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The Idol of Theology

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One of my first classes in college was a spiritual formation course that explored the nature of personal spiritual development. One afternoon, our professor came into class with a brick, a Nerf football, and a boa. As you’d imagine, we were all pretty curious about what he planned to do with them. As his lecture got moving that afternoon, he explained that each of the items represented a particular classification of Christian beliefs.
The brick represented core Christian values that simply can’t be compromised if we will continue calling ourselves by the name. These include beliefs like the divinity of Christ, the inspiration and authority of God’s Word, and the Trinity. These are the beliefs where disagreement over them should cause us to break fellowship.

The Nerf football represented beliefs that were important but where disagreement can be tolerated to certain degree. I like to think of these as the beliefs that might divide one denomination from another – beliefs about baptism, the ordinances or sacraments of the Church, or the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I might not join another denomination that disagrees considerably with me on these beliefs but I would still consider them my brothers and sisters in Christ.

The boa represents areas of theology that should not impact the way we live as Christians or how we fellowship with one another, like the meaning of predestination or styles of worship. We may debate these doctrines for fun but they shouldn’t keep us from fellowshipping with one another.

The Two Errors

There are extremes we can trend towards as Christians, both of which can destroy us. The first is to consider all of our theology or beliefs as boas. On this extreme, we downplay the importance of life-altering doctrines and end up tolerating heresy in the Church. It’s an extreme that liberally accepts virtually any discrepancy.

The other error is to make everything a brick. In the mid-19th century, there was a movement among several Baptist groups in the South who began teaching that the only true church is the local Baptist church. Essentially, they believed that unless you were in good standing as a member of a local Baptist congregation, then you were cut off from Christ and not a true Christian. They considered other denominations to be societies or social clubs without any real merit. When we take this extreme, we become so rigid that the Church divides over trivial matters and we become our own benchmarks for theological accuracy.

When Theology Becomes an Idol

Both of these extremes are equally dangerous but I particularly fear the tendency among many conservative Christians to run towards the latter extreme. I’ve been in churches where theology was a self-righteous brick often used to keep out those who didn’t fit the mold.

I attended a local Baptist seminary where theology was held on such a pedestal that disagreement among the faculty would often lead to dismissal. Even asking leading questions to encourage discussion was a dangerous thing to do. Rather than teaching how to minister in a post-modern, post-Christian world, they were so absorbed in their indoctrination that they missed the fact that the world had aged 50 years. As someone who wanted to minister in an urban environment and felt the Gospel needed to be communicated differently to a new audience, I was an outsider. And the real kicker? I’m pretty conservative!

How Do You Know?

So how do you know if theology has become an idol, rather than a measuring rod for keeping your beliefs about God grounded?

  1. When you can’t name a close friend in your life who disagrees with you, theology may be an idol.
  2. When you can’t stomach losing a debate about God, theology may be an idol.
  3. When you could write a 10-page dissertation on your own beliefs but haven’t meaningfully dialoged with others from another denomination, theology may be an idol.
  4. If you can’t explain the basic tenets of Christianity to a non-Christian without using jargon and without it taking more than 5 minutes, theology may be an idol.
  5. When you’re lecturing more than you’re asking questions about others’ beliefs, theology is probably an idol.
  6. When – and don’t miss this one – you’re absorbed in multiple Bible studies every week but you aren’t actively and sacrificially ministering to those around you, theology is definitely an idol.

I believe that theology is important. It deserves our study as Christians and everyone who professes belief in Christ should know what that means. There is an appropriate time and place for it. My own beliefs are actually very conservative too. But when our theology is raised to such a level that it severs God-ordained unity, keeps us from ministering effectively, or becomes a source of pain to those seeking Christ, it is being emphasized beyond what is healthy.

Discuss: Which beliefs should we consider “bricks?” Which ones are Nerf footballs or boas?

Posted in: Theology

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  • Mike Whitlock

    Great thought provoking statements. We still must realized that everyone will have different bricks, nerf footballs, and boas. Sometimes what we feel is a brick is not to someone else. We must be careful in judging certain groups in such a wide sweep because we have a different thought. The one guide that I have to remind myself is what does the Word of God say and pray for the guidance and truth which only God can give.

    • http://www.mattmorrison.org/ Matt Morrison

      Mike, I think you’re right. Thanks for the comment. I hope things are going well!