Does Doctrine Matter Anymore?

(Volume 22, Issue 3, May/June 2016) A recent front page article featured in our local (Springfield, Illinois) newspaper was entitled “Mega-Growth.” The article described the phenomenal numerical increase of three of the largest churches in our area. What is it about these churches that have sparked their growth? Why are people flocking to these churches rather than to others? In response one of the pastors said, “Understanding budgets and balance sheets is as important as understanding church doctrine.” Another pastor said, “Church members are more interested in relational issues than doctrine. People care less about questions pertaining to what a church doctrine is and more about the question, ‘Does this church care for me?’”[i] We should not minimize the importance of fiscal responsibility, organizational needs and loving community, but not too many years ago Christians sought out churches that reflected what they believed the Bible taught. No longer. As is evident by what these pastors said, the average Christian today simply does not care much about theology; they are seeking a community that cares for them, or a particular style of music, or an intimate experience, or a service project they can plug into, or any number of things. For the most part they are not choosing to become a member of a church on the basis of what it teaches. To be sure, certain managerial and practical elements are important to the operation of a local church. And the church should be a community, even a family, composed of those who love one another in such a way that the world stands up and notices (see John 13:35). But this almost-wholesale dismissal of doctrine as unnecessary baggage has been uncommon throughout church history.

We Have Been Here Before

Uncommon, but not totally unique. What we are seeing today is essentially an echo of something that happened in the past – the rise of theological liberalism beginning in the 18th century. At that time theologians in Europe were beginning to question the truth about the historical Jesus. Many were embracing the idea that Jesus was not the Son of God and never claimed to be. Rather it was His followers who ascribed to Jesus the characteristic of deity in order to buttress their ethical message. But even if the storyline around Jesus was a myth, His message of morality and love was important. Increasingly these theologians dismissed the so-called myths but retained the parts of the Jesus story they found desirable. [ii] Some consider 1835 a turning point in the history of the Christian faith when church leaders like David Friedrich Strauss determined that “the miraculous events of the gospels never happened, and the gospel accounts of them are the result of a long process of legend and religious imagination… [Yet] the fact that the resurrection [as well as other claims about Jesus] was unhistorical did not rob it of its religious significance.”[iii] This German Rationalism (as it is often called) spread throughout Europe and entered the United States in the late 1800s as more American pastors and theologians studied the works of their European counterparts and sought degrees at their universities. What was born of this process was termed modernism, or theological liberalism, which has undermined the very foundations of biblical Christianity and continues to wreak havoc long after the momentum of the movement has lost its steam.

How all of this plays out is a subject for another day, and one I have covered elsewhere. What is important to note, for the purposes of this present discussion, are the roots of liberalism, and how this same scenario is being played out today. Prior to the capitulation of Strauss there was Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). In his youth Schleiermacher had drunk from the Enlightenment’s rationalistic well and had come to a crisis of belief and faith in the historic Jesus and truth of Christianity. As he matured Schleiermacher did not champion rationalism but rather Romanticism. To him the truthfulness of Scripture and the actual existence of Jesus was not central. What was important, when it came to religion, was “primarily not a matter of doctrine but rather of feeling, intuition and experience.”[iv] Truth and knowledge was not the basis for religious experience; as a matter of fact it really did not matter what one believed. Church historian Iain Murray summarizes Schleiermacher’s thinking: “Questions of orthodox belief were thus instantly reduced to matters of secondary moment; not what we think but what we experience is the important thing… Christian experience consists of life, not doctrine.”[v] As a matter of fact Schleiermacher went so far as to bar “doctrinal preaching from the pulpit. Experience, not teaching, has to be the object of the preacher.” [vi]

