Sunday, 6 December 2015

Think theology everybody!

Over the last few months I've become a member of several apologetics discussion boards. With a small number of exceptions, I've been shocked and depressed at the poor quality of debate. Too often it seems to consist of people trading the same lines-and, worse, insults-time and time again, and issues just go round in circles. There is little sense of people genuinely trying to get to grips with biblical truth and seeking to argue it in a persuasive way.

However, one discussion particularly caught my attention. Someone-who said they were a Christian-was arguing that what they labelled 'creationists' were not real Christians and were a fringe cult due to believing in 'creation' and this meant that they were delusional and brainwashed.

Creation and evolution is a whole other subject. What struck me was that the author had totally misunderstood what makes someone a Christian. A Christian is someone who knows that their only basis of salvation is by faith in God that, entirely through through His grace and kindness, we are made clean and holy by Jesus dying in our place. What we believe about creation is important, as are what we believe about many other things, but it has nothing to do with our salvation.

What struck me even more was that none of the Christians in the discussion picked up on this issue-that the author had fundamentally misunderstood what makes someone a Christian. Instead they launched in a debate about different creation vs evolution perspectives.

Would that this was the only example of missing the point, but it isn't. I remember some years ago a Christian magazine ran a letter from someone arguing that Christians should not use transport but should walk everywhere. In support of this they quoted Colossians 2:6 'As you have received Christ Jesus, so walk in Him'. As if that wasn't bizarre enough, the next issue ran letters in response from several Christians, all arguing along the lines of 'what about people who live in villages and need transport to travel? God would understand'. None of the letters said 'the writer of the original letter has misunderstood the verse. This is theological nonsense'. The next issue of the magazine ran a letter of response from the original contributor, saying that he had concerns over the poor level of theological understanding of many Christians and so deliberately written the letter, knowing it was a total misunderstanding of the verse, to test out what sort of responses would be sent-and was the fact that no one had picked up on the misuse of the verse only confirmed his concerns.

One of the reasons for this lack of being able to understand the truth and use it well is that in too many churches, even ones that passionately believe in biblical truth, having a real foundation of understanding is seen as something for leaders. What we see in the bible is very different. A letter like Romans which is one of the most key books in the bible in giving an understanding of salvation by grace not law, but which uses complex arguments to make its point, was not addressed to leaders. Instead it says in chapter one that the letter is 'to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints'. The same applies across most of the other letters. They are sent, not to leaders, but to the church as a whole in particular towns. Grasping hold of great truth was seen as the normal expectation of being a believer in Christ.

This fact was being addressed in some places in recent decades. In some families of churches, it looked like the issue of making sure Christians had a good theological understanding-a good basis of what they believed and why-was taken seriously. There was a new expectation that making sure people were taught well was a normal part of maturing as a Christian but I think there is a danger of the tide turning and it is something we need to pay attention to.

In the last few years, I've been conscious of a growing assumption that it's really only leaders who can be expected to understand theology well. Websites and events have sprung up that, although not labelled as just being for leaders, have operated in different ways with the assumption that only leaders would want to participate and, in some cases, have only allowed leaders to contribute articles to sites, not leaving any space for others to debate or discuss what is said. I've also picked up a growing trend of comments along the lines of 'people in our churches wouldn't be aware of/be interested in the debate on issue x', which begs the question 'what does it say about the level of teaching/maturity in your church that you think that most people in it have no interest in sound theology?'

The bible takes the opposite view. Yes, it sets out that leaders have a core responsibility to lay foundations of biblical truth, but not with the aim of them being the only ones who can understand such truth. Rather, Ephesians 4:11-12 says that Christ gave key leadership gifts 'to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine'. The purpose of sound teaching from leaders is so that people become mature and learn to recognise truth from falsehood for themselves.

It is so important to promote a culture where understanding a sound foundation of biblical truth, and being able to apply it in life and explain it to others, is the normal expectation of all believers, not the preserve of leaders.