Do you follow Christians or Christ? Group psychology, the Goldilocks Zone and the potential dangers of church

Bosch, Hieronymus — The Garden of Earthly Delights, central panel — Detail Egg


This article is primarily targeted at Christians but has relevant information for all. Groupthink is a risk for each and every one of us. We’ve all fallen for it. We can easily fall into this trap. Thankfully Christ subjected himself to scapegoating and being marginalised for all of us who are unable to stand the terror or the lure posed by the crowd mind.

What would you do if a friend who brought you to Christ ended up cheating on his wife and violently beating his kids? What would you do if the Christian colleague at work who invited you to church was behind a financial scandal at her work? What would you do if the church you had attended for 20 yrs was shown to have repeatedly covered up instances of sexual abuse, shattering the lives of victims? What if you were converted by some evangelist who was later exposed to be a paedophile involved in money laundering?

Bosch, Hieronymus — The Garden of Earthly Delights, central panel — Detail Men upside down (upper left)

These are real questions to face. Real discussions to be had. If Christ ultimately isn’t the reason why you’re a Christian then you shouldn’t expect that Christ will be the reason stopping you from falling away when times get tough.

Betrayal hurts. It’s painful. It’s painful being let down. It’s painful not getting expectations met. Yet, God can use evil wolves for his good and his purpose (Gen. 50:20). People like Sampson or even Saul.

Don’t get me wrong. Church is important. Elders have a role as shepherds of the flock (1 Peter 5:1–4). We must not forget to gather with other Christians (Heb. 10:25). Being a Christian is a communal thing (Acts 2:42–47). We enter the family of God as his sons and daughters. Paul said to imitate him as he follows Christ (1 Cor 11:1).


Yet, amongst the sheep there are wolves (Acts 20:17–37). Amongst our hearts for God there are wicked prickly thorns. Despite our passion there is blindness. Although we are willing to risk things in life for Christ our desire to be part of a group is very important. We love to find idols to look up to, groups to feel part of, communities to give us a sense of self identity.

Therein lies the risk. The people of Corinth would divide over which church leader they followed (1 Cor 3:3–23). Some Peter, some Apollos, some Paul. Today, many Christians will more readily defend a church leader over God’s existence. A view on politics, baptism, predestination, spiritual gifts, the end times, creationism debated amongst Christians versus being prepared to defend Christ’s death and resurrection or divinity before an unbeliever or even making friends with a Christian of a different theological standing. We’d rather spend time in endless church policy and committee meetings than actually teaching others about the uniqueness of Christianity.

This is a result of groupthink. Of group blindness. Of wanting to be secure in a sub group of Christians rather than being ready to get your hands dirty on the most important issues of all.

Is anyone perfect? No. We’re not serving Christ for our own perfection but for what he has done for us. Am I saying these other issues are not important? Not at all. They need to be discussed and will cause differences.

Rather, I am saying groupthink skews priorities. It encourages dichotomous, black and white thinking in areas where the evidence is perhaps more grey. Psychologists have long written about the dangers of cognitive distortions through black and white thinking. Some people can make idiotic and sage comments within 2 minutes of each other. Understand why someone thinks different to you and that your leader could be wrong. Learning how to operate in this grey area is referred to as the Goldilocks Zone by psychologist Dr. Jeremy ShapiroSomeone might have a different view to you on some secondary doctrines, does that stop you from being being friends or being able to help the poor with them or reach the lost together? Very rarely! Even if you can’t be in the same church week to week due to secondary differences you can still show primary similarities are most important in your heart for the lost and friendship.

Source: Shapiro 2015.


Don’t go out of your way to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The church and Bible still exist due to a long history of twisted, moronic and arrogant people like us who God through his providence still used. They said many wise things and did many foolish things. The same people. Don’t give them more respect than they deserve. History is filled with Christians acting horrendously to one another.

Perhaps someone from another denomination knows more than your pastor on world events. Perhaps they are a better preacher or know more about a particular doctrine or are better at reaching the lost or more politically or self aware. Stop putting our leaders or heroes on a pedestal while we close everything else off.

Don’t look to them as to the reason why you go to church or follow Christ. Church is a means through which Christ extends his witness to the world. A vehicle to serve him. A fallen community saved by God’s grace. It is a means to Christ not an end itself.


Groups love to find scapegoats. Girard’s mimetic scapegoat theory outlines this. We desire what the collective wants and build our identity on hating a particular person or idea. Christ was a scapegoat, the crowds hated him in the end as they shouted with passion for his death. That’s why we come up with all sorts of funny names and titles for people from other denominations and would rather spend our time criticising other groups over trivialities or shutting people off who have beliefs we’re not sure about. It’s about the us and them mentality that can lead to brainwashing as Dr. Joost Merloo highlighted in the Rape of the Mind and echoes the ideas raised in the Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.

According to Le Bon, “The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.” Notice who the crowds make their victim? Whoever destroys their illusions. Maybe it’s the person who questions you on a theological point you’d never heard or asks a question about how your church clique operates you’ve never bothered to consider. Does this make you extraordinary evil or different? No. It’s something we all do! We have to know our human tendencies and risks.

When a fellow believer makes a comment that doesn’t adhere to our favourite spiritual leader’s viewpoint, we instantly get uncomfortable and shut them off. The group identity puffs up our egos. We love the status of being in church positions of authority and will more readily tell you why our denomination is the best than we will speak to a New Ager about Christ or make friends with someone who has a different view on creation. We forget in making scapegoats we’re all following the same scapegoat- Christ.

Christ was a controversial figure. The political elites hated him. He spent time with women with a broken track record (Luke 7:36–50), men who had engaged in dodgy financial dealings (Luke 19:1–10). He’d rather live by love and truth than be part of a group at all costs.

It’s time to embrace the discomfort of getting your hands dirty. Explore a different view. Spend time with different people. Engage on the big issues first before the petty ones. We’re called to carry our cross, to follow the path of the scapegoat who was Christ.

We can only expect to be marginalised and shut off. Yet, the challenge is in the courage of our actions and in the response to hostility. For we are called to avoid complaining (Phil 2:11–15), to trust God’s will in all things as we respond gracefully (1 Thess. 5:16–18), yet to be courageous and keep fighting (Eph. 6:10–20). It is a balance.

Don’t find your identity in a good preacher or your church position or how many years you have been to a certain church or the size of your denomination or your ability to show your denomination is the best. That’s not what you’re called to. Christ is your King and you’re called to follow him even if that means you go against the Christian conventions of your time.

Don’t let human structures and institutions get in the way of the ultimate reason you are here. Are they helpful and important? Sure. They are however vehicles comprised of imperfect humans. To those quarreling and disputing over which church leader to follow in 1 Corinthians, Paul called for conduct to the driven by love (1 Cor 13), following Christ (1 Cor. 3:11), the fundamental importance of Christ and him crucified over the physical act of baptising (1 Cor 1:17) transforming our spiritual vision of the world (1 Cor 2:15) through the power of the resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:3–14) which Paul rigorously sought to defend to unbelievers.

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