the doctrinal yardstick
Reading Time: 12 minutes (Jeff Sheldon.)
Reading Time: 12 minutes

The doctrinal yardstick illustrates one of the most profound and serious problems Christianity suffers. I know I’ve mentioned this concept a few times over the years. But today, let me lay it out, and show you why it’s such a big freakin’ deal. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a very serious problem for Christians.

the doctrinal yardstick
(Jeff Sheldon.)

Setting the Wayback Machine for 1989.

First, set your Wayback Machines to 1989. In Christian-Land, “If I Stand” by Rich Mullins was one of the top Christian contemporary hits that year. Over in Secular-Land, the hit animated movie The Little Mermaid kick-started the so-called Disney Renaissance. The Satanic Panic had hit its peak, as evidenced by the popularity of This Present DarknessThe novel had been out for a few years, sure, but it still enjoyed incredible sales all up and down the rowdier and more gullible ends of Christianity.

And me? Oh, I was a bright-eyed little TRUE CHRISTIAN™ college student living in the dorms at college.

I attended a huge, sprawling public university. Its student body numbered in the tens of thousands. When I entered its ginormous library, I felt like Belle in Beauty and the Beast (which came out in 1991!).

For reference. Yes, I know there’s a live-action one now. I don’t care. Same goes for all the other live-action remakes.

My boyfriend Biff attended the same school. In fact, he also lived in the dorms. (Yes, I decided to attend that school in large part because I wanted to be near him. I know, I know.) But as it turns out, very few Pentecostals from our denomination valued the kind of education we pursued. In fact, I only knew two others who went to our school, neither of whom lived on-campus. One, Tim, later became the elusive third member of Biff’s PRAYER WARRIORS FOR JESUS campus club. The other, Christopher, dated my best friend Angela, who didn’t attend our university. Instead, she went to our denomination’s Bible College–at least until their wedding.

Lacking proper TRUE CHRISTIAN™ company, therefore, Biff and I formed a number of close friendships with other Christians living on-campus. None of them were fundamentalists like us. Instead, they belonged to various evangelical denominations: Maranatha, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), etc.

And to use the Christianese, that mix of people turned out to be a major, and I mean maaaaajor, stumbling block for me.

The Inevitable Measuring Contest.

Nowadays, most of us would call what I’m about to describe a dick-measuring contest. I, however, did not know that term–and at the time, would never have dreamed of using it.

Here’s how it went:

Whenever Biff met a new person that he knew was a Christian, he immediately began measuring them up. I mean, he’d ask them where they attended church, what denomination it was (if any), and a bunch of doctrinal questions.

Biff’s list extended a lot further than that. And he would need every single question answered.

Why Biff Interrogated New Christian Acquaintances.

Biff had an official reason to interrogate the Christians we met. He also had a second, more covert one.

Officially, he needed to know if they were TRUE CHRISTIANS™ because he couldn’t allow himself to become unequally yoked with heretics and lukewarm people. (That’s Christianese for a Christian who isn’t as fervent as the judging Christian thinks Christians should be. If they’re more fervent than the judge thinks Christians should be, then they’re legalistic.)

Biff thought that if he got close to someone holding the wrong beliefs, they could possibly pervert his own beliefs and maybe even lead him away from what he viewed as the capital-T Truth. We both already viewed evangelicalism as Christianity Lite because they weren’t literalists/inerrantists. We also considered them alarmingly lax in a lot of other areas.1

Obviously, Biff also wanted to “save” their souls by bringing them over to Pentecostalism. They might belong to Christianity. They might even be very fervent (and most of them were). But they believed the wrong things!

For their part, the evangelicals we met seemed just as curious about our beliefs and doctrinal positions.

The Doctrinal Yardstick.

I don’t know if Biff had actually formally set in his mind the list of questions he had, but the list didn’t vary much at all from person to person.

