By Spencer D Gear
Does it matter what we believe? Is it true that loving people and doing good are more important than theology? This is an example of one who believes that theology is not important: “God is more concerned with what we ‘do’ in, through, Jesus Christ, concerning our daily walk, than our theology”. Another put it this way: ‘Theology is not important. Jesus commanded us to love God and love others and I don’t need to know about the hypostatic union in order to do that. I just want to love people and meet their needs’.
Dr. Richard Krejcir warns:
Many Christians today are proclaiming that theology is not important or needed; all we need to do is to love Jesus. We have a big problem in the church today as doctrine disappears from the pulpit and the airways, and is replaced by what “feels good” or what we feel is needed. When theology disappears from the church and its leaders, we will have a “free for all” of what we think is truth. All that will accomplish is dishonesty, and an erosion of His conviction. The situation will be created where God takes a backseat to the god of the self as the central focus of our faith, and that will carve a road to hell. We as a church, or as a single practicing Christian, will be unable to think wisely about our culture, who we are in Christ, or who He is and what He did. Instead, we will take in what feels good, leaving God and His ways behind us. We will be reveling in the irrational, while Christ stands at the door and knocks Because of the noise of our Will, we will not open the door!
Fuzzy thinking about theology is not new. One hundred years ago, James Orr wrote: Every one must be aware that there is at the present time a great prejudice against doctrine—or, as it is often called “dogma”—in religion; a great distrust and dislike of clear and systematic thinking about divine things (Orr 1909:3).
If that was the state of affairs in 1909, it is even more so today than it was in Orr’s day. As we’ll see below, the problem with doctrine is not only 100 years old. It was a problem in the infant church 2,000 years ago.
Over the years, I’ve heard my share of statements such as these:
- “Doctrine is not important because doctrine divides”.
- “All Christians need to do it love one another and love others”.
- “It is more important to experience Jesus than have teaching about him”.
- “It doesn’t matter what anyone believes; what matters is that he/she is sincere”.
- “It is not politically correct to speak of doctrine from the pulpit. Young people will leave”.
- “Theology is for the intellectuals; I’m just an ordinary Christian and I don’t need that”.
- “The Bible is out of date, inaccurate and over-rated. People in the 21st century are way too smart for that”.
- Or, as John K. Williams put it, ‘An evangelist who preaches the “old-time religion” is asking hearers to stake the living of their lives upon beliefs for which there is no evidence whatsoever and that fly against humankind’s painfully acquired knowledge of the world and of themselves. That is not simply, as we today are taught to say, a “big ask” but an outrageous ask’.
- The psychological, feel-good society has infiltrated the church.
Liberal Christianity has a long track record of downgrading or being opposed to sound doctrine. Dr. John K. Williams, a liberal Uniting Church (Australia) minister, wrote in the The Age (a Melbourne newspaper):
Let me lay my cards on the table. I am, unapologetically, a “religious person”. For me, the stories and symbols that best point me to, and enable me to stutter about, the sacred, about the holy, about “God” are the stories and symbols and images defining the Christian faith. I am a bloodied but unbowed liberal Christian.
Father Stanley Jaki stated, “Liberalism is a habit of mind, a point of view, a way of looking at things, rather than a fixed and unchanging body of doctrine. Like all creeds it is a spirit not a formula”. One of the seminal critiques of theological liberalism was J. Gresham Machen’s, Christianity & Liberalism (1923). He wrote of Paul, that the apostle’s,
primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions, but at its centre. If Christianity is to be made independent of doctrine, then Paulinism must be removed from Christianity root and branch (1923:26).
To love people, do good, and forget about theology are not among the teachings of Scripture. What do the Scriptures say?
Wait a minute: What is theology?
When I was a student in Bible College in the 1970s, I used Henry Thiessen’s text, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology (1949). He wrote of theology in two senses – the narrow sense and the broader sense. Its narrow sense is the doctrine of God (based on the two Greek words, theos, meaning God and, logos, meaning discourse). The broader sense is the one that is in common use by the populace and that refers to ‘all Christian doctrines … that deal with the relations God sustains to the universe’. This leads to a definition of ‘theology as the science of God and His relations to the universe’ (1949:24).
So, theology will include teachings from Scripture of subjects such as the doctrines of the Word of God (Scripture), of God, of man (meaning human beings), of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, of redemption, the church, and of the future.
What’s the difference between theology (the broad definition) and “doctrine”? In the contemporary church, theology and doctrine are treated as synonymous terms. Alister McGrath (2005:177) explains that one of the core tasks of Christian theology is to intertwine the threads of the biblical witness into a coherent account of the Christian version of reality. Thus, ‘”doctrine” is the term generally given to the body of teachings that result from the sustained engagement with Scripture’.
