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Thursday, 30 October 2014

The devil didn't make me do it: an appeal to Christadelphians

Over time, in discussions with Christadelphians, I have repeatedly encountered the accusation that Christians who affirm the existence of a personal devil do so in order to avoid taking responsibility for their sins. This idea needs to be addressed.

I recently listened to a talk delivered at the Orlando Christadelphian Gathering in March 2013 entitled, 'The Devil made me do it'. The speaker was one whom I grew up calling 'Uncle' and for whom I have the utmost respect. He framed the talk as a courtroom session in which the audience was invited to judge whether the defense 'The devil made me do it' has any validity. A foundational assumption of the case he presented was that professing Christians who believe in the devil's existence do hold the position that 'The devil made me do it' and thereby attempt to transfer blame for their actions to an outside entity.

A quick Google search reveals that the sentiments expressed by this speaker are widespread in the worldwide Christadelphian community. The Glasgow-Kelvin Christadelphian ecclesial website says this on its page about the devil:
You know the phrase, "The devil made me do it."  This is the popular view, that some kind of supernatural being or force for evil makes us do things that we would not normally contemplate.
A meditation on the Tidings magazine website states:
This problem of finding somebody upon whom to blame our problems must be the reason so many people want to believe in the devil — for then we can shift the blame by saying, “The devil made me do it.”
The widely distributed Christadelphian teaching manual Bible Basics describes belief in the devil as inventing "an imaginary person outside our human natures who is responsible for our sins". 

Referring specifically to the Jehovah's Witnesses' belief in the devil, Watkins writes,
"[The devil] relieves them of the great burden of guilt that they would otherwise have to carry. If they lose their devil a great load of sin comes down on their shoulders, for which they cannot escape the blame."1
Another writer, not a Christadelphian but from a group called Christian Restoration Centre with similar beliefs, describes the devil in his thesis That Old Serpent called the Devil and Satan as "a convenient scapegoat to blame"2.

In another booklet entitled The Devil and Satan Defined, a Christadelphian writer states:
Unfortunately, current ideas upon the subject are astray from the Bible. It is taught that the devil is a superhuman monster, a fallen angel, who dominates the minds of humanity, inducing mankind to sin. The teaching induces fear of the devil, and also provides an excuse for sin by blaming it on him.
Nearly a century earlier, Williams had made the same point in his book, The World's Redemption:
Such men as commit murder and other crimes of the grosser sort, either from delusion or dishonesty, shift the blame from themselves to an imaginary supernatural devil; and they are encouraged in this cowardice by the popular religious leaders.
Such quotations could be multiplied, but these suffice to show that the accusation described at the beginning is widespread in Christadelphia. Since the saying "The devil made me do it" seems to be regarded as epitomizing the attitude of mainstream Christians toward their transgressions, it will be useful to trace the background of this phrase. I'm no linguist or etymologist, so I'm limited to what I can find on the Internet. On Google Books, the only occurrence of this exact phrase prior to 1965 was in a poem entitled Ode to the Devil written in the late 1700s by the British satirist John Wolcott (who used the pen name Peter Pindar). The line was made famous, however, by American television comedian Flip Wilson in the 1970s. Through The Flip Wilson Show, "The devil made me do it" became a national catchphrase and "a mainstay within the American cultural psyche"3.

A Google web search for the exact phrase "the devil made me do it" yields hits falling into three main categories:
1) Popular culture references
2) Christian sermons, blogs and articles
3) News stories referring to criminals who used the phrase as an excuse for their crimes

The widespread use of this phrase in popular culture today testify to the lasting influence it has had since Flip Wilson popularized it forty years ago. That criminals and sociopaths (including a missionary who molested children) use this phrase with seeming regularity to explain their actions is disturbing. However, neither of these could be considered fair and reliable sources for mainstream Christian teaching on the subject. For this we need to turn to the second category of Google hits to see what Christian writers are saying.

When we do this, it becomes clear that when Christian writers uses the phrase, "The devil made me do it," they almost invariably do so in order to refute this notion as unbiblical, even as they affirm the real, personal existence of the devil.

After referring to the excuse, "The Devil made me do it" as a "mistake", Boa and Bowman note,
Ironically, many people twist the biblical teaching about the Devil's role in temptation into an excuse for sin. The Devil can tempt you, but the Devil cannot make you do anything. (Sorry, Flip Wilson!) Furthermore, ever since we fell from our original innocence, temptations generally appeal to our own selfish desires and attitudes. As James says, 'Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust' (James 1:14 NASB). The Devil's role in tempting us to sin, then, does not diminish our responsibility in the matter. It's still our fault.4
An article on bible.org, having posed the question, 'Is the devil to blame for our sin and suffering?' emphasizes that it is wrong to blame the devil in order to remove our guilt. 
"Today, regardless of the various external sources of temptation (Satan and the world), the final source is our own sinful nature or the lusts of self-centered desires of our own hearts (Jam. 1:14-15)."
What could be clearer than this statement in a study on James 1:13 from studyjesus.com
The Lord never Himself tempts anyone to sin, but He does permit Satan to do so. And Satan finds within the natural man that which is ready to yield to his allurements. However, the Devil's temptations do not excuse the faltering sinner. All moral evil is chargeable to the doer thereof.
An article from In Touch Ministries warns against the danger of overemphasizing Satan's power:
Those who believe they are at Satan’s mercy deny themselves victory because they never make more than a halfhearted attempt to overcome temptation. This belief opens the door for all kinds of excuses: “I can’t help it”; “The Devil made me do it”; “There was no way I could say no.”
In an article about the devil addressed specifically to Christadelphians, Sir Anthony Buzzard highlighted the same points:
It must be emphasized that belief in Satan as an external spirit does not excuse us from responsibility for our sins or false beliefs. We cannot blame Satan for our errors, claiming that “the Devil made me do it.” We are responsible, with God’s help, for learning the Truth, and turning from our sinful ways.
In a devotional piece on the Daily Bread website, after referring to a case where a woman blamed Satan for her role in stealing from her church, a pastor (while allowing the possibility of Satan's involvement) described this blame-shifting as "faulty theology" and came to the conclusion that "When we sin, the blame lies within."

