People Are Leaving The Church To Save Their Faith. What?!

Have you ever heard of someone leaving the church in order to save their faith? That seems so paradoxical, yet it is true for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Countless articles, studies, blogs, and books have examined this phenomenon, the reasons behind it, and what the church could do in response. People keep trying to get the church, especially Protestant, evangelical churches to change. But most churches have turned a blind eye, preferring to blame those who have left, saying they were never true Christians to begin with, or that they prefer their sinful lives. But is that true?

People Have Been Leaving for Decades

Pastors, sociologists, academics, and researchers started conducting surveys and research about this trend decades ago. In the 1990’s, the trend was identified: people were starting to leave the church in large numbers. In 2003, Andrew Strom wrote an online treatise called “The Out of Church Christians” about the phenomenon occurring around the world. He quoted David Barrett, an author for the World Christian Encyclopedia, who estimated that there were 112 million churchless Christians worldwide and that this number would double by 2025.

George Barna was one of the first to study this trend. In 2006, he published a book about it called “Revolution” claiming the trend was growing rapidly and would transform the church.  From 2008 to 2014, the Barna Group interviewed more than 20,000 people trying to understand the American public and they published their findings in their latest book, “Churchless: How to Understand the Unchurched and How to Connect with Them.” They characterize the U.S. population as 49% actively churched, 10% minimally churched, 33% de-churched, and 8% purely unchurched.

The Pew Research Group has conducted their own surveys, and in 2012 they found that “one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today.” They call this group the “Nones”, which has now evolved into the “Dones”. Researcher and sociologist Josh Packard, Ph.D., co-wrote a book with Ashleigh Hope, called, “Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why the dechurched left… and what they’re hoping to find.” They identified a group they call the “Dones.” These are people who, it turns out, were very active in church leadership–full-time workers, lay leaders, Sunday school teachers, elders–but have left the institutionalized church because they are just “done” with the politics, the power plays, hypocrisy, lack of depth, and performance-based church services.

Leaving the Church but not their Faith

While the statistics paint a broad picture of the current state of the churchless, I think the actual stories by former church leaders and member are more impactful. For example, former church leader, Tony Steward, wrote a blog post about why he left the church. He said, “I’m relearning honesty after being in that world as a profession for more than 10 years. I’m still trying to find out what I think, what it means, and how a real faith in Jesus still exists in my life. I’m detoxing and looking for what remains that is real, that is love, and that is true.”

Another example is Tom Schultz, co-author of the book, “Why People Don’t Want to Go to Church” talks about his own research. He said, “The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn.” He also quotes John Packard, who recounts one of his interviewees as saying, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.”

Like Tony and the millions of others, I too left the church. Unlike Tony who is just beginning his journey, I left almost 10 years ago. Why? I couldn’t find God at church in the midst of all the church programs, projects, classes, and ultra structured Sunday services. I was tired of people hiding behind the facade of self righteousness, as they denied their humanity, preferring to quote Scripture than to admit their fallibility. However, I did find fulfilling community in a small home group that was not affiliated with any church. I enjoyed soul quenching conversations about spirituality, faith, humanity, and life with quality people of different perspectives, hurts, joys, foibles, and journeys they were willing to share. Although I moved away too far to continue being a part of this group, I still commune with my Savior.

Perhaps now we can see the churchless differently. They too are people who long for authentic experiences with God, the Creator, and Jesus, the Savior. They don’t want pat answers to questions and they certainly don’t want anyone to just quote Scripture at them. They are young and old, Millennial, Gen X, Boomer, you name it, they are people who long for authenticity, deeper relationships where people can express their doubts, concerns, and questions about God and life. They just couldn’t find what they were looking for in church.

By Guest Blogger, CK Miller

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23 thoughts on “People Are Leaving The Church To Save Their Faith. What?!

  1. Bruce and I were just talking about this tonight at dinner and wondering if it was time to become church-goers again. This article will give us more to discuss. Thanks, Shah. You always post thought-provoking material.

