The difference between maturing and copping out
Alice and Rick had never really done an in-depth study on Christian understanding of homosexuality, but after their daughter recently came out as a lesbian they began to feel uncomfortable in their church. They moved to a different one that’s more intentional about inclusivity.
Wilhelm always assumed environmental concerns were exaggerated and avoided looking into them more deeply because they seemed so politicized. But eventually he began to read more and more scientific and theological material on creation care, and now he’s eagerly learning more and looking for ways to change his habits toward better stewardship.
Kate grew up in a mainstream church where humanitarian outreach was top priority, and there was such warm encouragement for everyone to find their own truth that some of her friends were frankly agnostic. But after graduating from university and moving to a new town, she started attending an evangelical congregation with clearer biblical teaching. She says she was a Christian before, but she’s now convinced some of her earlier beliefs were immature and just plain wrong, and vows never to go back.
And Heather just left her conservative church because of the questions she was getting about her relationship with a married man. Her friends in that church believe that relationship is wrong, but she has prayed and felt God telling her this relationship is exceptional and acceptable in ways her old friends can’t understand (the man says he’s thinking about getting a divorce).
These four stories represent the experiences of a lot of people in contemporary church culture. Some have not thought through their theology in much detail, but have bumped up against an experience that led them to change. For some that experience has led them to deeper understanding, but others have simply shifted their theological beliefs to legitimize new ethical or lifestyle choices.
It’s quite common to realize your theological framework is limited and needs greater breadth. Such changes, whether unconscious, incremental or dramatic, are an invitation to careful reflection – and we do need to be careful because there are potential landmines.
KEY AREAS FOR REFLECTION
Maturity. The biblical encouragement to move from drinking milk to eating solid food (1 Corinthians 3:2) illustrates how spiritual growth is a developmental process. We expect young infants to be sustained by breast milk or formula at first, and later moving on to try other kinds. When they become adults they can absorb and digest more substantial food.
As we grow in grace, we become aware some of our early Christian beliefs may have been partial, misguided or wrong. It’s the same with marriage – after being married for a long time you realize your comprehension of marriage at your wedding was quite simplistic.
This awareness is not an occasion to throw aside our early beliefs, but to reframe and restructure the foundation of our simple faith. In this sense changing our theology is appropriate and wise.
Both Wilhelm and Kate are demonstrating maturity by addressing the lack of breadth in their theological understanding. Parents Alice and Rick would do well to enhance their maturity by not only seeking to understand the inclusive theology of their new church, but by also trying to more closely discern what they have believed before, and what they believe now. And of course, many of us might question whether Heather’s approach to discernment could be characterized by theological maturity.
Authority. Anytime we hold beliefs, theological or otherwise, two questions can be asked, questions people posed to Jesus with regularity (Matthew 21:23):
- By what authority are you doing these things?
- Who gave you this authority?
While many Protestants will claim Scripture as their sole source of authority, much of the Roman Catholic church combines Scripture, apostolic tradition and reason. Evangelicals elevate Scripture and to a lesser extent communal discernment, but increasingly use individual experience as a way to understand and interpret (and, some would argue, reject and accept) certain parts of Scripture.
Changing our theology is often less about the content of the beliefs than how we understand authority and the basis of our faith. What is the nature of our spiritual foundation? What is it built on?
Heather is comfortable with her experiential assessment of having an affair and the legitimization of it via her understanding of prayer, but it is not clear how she understands Scripture, tradition, communal discernment and reason. Wilhelm’s increased reading in theology and science, and Kate’s deepening understanding of biblical theology, reflect a respect for Scripture, tradition and reason. Parents Alice and Rick have made a theological change, but it is not clear how they understand their own theology either historically or moving forward.
Theology. For many Christians the claim "I’m not into theology" is an expression of spiritual piety and faithfulness. Theology is something for academics who teach in seminaries and graduate schools, and engage in intellectual pursuits. Simple faith in Christ is held up as the antithesis and is more about the heart than the head.
But actually the two most basic definitions of theology are relevant to all of us:
- faith seeking understanding
- the study of God.
If Alice and Rick simply change churches because the new one seems more inclusive, have they experienced an increased understanding of their faith and a clearer understanding of God?
If Wilhelm becomes an environmentalist because it’s fashionable, will he have fully grappled with the reality the God of creation is not only interested in what happened after the Fall, but what happened before it as well?
If Kate doesn’t fully integrate her newfound beliefs – if it turns out they are more about fitting in at her new church – will she lose what she had initially experienced as a new depth to her faith?
Is Heather really being faithful if she just leaves her old church because it won’t affirm her affair, and doesn’t examine her own prayer life or reflect on how God uses Spirit-led sisters and brothers to help us discern?
When thoughtful reflection becomes an integral part of faith, questions about God and who He is (the central feature of theology) are not left to the experts. They become part of the normal Christian life – as they should be.
WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR
Modifying our theology can be a thoughtful spiritual process that reflects the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but there are potential landmines.
Personal work. When I was in elementary school, I remember math tests where I would figure out the answer in my head and write it down on the page. To my surprise it was often marked wrong because I did not show my work.
