Overview:

A Bible study about avoiding deception ends up miring Southern Baptists even more deeply in deception. Funny how that works.

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Back when I was Pentecostal, I found myself debating a pair of Southern Baptist guys. At the time, I believed in speaking in tongues, and I rejected the Trinity. They were deeply concerned that I’d go to hell over this huge deception, so they sought to persuade me I was wrong. I’m sure you’ll be truly shocked to discover that none of us left the table happy.

This topic is on my mind because a few days ago, I caught a Bible study over at Baptist Press, the official site of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). It claims to teach “avoiding deception.” But this recommended solution doesn’t even work in their own group, let alone any others.

When someone’s worldview is based on something that isn’t real, there’s no way for them to effectively evaluate claims. When I was Christian myself, I had already noticed a shocking lack of discernment in my peers, and it disturbed me greatly. Years later, I figured out why we all had so much trouble convincing anybody in another flavor of Christianity that they were wrong about anything. And now, I’ll show you how this Baptist Press Bible study represents some downright disastrous advice.

Quick Christianese: Deception, deceived, deceiver

When Christians, particularly evangelicals, use words related to deception, they aren’t just talking about garden-variety dishonesty. Rather, they invoke supernatural forces here. Demons and devils deceive. Satan’s deceptions could send people to Hell.

Thus, deception is a supernatural, demon-tinged, often very extensive kind of lie. And a deceiver, in turn, is quite possibly a person who is demon-possessed (or -oppressed, which is nonetheless exactly like possession except you can accuse little old church ladies of demonic oppression without getting slapped).

So we can read the title of this Baptist Press Bible study, “Avoiding deception,” as offering tips for avoiding the sort of demonic lies that could send a good, god-fearing evangelical straight to Hell. As the page itself tells us:

Deception is an attempt to lead believers away from a truth to change our behavior.

Baptist Press, “Avoiding Deception.”

My goodness. Serious business!

Opening with quite a telling comparison

As is apparently required by longstanding custom, this Bible study opens with a very poorly-constructed comparison. Its unnamed writer compares deception, as we have just defined it, to buying a product based upon a salesperson’s promises. But afterward, the product doesn’t live up to those promises. Oh, no!

We could easily accuse this Baptist Press writer of making a false equivalence here, of comparing apples to oranges (as Wikipedia puts it). One would certainly hope that evangelicals would never consider converting to a religion to purchasing a product based on a salesperson’s say-so, even if that’s exactly what usually happens.

However, I can see their point. They’re very worried that their flocks will hear religious salespeople hawking other ideas and then stop buying the SBC’s own products.

In the case of Baptist Press, that assessment also includes actual, literal commercial products. At the end of this Bible study, readers get a shopping link to SBC-published Bible studies. You know, just in case they get all convicted and realize they need to get more in-depth indoctrination.

When deception is defined entirely subjectively

After making this dazzlingly-poorly-considered salesmanship comparison, the writer moves smoothly into one of the worst solutions I’ve ever heard any evangelical offer on this topic.

The writer advises SBC-lings to judge all incoming claims against the Bible.

That’s where this advice breaks down.

Whenever a Christian, particularly an evangelical, talks about “the Bible,” what they mean is the interpretation of the Bible that their church leaders teach. And that interpretation becomes completely synonymous with the one whole real-deal capital-T Truth. That’s it.

So, if what the SBC-lings hear varies from that message (called The Baptist Faith & Message 2000, or BFM2k), then they must reject it as deception. After all, deception could send them straight to Hell!

For undeceived Christians, their fruit was sure rotten

I converted briefly to an SBC church in my teens, in the mid-1980s. Technically, that church was a megachurch, though I didn’t know what that word meant. However, I didn’t stay there long. The church was busy all the time, with a huge youth group and tons to do. That said, the sheer hypocrisy of both adult and teen attendees disappointed me vastly, as did the pastor’s habit of asking for money all the time. I’d grown up Catholic, and in my neck of the old-school Catholic woods, those constant appeals would have seemed gauche and inappropriate.

Also, the church was planning to buy a vacant grocery store nearby. They wanted to convert it to a skating rink for the youth group. I could think of a lot of things to do with that money that seemed more in line with Jesus’ standing orders.

So, I suppose you could say that I’d inspected this church’s fruits and found them wanting. Fruit inspection is Christianese. It means that their behavior, or fruit, did not line up with their stated beliefs, or the type of tree they said they were. An apple tree can’t produce persimmons, and a fully Jesus-ed up Christian should, theoretically, not be capable of rampant, entrenched hypocrisy. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me at the time. I didn’t know yet that hypocrisy is baked into the entire religion from the start.

After leaving that church, I ended up Pentecostal and stayed there for some years. I thought I’d found the most real-deal Jesus-y denomination that had ever Jesus-ed.

But then, I met some SBC-lings. And they decided that I had been grievously deceived.

