“Catfishing” was a term inspired by a 2010 documentary where a person was lured into a romantic relationship with someone online, only to discover that the real person behind the online presence was entirely different. Disappointingly different. In a modern world where social media rules, catfishing is rife. It is a deceitful act where someone creates a false persona, on purpose, to lure people in by false pretences. Of course, there are degrees of severity, from doctoring a picture far beyond recognition to inventing entire personalities. But you get the idea.
So what’s this got to do with church, Kit? I’m glad you asked.
I’m surely not the only one who has noticed that churches aren’t called what they are anymore. We used to know what a church believed based on their name. Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, etc – we knew what these names meant. Now we have things like “Elevate Church” “Hillsong,” “Vertical Church” to name a few. These are some of the big brand names in Christendom, but the trend has trickled down to local churches too. You name it, there’s a church called that. I could name a hundred churches that brand themselves this way, but I guess that’s not the point I’m trying to get to.
That point is this: What do they believe? What is their theology? In all too many cases, we don’t have a clue. We just follow along, immerse ourselves in the goodness of it all, until one day it doesn’t feel so good. One potential juggernaut for these inevitable clashes is that of ambiguous theology. “Oh, I thought you believed this. But you believe the exact opposite. This affects me deeply. Where do I fit now?”
Marketing matters for churches nowadays, and I absolutely understand that necessity. If you jump online, you will find an ocean of slick branding, relentlessly friendly and upbeat social media pages (which admittedly I contribute to), pictures of smiling faces and coffee machines, and video after video of amazing music and lively worship. It all combines to present the hook by which new attendees are attracted.
Though it is a reality, and perhaps an inevitability, there are a couple of potential problems with this:
- We can’t confuse branding with evangelism. You don’t undertake the Great Commission by running a Facebook page. Real evangelism involves real connection. While I don’t discount the necessity of social media for facilitating Christian community, we can’t rely on it to do the whole thing for us. Let us not reduce Christ to content.
- If we aren’t upfront about what we believe, then people can join us on false pretences. If when true intent comes to the fore, it doesn’t match the public or evangelistic narrative, the repercussions for a persons faith, participation, self-worth, and even mental health can be serious.
I’m a strong believer that we need to be upfront about what we believe. I’m a stronger believer that ambiguity is dangerous. It was recently International Women’s Day. So perhaps this is a good example of how theological catfishing is problematic.
Imagine you’re a girl who has grown up in church, hoping to use your gifts and talents for God. You want to be a pastor and you are given no indication that this would be an issue. Imagine wondering why your male counterparts keep on getting the opportunities you wished you had, if it was not made clear that your church was not as egalitarian as you thought it was. Wouldn’t it make you internalise the problem and ask “Why am I not good enough?” What would constant (and potentially unexplained) rejections do to your self worth and participation in faith? How would it affect how you view God and His heart towards you? What would it do for your trust in people if, after years of serving, someone finally tells you that you aren’t getting promoted because you are female.
Don’t empower someone using your words and your sermons if you can’t deal with what they do with empowerment.
The truth is many churches don’t believe women have the right to leadership (despite Biblical examples like Deborah, Junia, Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche and others – more on that here). I know that many churches are complementarian, believing women don’t belong in senior leadership, or positions of authority at all. I used to be complementarian. I don’t judge anyone for not being egalitarian in their beliefs (believing all people are equal and able to serve/lead) as there are all types of churches and doctrines, many of which can be argued strongly from the Bible. However, I feel obligated to flag the danger in not allowing your theology to be clearly seen before it becomes a barrier to inclusion for someone who already thought they were accepted by the church.
There’s a simple solution to this: Be upfront with your theology. Because empowering a little girl right up until the point where she is a woman wanting to serve God with heart, soul and vocation, then telling her she has no place in leadership is harmful. Because that young woman, has given her time, energy and effort for years to sow into a cause she thought she was fully accepted in. She was used, then disempowered in the cruelest of glass ceilings.
It is, in fact, this little-known phenomenon known as ‘theological catfishing’.
Another group of marginalised Christians who fall victim to theological catfishing all the time is that of LGBTI+ Christians. I’m going to say something here that shouldn’t be controversial at all, but it is: I am a progressive Christian. I support LGBTI+ Christians and believe they have equal right to participate in faith and service. This is my individual, well-considered stance and I’ll tell you all about why another day. For now, I just want to flag this catfishing trend that does great harm to these individuals (and indeed others who have been mislead by ambiguous theology).
The harm I see in the lives that have touched mine and the stories they have relayed is this: We tell them they are loved, and accepted. We tell them that Jesus loves them just the way they are. Often, we have them serve on our teams until they decide to live authentically and be “out” then we remove them from leadership, having already used their talents to our ends and dangled the carrot of love and acceptance in front of their eyes.
Love and acceptance that should be healing, faith that should be a solace and a joy, is then another place of harm and judgement. When love is our great commandment, when compassion is our great example through Jesus, I believe we need to do better.
Research already shows that this group has a significantly higher risk of depression and suicidality than other groups (read more here). We also know that discrimination and exclusion are listed as “the key causal factors of LGBTI mental ill-health and suicidality .” We need to be treating them with more compassion and care. Not less. I know that there is a lot of debate around this issue, and I’m not going to get into that today, but I will say this:
Don’t say you are egalitarian if you do not believe that LGBTI people have every right to participate as fully in faith and ministry as their straight, cisgender counterparts. That is theological catfishing.
“Welcoming but not affirming” is not welcoming at all.
I am learning how to be a better ally to the people near and dear to me who are LGBTI+ and in my travels around the Bible, I’ve found there is absolutely no theological issue with my pure-egalitarian stance and my decision to love with no “ifs’, but’s or despite’s.” I’ll tell you all about the how and why another day. The message for today is this:
Mark 12:30-31 – Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’[b] There is no commandment greater than these.
Love doesn’t catfish people by ambiguous theology, whether they are women, minorities, or LGBTI+ Christians. Love is honest. Love is kind. Love is not ambiguous. Love grapples with the deep issues other people face, because love wants to be with them in their plight. Love lifts the broken. It doesn’t break the lifted.
Think about it: what harm could be done when someone is converted on false pretences? Who then, is God, if His representatives deceived a person through a promise of unconditional acceptance and empowerment in order to convert them then taking that away.
My warning against theological catfishing comes after watching friends grapple with it. It comes after hearing a dear Christian friend choose not to attend church again because of the risk of theological catfishing. Once bitten, forever shy. There are more stories I could cite, as at least in my part of the world, its pretty darn hard to find a modern, affirming church. We’ve got a long way to go. Tis is just one story, but no doubt a very common one. We can tell ourselves that by hiding the less palatable elements of our theology, we are evangelising better. But if we are driving people away from God more permanently by revealing these things after time rather than go on a deep journey of understanding and discovery, then I counter that this is not sustainable or genuine evangelism.
It’s just false advertising.
God doesn’t need a PR manager. He needs people with good theology, open hearts, honest mouths, and a lot of love to give. He can handle the rest. Another day, I will tell you why I am a progressive Christian. But today I’m not brave enough. I’m only brave enough to implore you to love better. And that should truly be every Christians job.