The Purpose-Driven Life consists of six parts: one for each “purpose” as well as an introduction. Today we are looking at Part 3, which is Purpose #2: “You Were Formed for God’s Family.” In the past, I’ve taken each of the seven sub-sections (one for each day of the week) one at a time, but the chapters I read this week all bleed together, so I believe they can be looked at as a whole. They are:
15. Formed for God’s Family
16. What Matters Most
17. A Place to Belong
18. Experiencing Life Together
19. Cultivating Community
20. Restoring Broken Fellowship
21. Protecting Your Church
Christian tribalism in theory
The general idea of this “purpose” is innocent enough: in order to fulfill your life’s purpose, it is best to be a part of a loving and uplifting community and have healthy relationships. The problem is that that isn’t how it’s presented. Warren tells it more like: in order to fulfill God’s purpose for your life, it is best to be part of a loving church community with other believers.
The bulk of this section is Warren’s instructions for best practices as to how to maintain healthy relationships and “how to fellowship.” Of course, a lot of his tips contradict each other—such as holding people accountable for their mistakes and confronting them, but also not judging them if they commit wrongdoings out of sincere conviction for God—but lying beneath the surface is a much greater problem.
If you’re like me, then you read books like this cautiously, through an atheist lens. It’s not such a radical idea, since atheism is the dominant theme of my worldview, and thus it influences how I see things, especially weird Christian self-help books. So I quickly saw past Warren’s picture of Christian love and community and saw the real spirit of it all underneath: exclusivity and tribalism.
Okay, so I wasn’t some genius who had an epiphany while reading. Warren says right on the first page of Chapter 16,
Of course, God wants us to love everyone, but he is particularly concerned that we love others in his family. . . . Peter tells us, “Show special love for God’s people” (1 Peter 2:17 CEV). Paul echoes this sentiment: “When we have the opportunity to help anyone, we should do it. But we should give special attention to those who are in the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10 NCV). Why does God insist that we give special love and attention to other believers? Why do they get priority in loving? Because God wants his family to be known for its love more than anything else. Jesus said our love for each other—not our doctrinal beliefs—is our greatest witness to the world (John 13:35 LB).
(These bible verses are all listed in full at the bottom of the post. Warren uses varying translations, so I have included the translation he used for each as well as NIV for consistency.)
In a later chapter, Warren makes the same case: “Since Christ wants his family to be known for our love for each other, broken fellowship is a disgraceful testimony to unbelievers.”
I feel that, as an unbeliever, it is my place here to confirm or deny whether what he says is true. As usual, it’s not. Of course, Christians being loving to one another and having healthy fellowship is better than not doing either. But Christians being kind to other Christians is easy. When I see that, as an atheist, I’m not impressed. I would be far more impressed if a Christian was loving towards someone whose beliefs are not a carbon copy of their own. At least there’s a bit of a challenge there.
More importantly, however, this would do a far greater job of accomplishing Warren’s goal here: being a “witness” or “testimony” to the world. Translating from Warren’s Christianese into a phrase that’s so familiar that it is a Jars of Clay song title, he means that “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Christians showing that they love only exclusively other Christians can actually show me, the “unbeliever” who is of “the world,” in Warren’s terms, that Christians aren’t truly loving at all. Would someone who is truly a loving person only show that to others in their group, or would they share their love with everyone, even the hellbound?
Westboro: Christian tribalism in practice
In this book, Warren speaks only in hypotheticals. He does this so that you, the reader, can imagine yourself in the scenarios he describes, and you can call to mind your own tight-knit church group. But as someone who doesn’t have this, I was reminded only of a book I recently read and the dreadful situation that came from the attitude that Warren paints as Christlike but is indeed deeply harmful and divisive. This book is called Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper. Is that name familiar? It should be. Megan is the granddaughter of the late founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, and the book is her story of loving and leaving that church, and inevitably, her family.
You’ve probably heard of the Westboro Baptist Church. You know them as the group that protests military funerals and holds signs saying that God hates anyone and everyone except for themselves. This is all true, but the Phelps family (which is the majority of the church) is thoroughly Christian. They are based almost exactly on the community foundation that Warren described in The Purpose-Driven Life. Of course you see them as hateful and single-minded, but they embody the principles of Warren’s biblical and loving church.
To me and you, members of Westboro are stubborn and cliquish, but to each other, they are the most affectionate, loving, and dedicated people you will ever meet. And they are also the most Christian—at least in their own eyes. Megan’s book was littered with King James Bible verses supporting every little thing they do, from sharing a disgust for homosexuality to praying for the deaths of soldiers and innocent children.
Heartbreakingly, when Megan left Westboro, she lost all of the love and affection of her family. The hardest person for her to lose was her own mother, who, as far as I know, has shown Megan only seething hatred and contempt, but mostly silence, in the eight years since Megan has left the church. After spending her first twenty-six years in the walls of Westboro, Megan knew how cruel her family was to the outside world. And when she left, she became a part of that outside world and was subject to the same cruelty that she had had for outsiders for her whole life.
Giving up on unbelievers
Even though Warren is less openly exclusionary in The Purpose-Driven Life, he lets this attitude slip through one final time in the end of Chapter 21. He says,
If you’re unable to work things out between the two of you, the next step is to take one or two witnesses to help confirm the problem and reconcile the relationship. What should you do if the person is still stuck in stubbornness? Jesus says to take it to the church. If the person still refuses to listen after that, you should treat that person like an unbeliever (Matthew 18:17, 1 Corinthians 5:5).
Warren directly moves on from this, but I was dying to know what “You should treat that person like an unbeliever” meant. The only clue I get is in the latter bible verse cited above, which calls for Satan to destroy the person’s flesh and for his spirit to be later saved. In the context of all seven chapters leading up to this with advice on conflict resolution, having a very last resort of “treat that person like an unbeliever” is a low blow. It implies that you should just give up on them , as you presumably have on all unbelievers already. Whereas The Purpose-Driven Life looks like all sunshine and rainbows from the outside, Warren advocates for an extremely unhealthy mindset and lifestyle if you were to honestly apply it.
1 Peter 2:17 CEV – Respect everyone and show special love for God’s people.
1 Peter 2:17 NIV – Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers.
Galatians 6:10 NCV – When we have the opportunity to help anyone, we should do it. But we should give special attention to those who are in the family of believers.
Galatians 6:10 NIV – Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
John 13:35 LB – Your strong love for each other will prove to the world that you are my disciples.
John 13:35 NIV – By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
Matthew 18:17 NIV (Warren does not specify translation here) – If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Other translations use the words Gentile, heathen, publican, and unbeliever.)
1 Corinthians 5:5 NIV – Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.