The “Boundaries” of the Christian Faith (I)
I love being a pastor because there is never a dull moment. There are also times when it seems that a number of seemingly unrelated events come together and provide you with a lot of “food for thought.” This week was one of those weeks. Last night (7.9) Sally and I were attending our small group facilitated by one of my fellow-Elders, Rob Olson, and he handed me a copy of the Biola Connection (Summer 2006) containing an article by Holly Pivec entitled, “The ‘D’ Word. Has doctrine become the new dirty word?”
As I began working the summer sermon series I’m preaching on the theme of “Equipping the Saints,” I was exegeting Ephesians 4:15 that contains a word that contains the double meaning of both speaking and doing the truth (álētheúontes) and it became clear to me that Paul was referring to a specific, knowable standard of truth and not some vague, general, feel-good notion of truth. (I’ll have to come back to this point in a subsequent issue.)
Finally, we’ve been discussing John Leith’s book Crisis in the Church in previous installments and his second chapter deals with the notion of “boundaries” in the Christian faith, which nicely fits into our topic. All of this is highly pertinent because so many in the mega-church and Emergent Church models are questioning some of the core doctrines of the Christian faith. For example, some in the ECM are calling our Lord’s penal substitutionary atonement on the cross “cosmic child abuse.” Other key doctrines of the faith are also under attack, leaving us to ponder what exactly are the “boundaries” of the Christian faith?
That is to say, without trying to be minimalists in terms of our biblical doctrine, where is it that do you cross the line out of Christianity and into heterodoxy when you espouse or openly teach certain doctrines? Some today are loathe to even ask such a question. The term “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” has become so elastic that it can mean almost anything, which really means that it means almost nothing. Are those, for example, who hold to Open Theism still evangelicals or have they crossed the line? Which views of the atonement should be considered aberrant, heretical? Are there statements regarding the Trinity that would place you outside the pale of Christianity? Moreover, as I’ve discussed before, some “cutting edge” evangelicals enjoy “cussing” pastors and even consider the possibility of “Christian porn.”
All of this, plus much, much more is why I no longer want to be called an evangelical. If the writings included in Christianity Today are in any way indicative of where evangelicalism is heading, I want to get off the train right now. I will settle for being called a Christian, a Presbyterian Christian, or a Reformed Christian, but not an evangelical. At any rate, I intend to divide this issue into a few parts, dealing with the three areas mentioned above. We’ll begin by asking if, in our modern Christian circles, doctrine has become a dirty word.
Is Doctrine a Dirty Word?
The short answer to the question posed in this heading is: in some, an alarming high percentage of evangelical circles, yes it is a dirty word. In this section I want to focus on the contents of Holly Pivec’s article in Biola Connections. She begins by pointing out that Brian McLaren (A Generous Orthodoxy) has made a piercing assessment of evangelicals. He believes that “they have focused on having all the right doctrinal beliefs, but they lead lives that, often don’t match those beliefs” (p. 12).
We have all heard stories or know people who have the essentials of the Christian faith stuffed into their heads, but show no practical fruit of their faith from their hearts. By the same token, there are some who profess to be Christians, attend a local church regularly, but who are not actually Christians. These people skew the statistics horribly because if they are polled, they claim to be Christians, but the fearful prospect exists that they are not truly God’s children.
I say this because Pivec cites George Barna’s book Think Like Jesus where the author says “that many people who claim to be Christians lead lives that are indistinguishable from non-Christians (Ibid. Italics mine.). Simply claiming to be a Christian does not make a person a true believer, however. There is to be a Christian lifestyle, a Christian worldview, and a Christian walk that is commensurate with the outward profession.
McLaren’s criticisms of Christians run deeper, however, than a mere disconnect between doctrine and life. He contends that doctrinally sound Christians tend to be arrogant, judgmental, and unloving toward non-Christians and even other Christians who have differing doctrinal views (Ibid.). I thought McLaren’s choice of words to describe these people odd because arrogant, judgmental, and unloving would be the precise words that I would choose to describe McLaren and his books.
