Religiously Transmitted Diseases: Resistance Is Futile
- 2006 6 May
“Fitting in is killing me,” Halley blurted. It was obvious she was frustrated.
Halley was a twenty-something, single, registered nurse who had given her life to Christ during her college years. She was smart, well spoken and stylish in her dress and hairstyle.
“What do you mean by ‘fitting in’?” I asked, suspicious that I knew exactly what she meant.
“When I first came to church here,” she began, “I loved how people would talk with me and encourage me in my faith. I felt a gentle accountability that caused me to grow spiritually. But about a month ago I ran into this group that seemed more invasive than encouraging to me. They are very nice, but they have kind of interrogated me about everything I do, from what I wear to how I vote and what music I listen to. It isn’t that they are judgmental, but it is obvious if I don’t buy into their predetermined set of values, they think I am on dangerous ground – that I am not being pleasing to God, or something.
“Please don’t misunderstand me,” she continued. “I want to be holy. I want Jesus Christ to be my Lord. But does that really mean I have to wear outdated styles of clothes and stop listening to Coldplay or other groups that don’t have overtly Christian lyrics? Is it true I have to act just like that group prescribes or be unpleasing to God? I mean, the group all acts the same, dresses the same, responds the same – they remind me of a clique from high school.”
I knew exactly the kind of group Halley was talking about. They are in every church. She was talking about those wonderful believers who feel like it is their job to imitate God by trying to make others in their own likeness and image. They are Borg-ish.
I know it’s no longer cool, but I’m kind of a Trekky. The writers for the Star Trek television series created a scary race of beings known as the Borg. They called themselves “the Collective” because each of them had relinquished their individuality to function as ONE.
They were a pretty evangelistic group because everyone they bumped into along the way in the universe was “assimilated” into their Collective. You could try to resist their invitation but they simply replied, “Resistance is futile,” and assimilated you anyway. They assimilated races by infecting them with a self-duplicating, virus-like “nanoprobe” that changed them into Borg. They all wore the same kind of clothing and gear, walked and talked the same robotic way, and had all the trimmings one would expect to see in a horror show. Once you became Borg there was no turning back.
I have seen many groups inside Christian churches and ministries that were Borg-ish. These are not horrible people; in fact, they are often very kind and godly. But they are infected. They think they have everything figured out and everyone must externally look and act the same way.
In a Borg infected group you will not see much individual expression. Not on your life. There is a predetermined set of mannerisms that are considered holy and right. These mannerisms usually come from Bible verses taken out of context or from deductions the leaders have made – deductions often based on biases against anything cool (or against women).
It’s not unusual for these groups to wear out-of-style clothing (it takes about 5 to 8 years for clothing styles to become “sanctified”), to have the same walk (modes of behavior) and to talk the same robotic way (codified holy-language is held as a premium). And, if you value diversity and individuality, they are definitely a horror show.
We evangelicals are pretty susceptible to Borg disease because many believe the weightier part of being a Christian has to do with external mannerisms: what we wear, how we talk, what we like or dislike and what we don’t do. Let’s face it – there is a Borg-ish, cookie-cutter, Christian culture that is touted in many Christian circles as “Christ-like.”
Be Like Mike
After we first moved to the Tulsa area, our two oldest sons, Michael and Robert, attended a rather large Christian high school. Though Michael and Robert are both great kids, Michael fared the best. In fact, after being in school just a few months, Michael began to be showcased and honored. He was often publicly praised, received numbers of awards and ended up the Homecoming King at the end of his first year. Gail and I believed he was an awesome kid, but something about their rush to celebration seemed a little disingenuous and a bit over the top.
Robert, on the other hand, kept getting the short end of the stick. There were times when the actions of the teaching staff and administration toward Robert were nothing short of unfair.
We were initially confused about this seeming disparity until we realized that many of the educators in this Christian school system had an image in mind of what the perfect Christian student should be like. It just so happened that Michael fit the bill quite well. Michael by nature is outwardly compliant, non-confrontational, and quiet. Consequently, he came across exceptionally mature for his age. When they saw the traits they had been trying to cultivate in the other children already present in him, they quickly showcased him.
Robert, on the other hand, opened his mouth too much. Though he was talented, an honor student, and loved God with a tender heart, he would challenge rules, point out hypocrisies and loved to push the envelope – he colored his hair, yelled and applauded in public assemblies in a way that was overkill, et cetera. Robert was always just a little out there.
