Healthy Faith or Unhealthy Faith? 3 Questions to Ask
April 13, 2018
I remember a few years ago, there was a study done by the Barna Group that asked young-ish Americans what words they associated with Christian faith. The top word was “anti-homosexual”. But also among the list of top words were “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “insensitive”. A substantial amount of people said they had negative views of Christians because of moral failures in leadership.
And I remember thinking — it seems like people are picking up on something unhealthy going on in some Christian groups. It doesn’t seem like folks who don’t go to church associate these church-goers with patience, gentleness, joy, or love. There’s definitely some deeply held beliefs at the root of a movement of people most known for being “judgmental” but whatever it is, it’s not healthy.
In spite of the bad rap from this collective group, it seems like there is such thing as healthy faith that is apparent to observers. There are certainly people we might call “heroes” of faith (Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Francis of Assisi). Their healthy faith was obvious to those around them. But I think each of us can connect with God in a way that is healthy and rich, and glows for those around us.
In weighing whether faith is unhealthy or healthy, I think these are 3 helpful questions.
Is it humble, or arrogant?
It seems like every few hundred years, Christian people face an issue of faith that is a matter of life and death. Church groups split because each side is 100% certain of their rightness on an issue (be it pacifism, infant baptism, different views on the book of Revelation), and are so confident that they are willing to stake community and friendship on it.
But then, inevitably, after a little bit of time, that issue is no longer a dividing one. People may have changed their minds, decided they don’t care, or still hold a strong opinion as a matter of intellectual interest. But the idea that we wouldn’t be able to be in community over that issue? Unthinkable!
Is that arrogant or what? To be willing to stake the unity and harmony of a community on one opinion about one thing? To not reserve even the possibility that the other side could be correct, or that (more likely) some mix of the two takes is correct? To not be able to simply say “I don’t know”? Unhealthy faith leaves no room for uncertainty, at the expense of all of us.
When weighing faith it might be useful to ask: is this stream able to say “I don’t know”? Is it humble, or arrogant?
Is it based on unquestioned authority?
It’s pretty normal in human groups for leaders to emerge. In healthy circumstances, good transparent leadership can provide efficiency. After all, different folks have different gifts. Some people have the ability to represent various interests, command attention, and make thoughtful decisions. But in unhealthy circumstances, the human tendency to pick leaders can lead to oppressive power structures that demand unquestioning submission.
This has happened (and continues to happen) in many faith communities. The leadership structures that arise, if they are unhealthy, can end end up demanding faith based on the authority of the leadership. Truth is reasonable and attractive to thoughtful people. When faith leadership makes truth claims, they should offer reasons for teaching those things. If their reason is “because we have declared it”, that deserves a second look. Even the Bible provides reasons for faith.
Given the tendency for humans to create and abuse authority, it’s probably helpful to weigh faith and ask: what is this based on? Thoughtful reasoning? Or “because I said so” reasoning?
Is it communal?
Churches usually have a bunch of people in them. When we say healthy faith should be communal, we don’t just mean that there should be a bunch of people involved. There are plenty of unhealthy faith bodies made of multiple people.
When we say that healthy faith is communal, we mean that faith helps people flourish when it enables connection and learning from others. The impulse to not question anything and totally conform to an arrogant authority is unhealthy, yes. But also unhealthy is the desire to protect ourselves from any influence from other human beings. Both of these things leave no room for authentic connection, friendship, discovery, and growth.
So a final question you might try asking to weight faith is: is this communal? Does it prevent me from connecting with others and learning from them? Does it cut me off from connection with other people, and all the learning and growth that can come from that?
This is by no means an exhaustive list of signs of unhealthy faith, but instead a loose starting point. We’ve heard many stories of abusive faith traditions, or sometimes experienced that kind of faith tradition ourselves. But from our perspective, good trees bear good fruit! Faith deserves to be picked up occasionally to see if it’s a healthy fruit, or something you’d rather not eat.
Interested in talking these things through with some folks in a similar boat? Our free class, Seek, is something we offer periodically as a space to consider faith in a safe space. It runs on Sunday afternoons for 5 weeks, is discussion based, and includes a free lunch. Get more info here: