In his newest book Christless Christianity, Michael Horton makes this intriguing claim: “Secularism cannot be blamed on the secularists, many of whom were raised in the church. We are the problem.” Just what does he mean by that? He goes on to explain,
“If most churchgoers cannot tell us anything specific about the God they consider meaningful or explain basic doctrines of creation in God’s image, original sin, the atonement, justification, sanctification, the means of grace, or the hope of glory, then the blame can hardly be placed at the feet of secular humanists.”
Of course there certainly is such a thing as secular humanism which poses a very real threat to biblical Christianity. I write about it all the time. But those who follow my writings will notice that increasingly I am addressing basic theological and doctrinal issues – core Christian beliefs.
From my vantage point, one of the biggest problems facing the church today is the fact that most believers do not even have a rudimentary understanding of basic Christian beliefs. We seem to know very little about what we believe or why we believe. Thus more and more of my articles of late have been going back to the basics – the essential Christian beliefs that all followers of Jesus should understand.
Of course Scripture enjoins us not to be in such a condition of theological immaturity. Consider just one of many passages that speak to this issue. Hebrews 5:12-14 says this: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”
There are many reasons for this biblical illiteracy amongst God’s people today. I won’t here address them all. Suffice it to say that theology, doctrine and basic Christian teaching do not get a very good rap nowadays. The church has more or less followed the spirit of the age in downplaying any sure word or any absolute truths.
This is a hallmark especially of postmodernism. Yet sadly, whole sections of the church have embraced postmodernism, hook, line and sinker. Many in the emerging church movement have taken pride in how postmodern they are. And many of the emergent church leaders admit to having little time for theology and doctrine.
Indeed, they often have this annoying habit of creating false distinctions. They claim that believers must for some reason make a choice: either embrace love and relationships, or embrace doctrine and theology. They seem to think the former rule out the latter, and vice versa. They seem to think these are polar opposites which cannot live in harmony.
Of course the Bible knows nothing of such false dilemmas. The Bible over and over commands us to do both. The Christian life is to be characterised by both orthopraxis (right living) and orthodoxy (right belief). A classic text in this regard is 1Timothy 4:16: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
There are in fact hundreds of passages in Scripture which make the case for the importance of sound doctrine, proper teaching, good theology and maintaining the truth. Along with these are numerous warnings against false prophets, false teachers, false doctrine and false beliefs.
Let me explore just one of them. Ep. 4:14,15: “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.”
Verse 14 is similar in content to Heb. 5:12-14. Both speak of the need to press on to spiritual maturity, and a vital part of this maturation process involves knowing and understanding biblical doctrine and truth. Failure to do so will mean we will succumb to false teachers and deceptive teachings.
The second half of verse 14 uses three prepositional phrases to emphasise this threat. As Andrew Lincoln notes, “behind the threatening teachings, making them so dangerous, are deceitful people, ready to manipulate and take advantage of immature and unstable believers.”
But as Peter O’Brien reminds us, there is even something more behind the false teachers: “behind the false teaching are not simply evil men and women who pursue their unscrupulous goals with a scheming that produces error. There is also a supernatural, evil power who seeks to deceive them with devilish cunning; his ‘intrigues’ are to be resisted energetically with the aid of God’s armour (6:11).”
Verse 15, about speaking the truth in love, is a wonderful rejoinder to those who would ask us to artificially choose one or the other. Contrary to much emerging church teaching, in this area, what God has joined together no man is to put asunder. As John Stott notes, “What Paul calls for is a balanced combination of the two”. The Greek verb literally “means, ‘truthing in love’, and includes the notions of ‘maintaining’, ‘living’, and ‘doing’ the truth.”
Of course we all know of people who are gung-ho on truth and doctrine, but are cold, hard and unloving. We also know of people who couldn’t care less about doctrine and truth, and are just wishy-washy and sentimental. Says Stott, “Both these tendencies are unbalanced and unbiblical. Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth. The apostle calls us to hold the two together.”
Or as C. Leslie Mitton remarked, “concern for individuals is no less important than devotion to principle, though it is not always easy to do full justice to both. John saw the two perfectly harmonised in Jesus whom he described as ‘full of grace and truth’ (Jn 1:14) and able to communicate both qualities to his disciples (Jn 1:17).”
The Christian church can always use truckloads of more love. We all are far from loving like Jesus loved. But we also need truckloads of truth. Sound doctrine and clear biblical teaching is absolutely essential. Let us make it our aim to strive for both. A needy world very much needs to see and receive both.