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  2. Oh dear. What people are doing becomes what God must be doing. In the Bible there is revealed religion and man-made religion. There is life and there is death. Man-made religion can look like it’s in touch with the Divine (magicians of Egypt) it can adopt the same form as revealed religion but knows nothing of the power (2 Timothy 3:5). Death can look like life for a while or, initially, possibly even better (parable of the two builders at the end of the sermon on the mount, Matt 7).

    What there isn’t in the Bible is spirituality, in the sense in which we use that term. Outside of Christ there is death, nothing else, Ephesians 2:1; John 17:3.

    The Church (the one Christ is building, not everything that calls itself by that name or that tries to look like it) is Christ’s body. Individuals are added to local Churches by the Holy Spirit, 1 Corinthians 12:13. We love each other, serve each other in the context of the local Church, Romans 12:3-8 & 1 Corinthians 12, and do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, Hebrews 10:25, in fact we exhort one another more and more as we see the day approaching.

    Proverbs 18:1 tells us: “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; He rages against all wise judgment.” Accountability to fellow believers is not easy, especially if they are faithful in wounding us, but those in whom God’s Spirit lives submit to it. Some believers have to live without it but, if we accept the teaching of scripture that none of us has all the gifts we need to become the Christians we are capable of being those isolated believers must lose out, although God no doubt encourages them in other ways.

    I’m sorry CK Miller never found his way into a true Church or, if he did, that he chose to separate himself from it. I’m sorry also that he seeks to rationalise it and even pretends that somehow this separation from the body of Christ is as a result of his experience being more authentic than that of others.

    I think what he writes is revealing also about the Church growth movement. It adds numbers but not necessarily disciples, as other Barna surveys have revealed.

    Once again, I am grateful not to live in a society in which religion is popular.

    Ian Jemmett

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    1. Ian, I could not have asked for a better reply to illustrate the research I quote in the above blog. The assumption made by those who are currently part of a church that those who leave are inherently in error shows their narrow mindedness. Is it too great a task to consider there are grave shortcomings within the church that cause pain so great as to drive others—millions of others—to leave?

      Are you a worshipper of Christ or a worshipper of the Bible? If I was hungry would you quote a Scripture at me telling me that I have no right to hunger? If I needed shelter would you throw a Scripture at me to suggest that I committed some sin as to justify the situation upon which I find myself? If I was naked would you quote a Scripture to shame me of my nakedness?

      Is it too much to ask that you actually consider that these millions of people who left the church have been hurt, insulted, shamed, or mistreated in some way? Is it too much to ask those within the church to consider not just quoting Scripture, which is too often done to appear self-righteous, but actually seek after the sheep that have left the flock?

      The point of this post is not about me. But to point out the fact that millions have left the church, and yet the church seems incapable of realizing there is something terribly wrong with her. If a secular business lost 10% to 20% of its customers, they would do whatever it took to find the cause of the problem and fix it, lest the company continue to decline, and eventually fail. Yet the church seems incapable of doing this, and if the trend of people exiting the church continues, she will not survive.

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      1. Dear CK

        I can’t pretend to understand what in my response to your post leads you to ask the particular questions you do. If I am hungry, I eat. Why would I expect you to do anything else?

        Of course I know that people leave Churches feeling all sorts of things. Who doesn’t know that? In Genesis 3 100% of the human race walked out on God, choosing instead to accept the persuasions of the competition (to follow your commercial analogy). How should God have reacted? By working out what he had done wrong? That thought doesn’t seem to have crossed God’s mind.

        My point is not that Churches do not need to repent. They do, continually. My point is that despite all of its (ie, our) failures, the true Church is what Christ is building and that he builds it by adding living stones, not by taking them away.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Ian, for some reason I cannot reply to your last comment, so I am posting it here instead.

      The point I was trying to make by asking the questions regarding hunger, etc, was that problems are not solved by quoting Scripture. Just because you quote Scripture at someone doesn’t prove anything. Yet, Christians have been so conditioned to think that they can just quote the Bible to prove they are right. The Bible teaches great principles that we should live by. We should talk about the principles themselves and not just quote the Scriptural reference.

