By Tom Olago October 25, 2016
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Is American Christianity evolving into a faith with more ‘believing unbelievers’ and ‘unbelieving believers’ than simply true believers?
These oxymoron references perhaps best describe both the confusion and apostasy related to the doctrines and practices embraced by many professing Christians in America today.
In a recent article for breakpoint.org, G. Shane Morris decries the apparent lack of understanding of Bible theology by Americans in general. “In knowing both the content of the Bible and the doctrinal foundations of Christianity, we Americans aren’t just at the bottom of our class.
We are, as Ross Douthat argues in his book, “Bad Religion,” a nation of heretics”, Morris stated.
A harsh-sounding statement — but the statistics paint the sorry picture. A survey of 3,000 people conducted by LifeWay Research and commissioned by Ligonier Ministries found that although Americans still overwhelmingly identify as “Christian,” startling percentages of the nation embrace ancient errors condemned by all major Christian traditions.
Morris notes that these are not minor points of doctrine, but core ideas that define Christianity itself. “The really sad part? Even when we’re denying the Deity of Christ, we can’t keep our story straight.
Americans talking about theology sound about as competent as country singers rapping”, he observed, citing several highlights from the survey.
Seven out of ten respondents in LifeWay’s survey affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity–that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Persons but one God, and six in ten agreed that Jesus is both human and divine. Their orthodoxy–and consistency–ended there.
The rest of the survey unearthed some beliefs that are shocking to note:
– More than half went on to indicate that Jesus is “the first and greatest being created by God,” a heresy known as Arianism, which the Council of Nicaea condemned in 325 A.D.
– Seventy percent of participants–who ranged across socioeconomic and racial backgrounds–agreed there’s only one true God. Yet sixty-four percent also thought this God accepts the worship of all religions, including those that believe in many gods.
– Two-thirds admitted that everyone sins a little bit, but still insisted that most people are good by nature, which directly contradicts scripture (“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9).
– Over half said it’s fair for God to exercise His wrath against sin, but seemed to waffle about which sins deserved wrath (not theirs!). Seventy-four percent said the “smallest sins” don’t warrant eternal damnation, in contrast to Jesus’ half-brother, who when writing at the Holy Spirit’s inspiration taught that even one infraction of God’s law is enough to sink someone.
– A full 60 percent agreed that “everyone eventually goes to Heaven,” but half of those surveyed also checked the box saying that “only those who believe in Jesus will be saved.”
Granted, the average professing Christian may just be wearing a popular tag that makes them feel better about their spiritual side. Evangelicals, however, are known to be more accurate in their interpretations of scripture and more serious in the actual practice of their faith.
As Morris noted, everyone therefore expected them to perform better than most Americans. No one expected them to perform worse. Here are some of the bizarre and contradictory beliefs that many evangelicals hold to:
– Seven in ten evangelicals–more than the population at large–said that Jesus was the first being God created.
– Fifty-six percent agreed that “the Holy Spirit is a divine force but not a personal being.”
– A huge increase in evangelicals (28 percent, up from 9 percent) indicated that the Third Person of the Trinity is not equal with God the Father or Jesus, a direct contradiction of orthodox Christianity.
– By definition, evangelicals in this survey believed that “only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.” Yet nearly half agreed that “God accepts the worship of all religions including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”
– Two-thirds of evangelicals–more than Americans in general–said Heaven is a place where all people will ultimately be reunited with their loved ones. Many of these folks evidently see no contradiction between their casual universalism and the evangelical creed that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone.
– Two out of five evangelicals say “worshipping alone or with family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church”.
Morris further noted that former Newsday religion reporter Kenneth Briggs recently told Religion News Service that the faith he finds in “mega-type churches” is a “Bible-less,” “alternative version of Christianity.” Scripture, he says, has become “a museum exhibit, hallowed as a treasure but enigmatic and untouched.”
The Bible remains phenomenally popular, of course. Practically everyone has one in his or her home, and many families own four or five. But Briggs characterises our love for the Bible as love for an “artifact,” a “keepsake,” or a lucky “rabbit’s foot.” This talisman of faith mainly stays on the shelf or mantle next to the urn filled with grandpa’s ashes.
Briggs says it was in a prison, not a church, where he encountered the most vibrant and intimate familiarity with God’s Word.
Most everywhere else, his observations confirmed a recent Barna survey, conducted for the American Bible Society, which found that less than half the country can name the first five books of the Old Testament and that a similar number think John the Baptist was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples.
Why does it matter that we’ve become a nation of doctrinal dunces? What harm is there in flunking Christianity 101?