If they would have taken time to really get to know Michael they would have discovered he saw many of the rules and regulations as every other normal teen did – as silly and non-essential. He was just as opinionated and putout as Robert over the hypocrisies he saw. But he just preferred to leave things alone.
I’m not trying to take anything away from Michael, but my point is – he was just being Michael. He wasn’t trying to appease and brownnose the teaching staff in hopes of becoming their poster child. Michael has enough integrity that if “being Michael” would have gotten him into trouble, he would still have been Michael and gotten into trouble.
I remember talking with Robert while we watched this unfolding. “Robert, don’t you dare feel badly about all the attention Michael is getting here and about how you are being unfairly scrutinized. You are just too different in personality to win in this school system. I wouldn’t have won either. Michael is just being himself and they like that – he is not compromising himself. For you to act like him would be a compromise. I could give you a crash course in brownnosing so you could pretend to be something you are not, but that would be a tragedy. The truth is, I love your edginess. Though you could use a little more wisdom, please continue to be yourself – even if you scare some folks who don’t get the idea of individuality. Chances are you will never get showcased like Michael, but that is okay with your Mom and me. We are proud of both of you.”
Many Christian educators and Christian leaders believe that sameness is godliness and they frown on variation. They are Borg.
We all want to be discipled into a pure form of Christianity, not someone’s brand of Christianity. And we want to be accountable to true godliness, not a human kind. But because most of us want to belong (to not belong brings terror), it is easy to just give in and try to meet the expectations of others. The problem is, we ultimately lose when we do that.
Paul wrote that we are all different, like the parts of the human body. Paul was challenging the church to dare to be different – not to act and think the exact same way. Yes, we are all supposed to be holy. Yes, we are all supposed to be moral. Yes, we are all supposed to live ethically. But we are to live out holiness through the way we are wired: our different gifts, passions, and personalities.
That would mean some of us might be more fashionable than others, some more conservative than others, some more edgy than others, some quieter or more bombastic than others, some tattoo-friendly, others tattoo-phobic, et cetera. It was the apostle Paul who said, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. Maybe as we all express ourselves in ways that are congruent with our gifts, passions, and personalities, we are best positioned to “save some” – because those “some” can relate to us.
Christianity is not supposed to be a retread Eastern mysticism that forces people to forfeit their individuality and distinctiveness as they are absorbed into some great cosmic ONENESS or SAMENESS.
But sameness makes it easier for us to tell who the insiders are. Just like wearing black leather and driving a Harley-Davidson motorcycle are the marks of a biker, or wearing tight blue jeans, western boots and a huge silver belt buckle are the marks of a cowboy, Christians fancy certain external behaviors that we think are the marks of Christ-likeness. Actually, I think it would be easier to make Christianity about externals and manmade rules. But the downside of that is, unless you happen to “fit” the predetermined collection of personality traits set by the Christian culture you belong to, you will sense the pressure to be something other than yourself and Christianity will feel restrictive and have little joy for you. I think Satan loves that. I think he wants us all confused about what real Christianity is and wants us to live in some kind of manmade, synthetic, kiss-up belief system that is powerless.
I think real apprentices of Jesus celebrate individual expression – that’s the thing that best kills the Borg weirdness. Borg is about the Collective; about all being the same. It’s about killing individuality and uniqueness; it’s about control. That’s why Christian leaders are so predisposed to catching this disease – it promises them control.
But control is not leadership. To keep leadership clean from this disease, we must be willing to lose control. We must dare to respect people and to trust God. That would allow the saints of God to break into freedom – to dare to be different. Maybe that’s the kind of freedom Malachi predicted would come to pass one day: “And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.”
Maybe it’s time to go leaping.
Reprinted by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc. Nashville, TN, "Religiously Transmitted Diseases," © 2006 by Ed Gungor. All rights reserved. Copying or using this material without written permission is strictly prohibited and in direct violation of copyright law.
Ed Gungor has been in ministry for over twenty-five years. Ed and his wife, Gail of thirty years, have four children and live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ed currently serves as Senior Pastor at Peoples Church in Tulsa and travels around the U.S. speaking in churches and universities and conducting seminars.