      Regarding your comment about staying in the church and not leaving, even the greatest of men in history felt the need to leave the established form of rule, and with great results. We ought to have that freedom, lest tyranny result. For example, Martin Luther wrote his 95 treatises against the Catholic Church. From it the Protestant Churches were born. The Church leaders at the time considered him rebellious, yet he sparked a revolution that change the Body of Christ for the better. Another example are the founding fathers of the United States who determined it necessary to establish their independence from England. The abuses King George III perpetrated against the 13 colonies were egregious. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and all of the others who signed the Declaration of Independence found it necessary to break from his control. They were considered heretics, and dissenters, yet from their actions the United States were born.

      Yes, the admonition in the Bible is to gather with fellow believers and to use our gifts for the benefit of others and to the glory of God. But we must have the freedom to leave when abuses of power are so great as to cause emotional, psychological, or physical harm. We have seen what happens when those in leadership abuse their power. We need not look any farther than the Catholic Church to see a perfect example of this. These same types of abuses occur in Protestant churches as well. It is necessary for their to be a system to lodge grievances, to address abuses of power, and keep a balance of power in the church. I have yet to see a good system in place within any churches. Too often I have seen pastors and leaders abuse their positions, all the while proof texting with Scripture to justify their actions.

      CK

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      1. Dear CK

        If I may say, I really think you are trying to have your cake and eat it. “Problems are not solved by quoting scripture” – but they are solved by correctly applying scripture, which must start somewhere – even if that somewhere is only in our own minds – by recalling the very words of scripture and engaging with their meaning.

        “Just because you quote Scripture at someone doesn’t prove anything.” Is that a point you would have made to Jesus had you been with him in the wilderness when he was being tempted by Satan? Quoting scripture was pretty much all he did on that occasion – with great effect. On the other hand, Eve quoted God’s words to Satan in the Garden of Eden but allowed herself to be persuaded that they were not true. So there is more to using God’s words effectively than simply repeating their form but, combined with faith and correctly understood, they are powerful enough to be capable of solving problems all on their own.

        According to https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/pnt/pnt08.cfm all the books of the New Testament bar 2 quote from the Old Testament. Most quotations occur in the book of Revelation. Such quotations are often used to settle a point at issue. Was Jesus and were the various New Testament writers wrong to do this?

        Sloganising doesn’t get us anywhere, I agree. It is a method for closing down not opening up discussion. You may wish to point the finger at people who use phrases from scripture in that way but you are guilty of it also. “…problems are not solved by quoting Scripture,” is, as far as its effect goes, simply a slogan.

        “We should talk about the principles themselves and not just quote the Scriptural reference.” What are you advocating here that I have not also advocated from the outset of this exchange? Scripture does teach great principles, one of which – full identification with and participation in the body of Christ as an outworking of our being joined to Jesus by faith and in readiness for his return and presentation of that Church to himself as a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, Ephesians 5:27 – was seriously violated by your original post.

        Your appeal to the actions of Martin Luther is without legitimacy. Martin Luther never advocated what you are doing and he, along with all the magisterial reformers, certainly would not have granted you the freedom to be Churchless that you claim is not only your right but an expression of an authentic Christianity. Martin Luther sought to reform the Church not to undermine it nor to separate himself from it. He replaced membership of an organisation that called itself a Church with membership of another.

        Of course, Church identification should never be a matter of coercion either by Church or State and certainly not by the two of them acting together. But nobody is advocating that. The point at issue here is whether separating ourselves from the body of Christ is ever what you claim it is – a means of preserving authentic Christianity.

        I have on my shelves a book about bad cars. One is the Ford Edsel. In the opinion of the author it was an absolute dud (all may not agree, I have no opinion). How should we react to that – give up on the idea of car ownership altogether, or stick to buying well made cars?