Is it not somewhat arrogant that Mr. McLaren would contend that Christendom had missed the essence of the gospel after Nicea to the present, but that he had burst onto the scene to correct us all? Is it not somewhat judgmental of God’s revelation in Scripture that along with other Emergent Church leaders McLaren would call the substitutionary death of our Lord on the cross “cosmic child abuse”? How unloving can it be to refuse to answer questions about the homosexual lifestyle and the reality of hell because you ostensibly do not want to hurt their feelings—the scriptures being clear about both—and leave people to believe that they are just fine and that God loves them anyway?
Now here comes a kicker: McLaren is convinced that rather than focusing on abstract doctrinal knowledge—notice the tendentious word “abstract”—Christians should lead more authentic, Christlike lives that are characterized by humility and genuine concern for people (p. 13). This sounds fine, nice, gentle, and kind, but there’s a problem: By what standard do we define words like “authentic,” “Christlike,” “humility” and “genuine concern?” If McLaren is so uncertain about abstract biblical truth about hell, how can he instruct us about these words that he’s thrown into the mix?
But McLaren is not the only voice being raised against doctrine. It’s a well known fact that a number of pastors rather continually ridicule doctrine from the pulpit. A couple of the most popular modern mantras are: “Christianity isn’t about head knowledge but heart knowledge” and Christianity is “not a religion but a relationship” (Ibid.) Major Christian thinkers/theologians disagree with those mantras. People of the caliber of Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, the Reformers generally, Jonathan Edwards, the Puritans generally, Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, A.A. Hoekema, John Murray, G.C. Berkouwer and a host of others clearly taught that Christianity is about both the head and the heart. Two examples will suffice here.
In the Heidelberg Catechism, (Lord’s Day 7, Q/A 21) we read: Q. What is true faith? A. True faith is a sure knowledge (gewisse erkandtnuß) whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed in his Word. At the same time, it is a firm confidence (hertzliches vertrauen) that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” The Reformer, John Calvin, gives us the following definition of true faith in his Institutes (3.2.7): “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and seal upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Italics mine).
To assert that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship is simply sloppy language and even sloppier theology. Does the Christian faith involve a relationship between the Creator and his creatures? Yes, of course. Does it involve a deep, personal relationship and union between the Redeemer and his people? Yes it does. But to say that Christianity is merely a relationship misses the essential of true faith by quite a wide margin.
Pivec cites Barna again who believes that so many believers don’t live like Christians should “because they don’t think like Jesus—they don’t have a biblical worldview. Still, many Christians don’t see the connection between doctrine and life, so important doctrines are being discarded” (p. 13). Let’s dissect that for a moment.
First, Christians should think God’s thoughts after him, which is another way of saying “think like Jesus.” A large part of our problem in the modern Church is that some much time and energy has been spent on entertainment that precious little time has been left over for solid, expository preaching. The net result is a bevy of spiritual malnutrients returning week after week for spiritual cotton candy and calling it “worship.” For someone, anyone to make such an unguarded statement is rather typical of modern evangelicalism. Thinking God’s/Jesus’ thoughts after him is not rocket science, but it is more important than rocket science. How do I think God’s thoughts after him? By going to Scripture and reading, studying, meditating upon, and praying over God’s revealed will.
Second, a biblical worldview flows forth out of thinking God’s thoughts after him. Barna is correct that far too many Christians do not have a biblical worldview because far too many Christians don’t know the most elemental things about the Bible. A biblical worldview does not simply fall from the sky into our laps nor is it the result of singing one-hundred-and-twenty verses of “Our God is an Awesome God” or “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” A biblical worldview is the result of what the psalmist writes about in the 119th psalm.
