The Fortress Mentality

Recently, after an adult sunday School class, a woman asked to see a New Testament I had been using. This Bible happened to be a copy of the New Testament written in the original Greek, with a rather rough interlinear translation. I had been using it to further my understanding of the passage we had been studying. The woman was amazed that I could read the Greek and asked me if I had studied it in a Bible College. She was then further amazed to hear that I had not.

The assumptions of this very cordial woman and those of others like her are quite revealing. They reveal a belief that a Christian can learn safely only in a Bible College. I challenge this assumption for three reasons. First, this has not been my personal experience. Secondly, such isolation stifles inquiry and can be dangerous for those who insist upon it. And, thirdly, such isolation violates a primary Biblical injunction to go and preach the Gospel to the unsaved. Therefore, I say isolating oneself in this way is unnecessary, dangerous, and unBiblical.

As it happens, I have never had any formal Bible training. My introduction to the Greek of the New Testament, the glossa koine, or common tongue, was via a study of Attic Greek from the time of Pericles. And I studied this as part of a Classics and Ancient Studies major at the University of South Florida. Also included in my course of study were Latin, Classical Hebrew, and Ancient History, with a side excursion into Linguistics, both synchronic and diachronic. Broad as this study was, it was strictly secular study.

Informally, however, I have also the equivalent of a degree in Biblical Studies. First of all, my father was a Bible scholar, who taught me from my earliest years to question and find answers on my own. He also taught me that anything on the earth or in the heavens could reveal more about God. Secondly, during my teen years, I had the privilege of sitting under a tremendous pastor who really taught the Bible. Pastor Burkey was a brilliant man with deep insight and a willingness to teach everything he knew. I have always been grateful to him. Thirdly, my husband has had the formal training while studying for his M.Div. at Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. While he studied, I read his books and many others. For these reasons, I would say that my Bible training, informal though it might be, is far broader than the formal training even some pastors receive.

This breadth of training leads to my second point. Sometimes, Christian leaders and teachers give their congregations a set of rotely memorized doctrines that are not to be questioned or deviated from. While such a memorized list is easily taught, it leaves little room for the congregation to develop an informed faith. Some leaders answer my objection by parroting, "Whatever is not of faith is sin" (Romans 14.23). Faith, however, is not a blind belief, as they would imply; it is an informed one. Peter's faith, for example, was based on personal experience (2 Peter 1.16-18). My faith is stronger because I have tested it, not weaker. When difficulties come, I can adapt to the situation, discarding inessentials, and emerge with my faith intact. A rote-taught congregation has far less resilience.

In addition, I am in a far better position to assess the reports and assertions about the Bible that are made by those who do not believe it. Take the furor that has arisen over Noah's Ark. From my knowledge of rates of decay and of Man's tendency to worship a creation rather than the Creator, I simply assumed it had rotted away. After all, it was at least 6,000 years old, by any measurement. Therefore, when Mr. Ron Wyatt of the Wyatt Archeological Museum showed pictures of a boat-shaped fossil in Turkey, it made far more sense to me that it was the Ark than all the tales of an intact boat seen distantly on the mountain. However, if both Mr Wyatt and his rivals are proved false, it will not shake my faith, simply because my broader understanding suggests that the Ark is long gone, without a trace. There was no reason for God to miraculously preserve it. This demonstrates that my faith is based on an informed reality, and not just what somebody told me in Sunday School.

Finally, with my informed faith, God gave me the strength to enter the world and be an example of a believer. All around me are those indulging in activities which I have no desire to share in. I am able to meet the needs of others who ask me, and the gospel reaches those who otherwise might not hear it. All too often non-Christian schools are simply written off by Christian leaders as if the souls within them have no hope. Without a witness, however, this becomes a reality, and it is a reality that accuses every Christian who is aware of it and does nothing about it.

A final illustration will further explain the danger and the failure involved. During the Middle Ages, a group of Christianized Vikings settled the coast of Greenland. For a while, the land was good for the grazing animals that the settlers brought with them, and the colony prospered. Some time later, however, the climate changed, and the mean temperature dropped. The area suffered what has been described as a mini-Ice Age. Studies have been made that have shown that the people clung to their herding economy until many of them starved to death. Those few that survived vanished. All of this was totally unnecessary.

Another group of people who lived near the colony but were not part of it, the native Inuit, thrived. Their descendents are still there. Several things contributed to their survival. First, they devised well-made leather and fur clothing that protected them from the cold. In contrast, the Vikings continued to wear the latest style of woollen garments, which were not adequate. Secondly, instead of basing their food supply only on what they could grow, the Inuit were hunters and gatherers. Searches of their middens reveal the bones of walrus, caribou, seal, polar bear, and fish of many kinds. The Vikings continued grazing, and as the grass died, they overgrazed to the point that the cattle began to die as well. Their middens, however, continue to be full of the bones of cattle and sheep and little else. Also, the bones in the Inuit middens are intact, full of marrow. The Viking middens have broken bones, without marrow. In other words, the Vikings were starving in the midst of a plenty that they could not see.

The scholars wondered why they could not adapt. They proposed a number of factors that could have contributed to this failure. First of all, this was a medieval town, organized on lines that worked very well elsewhere, and dependent on export and import. Loss of livestock meant loss of income to purchase other necessities. Secondly, this was a Christian town, and the Inuit were not Christians. In that lies the greatest difficulty, because the Christian leaders forbade the people to have contact with the pagans. Therefore, the people could not learn how to effectively hunt the available game, because they might be exposed to the pagan religion, and their own faith was not solid enough to share it with the Inuit. As a result, the people both died needlessly and did not share the Gospel as they should have. (Material for the preceding example came from a segment of the documentary series, "Secrets of the Dead," aired on PBS on May 21, 2000).

To sum up, the fortress mentality exhibited by many Christian leaders is crippling to the faiths of their congregations. First, it results in a weak faith based on blind belief. Secondly, it may cripple the individual's response to adverse circumstances. Thirdly, it results in direct disobedience of the Great Commission. For this reason, the fortress mentality must be discarded in favor of an informed and challenged faith. The latter is initially harder on the leadership and the congregation, but results in a stronger and mature faith that can deal with the circumstances, whatever they might be.

For further reading: Francis Schaeffer. The God Who Is There.

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MaryAlice B. Kelly