        Jesus Christ is building his ekklesia – his called out assembly. He promises his presence to those who make disciples, teaching them to obey all things that he commanded. He will return for his ekklesia. It is wrong to pretend the Holy Spirit is separating people from the assembly. Salvation is described as our being baptised by the Holy Spirit into Christ’s body, with all the relational implications of that picture of the Church holding good. If you find what you are content with in your place of separation from that body, you should be under no illusion that what you have found is an authentic expression of the Christian faith.

        CK, I don’t write this out of a desire to anger you or simply to express a disagreement with you. I want more than anything else for you to come to know Christ as your saviour. But I think what you wrote in your original post is so pernicious that it must not go unchallenged. Silence would imply that your analysis might just be true or that it may be no more than a matter of perspective. This cannot be the case if God has spoken.

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      2. After Jesus was tempted, Angels came and attended to his needs. So even though Jesus used scripture from Deuteronomy to resist temptation, his hunger was not alleviated. Angels came afterward and attended to his needs, one of which was his hunger. Thus my main point, quoting Scripture is not enough, it requires actions to be taken as well.

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  3. There is a way that seems right to a man…………this can happen to the unchurched. It’s up to us to determine which church teaches the pure Bible message, expounded as well as possible by a human being, led by the Holy Spirit.

    Attending church causes accountability to fellow believers, fellowship and refreshes us with God’s word on a regular basis. Not attending a Bible base church leads us to spin in our own tight circle and follow our own way which seems right, but might end badly.

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    1. The message of Jesus was to love people. The Bible didn’t even exist when Christ walked this earth. I have seen more people change when they are loved than when someone just quotes a Bible verse at them. My point is that it is more important to love people than to focus so much on the Bible that all you do is walk around quoting Bible verses, but do nothing to feed, clothe, shelter, and comfort your neighbor.

      The principles God teaches in His word are buried deep into my soul. Just because I don’t attend a church doesn’t mean I have forgotten how to help my fellow man. I know how to listen when people are struggling within problems. I know how to give respect to those who are downtrodden and marginalized. I still freely give to people and organizations who need help. I respect and love my spouse daily. I don’t think I need anyone to hold me accountable for these actions. I have truly learned what it means to love people, and I practice it every day.

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      1. Dennis, I wrote that sentence to make the point that the message of Jesus was to love people. He did not quote the OT without taking action. Jesus did not walk around just quoting Bible verses. The church should be a place of action to love people. The church is not just a place contained within four walls focusing only on the Bible. It should be a positive force in this world, one of love, one that points people to Jesus. Christians too often quote the Bible to just prove they are right about something, and not use it as a guide to learn how to love people.

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  4. As a couple who has been searching for a new congregation with which to worship for more than 3 years now, I can tell you that we wish fervently to get settled so that we can both serve and be ministered to. We have visited more than 40 congregations during that time. Our problem is different than any described above. We long fervently for a place to worship that does not assault our senses with loud music,classes that fail to teach doctrine, unprepared ministers, memorized or read script, etc. We would LOVE, however, to hear more scripture pertinent to our lives, since in the word and our prayers is life itself. We do not need church entertainments nor fluff. We do need, however, a place to worship with likeminded people.
    Is that asking too much, or is the fault in us?

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  5. Laine, the fault is not in you. I think the entire point of the post is that the “fault” as you call it is on the churches doing the things you highlight in order to bring in more followers but their purposes are more about financial gains than about spiritual teaching. It is a big problem. I pray you will find a church that ministers to you in all of the ways you need it to.