So, why is doctrine falling on hard times, even in evangelical churches? These are my current observations after 50 years of being a Christian.
1. The current emphasis on seeker-sensitive church services has led to the dumbing down of theology, in an attempt to draw unbelievers into the church. Bill Hybels, one of the gurus of the seeker-sensitive approach, has stated, “Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for…. We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own”.
2. The stress by the charismatic movement on “hearing from God” has led to an existential experience of God gaining prominence over theology. My observation is that this sometimes manifests itself in mysticism that is generally expressed in small groups. I have seen this in charismatic groups and in some house churches I have visited. I inquired of a house church leader in Brisbane and he told me that the church was interested in the centrality of Christ and ‘hearing from him through the Holy Spirit’ when the church gathered. He said that Bible teaching was not a prominent part of what his house church did when the group gathered. Building community and hearing from God prominent, which Bible teaching belonged to the old ‘traditional church’.
3. The influence of theological liberalism has extended its tentacles into the mainline churches such as Anglicanism (with the exception of the Sydney diocese and some of the Melbourne diocese), Roman Catholicism and the Uniting Church in Australia.
4. Some preachers who teach theology from the pulpit can be boring in their presentation. See my article, “It’s a sin to bore God’s people with God’s Word“.
What do the Scriptures say?
What place does the Bible give to the split between Christian practice and doctrine? We see from the Scriptures that we are to pay attention to both our lives and theology. We know this from 1 Timothy 4:16, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (NIV). Life and theology (doctrine) are united. The way we live will be based on what we believe about God.
Second Timothy 4:1-4 states:
1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths (NIV).
Teaching sound doctrine is core to Christian living. We know that life and theology (doctrine) have an essential link. First Timothy 6:2-4 states:
These are the things you are to teach and insist on. 3 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4 they are conceited and understand nothing (NIV).
Sound doctrine, instruction and theology are essential for Christian living. Paul to Titus showed that a bishop must have a union of good living and sound doctrine:
Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:7-9 NIV).
Titus 2:1 states, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound [or healthy] doctrine” (ESV)
It is false to place a dichotomy between Christian living and sound theology. God is concerned about teaching the truth – sound doctrine. It is married to right living. We live what we believe. The Jewish people at Berea knew this. It is said of them that “these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (Acts 17:11 ESV). Examining the Scriptures daily is an important dimension of the Christian’s daily living. How can we know how God expects us to live if we don’t have an understanding of what the Scriptures state? Doctrine undergirds Christian living.
Grudem, W 1994. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leister, England: Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Machen, J G 1923. Christianity & Liberalism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
McGrath, A E 2005. Doctrine. In K J Vanhoozer (gen ed), Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 177-180. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic/London: SPCK.
Orr, J 1909. Sidelights on Christian Doctrine. New York: A. C. Armstrong and Sons.
Thiessen, H C 1949. Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Christian Forums, General Theology, Soteriology, ‘Understanding Calvinism’, #441, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7591264-45/ (Accessed 10 October 2011).
 Cited in Daniel Attaway, ‘”Theology isn’t important” and other ridiculous things Christians say’, available at: http://westernthm.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/theology-isnt-important-and-other-ridiculous-things-christians-say/ (Accessed 10 October 2011).
 Discipleship Tools, ‘Is theology important?”, available at: http://www.discipleshiptools.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=47360&columnid=4192 (Accessed 10 October 2011).
 Coffeehouse Theology, available at: http://www.coffeehousetheology.com/bible-inaccurate-over-rated/ (Accessed 10 October 2011).
 “It’s not good enough for us”, The Age, 19 January 2004, available at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/01/18/1074360629928.html (Accessed 30 January 2004). Also available at Online Opinion, 23 January 2011, available at: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=1468 (Accessed 10 October 2011).
 “Liberalism and theology”, Eternal Word Television Network, available at: http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/FR94402.htm (Accessed 10 October 2011).
 Cited in Bob Burney ‘A shocking “confession” from Willow Creek Community Church’, available at: Townhall.com at: http://www.townhall.com/columnists/BobBurney/2007/10/30/a_shocking_%e2%80%9cconfession%e2%80%9d_from_willow_creek_community_church?page=full&comments=true (Accessed 2 November 2007). This is no longer available at Townhall, but I located it at Crosswalk, http://www.crosswalk.com/news/a-shocking-confession-from-willow-creek-community-church-11558438.html (Accessed 18 July 2011).
|Copyright (c) 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 7 October 2015.|