It is important to understand that, as liberalism was being birthed, men like Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl did not directly deny the authority of Scripture or the cardinal doctrines that had re-emerged from the Reformation. Murray documents, “Liberal theology very rarely presented itself as being in opposition to Scripture. On the contrary, its exponents claimed the authority of the New Testament for the view that Christianity is life, not doctrine.” [vii] It is vital to note that the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who is favorably quoted by many evangelical authors and speakers today, lived during this same era (1813-1855) and is known as the father of existentialism, which views truth as subjective. Much like Schleiermacher and Ritschl, the objective historicity of Jesus or Christianity did not really matter to Kierkegaard; what mattered was experience. As R. C. Sproul comments, “Kierkegaard’s subjective method stresses the importance of personal experience over factual information.”[viii] Well respected church historian George Marsden confirms, in his excellent book Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, that for the liberals “the Bible… was not an encyclopedia of dogma but rather an ancient model of religious experience… The key test of Christianity was life, not doctrine… Religious feelings [not doctrine, and not the historic Jesus] were central to Christianity.”[ix]

Professor J. Gresham Machen fought on the final battlefields against the invading hordes of old liberalism. In his classic book Christianity and Liberalism, written in 1923, he documented that the liberal mantra then sweeping through Christianity was, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.”[x] Machen warned, “The growth of ignorance in the Church is the logical and inevitable result of the false notion that Christianity is a life and not also a doctrine; if Christianity is not a doctrine then of course teaching is not necessary to Christianity. But whatever may be the causes for the growth of ignorance in the Church, this evil must be remedied.” [xi] Machen’s warning went largely unheeded and by the end of the decade liberal theology raised its flag over Princeton Seminary (where Machen taught) and could declare victory over conservativism in virtually all the major denominations and Christian organizations. Those who had resisted the liberal call of life, not doctrine, would move on to start their own denominations, churches and Christian organizations proclaiming with gusto that doctrine mattered. It is the great-grandchildren of these fundamentalists and evangelicals who are now espousing the very themes and ideas that birthed liberal Christianity in the beginning. Schleiermacher, Ritschl and Kierkegaard would feel right at home in much of modern evangelicalism.

It should be observed that while liberal theology had been percolating in Europe since the early 1700s it had not gained much traction in American Christianity until the latter part of the nineteenth century. By that time two factors contributed to its increasing acceptance. First, was the diminished interest in theology during the earlier decades of the 1800s which followed the Second (1800) and then the Third Great Awakenings (1859). Each of these movements, and the revivalism they stimulated, resulted in increased desire for emotions and experience at the expense of biblical instruction. Accommodating the desires of the masses, pastors tended to “dumb down” theology and elevate experience. In time this left the average Christian with little biblical knowledge and lacking a doctrinal foundation. The second factor was that liberal theologians were not directly denying the faith. They were only modifying and making more palatable the old truths, or so they claimed. But the combination of these two factors would prove lethal over time. Church historian David Bebbington captures well the state of the American church as it moved into the 20th century and began to broaden its doctrinal positon:

The Fatherhood of God, a milder view of the atonement and the centrality of the incarnation came into vogue. Eternal punishment faded away, the Bible was studied critically, and evolutionary thought led to a stress on immanence. The net effect of all these trends was to promote a more liberal brand of theology. At first the newer views were stated in ways that normally seemed compatible with evangelical convictions, and in the short run they undoubtedly appealed to many in the growing prosperous congregations. Gospel and culture were remaining in step. But in the longer term the newer stance was to develop into a version of liberalism that self-consciously diverged from the evangelical faith. The seeds of the modernism of the twentieth century had been sown. [xii]

My point so far has been to bring into focus a parallel between the dynamics of old liberalism and what is taking place in modern evangelicalism. Many Christians have become fixated on experience and what they consider to be life, and see little use for theology. As a matter of fact, doctrine is often viewed as a hindrance to unity. Many people have little interest in truth; they are interested in themselves, in having a worship experience, in being noticed or included. The church at large is on a march to minimize doctrine and to elevate having a good time. Such emphasis will draw people, while in-depth Bible study, in most cases, will not. Is this really the prevalent view of the evangelical church today or am I erecting strawmen? Let’s take a look.

A Modern Case Study

Touted as the second largest church in America, with between 20,000 and 30,000 attendees each week when all campuses are combined (depending on who is doing the counting), North Point Community Church near Atlanta, Georgia is the epitome of the modern church success story. The lead pastor is Andy Stanley, who has borrowed from the playbooks of Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, and is passionate about spreading his techniques for church growth. In Stanley’s book , Deep and Wide,[xiii] he reveals his “secret sauce” for building a great church.