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  6. We have personally been on this journey outside the organized church for over 8 years. Being in “a church” from birth and continuing to “belong” to one or another for 40 years, it has taken many years to realize and find that The Church is actually round and not flat as we were told. The Church is not a flat surface one may travel too far upon and accidentally fall over its edge into oblivion in our quest for Truth and desire to see a bigger God.
    To many, our quest actually did take us too far and they believe we fell into error and have treated us as though we no longer exist simply because we no longer attend their church of choice.
    In our travels toward the horizon we have literally just “crossed the street” to attend another fellowship where “God was moving” and found our previous “church friends and associates” shunning us, cursing our future, and pronouncing we were not even allowed back on the property because we had the audacity to believe the Church is round, not flat, that their church is not The Church and that God can be sought and found outside their denomination.
    That’s OK. Really. Because, in losing sight of one body of land, we have found so many others inhabited by a multitude of sojourners looking passionately for the City not made with hands, for a Reality beyond men’s limited beliefs about the size of God’s Kingdom and where He can and can’t be found. Happy Trails, Pilgrims- in- search- of -the- Church- without- walls!

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  7. Nina, Laine, memeethemuse, and Ellen, thank you for your comments. I appreciate you engaging in the topic. I find it encouraging that this topic of conversation is growing and that I continue to see more blog posts, books and research addressing this issue.

    Thank you for sharing your struggles and experiences. The more we get this out there, I think we will begin to see change.

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    1. CK,
      I’ve been reading all these comments, and the disconnect between those seeking spirit-lead growth and those simply running a religious institution seems to be those who keep their eyes on Christ and those who allow their “jobs” to come before Him. Care of a campus and an institution, before the care of the congregation, leaves room for all the things that can go wrong in a body of believers. It doesn’t matter how large or small the congregation, all eyes, hearts, and desires should be centered on our Savior, as best we can.

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  8. Hi CK,

    My wounds from “The Organization Referred to as Church” have been deep and painful. I was saved at the age of 19 but did not attend church until I was 20.

    It all started good, but after a while the entrenched started gunning for me. I guess the fact that I did not worship the leaders and that I smoked cigarettes threw them off. I remember thinking, “Man I quit drinking and drugs and all other kinds of wickedness. Why are they on me about smoking?” The situation escalated to the point where it was clear I was no longer welcome. (Funny is that the lady who was on me the most about smoking never congratulated me on quitting, even though I still know her to this day.)

    I guess the mass brought the issue up with my friend Bob Glaus. Bob, who was a pillar of the Church (at that time probably more respected than the pastor), told them, “If Dennis is not good enough for this Church, I’m not good enough”. Bob soon after resigned from his roles at that church and I followed him to the Mega Church. It was quite a scandal. Imagine the second in command walking?

    But those wounds run deep. I could never figure out why a group of people who claim Christianity would hammer people who just couldn’t quite fit in? Here they were judging me for smoking, while eating McDonalds hamburgers – way worse for the “temple” than a cigarette. If you disagree, compare a smoker who smokes 20 cigarettes a day to a person eating 20 Big Macs a day. I know who will die first! Big Mac contestant might make it a month.

    After that I moved on the The Mega Church where Shah was a pastor. I met Shah through my wife. And that Organization Referred to as Church was something else. I remember one time Big Dog was being introduced by an underling. The underling went on and on about how great Big Dog was. To the point of saying several times, “Come, learn at his feet”. I thought for sure when Big Dog took the podium he was going to lightly rebuke Underling with something like, “Thanks Underling, but please know, we all learn at Jesus’ feet. I’m just a sinner like anyone else”. But no, Big Dog just rolled into his sermon. Baffling. And the group that started the church that shunned me was from that Mega Church and maybe that leader worship is what I lacked and why they disliked me so much.

    Then there was the cliques at the Mega Church. Again, like a lot of others, I was not in. Neither was my future wife. One time a girl told my wife who was trying to befriend her, “I have enough friends and I do not have time for you. I only have enough time for the friends I have now so don’t try”. Church people…gotta love ‘em.

    From that point I spiraled down into outright hatred of Church. For years I just sat in my seat and stewed. Cut to the heart. I never stopped going to Church. But for many years I was extremely angry.

    Even a few weeks ago I was at the new members meeting at the church we attend now. I was introducing myself when a Pillar came in. In mid sentence the greeter, who was welcoming me to the new members meeting, stopped speaking to me and turned and started slobbering all over the Pillar. And the Pillar soaked it right up. I was so embarrassed -awkwardly standing there disrespected and humiliated.