The day I tangled with the forces of deception

I’d just started attending college. There, I’d gotten friendly with other evangelicals.

These were not the kind of evangelicals I knew from my Pentecostal church. Nor were they much like the SBC-lings I’d known during those few months I’d attended that megachurch, though almost all of them were, in fact, SBC-lings to their fingertips.

No, these SBC-lings were deadly earnest young men. Almost all of them were angling for a career in ministry. And they viewed our college campus like a shark might view a bay full of fish. This was their mission ground, a sort of test run for the outer world. They were contending for souls, y’all.

When our SBC friends found out that my then-boyfriend Biff and I were Pentecostal, they went ballistic.

See, Pentecostals differed from Southern Baptists in two very key ways.

First of all, we were Oneness. We rejected the idea of the Trinity as a Catholic deception. (There’s a big long rationale for this line of thought, but the short explanation is 4th-Century capitulation to paganism. Also, demons. Of course.)

Second, Pentecostals speak in tongues.

It’s hard to say which of those two differences bothered these guys more.

One day, two of them came over and we all had it out at Biff’s parents’ dining table. These guys came prepared, y’all. They brought oodles of tracts and indexed and tabbed Bibles.

Seriously, the tabbed Bible is how you know an evangelical means business. And I had one too.

When deception fights deception, both sides lose

Very quickly in the discussion, I realized nobody at that table was going to change their mind. Not them, and not us. We were all arguing and arguing and flinging Bible verses around like Magic cards, like faits accomplis, done deals, but it was doing no good for any of us.

Nobody got heated, at least, or started acting mean. However, it’s clear that these lads were out of their element. For every Bible verse they had, I had a counter. (Biff was almost entirely Bible-illiterate, as well as a very poor debater.) Every time they started talking about the fruits of the Spirit, briefly described above, I reminded them of Baptist hypocrisy and began talking about the sheer euphoria I (sometimes) felt worshiping in the Pentecostal style.

I also mentioned how dead I’d found Baptist services. That’s Christianese, too, by the way, and it represents quite a flung gauntlet. It means that the judging Christian did not feel Jesus tingles in that church.

At the end, though, those two Baptists went away disappointed and frustrated. But then again, we were also frustrated.

Interpretations mean everything

I had these sorts of encounters all through college and with many types of evangelicals. Indeed, I have fond memories of long evenings at the dorms in college of us all just yammering about this or that interpretation of this or that Bible verse. Every person involved in these discussions wanted the same exact thing, of course: to persuade all the others of their pet interpretation.

Years later, I’d realize why none of us, even once, convinced the rest of our group of our view about anything.

All of us thought our interpretation was the absolutely most correct one of all. However, we had no objective way to evaluate it, much less the rest.

Consequently, the only way we could assess any new claim or challenge was to fit it into our existing overall worldview. If it fit, it could sit. If not, then we rejected it. That is what we all kept doing in all of these wrangling sessions. Unless we could persuade someone to get onto our doctrinal page, they’d hold onto their interpretation of things.

What we didn’t realize is that our worldview, being based as it was purely on subjective claims, lacking as it did any objective facts to support itself, made us extraordinarily easy to mislead.

And what’s so funny to me about this Bible study is that its writer alludes to that tendency a couple of times. For people who think a real live god lives inside them and informs their thoughts and behavior, these SBC-lings must be on major guard not to be led astray by a good sales pitch.

The post-truth deception evangelicals love

For all the bellyaching evangelicals like to do about their garbled version of postmodernism, they engage in a lot of relativism. As popular evangelical site Got Questions puts it:

Simply put, postmodernism is a philosophy that affirms no objective or absolute truth, especially in matters of religion and spirituality. When confronted with a truth claim regarding the reality of God and religious practice, postmodernism’s viewpoint is exemplified in the statement “that may be true for you, but not for me.”

They big mad.

But that’s a vast distortion and oversimplification of postmodernism. It’s also a strawman to an extent, because when someone says that last bit, what they mean is that the evangelical’s “truth claim regarding the reality of God” sounds like complete hogwash. It’s a hard rejection, just the rejecting person wants to be polite. These rejecting folks are not saying they think that claim really could be objectively true for one person but not for another. (That said, oh boy howdy do evangelicals despise getting that reply.)

Evangelicals have convinced themselves that their false beliefs constitute the actually real-deal capital-T Truth. When little-f facts keep inconveniently blasting their claims to smithereens, they hold fast to those false beliefs rather than letting reality guide and temper them. As the rest of us have gotten more and more scientifically aware, they continue to hold to beliefs that are demonstrably, categorically false.

The problem with this advice about deception

By now, evangelicals have evolved a huge number of soft-shoe routines they can deploy to address all those pesky little-f facts that keep destroying their big-T Truth claims. Almost all of them involve comparing a claim to the Christian’s current beliefs.