Deep and Wide promotes the seeker-sensitive, market-driven approach of “doing church.” There is virtually nothing in the book that hasn’t been said or done by Stanley’s self-proclaimed “hero” Bill Hybels, and others who teach the same paradigm. From basing North Point’s programming on surveys and secular management (p. 14), to seeing people as consumers (p. 16) and a target audience that must be attracted and pleased (p. 15), to erroneously believing that the unbeliever should like us because they liked Jesus (pp. 12-13), to virtually every aspect of what they do, Stanley is parroting the philosophy of Hybels. Ironically this model is the same one that Hybels and Willow Creek recently admitted did not accomplish their goal of making fully devoted followers of Christ (see my book This Little Church Had None, pp. 23-35).

Of course, the real issue is not whether something works, but if it is biblical. Therefore, in section two, Stanley attempts a scriptural justification for his church model. This attempt is disappointing as Stanley, who has a master’s degree from Dallas Seminary, makes no attempt to engage the key Scriptures dealing with the doctrine of the church. His only venture into biblical exegesis is an examination of the counsel at Jerusalem in Acts 15 (pp. 85-91). Stanley offers a strained interpretation of the text because he uses what some call rhetorical hermeneutics in which Scripture should be interpreted based upon the characters’ actions, not their words (pp. 86, 90-92, 298-299). Using this interpretative method, Stanley believes, “Everything [Paul] taught should be defined within the context of what takes place in Acts 15.” The Jerusalem council in this account resolved the first major doctrinal conflict of the early church with the following brief statement: “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” (p. 91). Stanley believes the modern church should adopt this pattern and make few theological pronouncements as well (p. 92). Wrapping (or, better, ignoring) everything else in the New Testament pertaining to the church around this concept, Stanley offers a strained understanding of the biblical foundation for the local church.

Stanley is attempting at this point to address two important questions and, because he turns to culture, pragmatism and a marketing model, instead of Scripture, he fumbles the answer to both. The questions are, “What is the church and who is it for” (p. 55)? He rightly states that the church is not a place but a people (p. 39) but he does not grasp the ekklesia as exclusively the people of God. This of course skews his answer to whom the church is for. To Stanley, the church is an evangelistic center in which the focus is on the unchurched, as he calls unbelievers. Stanley’s goal is to attract non-Christians and retain them, even if this means putting new Christians and even unbelievers into positions of ministry and leadership (pp. 79, 94-95, and 127-130). A person can even join North Point online, without talking to anyone (p. 81). And North Point has little classroom instruction as teaching of Scripture is consistently belittled throughout the book (see pp. 111-116, and 190). Relationships, on the other hand, especially through small groups, are dominant. These groups, sometimes led by new Christians and apparently even unbelievers, by necessity are not primarily centered on Scripture or even Christ, as biblically understood, but on relationships. This is hardly the model found in Acts 2:42-43. Too bad Stanley did not choose the second chapter of Acts, rather than Acts 15, to develop his ecclesiology – or better yet the New Testament epistles which give instruction on why God has created His church and how He wants it to function.

Section three of Deep and Wide showcases North Point’s “secret sauce,” as Stanley calls it, for spiritual formation (p. 17). There are five ingredients to this sauce and, importantly, Stanley admits that this list is not drawn from Scripture, but comes from what he and his leadership team have “observed” (pp. 107-108). The importance of this admission cannot be stressed enough. Having laid a foundation for the church on an arbitrary selection of Acts 15 he now believes the church should be built on five ingredients not found in Scripture. From where then are these ingredients drawn? From the “faith stories” of people and Stanley’s experience (p.107). The five ingredients for Stanley’s “secret sauce” are:

· Practical teaching (pp. 111-116). Here Stanley importantly claims that no one is on a truth-quest (p. 115). People are far more interested in what works
than in what is true (p. 114), so pragmatism, not truth, should be at the heart of our teaching and preaching.

· Private disciplines (pp. 117-123).

· Personal ministry (pp. 124-130).

· Providential relationships (pp. 131-136).