Maybe I just had more stuff to do in college than Biff did, or maybe I’d begun to sense a few problems with my religion. But I wasn’t as interested in nailing down exactly where on the measuring-stick my friends were. Very quickly, whatever the reason, I tired of what I recognized very quickly was his go-to routine when meeting new people.

At first, I gently chided him: “Hey, put away the doctrinal yardstick for now! Let’s just enjoy each other’s company!”

Eventually, I just gave up trying to stop him.

For some reason, Biff needed to do this, and our other Christian friends really didn’t seem to mind playing along.

Once he knew where they were going wrong, he could begin working on ways to evangelize them. And he could set them in place on the ladder of power. He needed to know where they stood in the pecking order. And they clearly needed to know the same about him, though their ladders always looked totally different from his.

Endless Days and Nights.

Doctrinal differences mattered enormously to Biff and my friends. Those friends didn’t often argue with me about those differences, perhaps because I’m a woman and they were all men. Evangelicals and fundamentalists tend to be misogynists. If we argued about doctrines, it was them against Biff and me, not them against me alone. But I can look back in my memory and see many dozens of evenings where we whiled away the hours earnestly hashing out those differences.

As hard as Biff argued for our beliefs, though, our friends argued right back with him about theirs. They disagreed about everything. Well, except about infant baptism. None of them liked that. But everything else was up for grabs.

And all of them felt that anybody who disagreed with them stood at dreadful chance of hellfire–and of leading others astray as well. Looking back, the situation resembled that of a multi-level marketing (MLM) scheme, as depicted here:

Yikes! It’s a Jesus MLM!

In the diagram above, Brother Porter represents Biff’s upline. He talked Biff into converting. Scott, James, and I were Biff’s downline and he and Brother Porter were our upline. In turn, everyone Scott potentially converted became both Scott’s and Biff’s downline, and at that point, Brother Porter, Biff, and Scott would all be part of their upline. James and I had no downline because we never managed to convert anybody. Biff and his downline would consider any other converts Brother Porter made (the green circles) to be crossline.

So if Biff misunderstood some essential point of doctrine, all of his downline would misunderstand it as well.

Despite the huge risks of dooming entire generations of people to Hell through incorrect interpretations of doctrines, our arguments never turned truly hostile or aggressive.

But neither did they change anybody else’s mind.

The Big Problem I Faced.

One evening, as I listened to them arguing in my dorm room over a friendly game of Monopoly, I realized something really scary.

Not a single one of us had ever successfully changed the mind of any other one of us.

We all firmly, fervently believed in whatever it was we believed.

We all had Bible verses aplenty to back up whatever we thought the Bible said. Sometimes, we even supported our different opinions using slightly different interpretations of the exact same verses.

Of course, we all prayed very hard about our positions, whatever they were. And of course, we all received what we were positive were divine stamps of approval for our beliefs from our god.

And yet we had all emerged from these identical processes of Bible study, prayer, and reflection with different beliefs.

How were such stark and glaring differences even possible in a religion inhabited and informed by a real god who really communicated with people and wanted them to know him, a divinely-inspired holy book, and the same powers of discernment exercised by people who fervently believed in this god and desperately wanted to commune with him?

True and Not-True.

I knew one thing, though.

We couldn’t all be right. Something was either objectively true or it was not-true. It couldn’t be both objectively true and not-true. So if we disagreed about something like, say, speaking in tongues being divine or demonic, it couldn’t be both of those.2

Of course, we could all be incorrect. In the above example, tongues could be neither divine nor demonic. It could be purely human–which is what it is, of course.

Many of our opinions were diametrically opposed, in fact. If we Pentecostals were right about Oneness Theology, then Trinitarians committed serious idolatry constantly! If our SBC friends were right about speaking in tongues being demonic, then we Pentecostals opened ourselves up to demonic possession every time we did it. And if any Christians turned out to be wrong about whatever they thought about the Rapture and when it was coming, then the events of those dark days might cause them to miss out on the Calling-Away of the Saints.