However, it’s worth noting that Christian leaders’ beliefs and teachings change over time. The entire SBC itself came into being because its leaders desperately wanted to keep owning human beings as slaves. Every one of those leaders used Bible verses to back up their opinion, and according to this excellent paper on the topic, considered slavery a done deal and fact of life. It took the denomination’s leaders a solid 150 years (in 1995) to apologize for that stance. (And they’re still fighting hard against critical race theory.)

Even that idolized BFM2k document has changed over time. Here’s an SBC-written comparison chart. Most of the changes simply add details to their existing beliefs, but some are substantial. For example, Article II, about the nature of their god, almost sounds Oneness in 1925. By 2000, we see a far more rigidly defined Trinitarian platform. Similarly, in 1925 the BFM didn’t mention the topic of family at all. By 1963, women’s growing access to their rights brought the SBC’s misogyny roaring to life, and we see the forerunner to complementarianism set up as a formal command that all SBC-lings must swear to uphold in their daily lives and relationships.

So much for them having objective truth for all time. If all they’ve got is to compare it back to the SBC’s party line about the subject, nothing says that party line won’t change in the future. And then what?

(The realization that broke my brain: We couldn’t all be right. But we could all be wrong).

Using reality to eliminate bad explanations

I’ve heard countless evangelicals rail against the scientific method for revealing inaccurate explanations, thus opening the door to much better ones. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s the scientific method’s strongest power.

Here’s why.

A claim is an explanation for something.

Researchers use reality to support or disprove claims. They devise objective tests for claims. Then, they see how the claim holds up under that test. If they don’t get the results predicted, then the claim finds no support. If they do, though, then that claim now has support. More people will test it and use other ways to test it. The more tests get run, the more support the claim has. When the claim flunks a test, though, people don’t just keep saying it’s the right explanation.

To an extent, we all test claims, of course. Some of us just extend the approach further than others.

The dragon-infested library

If you drive to the library and find the door locked and the lights inside turned off, chances are your first assumption will be that the library is closed. To test that claim, you might check the internet for its information page, call the library on your phone, or try to find a sign with the library’s hours posted on it.

What you won’t do is drive back home and tell everyone that dragons have entered the library through a wormhole in space and now nest in the classics stacks, thus closing the building for good.

That said, if you saw a giant hole ripped in the side of the library and giant dragons sleeping inside, that’d probably change your mind. And at that point, you’d take some videos and pictures—because you’d know nobody would believe that story without proof!

Some people might still disbelieve the story, since that stuff can be faked—and sometimes very convincingly. But if the evidence looked strong enough, I bet there’d be some official-like teams out there to check out the library.

Compare and contrast to Christians’ overhyped, overworked testimonies about miracle healings and magic gold fillings materializing out of nowhere. There’s never been a single one ever verified as real. Nor do Christians’ many earthly claims turn out to be true, either. And all they can do when skeptics bring these facts up is to profess astonishment that we’d ever say such things.

(See also: When Teen Cas innocently suggested that my pastor bring in linguists to analyze our church’s tongue-talkin’.)

Deconversion led me to truth, not lies

By the way, our Baptist Press writer warns readers about realizing that Christianity itself is based entirely on false claims. They do it in the form of a leading question:

How does a person’s rejection of Jesus open the door for them to be deceived by lies?

Baptist Press

They’re not asking if it happens that way, because they take as read that that’s how it always happens. Alas for them, I found the exact opposite to be true.

For years after deconversion, I tried other religions. One by one, they failed to satisfy me any more than Christianity had. I’d left Christianity because it wasn’t based in reality. Eventually, I figured out that no religion describes any real gods.

In the end, I realized that ultimately, reality itself was more than enough. I’d just tried to get something from religion that it couldn’t give anybody, is all. (Nobody sensible gets upset with a black hole for not answering one’s calls).

Test everything; hold onto what is good

At the same time, I began to notice that when my worldview was based on that-what-ain’t-real, I tended to have trouble with critical thinking in other areas.

It’s all well and good to believe that a god has sent a sign that one is to settle down in a particular home, say, but to do that without also testing the idea in real-world ways is asking for trouble. Similarly, a great many Christians enter multi-level marketing schemes and similar doomed ventures because they think Jesus told them to do it, and they still fail to make money that way.

Reality may not be as flattering or as comforting as religion, but it’s real. It’s sad that these Southern Baptists think that rejecting their religion leads to deception, when it really opens the door to truth for the first time in forever. Too bad they’re not selling little-t truth, eh?

I’m almost 30 years out of Christianity now. That’s well more than half my lifetime. And yet, I still test new ideas. I still insist that my beliefs be built upon reality and nothing more. Maybe I’ve got some more untangling still to do of leftover indoctrination. If so, then good. I’d rather work with reality than against it. That’s the easiest way of all to avoid deception.

And I hope more Southern Baptists try it.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...