· Pivotal circumstances (defining moments) (pp. 137-149).

When the sauce is stirred and cooked, the recipe yields little understanding of the Word of God, but hopefully strong relationships in small groups and dedication to a “church unchurched people love to attend” (as the subtitle of the book says).

The fourth section of Stanley’s book promotes the creation of irresistible environments (pp. 157-192). While some helpful ideas can be found, Stanley is once again reading from Hybel’s playbook. The church is turned into a production at every level in which the question at the end of the day is whether or not the presentation was engaging (p. 172) and met felt-needs (p. 185). Bottom-line, Stanley and his staff are after a “win” in everything they do (p. 194). Their short-term wins are based on attendance and other external factors such as people desiring to invite friends to come to North Point (see pp. 331-335). A win is when they create a weekend experience in which they can say, “Wow, we killed it” (p. 195). A long-term win is life change (p. 197) although, given the overall philosophy of Stanley, what life change looks like is questionable. For example:

I am not trying to produce Bible scholars. And by the way, teaching through the entire Bible doesn’t create Bible scholars anyway. It creates people who think they are Bible scholars. And those are some of the meanest, most uncompassionate human beings on the planet…I am partial to hungry, ignorant Christians myself. The kind who are content to love Jesus and the people he died for. I’ll take the Christian who doesn’t know it all but is committed to doing what he or she knows over the Christian who knows it all and that’s as far as it goes.[xiv]

Stated this way anyone would side with Stanley, but Scripture does not describe a disciple in such either-or-terms. Instead the student of biblical truth is one who does not seek knowledge for its own sake, or to stake out a position of superiority over others. The biblical picture is that truth and theology are used by the Holy Spirit to change lives not just fill our heads. As the Puritan William Ames rightly defined it, “Theology is the knowledge of how to live in the presence of God.”[xv]

Deep and Wide offers nothing that has not been said before by seeker-sensitive leaders. This philosophy of ministry which first gained traction in the 1970s via Robert Schuller and Bill Hybels has radically changed the church in the Western world. The unsaved consumer is now king, marketing strategy sets the direction, and pragmatism rules. The system “works,” at least numerically, for many like Andy Stanley. But is this God’s design for the church? A careful examination of the New Testament results in a resounding “No!”

What Does God Say?

Perhaps the most revealing statements in Deep and Wide are these, “People are far more interested in what works than what’s true. I hate to burst your bubble, but virtually nobody in your church is on a truth quest. Including your spouse. They are on happiness quests… That is the way it is. It is pointless to resist… If people are more interested in being happy, then play to that. Jesus did” (pp. 114-115). In fairness, Stanley draws a distinction between truth for truth sake and showing people how truth makes a difference, and he’s right. God’s truth is designed to change our lives and, if not presented as such, it is cold, sterile and merely academic. But, unfortunately, it is not biblical truth that guides Stanley’s philosophy of church ministry, it is culture. He states that “culture is like the wind. You can’t stop it. You shouldn’t spit in it. But, if like a good sailor you adjust your sails, you can harness the winds of culture to take your audience where they need to go” (p.115).

While multitudes hang on every word of church leaders like Stanley, before we get too heavily invested we should turn back to the New Testament to see what the Lord has to say about the church and how it is to function. Stanley has honestly admitted that his “secret sauce” for church growth is not drawn from Scripture, but from pragmatism and experience. This should immediately cause us to ask, “Does the Lord have His own ‘secret sauce’ for the church?” I am confident that He does, but it is not a secret; it has been openly revealed in Scripture. Since there is no space in this article for a full-blown examination of ecclesiology, I will address at this point Stanley’s first ingredient which is that, since no one is on a quest for truth, we are wasting our time proclaiming truth, except as it enhances the hearer’s pursuit of happiness. If Stanley is correct this would greatly affect what is taught in the context of the church, and it will limit what we teach and how we teach it. As for content, our messages will focus on practical matters that directly relate to the pursuit of happiness. Stanley himself often preaches on topics such as worry, marriage, finances, time management and other pragmatic issues. And while instruction concerning all of these things, and more, is contained within the pages of Scripture, it is found within the fuller context of biblical truth. Sadly, matters of deeper theological concern are largely ignored when church leaders adopt a topical felt-needs approach. For example, I would highly doubt that those who practice such instructional methods would consider preaching a message on Christ’s priesthood after the order of Melchizedek. However the Holy Spirit indicates in Hebrews 5-7 that the Christian life will never be lived out as the Lord intends if we do not have a firm grasp on the priesthood of Christ. In addition, what we believe is important to teach and preach will determine to a large degree how we “teach and preach”. Stanley has gone on record as being opposed to expository, verse-by-verse instruction from Scripture. In an interview he was asked: “What do you think about preaching verse-by-verse messages through books of the Bible?” Stanley’s answer was: “Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible – that is just cheating. It’s cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn’t how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that. There’s not one example of that.”[xvi] Yet according to the New Testament, teaching God’s Word in context, clearly, truthfully, and practically, is certainly the way to grow disciples. Let’s take a quick overview.

