two articles, I have sought to categorize contemporary usages of the term deconstruction into four broad categories. In doing so, I’m sure there have been generalizations and oversimplifications in some areas. The term is used so diversely today that categorization itself is nearly an impossible task. Nevertheless, I do think these four divisions may be helpful for followers of Christ in thinking through the issues involved in deconstruction today. I have said the term is a trendy one, perhaps faddish. It may die out in a number of years. But the concepts will remain, as they have throughout the eras of church history. Asking questions to solidify faith is a highly beneficial task. Wrestling with doubts and anxieties is part of the Christian life and growth. Approaching the Bible and Christian faith from a presupposition of critique or even disbelief is highly problematic and betrays the contents of one’s heart. Ultimately walking away from the truth of God’s word affirms that an individual never truly believed at all. Apostasy by any other name is still apostasy.
Christians, be careful how you use this term, if you chose to use it at all. Know the different ways it is being used, why, and by whom. Be careful with whom you chose to identify. Similarly, be slow to judge in this conversation. Since the term is used in so many ways, seek more information in attempt to understand what someone means when they say they’ve been deconstructing their faith. You can listen without condoning their language. Respond with patience and love. How unfortunate would it be to respond to the true believer asking legitimate questions with the same content and tone as might be addressed to an apostate! May we “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19), and may the Lord give us great wisdom as we engage with these four deconstructions in our world today.
Click here to view both articles in this series.
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.