Look Out for Friendly Fire! How Christians Can Be Our Own Worst Enemies

At the risk of much eye-rolling from my wife, I want to make a bold statement: I am allergic to housework. If I dare to vacuum the carpet, fold the laundry, or dust the TV cabinet, my eyes and nose will become puffy, and I will cough, splutter, and sneeze.

That’s because I’m allergic to dust. Any activity that stirs dust in the house will invoke an allergic reaction from me.

But what causes allergies? It’s actually our own bodies’ defenses. Our immune systems—primed to defend against external threats, such as viruses and germs—are tricked into turning against our bodies. Our own antibodies start attacking our own cells.

Having an allergy is being attacked by our own friendly forces.

But this is also true of being a Christian. We expect the attack to come from outside—pagans, militant atheists, Western individualists. But what if the attack comes from inside? From our own Christian friends?

Recently, I googled the names of two prominent Christian leaders and was surprised to see them called out on some Christian websites as satanic, false teachers, and heretics. One particular website seems to take gleeful delight in saying the most ungracious stuff about well-known Christians.

At the start of each year, I usually share on Facebook that I’m going to use the Bible in One Year (BIOY) app for my daily Bible readings. I get many “likes.” But each year, well-meaning Christian friends will also ask if it’s wise to use the BIOY app because it’s written by Nicky Gumbel of Alpha. I’m sure it’s my innocent-as-a-dove naiveté, but I still don’t know why I’m supposed to be afraid of Nicky Gumbel.

Last month, I appeared on a friend’s vodcast. By and large the comments were positive, or they had genuine points they needed to clarify. But there was a small proportion of comments from Christians that were unnecessarily negative and nasty.

Many of the above examples are ignorable online slights. But even in the real face-to-face world, Christian conflict is a sad daily reality. Last year, the minister at my own church stepped down from Christian ministry after years and years of negativity from church members and leaders finally wore him down.

Why does this happen? What causes Christians to do this to each other?

1. It’s a Biblical Problem

First, this is biblically normal. Take the Psalms, for example. I used to think that the Psalms were largely a collection of happy praise songs to God. But now that I’m reading them in a more comprehensive way (thanks to the BIOY!), I’m noticing verses I previously ignored. Large chunks of the Psalms describe how the psalmist is surrounded by enemies—many of whom were once friends—who are plotting violence and harm against him (Ps. 3; 4:8–10; 6:6–10; 7:6–17; 9:3–6; and so on).

In the Gospels, the consistent pattern is this: When Jesus does something good, his enemies respond by trying to kill him. For example, Jesus heals a man’s shriveled hand. As a result, the Pharisees begin plotting to kill him (Matt. 12:13–14). Quite the non-sequitur. The next time you do something good and someone hates you for it, just be glad they’re not plotting to kill you.

2. It’s a Sociological Problem

Second, it’s also a consistent sociological pattern. Henri Tajfel’s seminal “Social Identity Theory” explains that we naturally form tribes for status, belonging, and security. But in order to create an “us,” we also have to create a “them” to whom we attribute the worst possible social evils.

Yet it goes further than this phenomenon. Tribes will find a way to turn on themselves. Fierce loyalty is expected. Moral purity—according to the tribe’s social norms—is required. But there will be a moment when a tribe fears it has been infiltrated, that the evil comes from within. This is when self-appointed judges call out their own members and accuse them of heresy. In doing so, they demonstrate their own credentials and are elevated within the tribal hierarchy.

There will also be public shaming. Children will turn on parents. Students on professors. Friends on friends. Just witness history’s Cultural Revolution in China, the present call-out culture, and, yes, what Christians are doing to each other.

3. It’s a Spiritual Problem

But, third, there’s also a scary spiritual explanation. Mark Sayers, in his brilliant podcast This Cultural Moment (from season 3, episode 5), explains that this is how spiritual warfare works. Often when we think of spiritual warfare, we imagine Satan attacking us in a full-blown frontal attack, complete with CGI effects, blood, and gore.

But Sayers explains that this isn’t how an underpowered insurgent enemy operates. Instead, insurgents spread half-truths, gossip, and misinformation to spark infighting among its foes. And that’s what Satan does to the church of Jesus Christ. He spreads rumors, feeds our fears, breaks down trust—enough so that we turn on each other and implode from within.

So how can we combat these tactics? Maybe a good place to start would be with the log in our own eye (Matt. 7:3). In our well-placed efforts to protect the truth of the gospel (Acts 20:28–31), we might unnecessarily target our own Christian brothers and sisters (cf. Mark 9:38–40).

Too Much Time

Interestingly, some present cures for allergies now include being exposed to more dirt, germs, and pathogens. We need to retrain our immune systems to distinguish between legitimate and innocent threats.

Perhaps it’s the same with us as Christians. If we only mix within our Christian bubble—church on Sundays, midweek Bible study groups, and so on—we risk inoculating ourselves from the world outside. And when this happens, we have too much time to turn our defense systems on ourselves.