In his book A Generous Orthodoxy (Zondervan), Brian McLaren makes a piercing assessment of evangelicals. He says they have focused on having all the right doctrinal beliefs, but they lead lives that, often, don’t match those beliefs.
He sums up their mindset like this: “[O]ne could at least be proud of getting an ‘A’ in orthodoxy even when one earned a ‘D’ in orthopraxy [the application of doctrine to one’s life].”
Many Christians think McLaren is on to something.
A lot of evangelicals affirm doctrines they don’t really believe, according to Dr. Gregg Ten Elshof, chair of Biola’s undergraduate philosophy department.
“It's not that they disbelieve what they affirm,” Ten Elshof said. “It's just that they have no real belief either way. What they affirm has nothing to do with the way they live."
Dr. Richard Flory, an associate professor of sociology at Biola, calls the problem “an intellectualized Christianity, where it stays in your head and doesn’t work itself out on the ground.”
This can be seen in some churches, according to Dr. John Hutchison. Hutchison is chair of the Bible exposition department at Biola’s seminary, Talbot School of Theology. He said: “There’s been a disillusionment with churches who pride themselves on teaching very orthodox doctrine, yet you don’t necessarily see a difference in their members’ lifestyles.”
Multiple studies have shown, for example, that Christians get divorced as often as, or more than, non-Christians. Studies have also found that many Christians, even pastors, regularly view pornography. Evangelical pollster George Barna said that nine out of 10 born-again Christians fail to live differently than the rest of the world.
McLaren thinks many “doctrinally sound” Christians tend to be arrogant, judgmental and unloving toward non-Christians and, even, Christians who have different doctrinal views.
In his book Think Like Jesus, Barna said that many people who claim to be Christians lead lives that are indistinguishable from non-Christians.
McLaren believes an answer to this inconsistency is for Christians to shift their focus from having abstract doctrinal knowledge to leading authentic, Christlike lives — lives that are characterized by traits like humility and genuine concern for people.
Many evangelicals have expressed a similar sentiment that relationships are more important than doctrine. As the popular catch phrases go: “Christianity isn’t about head knowledge but heart knowledge” and “it’s not a religion but a relationship.”
True, Christianity is fundamentally about a relationship with God. Evangelicals have historically stressed that the Christian faith is essentially a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Yet it’s precisely because Christianity is a relationship that doctrine is so important, according to Ben Shin, who teaches classes on the Bible, hermeneutics and spiritual formation at Talbot. Shin said that, in any relationship, if you want to grow closer to the other person then you have to know more about him or her.
“In the same way, if you want to go deeper in your relationship with God, then you have to know about Him and who He is,” Shin said. “That’s why doctrine and theology are really key because they give us deeper knowledge of Him.”
But not just any doctrine, according to Dr. Alan Gomes, chair of the systematic and historical theology department at Talbot. “When people have a wrong view about God, on some level it will affect how they relate to God and others,” Gomes said.
Barna agrees, saying the reason so many believers don’t live like Christians should is 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.
One doctrine that has defined Christians for nearly two millennia is the Trinity. It was considered an essential doctrine that gave crucial insight into, among other things, monotheism, Jesus’ deity, and the communal nature of God. Those who rejected the Trinity were kept from fellowship with orthodox Christians.
But, as relationships trump doctrine, essentials like the Trinity have become less important.
T.D. Jakes, for example, was named by TIME Magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America and possibly “the next Billy Graham.” Yet Jakes — a megachurch pastor in Dallas, Texas — rejects the historic doctrine of the Trinity, replacing it with an ancient church heresy called “modalism,” according to Gomes.
In response to his critics, Jakes said he is more concerned about relational ministry than arguing over doctrines like the Trinity. In an opinion article published in April 2000 by Religion Today, a Christian online news service, Jakes said: “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.”
A growing number of evangelical leaders believe the Trinity, but don’t think it’s essential. These leaders include Dr. C. Peter Wagner (a former evangelical seminary professor and a prolific church growth author) and J. Lee Grady (editor of Charisma Magazine). In his 2004 book Changing Church, Wagner says 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. And Grady called the differences between Oneness Pentecostals and Trinitarian Pentecostals “pointless doctrinal hair-splitting” in a July 2002 issue of Charisma. He also applauded several Pentecostal denominations who decided to no longer divide over the doctrine.