John 8:31-32– Jesus informed His followers, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Jesus obviously valued truth.

Acts 2:42– The important marks of the local church gathered is outlined in this verse describing why the first Christians came together. It was to “continually devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” It is significant to note that at the Great Commission Jesus told His disciples to “make disciples” by baptizing them and “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” Jesus did not tell the apostles to merely teach the Old Testament Scriptures but to teach what He had commanded them, and He had promised them in the Upper Room that the Holy Spirit would bring to their remembrance all that He had said to them (John 14:25-26; cf. 12:16). As the Holy Spirit did so the apostles in turn taught these things to the early converts. In contrast to modern philosophies of church life, the crowds were drawn because they were on a “truth quest.” They hungered for the teaching of the apostles for they knew that in these teachings was true spiritual life.

Acts 20:32– The story of the rest of the book of Acts is that of the spread of the gospel and the ministry of truth. The words spoken to the Ephesian elders and recorded here summarize the emphasis of Paul’s ministry, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” Far from shunning the proclamation of truth Paul declares that it is the means by which God builds up His people.

The epistles contain the “apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42) in written form. While the Lord communicated to us in “many portions and in many ways” (Heb 1:1), “in these last days [He] has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb 1:2). But of course Christ Himself never wrote a single word of Scripture; the task of spreading the words of our Lord was given to His disciples, mainly His apostles: “After it was at first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard” (Heb 2:3). Because of this dynamic the epistles are not so much full of commandments to teach the Word as they are full of doctrine and instruction, containing inspired revelation on how we are to live and what we are to believe. However, when we turn to the more personal letters, often called the “Pastoral Epistles” we find Paul repeatedly admonishing these early church leaders to devote themselves to teaching the instructions that were handed down to him by Christ and in turn him to them (cf. 2 Tim 1:13; 2:2). When we turn to the Pastoral Epistles we find the writings by the Holy Spirit-inspired apostle Paul who is nearing his exodus from the scene, and is detailing to those following him what God’s design for His church should be. It is extremely important that we observe carefully the strong emphasis in all three letters (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) on doctrine and teaching. If the Pastorals represent God’s “secret sauce” for what is important and how the local church is to function, what do we detect? Briefly we find stress on:

Doctrine: There is clear warning concerning false doctrine (1 Tim 1:3; 6:3), which Paul calls “doctrine of demons” (1 Tim 4:1). Conversely God’s people should be nourished by sound doctrine (1 Tim 4:6) so that our lives do not blaspheme God’s name or His doctrine (6:1), but rather adorn the doctrine of God (Titus 2:10). We are all to speak the “things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). At times people, even Christians, will not desire or even endure sound doctrine (2 Tim 4:3), nevertheless we are to preach the Word even when it is out of favor (2 Tim 4:1-5), because it is the divinely appointed means by which Christians are made “adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Theology is so important that “holding fast” to sound doctrine, being able to teach it and being capable of refuting those who contradict it is a requirement for an elder of the local church (Titus 1:9). It is interesting that the New Testament says nothing about an elder needing to be able to run a business, read spread sheets or organize socials; but it speaks clearly of the need to teach and protect sound doctrine.