So a lot stood at stake here. Biff and our friends argued like cats in a sack not because of vanity and control-lust, though yes, of course at least some of it was that. But I think genuine concern operated here too.

Total Failure.

As I discovered years ago, one Christian can’t convince another of anything about the religion. It might happen every so often, but it’s really rare–I sure never saw it happen. Christians believe what they believe for what they think are good reasons. They both think they have Bible verses supporting their beliefs. They both think prayer has confirmed their beliefs. And they each think the other person is Jesus-ing all wrong and risking Hell by holding an incorrect belief!

And that’s a very, very serious problem in Christianity. I describe here the Problem With Wingnuts, in a nutshell. Christians don’t tether anything they believe to reality, so nobody can point to any objective fact and say “This fact right here contradicts what you’re saying.”

If someone tried to tell me that they’d personally seen a deer with retractable claws hunting by the side of a highway in Oregon, I could immediately reject that claim. I could point to the simple fact that deer taxonomic classification precludes those kinds of digits. Even-toed ungulates like deer have hooves. Retractable claws belong to Felidae and a couple of other animals like civets, but not to the deer family. And deer tend to be vegetarian.

YouTube video

TEND to be, anyway. The apocalypse is coming soon, y’all.

So after hearing such a claim, I’d conclude that this person had either seriously misidentified the animal or body parts they saw, or they were perhaps fibbing about the entire encounter. It would only take moments to come to that conclusion, too–because objective facts exist aplenty on this topic.

However, I’d change my mind if someone produced evidence about it!

That said: armed with all the tools of Christian persuasion–fervent faith, the Bible, prayer, and many centuries of Christian bickering–I could never persuade, say, a Trinitarian that Oneness was the correct doctrine.

Thom Rainer, Again.

This is a longer LSP than usual, I know, but I’m telling you all this to show you a big serious problem that Christians still have not resolved. This problem really gave me a lot of trouble, way back when in my own Christian days. And it’s still a big problem today.

Recently, I was cruising around the Christ-o-Sphere when I noticed an essay by Thom Rainer. He’s been recycling it lately (as is his habit), but the archive link goes to the original publication of it. The essay consists of his usual blathering mash of buzzwords and rah-rah, this time centering around some imagined major points of difference he perceives between revitalizationrelaunching, and replanting.

We might cover his essay at some point later. It’s interesting only because it shows that Christians still refuse to perceive any clue relating to their decline.

However, the comments caught my attention in a major way.

Uh Oh! Steeplejacked! Grab Your Pearls, Everyone!

At the bottom of his comment section, “Andrea Bowman” complained about her church’s new pastor. They voted him in because they wanted to grow their numbers a bit by attracting younger people to their aging congregation.

The new pastor we voted in didn’t tell us he believed a different gospel than we do. Now he is reforming our church and I guess you could say lying to us.

By “reforming our church,” she appears to mean he was a Reformed Christian (aka a Calvinist), and was slowly moving their church in that direction.

We don’t want to be a reformed church, but now most all the young folks he brought in are reformed, and they didn’t tell us. We didn’t know to ask. Now they are pretty much stealing the church away from the older folks who built it with their own hands.

(This process is called steeplejacking, incidentally.) And Andrea blames Thom Rainer for this trouble!

Our pastor likes your group and seems to be copying a lot of the things you say to do. This is not something our God would approve of. It is the enemies’ tactics. Thank you so much for contributing to the church trouble we are having.

Nobody can do passive-aggressive like a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, amirite?

And–not to put too fine a point on it–why would they even need to know about Calvinism? Wouldn’t “Jesus” tell them not to hire the guy when they prayed to ask him about it?

But Wait! Janet Knows What’s Wrong!

“Janet Parham” responded to Andrea. She thinks she knows exactly what’s going on here. (See the endnotes for the thumbnails of both comments, if you can’t access the archived essay page.)