Yet church history has shown that questioning the importance of a doctrine is a slippery slope that can lead to a rejection of that doctrine, according to Gomes. He said Christians don’t go from orthodox beliefs to heretical beliefs overnight. “There’s usually a waystation where they say, ‘I believe that doctrine, but I don’t think it’s important for other Christians to believe it,’” Gomes said.
Other historic doctrines like hell and the exclusivity of Christ are being challenged by McLaren and other leaders in the “emerging church” movement — a movement that is seeking to reach postmodern generations with the gospel. They’ve also questioned whether the objective truth of Christian teachings can be known with certainty, believing people are so influenced by their cultures, languages and historical settings that they can’t see outside the lenses of their biases. (Of course, McLaren and these leaders do not speak for all participants in the emerging church.)
The doctrine of God’s omniscience is also under attack by “open theists,” who argue that God can’t know all of the future because he doesn’t know which actions human beings will freely choose. But critics say such a view calls into question the trustworthiness of God. In a controversial decision, the Evangelical Theological Society accepted open theists into its membership in 2003. Dr. Norman Geisler, a past president of the society, resigned in protest. The prevalence of such views is a symptom of a neglect of doctrine, Gomes said. And the results have been devastating to the church, according to Dr. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. The disappearing doctrine of the exclusivity of Christ, for example, has undermined world missions, argued Mohler, in an article titled “Missions at Risk: A Failure of Nerve.” If salvation is available apart from Christ, then Christians will feel no urgency to share the gospel, Mohler said — adding that the missionary force is just a fraction of what it was in the 1950s.
Dr. Dennis Dirks, the dean of Talbot, believes today’s church is a far cry from the early church, which fought vigorously to protect essential Christian teachings. Doctrine was so important that entire books of the Bible were written about it, councils met to defend it, and early converts to Christianity had two to three years of training in it, known as the “catechumenate,” Dirks said. The Protestant Reformers also urged participation in a catechumenate.
But today, to join many churches, people simply sign a doctrinal statement and, maybe, take a four-week class. Beyond that, very little doctrine is discussed.
“A 20-minute sermon may only include five minutes of biblical content,” said Dr. Jonathan Kim, an associate professor of Christian education at Talbot. “Even small groups, these days, are mostly about relationships and life-related issues.”
Gomes said the idea that the historic doctrines are unnecessary for a vibrant Christian experience gained a following through the teachings of Frederick Schleiermacher (1768-1834), whose views were the driving force behind liberal Christianity. Schleiermacher taught that the goal of religion is to have a feeling of total dependence on God. So, he thought doctrines were essential only if they led to that feeling. On that basis, he rejected the Trinity.
Gomes said the elevation of feelings over doctrine has been adopted within much of charismatic Christianity and throughout the broader evangelical church.
Shin said this can be seen in church worship music, which, he believes, has become doctrinally weak. “Rather than 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?’” Shin said. An example he gave is the song, “Undignified.” The lyrics, which are based on David’s dance before the Lord in 2 Samuel 6, repeat the phrase: “I’ll become even more undignified than this.”
Shin said, “Not only is it out of context, but it’s more of a fun song, other than one that gives praise to God.”
Recent studies also indicate that doctrine is on the decline. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, released a study titled the “National Study of Youth and Religion” which found that nearly half of conservative Protestant youth believe many religions may be true — again, challenging the exclusivity of Christ. And 36 percent of conservative Protestant youth think it’s OK to pick and choose the parts of their faith they agree with. This helps explain why 33 percent of them are open to reincarnation, even though it contradicts the Bible’s teachings about the afterlife.
In their book Soul Searching (Oxford University Press), co-author Dr. Christian Smith, said: “[M]ost teens know details about television characters and pop stars, but many … haven’t a clue about their own tradition’s core ideas.”
Gomes said many churchgoing adults also lack doctrinal knowledge.
“I have always attended good, solid, evangelical churches where the people are probably well above average in their training,” Gomes said. “But even there, in some of the adult Sunday School classes that I have taught, I have received surprising answers on very basic doctrines of the faith.”