    I must say that where I find peace in the Church now is knowing that they are sinners like me and that in being disrespected I’m in good company. I remembered Jesus. Can you imagine the disrespect He suffered? I mean, I’m just a man. He is the Creator of the Universe. How disrespectful He was treated and I get to share in His suffering.

    Most of all I refrain from judging church people because it says in the Bible that if I judge anyone at any point I judge myself. And if I hold people to their sins against me, God will hold my sins against Him. How could I ever atone for my sins? 10,000 talents is a lot for a slave to earn.

    For I have disrespected people. I have been a Pillar and soaked up a boot lick while some poor bastard sat there getting trampled on. And I have cliqued out people who were trying to get in. And I ragged on a guy who struggled with same sex attraction after watching some lesbian porn. How wicked I am! What a bony finger I point at them.

    “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

    I agree, Church is all messed up. It’ll be that way as long as sinners are attending. And that means it will be messed up until Jesus takes away our capacity to sin. So instead of judging them I’ll ask God to have mercy on them and me.

    PS Our church has a care group titled “Church Hurts – Healing from Wounds Caused by the Church” Maybe these blogs you are writing are getting through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dennis, good for you for following the path you chose to follow. I do hope you will speak up against abuses in power and hurtful practices in your current church.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. we are not to forsake the assembly, and we are to honor the shepherds whom God has appointed over us to protect our souls.

    However, there are times (the Reformation comes to mind), that the Great Shepherd saves us from minor “Lords”, by leading us elsewhere to feed on truth.

    And, temporarily, that place may be in a small group with authentic servants of Jesud Christ. And “temporarily” could mean days, months or years.

    The “assembly” need not be a tax-exempt, non-profit organization with a CEO Lord whom all obey without question – the assembly is the body of Christ, whether it’s an illegal house church in China or Iran, or a room in Beverly Hills.

    It was good for the sheep to leave the Roman Catholic Church, a word-faith church, a prosperity-only church, a “tongues is THE evidence” church, a “give me all your money” church, a “perpetual deliverance” church, …

    …but most of all, it is good to leave a church where the Word is not taught, the Gospel and the Cross is rarely heard, and the sheep are fleeced.

    It may take time to find the right “organization” to join.

    Meanwhile, where two or three are gathered in His name – he is there.
    He truly is.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Amen Shah,

    Ezekial 34 comes to mind. I’ve written much on this and have been labeled as clone wolf Christian,”, “vagrant Christian “.
    In Ezekial God says, “Woe to you Shepherds who only feed yourselves”, here God judges the selfish shepherds and the “Fat Sheep” who butt the other sheep with head and shoulders”( talking about church bullying.)
    I’ve also written, “How to avoid a Christ less Christianity”, warning to listen to how often an undershepherd talks about his Master, The Good Shepherd, and to know His voice, don’t follow another as Jesus said, “But run from them”.

    I lived in Flagstaff Arizona for 8 years,one of the least churches cities in America, and tried all the Protestant churches there. I assure you that I found none that came close to the intimacy I feel with Christ in my heart.
    I and my family resolved it was better to not go to church than to go to the wrong church and risk becoming like them.
    It was there and then that I started blogging about Christ as an expression of worship. I had resolved to give Christ the Central preeminence I sought but couldn’t find in churches, and which He infinitely deserves.
    We moved away and currently have a place for now, though one light among many that are flickering.

    We’ve left our first love, Jesus Christ.

    Thanks for writing about this.

    God bless

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  11. I don’t think the fact that Christ addressed his hunger in one way and his temptations in another undermines the potency of quoting scripture and, in appropriate contexts, relying solely on God’s words. That is what Jesus did when tempted and it was very effective. Some problems are solved by the effective use of God’s words. The Bible is the Sword of the Spirit. It would not qualify to be called that if it lacked potency.

    Nobody disagrees with you that where we read an imperative we should obey. But the evidence does not support your assertion that merely quoting scripture does not solve anything. There are situations in which it does.

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