On Theological Checklists

Just when do we need doctrinal checklists?

A perennial problem for the Christian is learning how to be in the world but not of it. That is, the believer wants to reach people in the world for Christ, but he does not want to be unduly contaminated by worldly behaviour, worldviews and the like.

And as always, church history shows us that there are extremes to be avoided. Some believers, to remain pure and un-spotted from the world, will withdraw altogether, living in caves, or at least going into monasteries, and so on. And there CAN be a place for some of that activity for some people, to some degree.

The other extreme of course is to totally embrace the world, its values, its beliefs, and its behaviours. But worldliness is something we are repeatedly warned about in Scripture. So the issue once again is about trying to find the biblical balance.

And all this has once again come to a head with the release of the film Sound of Freedom. Much of the recent criticism about it had to do with religious and theological differences. Some folks thought we should stay away from the film altogether because not all those involved in it are fully onside theologically. I already penned two articles looking in detail at those critics and their criticisms.

In that case it was about doctrinal and theological purity. Some Christians thought we must avoid this film like the plague. Never mind the rescue of trafficked children. But I argued – once again – that there is a place for working with others for various worthwhile purposes. It is called co-belligerency.

What I want to discuss here follows on from all that, but it has a somewhat broader application. As I just mentioned, how do we stay “pure” in various ways while living in the world? The New Testament does speak about the need for separation at times. But it also speaks about being involved in the world to make a difference.

As but one example of the former, Christians of course should avoid sexual impurity. So in 1 Corinthians 5 Paul says we are to avoid those involved in sexual immorality. Yet he says that in terms of those claiming to be believers. He says that if we seek to avoid ALL sexually immoral people, then we “would need to go out of the world” (see 1 Cor. 5:9-11).

If Paul were here today he would not be telling us to never buy a coffee at some shop for fear that the barista is sexually immoral. He would not tell us never to fill our cars with petrol because the one taking our cash might be immoral, or an atheist, or a cultist, or a witch. So he would seek for a bit of common sense here. We should as well.

Getting back then to the question about associating with others when it comes to theological and doctrinal matters, let me tease this out a bit further. While hopefully most Christians would find this all rather obvious, sadly not all do. So I need to revisit this matter in a bit more detail.

The question is, then, when do we need to have a theological checklist in place, and when do we not? That is, when do we need to know where another person or group stands in terms of their religious beliefs and theological stances, and when does it not matter so much?

It seems to me that in some cases it is very important that we know – and act accordingly – where someone is in terms of their beliefs. But in other cases, it really does not matter very much at all. So let me offer two lists of ten points each.

Cases where we need such a checklist:

-When you are seeking a new pastor for your church

-When you want to hire a Bible college professor

-When you are selecting a teacher for a Christian school

-When you are seeking a marriage partner

-When you are wanting to find a very close business associate

-When you want someone to lead your Bible study

-When you are vetting candidates for missionary work

-When you need a counsellor in your Christian ministry

-When you need someone to help you write your statement of faith

-When you are wanting godly and biblical advice on important matters

Cases where we (almost always) do not need such a checklist:

-When you buy an ice cream cone

-When you are buying petrol for your car

-When you deal with a checkout chick at a supermarket

-When you go see a travel agent

-When you need a plumber to unclog your drain

-When you need some legal advice about drafting a will

-When you need a doctor to look at an infection you have

-When you want advice on where to best invest some surplus funds you have

-When you need a tradesman to put up a fence

-When you need a quote for getting your house painted

All this should be obvious enough. And yes, sometimes knowing that a person is a Christian might be of use, even when looking for a house painter. You hope that the believer will be less likely to rip you off, cut corners, or overcharge you. So in THAT sense, yes it might be good to know where a person is at.

But even here, one would likely prefer a fully qualified and experienced pagan painter over a Christian one who has no clue what he is doing. Once again, so much of this is just a matter of common sense. The simple truth is, in some areas, yes it matters very much where a person stands in terms of religious beliefs, theology, or spiritual practices. But in other areas it really does not matter very much at all.

Yet some purists and Pharisee types seem to be all upset that those rescuing trafficked children – or those making movies about them – may not be fully orthodox biblical believers. Well, let me tell you this: if a son of mine were kidnapped, but a New Ager, an agnostic, or a JW rescued him, I would not give a rip what their theology was – or wasn’t. I would thank them profusely for doing this.

And I have actually had to ask some of these critical folks point blank a question like this: ‘If your daughter or grandson was kidnapped by traffickers, would you only allow biblical Christians to try to rescue them, or would you support anyone, regardless of the spiritual and theological position, to help save them?’

So I obviously differ with some of the critics here. Yes, good theology is very important. But so too is rescuing a child from rapists and sexual traffickers.

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5 Replies to “On Theological Checklists”

  1. I’m not sure what you would include in your checklist, nor how extensive it would be. Christians come in a huge number of “flavours”, and our differences are often seemingly trivial while being quite distressing and a source of conflict. Why does it have to be this way?