The Faith: A virtual synonym for doctrine is the phrase “the faith” which is peppered throughout the Pastorals (1 Tim 1:2; 3:9, 13; 4:1; 5:8; 6:10, 21; 2 Tim 2:18, 3:8; 4:7; Titus 1:13; 3:15). We are told that in the later times some will fall away from (or apostatize) (1 Tim 4:1), go astray (1 Tim 6:21) from the faith, and upset the faith of others (2 Tim 2:18, 2:8). For this reason church leadership works diligently to help its people to be sound in the faith (Titus 1:13). Paul himself was most pleased at the end of his last epistle to report that he had kept the faith (2 Tim 4:7).

Truth: Sound doctrine is truth. If people are deprived of the truth of the gospel they are not saved (1 Tim 6:5), so it is vital that they come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4; Titus 1:1). False teachers, and those enslaved by sin, are characterized by Paul as having gone astray from the truth (2 Tim 2:18; Titus 1:14), lacking knowledge of the truth (2 Tim 2:25; 3:7), and turning their ears from the truth (2 Tim 4:4). For these reasons the church must understand that it is the “pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) and that all Christians, but especially its leadership, are those who “accurately handle the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). The local church can and does many other things, but if it does not major on the careful proclamation of the truth it is not fulfilling its mission from God. Assemblies which do not take the teaching of truth seriously may look like a church, call themselves a church and function much like a church, but they are not living out their calling as the church of Christ. Kevin Vanhoozer says it well, “What does the church have to say and do that no other institution can? Nature and society alike abhor a vacuum, and there are many ideologies and agendas waiting to rush in and fill the hearts and minds of the uncommitted. Doctrine orients the church’s life by teaching it how to live and what to live for.” [xvii]

Teach/instruct: Teaching is mentioned by name in every chapter of the Pastorals but the last one. For example Paul warns of those who teach things that are contrary to sound teaching (1 Tim 1:10; Titus 1:11), that some will accumulate for themselves teachers who will tell them what they want to hear (2 Tim 4:3), and others will oppose biblical teaching (2 Tim 4:15). But God’s people should be instructed with truth (Titus 2:1, 3) so that love, purity and faith are produced (1 Tim 1:5), Church leadership, in particular elders, must be able to instruct (3:2), working hard at teaching the Word so that it affects and changes lives (1 Tim 4:11, 13, 16, 5:17; 6:2, 17-18; 2 Tim 2:24-26; 4:2-3). In Ephesians 4:11-12 we find that the reason God gives the church gifted men, including pastor/teachers, is for “the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.”

If we are developing our churches around God’s paradigm, it would be impossible to miss the central role of doctrine, truth and instruction in the Word. If we take our cue from God and have a biblically informed ecclesiology, rather than starting with the ideas of people and pragmatism and trying to sandwich a few Scripture verses into our program, we must come to the conclusion that God loves truth, has given us truth in His infallible Word and has instructed His church to be a place in which the teaching of Scripture and sound doctrine is paramount. Lewis Sperry Chafer was correct when he wrote in 1947, “Since doctrine is the bone structure of the body of revealed truth, the neglect of it must result in a message characterized by uncertainties, inaccuracies, and immaturity.”[xviii] Vanhoozer strikes the right balance when he writes, “Desire for God without doctrine is blind; doctrine without desire is empty.”[xix] Yet many forces are at work to untether the church from serious study of Scripture and theology. Let’s examine some of them.

When Doctrine Dwindles

I love how Vanhoozer states it, “When doctrine dwindles, disciples can only limp.”[xx] And yet many disciples are limping badly these days due to the de-emphasis of theology and expositional teaching of Scripture in the church. Vanhoozer, in his book Faith Speaking Understanding draws his readers’ attention to four books that have analyzed American Christian faith. They each have come to similar conclusions concerning the lack of theological depth, but they each point to slightly different roots. I should mention that I have studied the material from the first three books and authors, but have not read the last.