A large number of TV and radio evangelists also contribute to the problem ranging from Harold Kamping’s nonsense about Christians leaving the Church to T.D. Jakes’ aberrant theology of the Trinity. When asked to explain his position, Jakes replied in a 2000 interview in Religion Today, “I am too busy trying to preach the Gospel to split hairs. People in my generation are lost, hungry, in prison, wounded, and alone… Many of our generation are dying without knowing God—not dying for the lack of theology, but for lack of love.” Wow! It’s comforting to know that until the front end of the 21st century there were no lost, hungry, imprisoned, wounded, and alone people in the world. Jakes, who is an awful theologian, acts as if the gospel has no specific content and/or that pastor/teachers do not need to be careful about their doctrine. Even a cursory reading of the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy; Titus) will revealed that the scriptures have quite a bit to say about preaching sound doctrine (cf. 1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1-2).
I don’t know about you, but I’m really getting sick and tired of two things: First, of people telling me that I just don’t understand them and second, of people claiming that the “gospel” is more important than right doctrine. The gospel is right doctrine, but Jakes is not atypical in modern evangelical circles. Pivec also cites Peter Wagner (former evangelical seminary professor and author of Changing Church) as arguing that “the wording of the doctrine of the Trinity—which states that the Godhead is made up of three Persons—needlessly excludes Oneness Pentecostals (who deny the Trinity) and prevents many Muslims and Jews from converting to Christianity (p. 14). Don’t you just wish that you or your son had studied theology with him?
How did we get to the point where churches will dismiss early so that the attendees can catch the Super Bowl or cancel the service on Sunday altogether because Christmas Day falls on a Sunday? There are many theological culprits but few as prominent as Frederick Schleiermacher (1768-1834). In an attempt to make Christianity palatable to its “cultured despisers” Schleiermacher described the essence of religion as a feeling of absolute dependence upon God. That is to say, with the rise of Romanticism, Schleiermacher did not take his starting point from Scripture or the confessions of the Church, but rather from the Christian consciousness. That being the case—which it is—there was no reliable way to verify what the feeling of absolute dependence might be or who the God was upon whom the person felt this absolute dependence.
What the modern Church has taken from Schleiermacher is a clear priority of feeling over doctrine. One of the many reasons why doctrine is being disparaged is because church leaders are elevating our emotional experiences over the truth of sound doctrine. This shift can also be evidenced in much of modern contemporary Christian music. By neglecting traditional hymns modern music has robbed itself of substantiation content—with notable exception. The article quotes Professor Ben Shin who says, “Rather that giving us an idea of who Christ is or what He’s done for us, like the hymns of old, many contemporary songs repeat lines that are just silly. You wonder, ‘What is the purpose of this?’” (p. 16). You certainly do.
The net result of the decline of doctrine—and make no mistake both professors and pastors carry the lion’s share of the blame for this—almost 40% of conservative Protestant youth believe that it’s perfectly legitimate to pick and choose what you like and don’t like in Scripture; what you’ll do and what you won’t do.
The article states that “Part of the problem people have with doctrine is they think it’s dull and boring” (Ibid.). So what is the remedy according to both the mega-church and Emergent Church movements? Keep them entertained. The mega-church movement still has not learned that the church leaders will answer to God for how they equipped God’s people for service in the Kingdom of Christ. Instead, the entertainment factor continues to increase exponentially. The ECM crowd has merely substituted one form of entertainment for another. The new thing is prayer labyrinths, contemplative prayer, and centering prayer, along with a host of other medieval exercises as well as Mysticism.
I’ll close with a comment, observation by Dr. Alan Gomes of Biola: “Some people will say, ‘I don’t want a church that has all this doctrine; I just want a church that’s alive.’ Well, that makes no sense at all. The life you have should flow from what you believe” (p. 17).
In our next issue, we’ll take a look at what Ephesians 4:15-16 has to say about God’s truth and begin listening to John Leith’s account of what happened in his denomination when doctrine was divorced from the Christian faith.
 Thanks to Rob Olson for putting this article in my hands.
 A number of my writings deal with A Generous Orthodoxy can be located on my blog site: http://rongleason.blogspot.com/.
 E.F.K. Müller, Die Bekenntnisschriften der reformierten Kirche, (Leipzig: Georg Böhme, 1903), p. 687. Italics mine—RG.
 For an excellent discussion of Schleiermacher’s theology, see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), pp. 66ff.