Dull and Boring
Part of the problem people have with doctrine is they think it’s dull and boring. But it shouldn’t be, according to Dr. Don Sunukjian, who teaches preaching classes at Talbot.
“There is never a time when doctrines should be presented as dull, boring and abstract because God always revealed them to people so it would help them in their lives,” Sunukjian said.
The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, seems abstract but has important practical applications, according to Hutchison, who is a teaching elder at Life Covenant Church in Torrance, Calif. — a church that is seeking to reach postmodern generations without compromising historic doctrines. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit live in loving community with one another, Hutchison said, adding that while there is diversity within the Godhead, there is also unity.
“What a beautiful picture of the relationships of Christians within the church,” Hutchison said.
Kenneth Samples — the vice president of philosophical and theological apologetics at “Reasons To Believe” in Glendora, Calif., and a guest lecturer at Biola — agrees that if more Christians grasped the implications of the Trinity then their relationships would be transformed.
“Imagine what our churches would look like if we sought to emulate, even imperfectly, the divine community that is lived out eternally by the three persons of the Godhead,” Samples said. “Treating each other with mutual respect, deference, and humility would create genuine community in our churches.”
Such loving community would help resolve some of the problems cited by McLaren, who acknowledges the importance of the Trinity.
Another belief — that Christianity is objectively true — seems irrelevant to some Christians but, without it, the entire Christian faith is undermined, according to Dr. R. Scott Smith, an associate professor of ethics and Christian apologetics at Biola.
“Such beliefs in the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection make no sense on a view in which we cannot know objective truths,” Smith said in his book Truth & the New Kind of Christian (Crossway), which critiques the views of McLaren and Tony Jones, another emerging church leader.
On the other hand, knowing that Christianity is objectively true gives Christians confidence in their faith and motivation to share it with others, Smith said.
Likewise, the teaching that God knows all of the future — which is contradicted by open theism — provides Christians with the comfort of knowing that God is in control.
Dr. Michelle Lee, an assistant professor of biblical studies and theology at Talbot, believes that doctrine and a vibrant Christian life are closely connected in Scripture. “You have explicit statements, such as John 20:30-31, which says that it is through correct belief in Christ that Christians have life,” Lee said. “And, in general, the Apostle Paul’s letters were written for the spiritual formation, or moral formation, of the congregations.”
Because of the connection between doctrine and life, any attempt to divorce the two is absurd, according to Gomes. “Some people will say, ‘I don’t want a church that has all this doctrine; I just want a church that’s alive,’” Gomes said. “Well, that makes no sense at all. The life you have should flow from what you believe.”
Yet, there are signs that more Christians are starting to see the value of doctrine. Dirks said he has sensed a growing interest among incoming Talbot students for doctrine. In fact, many students have told him they chose Talbot for its emphasis on doctrine.
Shin said he also sees a growing desire for doctrine among the members of “The Open Door” church he pastors in Los Angeles.
“At my church, the people are extremely desirous of doctrine. I teach a systematic theology class every Sunday after my preaching, and we’ve gone up to two hours because the people want more,” Shin said.
Connecting Belief With Action
While there are signs of a renewed interest in doctrine, church leaders must continue to help laypeople see its relevance to their lives, according to Smith. He also said they must remind Christians that doctrine should never be treated, merely, as an end in itself. But it should always be lived out in lives that are vibrant Christian witnesses.
“If our lives don’t match up with what we’re professing, then we have a radical disconnect and something is tremendously wrong,” Smith said.
Ten Elshof agrees. “As Christians, we need to do some careful thinking about what difference it makes to our lives to affirm the doctrines we do. I wonder how many people could articulate the difference it makes to their life, for example, to affirm Trinitarianism. To really believe a doctrine is to have it impact your life."
And while Christianity is, primarily, about a relationship, Lee said, Christians must be reminded that it’s not an either-or proposition.
“Many Christians say, ‘We don’t want to come down too hard on doctrine. We want to emphasize loving one another,’” Lee said. “And that’s absolutely important. But those things are not mutually exclusive.”