· Alan Wolfe, a non-Christian sociologist, wrote an insightful book in 2003, The Transformation of American Religion, which documents his research demonstrating that culture has triumphed over every aspect of religious life. He sadly claims that “the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.”[xxi] Most Americans, Wolfe believes, have little interest in doctrine, but are interesting in “spirituality,” or the feeling of intimacy with God which apparently can be had, according to some, apart from knowledge of biblical truth. Churches have tapped into this trend, giving people what they want: “Evangelical churches lack doctrine because they want to attract new members,”[xxii] and they do that by “playing down doctrine in favor of feelings.” [xxiii] This emphasis on feeling rather than biblical knowledge is reflected in studies which demonstrate that “58 percent of Americans cannot name five of the ten commandments, just under half know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible, fewer than that can tell interviewers about the meaning of the Holy Trinity, and 10 percent of them believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.” [xxiv]

· Christian Smith’s main contribution to our thesis is the development of what he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) as the “the new mainstream American religious faith for our culturally post-Christian, individualistic, mass-consumer capitalist society.” [xxv] Smith sees MTD as representing the core beliefs held in common by the masses who claim to be Christians today. MTD’s creed reads something like this:

I believe in a creator God who orders and watches over life on earth. I believe that God wants people to be good: to act nice to one another [the “moralistic” tenet]. I believe that the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself [the “therapeutic” component]. I believe that God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem [the “deism” component]. I believe that good people go to heaven. Virtual worlds without end, Amen.[xxvi]

MTD is a most fitting religion for those who are concerned for a moral society, who have been soaked since birth in psychobabble and who see no need for God except in moments of crisis. Smith’s observations appear to be on target not only within the general culture but within much of the Christian church as well.

· David Wells has written a five-volume series which Carl Henry called, “A penetrating appraisal of the state of religion in America.” Vanhoozer summarizes the message portrayed in The Courage to Be Protestant, the final book in the collection, with these words, “The twenty-first-century evangelical church is on the verge of selling its Protestant birthright, sola scriptura, for a mess of pottage, sola cultura. Put differently: the evangelical church finds itself in danger of being indoctrinated by culture rather than Scripture. There is too much concern with what works and sells than with gospel truth.”[xxvii]

· Finally, Vanhoozer turns to an old-school liberal, Harvey Cox and his book the Future of Faith. Cox is happy to see the end of emphasis on “belief” and a return to life, or the “Age of Faith” as he calls it, which supposedly marked the early church, before doctrine derailed vibrant spirituality. Cox endorses Aldous Huxley’s rendition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily faith, but deliver us from beliefs.” [xxviii] Of course Cox is echoing an old and ridiculous liberal line that life and beliefs must be separated, whereas Scripture teaches that true spirituality should flow from sound theology.

As was documented earlier in this paper the concerns of these authors, and the view championed by Cox, is at the heart of theological liberalism going back into the early 1700s. What is new, and disturbing, is the increased adoption of the same philosophy by today’s evangelicals. It was in essence this same artificial divide between doctrine and life that jumpstarted the liberal branch of Christianity. As the people in the pews imbibed this philosophy, coupled with reduction in biblical exposition and minimalistic theological instruction, they increasingly distanced themselves from biblical Christianity. We are sadly witnessing the same cycle, this time within evangelical and even fundamental communities.


Given the theology and ecclesiastical mood of the moment, what should be our response? Admittedly, turning the tide back toward a doctrinal foundation, rather than building the church on pragmatism and what is currently tickling the ears of people, is going to be a difficult task. David Wells gives a perceptive account in the Introduction to his book No Place for Truth concerning a semester-opening seminary class on theology. Knowing that his students for the most part considered theology as unimportant at best, he had prepared his opening defense proving that everyone has a theology but as Christians ours must be based solidly on the Word. Thinking he had set the agenda for the course ahead and had persuaded his students of his position, he was preparing to leave when a number of students made it clear that they did not share his opinion. One student spoke for the rest:

That day, an obviously agitated student who had come forward told me how grateful he was for what I had said. It was as if I had been reading his mind. He told me that he was one of those I had described who felt petrified by the prospect of having to take this course. As a matter of fact, he said, he had had a mighty struggle with his conscience about it. Was it right to spend so much money on a course of study that was so irrelevant to his desire to minister to people in the Church? He plainly intended no insult. As a matter of fact, this confession, which I rather think he had not intended to blurt out, had begun as a compliment.[xxix]

