Tim Sledge Preaching
Tim Sledge Preaching
Tim Sledge Preaching

I Am Not at War with Christians

Tim Sledge

This is me at age 17 preaching to 1,200 teenagers at a city-wide evangelistic rally I organized in my hometown of Odessa, Texas. As I preached that night and in the following decades of ministry, I was 100% sincere. I wasn't trying to con anyone. I wasn’t in it for money or power. It was my deep conviction that faith in Jesus made life a hundred times better for anyone who embraced it.

I continued preaching for 36 more years. Then, thirteen years ago, I left the Christian faith.

I didn't stop believing because I felt hurt, angry, or discouraged. If I had stopped believing because I felt hurt, angry, or discouraged, I would have left in my early years of ministry. I stopped believing when I finally scrutinized everything I had read, seen, and experienced, then admitted to myself that the evidence was unconvincing.

I decided that no supernatural element was needed to explain the patterns, events, and behaviors I witnessed over five decades in church.

Since leaving my faith, I've found that many—probably most—of the people who knew me as a Christian and as a minister don't know quite what to do with me. The most common observable response is not hostility but quiet avoidance. This response surprised me at first, but after having lots of time to think about it, I think I understand it—my change of belief makes people uncomfortable.

For my first ten years outside of faith, I pretty much kept my non-belief to myself, talking about it only to close friends and family. Three years ago, I published Goodbye Jesus, and since then I've written two other books related to my journey out of faith. I've acquired more than 9,000 followers on Twitter under the handle @Goodbye_Jesus. I've been interviewed on podcasts originating in the US, Great Britain, India, and Australia. In these writings and interviews, I have described my deconversion and argued against the validity of not only the Christian faith, but against any brand of religious faith.

These writings and interviews could easily lead Christians who know me to think I no longer respect, like, or care about them. But nothing could be farther from the truth, and that's one of the reasons I wrote this article--to speak to the Christians I've known through the years. I want to clarify how I feel about you. And I want to shed some light on how I feel about all people who practice any kind of faith in any kind of God.

I am not at war with people of faith. Open discourse about beliefs, values, and convictions in public discussions, books, articles, and podcasts is a bustling and sometimes rowdy traffic corridor. One-to-one relationships are prone to move down quieter streets. Admittedly, these two avenues often intersect, but I want to think that even when standing in the middle of one of these intersections of public debate and private relationships, it is possible to respect, like, and love people who disagree.

When I was a Christian minister, I—like others—talked about hating the sin while loving the sinner. I now see this as a condescending attempt to sound magnanimous, but I still think it points toward a general idea that is workable. I’ve heard long-term members of the US House and Senate talk about a now gone way of life in which heated arguments while in session were followed by friendly dinners with members of opposing parties sitting at the same table and enjoying one another’s company. I want to think something like that is possible between people like me and individuals who are deeply committed to their faith.

As a believer, I did not have a monochromatic view of all Christians—even of all Christians in my own evangelical tribe or in my own congregation. As I thought about all the individuals who were members of any church I was leading, I had a range of opinions. It was my goal to love everyone, but I could not help respecting some individuals more than others. Like anyone else, I responded to individuals based on who they were—their values, virtues, and vitality. And I got to know some members better than others simply because there were more opportunities to talk and to work together than with other individuals. Feelings deepened when more meaningful moments were shared with someone.

Over time, I learned that I could enjoy interacting and being friends with people who aren't just like me, including non-believers. I admit that when I was friends with a non-Christian, it was my goal to lead them to faith in Jesus, but I did strive to have genuine relationships with non-believers that were not conditional on their accepting my religious views.

Now, as a non-believer, I place an even higher priority on building meaningful connections with all kinds of people. I can have strong views about someone’s politics or religion, but still see their value as a fellow citizen, neighbor, or friend. I can strongly disagree with ideas that someone holds, while still recognizing a range of admirable personal qualities in that person. I can respect the good things that a person does even when I don’t agree with the ideological underpinnings that are motivating their behavior.

If someone is genuinely kind, I admire that. If someone is appreciative of others, I value that. If someone gives time and resources in service to others, that’s a good example. If someone is genuinely humble, that too is something to appreciate. So, while I no longer believe in the teachings of Christianity or the teachings of any religion, I can still appreciate character-driven, religious people.

I continue to have a special appreciation for Christian ministers. In one sense, ministers are like everyone else. They are all individuals. Some are awesome people. Some are average Joes or Jills, and a few are, sad to say, real jerks. There are some televangelists, "faith" healers, and megachurch pastors who deserve the opposite of respect—I wonder if some of these individuals are sociopaths. And I can't respect any leader who downplays the pandemic we are struggling through and discourages mask-wearing. Ministers who promote conspiracy theories and who long for a theocracy instead of democracy are a danger to our freedom.

But when someone writes or says that all ministers are interested only in power and money, I have to speak up. Most ministers I've known through the years are deeply sincere in their beliefs, feel a calling to what they do, and are genuinely committed to helping other people. Given the education required and the number of hours a minister is likely to work each week, I would say that few ministers are overpaid. So, to my long-time minister friends I say, "You have my respect, and I still feel a kinship with you."

Unfortunately, some groups and some forms of religion are inherently dishonest and destructive, but some other expressions of faith are largely positive, providing help and hope to many who participate. My aim is to see the good in a congregation or larger group of believers when positive contributions are being made to community and society. And the same is true for individuals. Every positive human connection is valuable. Staying connected feels good, and destructive disconnects feel bad.

One of my former church members used to call me every Thanksgiving—for more than 30 years—to say thank you for the positive contribution I made to his life when I was his pastor. Recently, he messaged me on Face Book to tell me that I had turned in an evil direction and he was done with me.

Another former church member has remained a close and personal friend in the years since I left my faith. We talk at least once a week. We are completely honest with one another. We support one another when things are good and when things are tough, and we agree to disagree on matters of faith. I asked my friend why he thought our friendship has succeeded, and he said, "You let me be me, and I let you be you." And there you have it.

We may have dramatically different views on important issues, but meaningful relationships can cross such boundaries and continue to thrive when I let you be you, and you let me be me.

Tim Sledge Copyright © 2021 Insighting Growth Publications

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