Another pastor, blogging about the phrase "The Devil made me do it", commented:
I don't know about you, but I don't need to devil to make me sin. I do it just fine on my own, thank you. Now he may talk and he may tempt and he may entice and he may try to shout out my reasons for obedience to God, but he does not and can not make me sin. If I sin, or rather when I sin, it's my own fault and I bear the responsibility...Being tempted does not equal being forced.
A question addressed on the GotQuestions resource website was, "Why is 'the devil made me do it' not a valid excuse?" Even the question presupposes that it is not! Yet another pastor addresses dangers found in some charismatic churches where sins are habitually blamed on demon possession. A similar sentiment can be found here.

Such comments could also be multiplied many times over. However, we have seen enough evidence to draw some basic conclusions.

1) The phrase "The devil made me do it" originates, not from Christian theologians or pastors, but from the realm of satire and comedy, from whence it became embedded in popular culture.
2) While individuals - including some Christians - may on occasion attempt to blame the devil for their sins, orthodox theologians and pastors overwhelmingly and unambiguously denounce such excuses and robustly affirm personal responsibility for sin.
3) Christadelphians have for decades been falsely claiming that 'mainstream Christians' regard the devil's influence as absolving them of moral responsibility - usually without even attempting to offer evidence for this claim.5

Sadly, this misrepresentation shows no signs of abating. Christadelphians continue to spread this caricature of Christian doctrine despite abundant evidence to the contrary lying just a few mouse-clicks or a visit to a library away. How are we to account for this phenomenon? It appears, in the first place, that many Christadelphians zealously oppose traditional Christian teaching which they have never actually studied for themselves in any depth. Instead they rely on secondhand reports from fellow Christadelphians which, in this case at least, have been shown to be woefully inaccurate. I used to be in this very boat myself.

Moreover, based on my own observation there seem to be other Christadelphians who know better (having read Buzzard's article, for instance) but who refrain from speaking out against this myth, and perhaps even subtly encourage it. This suggests the disturbing possibility that some Christadelphians are more zealous about denouncing 'mainstream Christianity' than they are about truth.

I hope that this suggested explanation is unfounded. The best way to prove it unfounded would be for Christadelphians, particularly those in prominent teaching positions in the community, to set the record straight and put an end to the slanderous misrepresentation of 'mainstream Christian' teaching about the devil which has plagued the Christadelphian community for so long.

Doing so will enable more effective dialogue between Christadelphians and other Christians on the subject of the devil. Biblically and theologically literate Christians are unlikely to find the Christadelphian view compelling if they perceive that their own view has been misunderstood and caricatured.

This then is my appeal to Christadelphians: please stop teaching that "The devil made me do it" is a theological position of mainstream Christianity.


1 Watkins, P. (1971). The Devil - the Great Deceiver. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, p. 42)
2 Hodson, B.C. (n.d.). That Old Serpent, the Devil and Satan, p. 99.
3 Smith-Shomade, B.E. (2002). Shaded Lives: African-American Women and Television. Rutgers University Press, p. 65.
4 Boa, K.D. & Bowman R.M., Jr. (2007). Sense and Nonsense about Angels and Demons. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p. 115.
5 As far as I can tell, of the writers quoted above, only Watkins offers any evidence for his claim. He denies that he is caricaturing the Jehovah's Witnesses' position, citing a discussion with Jehovah's Witnesses in which he was told that he was "blaming human nature too much" and that "The devil was the one to blame." However, a single anecdote from a chat with Jehovah's Witnesses (perhaps on the doorstep) hardly constitutes the kind of evidence needed to show that the 'devil made me do it' attitude pervades the teaching of the church.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think that what you say sounds very plausible. But there is something to consider : what a theologian or pastor might say can easily be very different than what individuals believe.
In recent travels throughout another country I was blessed with the opportunity to discuss with a number of people about their beliefs. On one hand, what they said would agree with you. They did not absolve responsibility, typically. But, for instances of reoccurring sin, such as with drug use, there was a shift in attitude and the sin became attributed to demonic / devil influence rather than because the individual had a life problem they needed to work out.
Because of that I see both confirmation and denial of what you say.

Unfortunately, what I do have to agree with is that oftentimes teaching is given and perhaps encouraged that can misrepresent what an individual believes.
It appears to me that we no longer live in an age where the church one attends necessarily reflects their beliefs. Thus, as you said, it is increasingly easy to assume someone's beliefs, possibly offend them, and be totally wrong.
I have found the typically best approach to be to get the other person speaking first. I ask questions. If they say the devil makes them do things, then I know. Otherwise I think it best to limit assumptions, because when I accidentally have them, I keep getting surprised with what individuals actually believe.

Tom said...

Thank you for that constructive comment. It is indeed correct that individuals can believe differently from what the church teaches. However, Christadelphians need to make that distinction clear when they seek to correct 'mainstream Christianity'. The 'devil made me do it' attitude clearly owes to some Christians following popular culture rather than the Bible and the teachings of the church.

Moreover, with sins in general including recurring sins, church teaching does affirm the devil's influence, whether direct or indirect. However, external influence does not provide a valid excuse or remove personal responsibility; nor is it in conflict with the individual having a life problem they need to work out.