Morris stated that, for Christians, the answer is obvious. If we really believe what we profess–that the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the single most important fact of history and eternity–then we’d better improve our grade.
Knowing who the God we claim to worship is can no longer be a third priority if we want the world to take us seriously as his followers:
“In the subduction zone between a nominally Christian culture and a distinctly post-Christian one, sparks are flying–in florist’s shops, bakeries, universities, legislatures, and bathrooms nationwide.
Those who want to live in peace with the still-sizeable Christian remnant need to move past lazy dismissals of religious “bigotry,” and learn why Christians have come to the conclusions we have for 2,000 years”, Morris wrote.
“The results of this survey ought to embarrass all of us. But they should also serve as a kick in the pants to re-familiarize ourselves with our own religion–or at least our own history. There’s no excuse to be a nation of heretics. But even that is preferable to being a nation of ignoramuses”, Morris concluded.
A recent report on these findings published in ChristianityToday.com quoted LifeWay Research director Scott McConnell’s related views:
“Sometimes, as Christians in America, we’re so busy running from one thing to another without taking the time to really closely see how this relationship with God works…I think you can see this in the variety of responses [to this survey] where people are in the right theologically on several questions and then completely missing it on others.”
Herein lies the greater danger. Indications are that where Christians are ‘missing it’ creates a wide-open door for unBiblical practices — a natural consequence of the departure from knowing and accurately applying the Scriptures.
In Canada –which is very similar to the United States in many ways — some recent church developments exemplify this principle.
A breibart.com story published at the end of September, Thomas D. Williams reported the case of an atheist pastor coming out of the woodwork. The pastor of West Hill United Church found herself in the middle of a firestorm ever since she came out publicly as a disbeliever.
Ordained in the Canadian United Church in 1993, the Rev. Gretta Vosper slowly began doubting the truths of Christianity until she found herself an avowed atheist, denying not only the Deity of Jesus Christ but even the notion of God altogether.
All this time, however, she continued to lead her church, deemphasizing questions of the supernatural while stressing ‘community’, based on secular values of inclusiveness and compassion.
Reports suggest that the 58-year-old pastor has a “loyal following” at her Protestant congregation in suburban Toronto, which she describes as a good fit for nonbelievers “looking for a community that will help them create meaningful lives without God.”
Members of the flock have expressed their consternation in a variety of ways, wondering aloud how a declared atheist can be allowed to lead a confessionally Christian congregation.
“My understanding is that the United Church of Canada is a ‘Christian’ church based on the teachings of Jesus Christ,” Pamella Fell wrote on a United Church website. “Why, why, why is she still with the UCC if she isn’t a Christian?”
Yet, as Williams notes, the United Church which prides itself on its inclusiveness is treating the matter gingerly, reluctant to declare anything off-limits.
“At the heart of the concerns being raised is a tension between two core values, both of which are central to our identity as United Church. The first is our faith in God. The second is our commitment to being an open and inclusive church,” wrote the Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell, head (moderator) of the United Church of Canada.
The crux of the matter seems to be that for a church that has progressively embraced every aspect of secular culture, it has become hard to say “no” to anything.
With a wink and a nod to the Bible, the United Church has accepted abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, female ordination and openly gay ministers. But atheism seems a bridge too far.
In other words, for the United Church, it’s all right to “mold” your idea of God so that he (or she) can approve of homosexual sex and transgenderism and killing babies in the womb, but please don’t deny the divinity outright.
These increasingly common tendencies, to ‘pick and choose’ from the scriptures or to prioritize personal preferences irrespective of what the Bible teaches, appear to have filtered down to the average American Christian.
According to David Fiorazo in a recent publication of westernjournalism.com:
“Many American citizens claim to love God and believe we live in a Christian nation, but most of us would admit our actions don’t always match our words, and our culture generally reflects darkness rather than the light of Christ.
People have more than one Bible in their comfortable homes, but prefer not to study God’s Word because it would interfere with how they want to live. Many profess to be saved, and yet these same folks often say there are many ways to Heaven, the meaning of sin has changed, or Jesus is not God….”
Fiorazo concludes that what people seem to be following is humanism, moral relativism, New Age, Universalism or a religion of works, none of which can be seriously defended with Scripture. The evangelical and Protestant Church was compromised many decades ago and obviously weakened.
Part of Fiorazo’s chilling conclusion: “One result is there are countless souls sitting in our churches who are not saved or don’t really believe the doctrine of the church they attend…Welcome to the new post-Christian America”.