    Can you give an example of what you have in mind? I’d also like to understand whether some matters might be rated as more important than others. What constitutes a “pass mark”?

    This could easily become a can of worms.

  2. Thanks for your remarks Karen. I would have thought however that those reading this piece would find such questions to be more or less answered already! But if I may, let me try again. As to examples, I of course already did provide them, listing important issues versus non-important ones. Even Joe Pagan who has no interest in faith or doctrine knows about the importance of differences. He will not worry overly much about your preference in ice cream (vanilla or chocolate?), but he will likely be very concerned about a possible life partner and think a checklist would be most useful here (What sort of person are you like? What about your past? Are you trustworthy? Are we compatible? etc.). The same with buying a new home or a new car. So we all have checklists for various important things. And given that religion deals with some very important matters indeed (Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Is there a God? Why is there evil? etc.), then checklists have a very real place here as well.

    And I made it clear in this article that truth claims matter. If Jesus said your eternal destiny depends on what you think of him and how you respond to him, then you better make sure you get things right. If he had simply said things like: ‘Just be happy and try to be nice,’ none of this would matter. But it is Jesus who said things like this (in John 3:16-19):

    “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”

    These are life and death matters. These are things we must get right, or we are toast.

    And I have often before made the distinctions between essential doctrines and secondary ones. The Biblical teachings about Jesus being God, our lost, sinful condition, the need to find rescue and salvation only in Christ, etc., are core doctrines that we must embrace – acceptance of them determines whether one is a real Christian or not.

    On the other hand, views about church government, or various worship styles, or different thoughts on eschatology are secondary doctrines. Your eternal destiny does NOT depend on your views on those issues, unlike the primary doctrines. If you want more on this, see here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/01/07/im-a-nicene-christian/

    So with secondary teachings, it is fine to have ‘all sorts of flavours’ – but not with core beliefs. As I said in my piece, it will do no good to have all sorts of flavours and perspectives when it comes to really vital issues. If the law of gravity is true then we better recognise it and heed it – otherwise we might live a rather short life.

    Those who know that the claims of Christ are vitally important, and that how we respond to them makes all the difference, will not worry about “cans of worms”. They will do all they can to ensure that they have heard Christ right, heeded what he said, and made the right decisions as to who he is and why he came to planet earth.

    Hopefully what I said here has better answered some of your questions and concerns.

  3. A great and necessary discussion.
    I reckon 2 Cor 6:14 (14-18) can be a real help here.
    “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.
    For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?”

    A quick reading of this leads into what seems a hard line of separation, but once we understand what “yoked” means, we have the proper context both for the working together and for the separation.

    “Yoked” has to do with draught animals pulling a plough or a heavy wagon etc.
    The unity needed to get that done well, is quite profound;
    Firstly both animals have to be happy to be under the yoke, which is a large piece of timber joining them quite firmly together.
    It is much more restrictive than the harnessing used for eg stage coaches.
    Secondly they need to know who the driver is and obey his commands.
    Thirdly, the task in hand requires that the yoking together goes for a period of time.

    “Unequally yoked” KJV means that the unity is not achieved, and the rest of the passage makes it clear that there are many ways in which the unity is not possible with unbelievers.

    So how can we negotiate this?
    Q1. Is this relationship/purpose going to involve a yoke that binds us to another?
    Q2. What is the yoke that we are agreeing to work with, and what is the aim of the task?
    Q3. Who is recognised as the driver whose commands are going to be obeyed.
    Q4. How long is the task going to take, and what other commitments such as financial and legal and moral are going to be involved?

    Many of our relationships/purposes do not involve a yoke, but a simple agreement for reciprocal benefit. This is especially so when we are not working equally at a task, such as employer/employee relationship. It is clear though that even in this relationship, agreement about ultimate vision and purpose are vital and the moral etc values may be needed to be clearly understood from the start.

    If a goal or a task is for a short term, then a “yoking together” may be more casually entered into since the secrets of faith and morals and purpose are less likely to be challenged.

    If on the other hand “yoked together” is an apt description of the relationship needed, as it is in marriage, and for integrity in faith purposes, then we had better make sure that it is equal in as many ways as we can manage.

    If we fail in being sure that we are willing to put the extra effort in when the other is unable; or if we fail at acknowledging the same Lord, how we relate to Him, and what his values are; or if we are not committed to complete the task, come what may, then we are in the trouble that we were warned about. Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.

    PS & BTW; sadly we can be unequally yoked with believers.

  4. War would probably be on the no need for a checklist as you need all the hands you can get. Especially trying to take back your country or repel an invasion.

    Building a government after the war thought you would want a checklist because you want to create a Godly government and a Godly society. You wouldn’t be mistreating the ungodly but they would be limited in their rights (like voting, speech, press, assembly, religion, and wouldn’t have gun rights or rights to run for office) and not full citizens.

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