The most consistent truth about Americans’ theology is how inconsistent it is. These four solutions can help address contradictory beliefs.
By Aaron Earls
Since the first State of Theology study until now, some theological beliefs have remained steady and others have shifted. But the most consistent truth about Americans’ theological beliefs is just how inconsistent they are.
Seven in 10 Americans (71%) say God exists in three persons. But 59% say the Holy Spirit is a force not a person, and 53% say Jesus was a great teacher but not God. Half of Americans (51%) say the Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches. But 53% say the Bible is not literally true.
Unfortunately, evangelicals are no more likely to hold correct theology in many areas. They are more likely than the average American to say Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God (73% v. 55%) and just as likely to say the Holy Spirit is a force, not a person (60% v. 59%). More than 9 in 10 U.S. evangelicals (94%) say the Bible has the authority to tell us what we must do. Yet 27% say the Holy Spirit can tell them something which is forbidden in the Bible. The theological confusion and contradictory beliefs aren’t simply “out there.” They’re also in our congregations.
The need for discipleship
Some have compared the theological approach in modern Western culture to a salad bar. You feel free to pick a little of this and some of that and mix it together. In some ways, that gives too much credit to the theology of the average American. Even if it doesn’t suit everyone’s taste, most of what you can walk away with from the salad bar is healthy. Many Americans, however, are attempting to mix sound doctrine with dangerous false teachings.
Instead of a salad bar, the contradictory theological beliefs of most Americans, and even some evangelicals, are more closely akin to blindfolding yourself, walking into someone else’s kitchen, and randomly dumping “ingredients” into a bowl. You may grab soy sauce, a block of cheese, and a carton of ice cream, which would be bad enough. But you may also add some prescription drugs or cleaning chemicals.“The theology of most Americans is less like choosing from a salad bar and more like going into someone else's kitchen blindfolded and dumping random ‘ingredients’ into a bowl.” — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
Still, the State of Theology is not a reason for panic, but it should serve as a reminder for pastors and church leaders of the importance of teaching theology. More than likely, the people in your pews are not outright heretics. Most simply either haven’t learned the truth or are unaware of how doctrines of Christian theology fit together.
Instead of bemoaning our current situation, take this opportunity to disciple your church in its theology with these four steps to address contradictory and false beliefs. These can, and should, happen in both Sunday morning services and other smaller group times.
1. Spend time talking about theology
Sermons and small groups should not be dry lectures merely delivering information, but neither should they be so entertainment or application-heavy that churchgoers leave without knowing God any deeper than they already did.
Use the biblical text to teach people theology. Help them know and understand doctrines. Use the State of Theology as a checklist to cover key doctrines. Some topics asked about in the study are more cultural or have a narrower theological focus than historic Christian orthodoxy. But many highlight important doctrines that churchgoers should be familiar with.“Sermons should not be dry lectures merely delivering information, but neither should they be so entertainment or application-heavy that churchgoers leave without knowing God any deeper.” — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
Ligonier Ministries created a tool on the State of Theology website that churches can use to take their people through the survey to get a better grasp of where they stand. Find out what your churchgoers believe and adjust your teaching to address areas where they could be lacking.
2. Teach about the cohesiveness of Christianity
A churchgoer may not realize how one belief carries over to the next. They may accept the Trinity as a concept but aren’t sure what that has to do with Jesus being created or not. That may seem absurd to you and me, but many in our churches simply haven’t given it much thought.
The average person in your pews isn’t setting out to be a heretic, but they’ve not taken the time to learn how Christian doctrine forms a cohesive tapestry that holds together. It’s the church leaders’ responsibility to continually demonstrate how all Christian doctrines fit together. Take the time in sermons and small groups to explain what follows from doctrines like the Trinity or the trustworthiness of Scripture. Also, work to place the individual belief within the larger framework of biblical theology.“The average person in your pews isn’t setting out to be a heretic, but they’ve not taken the time to learn how Christian doctrine forms a cohesive tapestry that holds together.” — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
3. Show the ramifications of contradictory beliefs
Some may get a better grasp of historic Christian doctrine if you can help them see what could happen if you deviate from that doctrine. This may be the time you bring up actual heretics and those who founded cults that break away from orthodoxy. Discuss how one wrong belief spread to other areas and led them away from Christ and His church.
As part of his apologetic work, Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer would “take the roof off” of someone’s worldview. He would expose the logical consequences of what they said they believed and then demonstrate how Christianity alone provided the proper explanation for everything. Some Christians need a similar experience. They need to see how things would fall apart if they embrace an unorthodox position.
Perhaps you could use this teaching moment as an opportunity to explain how Christianity differs from other groups like the Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other emerging religious groups.
4. Demonstrate the benefits and joys of orthodoxy
Giving people more theological information will not often change their perspectives. If you can show the joy that comes from faithfully and obediently following Christ, however, you can win someone to your side. Similarly, the ultimate solution to the theological confusion of our day is not merely more theological information but the reclamation of the joy of salvation (Psalm 51:12) and how that automatically flows from believing, trusting, and living according to God’s Word.“Good theology leads us to know Jesus deeper and provides us with the greatest joy we can have.” — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
Help the people in your church see that historic Christian orthodoxy, properly understood and applied, is not draining, but life-giving. Jesus said His yoke was easy and His burden light (Matthew 11:30). He called us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). Part of the way Christians love Him with our minds is by committing to do theology well.
Paul tells us that everything else is worthless compared to knowing Jesus (Philippians 3:8). Good theology leads us to know Jesus deeper and provides us with the greatest joy we can have.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.