Different theologians and preachers have become popular at different times in Church history, and not always for good reasons. These days, depending on the church you attend, it might be fashionable to read and listen to people like John Piper, Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, Don Carson, Brad Jersak or Brian McLaren. But problems arise when we adopt their position, conclusion or theology mainly because of popularity or peer pressure.
Then when asked where we stand on an issue, we mention their name or book title and their conclusion. Often we have not done the work ourselves, and frequently have not read any opposing perspectives or considered alternative traditions or lines of thought.
Reading and listening to various authors with diverse perspectives is important if we are to learn and mature, but we will become spiritually lazy if our faith is second-hand and premised solely on the conclusions embraced by others who have done the hard work.
We also engage in another kind of laziness if we feed ourselves a diet of podcasts, websites, books and the like that are all about a position from people who have not done careful work. In the social media economy, a like on Facebook expresses an emotive response to what has been presented, but it would be good if there was a way to signal to someone, "You made a clear and compelling argument in presenting your position and showing your work."
The frequently cited question, "What is your position on … ?" is pushing us into a culture where individuals, organizations and churches are pressured to jump quickly to a conclusion on the issue of the day. It may well be the Christian Church would mature to a greater degree if the Alices, Ricks, Wilhelms, Kates and Heathers were to explain their work and show how they got to their position.
Lived experience. As a psychologist, pastor and theological educator, I’ve spent thousands of hours with people who told me they were changing their theology. In most cases this was marked by legitimate discernment, but in some situations it became clear their theology was shifting either to make it congruent with their own behaviour, or that of a family member or friend. Their lived experience did not square with their theological convictions, and they were, consciously or not, attempting to align the two.
If you believe commitment to a monogamous marriage is God’s intent and biblically warranted, but you find yourself in an affair, there is an incongruity. One of the ways to cope is to change your behaviour so it conforms to your belief. Alternatively you shift your theology so there is congruity with your behaviour, an approach that seemed on the surface to help Heather resolve her inner tension.
But it is also possible to change your theology to make it consistent with the morality of someone you care about. If your daughter has an abortion, but you believe abortion violates a Christian ethic, the incongruity of her action and your belief can easily drive you to a place where your theological position on abortion changes. By doing so you have brought a degree of resolution to the internal contradiction you are experiencing. Many parents like Alice and Rick have felt the tension between our historical theological grid and our lived experience with our children.
People like Wilhelm come to realize their theology lacked depth because it didn’t adequately address their lived experience. With increased exposure to issues like climate change, species extinction, sustainable energy and other environmental concerns, he began to realize there was a lot more he needed to understand. As he reflected further he became aware his approach to sin, salvation and shalom were completely inner focused, ignoring how the lordship of Christ applies to all spheres including creation.
It’s not easy to cope with ourselves or others during a time of tension around our theological beliefs. Wisdom is needed to determine when to change our theology to accommodate our lived experience, when to adjust our lived experience to conform to our theology, and when to keep living in the ambiguous and uncomfortable place where we have to function with the incongruity.
Compartmentalized thinking. In each decade there seems to be a new litmus test as to whether your theology is acceptable or not. In most churches today a major concern is how we respond to people who identify as LGBTQ. It is good and appropriate that a lot of time and space are being devoted to these questions, as the Church’s history with this community is less than stellar. We should be grateful many people are researching and reflecting on this vexed subject that involves human beings created in the image of God – and seeking to develop and communicate thoughtful practical theology about it.
LIVING WITH SEAMLESS THEOLOGY
The risk with any subject is that we can become issue oriented and myopic – the call to change theology on that issue becomes our primary focus. A single-issue theology can create compartmentalized thinking where many other aspects of God’s multifaceted revelation and the systemic nature of the world He has created are ignored.
While it has become fashionable to change theology on the issue of the day, we require a viewpoint that takes its directive from the biblical trajectory. We can’t read Scripture in context and conclude it is filled with position statements on isolated issues. It is an integrated book that joins all aspects of life under God into a seamless tapestry that rejects any compartmentalized thinking and requires a comprehensive theology.
Compartmentalized thinking usually stems from limited exposure. If we stick to a few favourite bloggers, writers and preachers, we shut ourselves off from a world of history where many issues were dealt with thoughtfully and thoroughly. If the only theology we take in is a kind of predigested theology, we shut ourselves off from getting into foundational theological material that will serve us well. If we never take a theological course (now ever more accessible online!) or never consult someone who has a breadth of knowledge that surpasses our own, we shut ourselves off from invaluable mentoring and the challenges we need to grow.
Alice and Rick, Wilhelm, and Heather could easily turn the entire Christian life into conclusions about LGBTQ issues, environmental concerns and marital ethics, just like Kate’s childhood church was reduced to a humanitarian club. While all these issues and activities are important, they are not the sum total of what it means to be Christian.
With the contemporary proliferation of books, websites, podcasts and social media, there is a massive and wide-ranging theological buffet offered to hungry patrons. Whether we identify with Alice and Rick, Wilhelm, Kate or Heather, we need an ongoing commitment to maturity, a freshened understanding of authority and a renewed passion for theology. We need to do our own personal work, carefully integrating our lived experience and systematically avoiding compartmentalized thinking.
Rod J. K. Wilson, former president of Regent College, is now a teaching pastor at Capilano Christian Community in Vancouver, and works with a number of different organizations including A Rocha.