Shame on you! So, you are bitter at your pastor for the changes he’s made. Your pastor likes some of Dr. Rainer’s resources. So, you conclude, Dr. Rainer is a part of Satan’s plan, and he has contributed to your church’s woes. I can tell you, based upon your slander of him, Dr. Rainer is not the Enemy’s agent: you are.

I saw that and had to laugh out loud. Seriously, I laughed out loud! She thought she’d found the ultimate zinger there, and it’s just a nice bog-standard fundagelical screech of Nuh-uh! YOU!

Oh, to have the misplaced confidence of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ passing judgment on someone! Mediocre white men, y’all come here and hold Janet’s Bible, okay? Cuz she’ll set you straight right quick about who the expert is in that arena.

What Andrea and Janet Don’t Realize Yet.

So Andrea despises Calvinism. I can’t blame her, personally, but not for the same reasons. I despise it because, as a group, Calvinists are horrifyingly cruel, evil people. To me, they are one of the top reasons to reject Christianity–not so much because of them, though yes, I sure wouldn’t want to be in any group that allowed them through the door. Rather, they become a reason to reject Christianity because of what they represent about that whole flawed, easily-perverted, obviously purely-natural and human-created ideology.

But Janet thinks Andrea is simply “bitter,” which is Christianese for anger she doesn’t think is valid, and that Andrea herself is what she accuses Thom Rainer of being: “the Enemy’s agent.”

Gosh, which of these two Christians are correct?

Which one is wrong? How could a Christian tell, objectively speaking? Indeed, how could a Christian objectively evaluate any two competing beliefs? And how could one of those Christians convince the other that their evaluation is incorrect?

Plenty of resources online and in print exist to help Christians “save” loved ones belonging to the wrong flavor of Christianity, especially flavors like Mormonism. Occasionally one can find resources that address specific doctrinal disputes like Oneness vs. Trinitarianism.

But overall, most apologists assume that persuasion happens on the level of a Christian persuading a non-Christian to become Christian at all, not on the level of one Christian seeking to persuade another Christian to change their mind about a specific doctrinal position. It’s like they don’t want to admit just how much doctrinal bickering goes on between Christians.

Which Witch is Which?

Every single doctrine and belief that an evangelizing Christian can possibly name is something that other Christians believe is wrong–even demonic. None of them can agree on anything at all in this religion. Worse, none of them can actually find a solid, objective reason for holding any of their beliefs–or persuade any other Christians of their beliefs’ correctness.

Andrea thinks that Thom Rainer has been deceived by demons. Janet thinks Thom Rainer acts with divine approval and that Andrea is demonically deceived.

And neither one of them understands that their accusations illustrate exactly why Christianity is a piss-poor worldview.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over a problem I noticed decades ago in Christianity that has existed since the religion was invented–and which continues to plague the religion today.

NEXT UP: We examine some of the traits of a truly happy family–and wonder why authoritarian Christians despise those traits so much. Well, maybe we don’t wonder that much. Either way, see you soon!


1 Important note: This was back in the 1980s, remember. The Conservative Resurgence raged in the SBC but hadn’t found a clean victory yet. Evangelicals and fundamentalists were almost nothing alike at the time. Fundamentalists got very tetchy when they got lumped in with evangelicals. And evangelicals considered fundamentalists to be dangerous zealots and radicals who’d completely lost the point of the religion. Imagine my surprise when, just a decade or so later, I discovered that the two branches had merged into fundagelicalism, which combined the very worst parts of both branches. (Back to the post!)

2 I’m simplifying vastly in this particular case, of course. We thought that sometimes tongues could be imitated by demons, but the real deal was divine and we were sure we could tell the difference. What we thought Mormons did when they spoke in tongues, of course, was the demonic imitation. (Back to the post!)

(Link.) Andrea’s comment.
(Link.) Janet’s comment.

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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,...