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4 Signs of Spiritual Malpractice

Billed as “the largest secular event in world history,” the “Reason Rally” recently took place on the Washington Mall to galvanize the nation’s atheists. What makes someone an atheist? I know the “Reason Rally” would say “reason.” I’m not so sure.

One of the more tucked away stories related to the rally was that of Nate Phelps, the estranged son of Westboro Baptist Church Pastor Fred Phelps. Yes, that Westboro Baptist Church: the one that has become infamous for picketing military funerals in order to hurl such epithets as “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates fags.”

Nate, now a professing atheist, spoke at this weekend’s event. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Phelps discussed his childhood, the events surrounding his departure from the church, and his views on religion.

After reading the interview, I could only think of two words:

Spiritual malpractice.

This is not a descriptive term often used, but it should be. The world is full of the walking wounded – people who have been terribly abused by those in spiritual leadership who have misused power, become sexual predators, fallen into greed, or spewed legalism – who have not only fled the church, but who struggle with their faith.

Less talked about is spiritual malpractice in the home which, in the context of a deeply secular culture, creates a breeding ground for skepticism and disillusionment. Consider Nate Phelps.

It’s a delicate matter to judge any family’s internal dynamics. Even those within it can disagree as to its evaluation. Yet this has been a family – and church – that has paraded itself out for public consumption, and the children have spoken with an increasingly unified voice. Fred Phelps has 13 children. Already four of those children have left the church and, apparently, the Christian faith.

Taking the interview with Nate at face value, it’s easy to see why they’ve gone astray – and to learn some valuable lessons about how not to raise children if you want them to embrace faith in their lives.

1. No questions allowed.

Nate: “It was not an option to openly discuss any doubts which you might have. It wasn’t safe, physically or otherwise, to even consider such a thing.

“So I learned early on to keep my thoughts to myself. And you know, plus there was a component, you know, we heard regularly that we were just dumb kids and didn’t have any idea what we were talking about.”

One of the most important practices for spiritual health and wholeness is the encouragement of spiritual questions: questions about the faith, the Bible, theology, philosophy, logic, as well as social and ethical issues.

Questions like, “What does the Bible mean when it says that? Why is this the church’s position on that social issue? Where does it say that in the Bible? Why would God allow that? How can Christians hold to that when the world is the way it is?

Children need an environment where there are no wrong questions, bad questions, or illegal questions. If Christianity is true, it will stand up under any amount of intellectual scrutiny. If questions are disallowed, then there can only be one conclusion: there must not be answers. If you don’t know the answer, simply say, “That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer, but I’ll find one!”

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James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.