Since this incident things have grown worse, as more and more believers and churches alike focus on the immediate and the pragmatic, and see little place or value in theological pursuits. This is shortsighted and muddled thinking at best. Those looking for a passionate relationship with the Lord would do well to contemplate the words of the following two evangelical leaders who want the same, but who warn that the road to such intimacy is paved with truth (doctrine). R. C. Sproul writes: “There can be nothing in the heart that is not first in the mind. Though it is possible to have theology in the head without its piercing the soul, it cannot pierce the soul without first being grasped by the mind.”[xxx] And few evangelicals speak more about passion than John Piper who warns, “Not to care about truth is not to care about God. To love God passionately is to love truth passionately.”[xxxi] These men, regardless of differences we might have with their theology, are on target and to ignore this wisdom, which is grounded in Scripture, is to default to a spirituality more in line with imagination and subjectivism than biblical instruction or example.

The way forward at this time is for increasing numbers of evangelicals to take seriously biblical texts such as Jude 3. There we find that Jude longed to write a positive letter dealing with the glorious truths of our salvation. But due to his observations of errors penetrating the church of his day he saw the necessity to write to his audience “appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” For the faith to thrive in our lives and churches we must take a stand for truth, even if that means division. As Steve Larson, quoting Adrian Rogers writes:

It is better to be divided by truth than to be united in error. It is better to speak the truth that hurts and then heals, than falsehood that comforts and then kills. It is not love and it is not friendship if we fail to declare the whole counsel of God. It is better to be hated for telling truth than be loved for telling a lie…It’s better to stand alone with the truth than be wrong with a multitude.[xxxii]

In Paul’s final inspired epistle he warned Timothy that “the time would come when they will not endure sound doctrine; wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4). This warning is not followed by a cry of despair, nor an injunction to give the people what they want to hear, but rather, “You, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (4:5), and it is preceded by, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (v. 2). With Timothy we are living in times when sound doctrine is not being endured and people are creating celebrities out of those who can winsomely and creatively tell them what they want to hear. But instead of giving into the desires of such people we are to preach the Word and seriously proclaim the truth of God as found in Scripture.


Steven Spearie, “Mega-Growth, The State Journal Register, Nov 22, 2015, pp. 1, 6.

See William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), pp. 233-236.

Ibid., p. 269.

Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, a Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust,
2000), p. 5.

Ibid., p. 8 (emphasis in the original).

Ibid., p. 11.

Murray, p. 12.

R. C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas, Understanding the Concepts That Shaped Our World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), p. 155.

George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism 1870-1930, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 34-35.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism
, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923, 2009), p.17.

Ibid., p. 149.

David W. Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism, the Age of Spurgeon and Moody, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p. 259.

Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide, Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).

Ibid., p. 190 (emphasis in the original).

Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, The Pastor Theologian, Resurrecting an Ancient Vision, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), p. 7.

JD Hall, Andy Stanley Trashes Expository Preaching; Calls it “Easy” and “Cheating”,

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, Performing the Drama of Doctrine, (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2014), p.

Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol 1, (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947), p. v.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, p. xiv.

Ibid., p. 53.

Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion, How We actually Live Our Faith, (New York: Free Press, 2003), p.3.

Ibid., p. 87.

Ibid., p. 74.

Ibid., p. 247.

Vanhoozer, p. 54.

Ibid., pp. 54-55.

Ibid., p. 55.

Ibid., p. 56 (emphasis in the original).

David Wells, No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1993), p 4.

Donald S. Whitney, “Unity of Doctrine and Devotion.” The Compromised Church, The Present Evangelical Crisis, ed by John H. Armstrong
(Wheaton: Crossway, 1998) p. 256.

Ibid., p. 256.

Steven J. Lawson, Famine in the Land, a Passionate Call for Expository Preaching, (Chicago: Moody Press, 2003), p. 68.


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Famine for the Word

Volume 30, Issue 4, May 2024 by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/Teacher Southern View Chapel From general observation to suffocating surveys, theological drift and biblical illiteracy

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