You may take these 11 theological doctrines for granted, but you should stop assuming your church members understand them.
By Marissa Postell
Every Sunday you stand on a stage and preach the Word of the Lord. Maybe it’s a small, portable stage at the front of a school gym. Maybe the stage is so large it takes an awkward amount of time to get to the middle of it. And every Sunday members of your congregation file into seats to hear the Word.
As you look out at the faces staring back at you, you feel the weight of the responsibility of teaching them sound doctrines and leading them in godliness. And before you start speaking, you make some assumptions. You have to, after all. You make assumptions about who your audience is, what they understand, and what they need to hear.
And it can be easy to be just enough disconnected from the people in your pews that you make some false assumptions—especially when it comes to theology. After all, as you take seminary classes, interact with other pastors, and read great theologians, some theology seems, well, rudimentary. But those same doctrines that are now so naturally incorporated into your thoughts may feel confusing, or even completely foreign, to the plumber working to provide for his family, to the mom weary from caring for her children, to the students overwhelmed by the pressures they face.
The latest State of Theology report gives us a look into 11 theological doctrines we may take for granted but that we need to stop assuming our church members understand.
1. Jesus was not created
Slightly more than half (55%) of Americans believe Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God. And evangelicals are even more likely to say the same. Nearly 3 in 4 (73%) evangelicals by belief say Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.
Affirming Jesus as the first and greatest creation denies the eternal existence of Christ, but we must not assume our congregations are making these connections on their own. The understanding that the Son is not a created being is not a new belief. As the writers of the Nicene Creed wrote by AD 381, the Lord Jesus Chris is “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Jesus was not created, but many of your congregants may get hung up on this.
2. Jesus is God
Another 53% of Americans say Jesus was a great teacher but not God. While fewer evangelicals say the same, many still believe Jesus is not God. Only 54% of evangelicals disagree with the statement: “Jesus was a great teacher, but He was not God.” Scripture is clear that Jesus is God (John 1:1, 8:58; Romans 9:5; Hebrews 1:1-4). But many—even in your congregation—may still be confused.Only 54% of evangelicals disagree with the statement: “Jesus was a great teacher, but He was not God.” Click To Tweet
3. The Holy Spirit is a personal being
Close to 3 in 5 (59%) Americans believe the Holy Spirit is a force but not a personal being. Although evangelicals are the most likely to disagree with this statement, only 1 in 3 (34%) disagree that the Holy Spirit is a force but not a personal being. Although we understand this doctrinally, many in our congregations have difficulty understanding the implications of their belief in the Trinity when it comes to the Holy Spirit.
4. God is all-knowing and never-changing
Half of Americans (51%) say God learns and adapts to different circumstances. Slightly fewer evangelicals say the same. Nevertheless, it is still a point of confusion for believers. Only 43% of evangelicals disagree with this statement: “God learns and adapts to different circumstances.”
God is all-knowing (1 John 3:20). There is nothing for Him to learn. Furthermore, God cannot and does not change (James 1:17). And that’s a good thing. But many in our congregations have trouble grasping how unlike us God’s character is.
5. Jesus is the only way to God
Nearly 7 in 10 Americans (67%) say God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Although evangelicals are more likely to disagree with this statement than non-evangelicals, only 38% of evangelicals disagree. This confusion reveals that many in our churches don’t have a robust understanding of what Jesus meant when He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, CSB).“Many in our churches don’t have a robust understanding of what Jesus meant when He said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6, CSB).” — @MarissaPostell Click To Tweet
6. Humans are not good by nature
Two in 3 Americans (66%) say everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature. Evangelicals are more likely to disagree with this statement than non-evangelicals. Still, only 39% of Americans with evangelical beliefs disagree with the statement that everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.
Not only does Scripture tell us that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23, CSB), but it also tells us that “there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3, CSB). Even if the people in your pews understand their status as sinners, it can be difficult for them to recognize there is no goodness in them apart from Christ.
7. We are all born sinners
Related, 7 in 10 Americans (71%) say everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God. Evangelicals are more likely than non-evangelicals to disagree that everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God. But only 32% of evangelicals disagree with this statement. Once again, despite a basic understanding that we all sin, many in our congregation struggle to believe that sinfulness is present even in a newborn child.
8. Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation
A quarter (25%) of Americans believe even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation. Although more evangelicals believe this, only 55% agree that the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation. Scripture is clear every sin is deserving of death and will receive punishment (Romans 6:23, Hebrews 2:2), but many in our churches have difficulty believing that reality.
9. Every Christian has an obligation to join a local church
Most Americans don’t believe every Christian has an obligation to join a local church. Most evangelicals agree (68%). However, there are many, who may even regularly show up to your services, who don’t feel an obligation where Scripture presumes all disciples of Jesus will be a part of a local body of believers.“There are many, who may even regularly show up to services, who don’t feel an obligation where Scripture presumes all disciples of Jesus will be a part of a local body of believers.” — @MarissaPostell Click To Tweet
10. Physically gathering as the body of Christ is significant
Now, more than half (58%) of Americans say worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church. Fewer evangelicals agree (41%). Still, with the increased accessibility of online services, more and more believers in our churches are struggling to see the significance of physically gathering as the body of Christ.
11. God’s role in salvation
Fewer than 1 in 3 (31%) Americans say God chose the people He would save before He created the world. Americans with evangelical beliefs (51%) are more likely than Americans without evangelical beliefs to agree with this statement. Although you have studied and developed a particular understanding of God’s role in salvation, many in your congregation may be wrestling with understanding it.
Use your platform well
So, as you study and learn and have theological conversations about central doctrines with your peers, remember not everyone in your pews has had the same training you have. Don’t assume they know these core theological doctrines that seem so elementary to you. But don’t condemn them either for not knowing these things. You didn’t always know these truths. You haven’t always been able to articulate these doctrines. But now you know. Now you can speak. So, use your platform to faithfully teach right theology to the people who sit under your teaching.
Marissa Postell Sullivan
Marissa is the managing editor for LifewayResearch.com.
For permission to republish this article, contact Marissa Postell.