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Podcast webpage on Anchor.fm: http://anchor.fm/wr-harris
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines groupthink as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics”[i]. The most important part of that definition, I think, is “conformity to group values and ethics.” After all, it wouldn’t be groupthink unless there was some kind of pressure to join other people.
Groupthink, by definition, places the group’s values and priorities above all else—including logic, facts, efficiency, and love for others. Indeed, the group, whoever it is, will almost invariably skew logic and facts to fit their agenda. That’s what happens when we place an agenda or ideology above all else. If something seems to contradict the ideology, we must find a way to rework it to fit the ideology.
Groupthink happens in the church, whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not. Churchthink, put simply, is groupthink within the church. Or, another way I look at it is this: when a group of Christians demand belief in something and will not consider other ways of viewing it, even when their belief hurts the body of Christ.
The last part is important because there are some issues that Christians must demand belief in to be a part of the group. The deity of Christ, Christ as the only way to God—these are non-negotiables. That doesn’t mean we can’t hang out with people who don’t share that belief—they just can’t be part of the church “group,” so to speak. It’s also important because the essential non-negotiables of the Christian faith don’t hurt the body of Christ. It would be detrimental to tell people they’re saved when they refuse to follow Jesus. Therefore, it’s beneficial that the church requires people to trust in Christ before they can be considered part of the church.
However, there are many non-essential issues that some Christians place so much emphasis on that they shun or chastise those who don’t agree. In some cases, these Christians may view those who don’t agree as still being part of the church, though they may not treat them well. In other cases, the group may believe those on the outside are still part of the church but they’re just heretics. And in some cases, they believe the other party isn’t part of the church at all. For example, Christians who believe being gay isn’t a sin are often called heretics and sometimes their salvation is questioned simply because of this belief. Or—and I’ve talked to a few people who have had this experience—a Christian with depression is told they don’t know Jesus because their depression must be the result of failing to trust Him.
In many cases—though not all—this churchthink is a result of people valuing the group’s beliefs more than valuing compassion for others. There are Christian sub-cultures that believe so adamantly that homosexuality is a sin that they consider any dissenters unworthy of being in the church (and I’m just talking about people who don’t agree, not people who identify as gay). There are churches that believe so strongly in complementarianism that they say any church with a female pastor is not a church (I’ve heard a somewhat prominent Christian podcaster say exactly this). There are charismatics that believe so firmly that every believer should have a trance-like moment of being “baptized in the Holy Spirit” that they question the salvation of Christians who say they haven’t experienced it (sadly, I’ve talked to several of these charismatics). These are people who value their group’s beliefs so highly that they can’t see the hurt they cause to others. In many cases, their group has indoctrinated them to believe anyone “outside” is at best hopelessly misguided and at worst unsaved.
What’s the solution? I think it comes down to realizing what’s essential and what isn’t. For the non-essentials, church people need to learn to agree to disagree. Yes, we may think someone else’s beliefs are potentially harmful, but we need to realize vehemently disagreeing over the non-essentials often causes more harm than good. We need to learn to have more unity within Christ’s body—more working together rather than tearing down. I’m not saying we need to demolish denominations. Quite the opposite—I’m saying denominations need to emphasize common ground more than disagreements. We need to consider whether our group values something so much that it tears down its dissenters. It’s not easy, it’s sometimes more complex than it would seem, and it takes time, but in a word, we need to love.
[i] Merriam-Webster Dictionary App. Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2019. Version 4.6.6. Apple App Store.