By Ed Rybarczyk
I am going to take a risk, walk out on a lonely gangplank and just say it: the Church has theological amnesia.
Observing the Church here in America? We seem to have forgotten our foundations. And me? I enjoy thinking about foundational matters. You see, strong foundations necessarily support all manner of doings we take for granted: ministry to the addicted, outreach to the hungry, foreign missions, children’s education, baptisms and weddings and funerals, and local church ministry to the elderly, families, and single folks. Our adopted foundations even support the core reasons why we weekly gather together. So it’s good to routinely ask, for we Christians what are our essential foundations?
Here is the dominant trend I see at work within local church walls now in the early 21st century: a therapeutic approach to faith that takes as its focus the feelings and narratives of every single believer. Many students of culture have come to label this a “championed narcissism”: the feelings of the conscious self are king over everything. Right? People today get positively red-faced angry if you don’t observe their preferred pronouns. (Wait, your today’s chosen pronouns must dictate my own way of being?!)
And so, implicitly aware of the broader culture’s championed narcissism and earnestly wanting folks to leave a church service filled with hope, pastors and worship bands focus their energies on addressing hurting spirits and lonely hearts. At one level that yearn is indeed Christ-driven. I mean, who wants to see anyone suffer? Certainly not me. But the problem is that, over time, we put the cart before the horse; we begin to replace tried and tested Christian foundations with plastic and trendy footings. We can – do you see it my friend? – we can turn Christianity into the dominant cultural trends rather than bringing Christ to those cultural trends.
If the local church simply is the external culture, what’s the point for being the church? If the local church forsakes her 2,000-year-old theological foundations, how can she help but become the ever-changing culture? And if the local church merely becomes the dominant culture, why wouldn’t folks simply just go to the shopping mall or the counseling center, instead of the church, in order to engage secular rituals that make themselves feel better? (God bless everyone who works at shopping malls and counseling centers! We’re grateful for you!)
This all goes to enduring questions over accommodation. Why and how and for how long does one contextualize Christian faith in order to connect to the local culture? Does one continue to use biblical terms (sin, forgiveness, salvation, sanctification, eternity) because they are essential to the Christian way or does one adopt the local vernacular for the sake of integration? Just how long can one speak exclusively in the local vernacular without finally compromising the essential truths of the gospel story? Or deeper still, how long can one embrace the values of a local culture before one has traded Christian truth for the sake of missional expediency?
The American church is suffering from theological amnesia. We have forgotten the essential truths that brought Christianity to our time here in history. We have forgotten the God-given revelation about created reality, human nature, the enduring human plight, and the means of redemption and healing for all of that. We are, I’m terrified, living by a narrative that no longer is grounded or founded in Scripture.
And look. I get it. By saying all this aloud, I’m standing alone out on the end of a gangplank!
But the reality is that all the great Christian traditions – Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism – were built on theological foundations. The Orthodox on God’s incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth. The Catholics on Jesus’ atoning death on a Roman cross. The Protestants on salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Theology. Theology not cultural trends built, sustained, empowered, and grew the global church across twenty centuries. Why? Because theology penetrates and mirrors reality.
For the apostles themselves, theology was no mere abstraction. They lived and served and died martyrs’ deaths for the sake of theology: Jesus Christ is God’s supreme, embodied, resurrected, authoritative, life-giving means to God the Father. Jesus is so beautiful that He is worth living for! Jesus is so preeminent that He is worth dying for! The reality of Jesus’ person and work was the ground of the apostles’ very lives. Sharing the reality of Christ for the apostles was not a “have to” but a “get to.” For them theology was not some box to be checked off in order to join the apostolic ranks.
Inside Protestant history (my own legacy) theology built and formed traditions that lasted (well, up until today) 500 years of Christian life and mission. Men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Francis Asbury, William Seymour, and Billy Graham all preached the theological truths found in Scripture. If one studies those leaders’ lives, one finds they were never teaching that theology was a protective fence; the first purpose of theology is not to keep out bad ideas. Those leaders were never encouraging prospective members to take their pencils and check a doctrinal box in order to gain membership into a local church; doctrine for those giants was no mere sociological signifier. No, for all of them theology was the raison d’etre, the reason for being, of the Church itself. Removing theology from the church would be like removing clay from the sculptor, color from the painter.
So what is our remedy? Stop putting the mawing self at the forefront of church mission. Instead? Return to our foundations. Indeed, is that not what the constant appeal – across both the Old and New Testaments – is throughout Scripture? “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God is one God!” “Jesus is Lord!” Old or New, most all sixty-six books of the Bible are crying out for us to remain committed to ultimate reality Himself.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus! Let the government be on Your shoulders. Transform all cultures to the glory of the Triune God.
Ed Rybarczyk, Ph.D., is both an ordained minister and a retired History of Theology professor. He now produces and hosts the Uncensored Unprofessor podcast @uncensoredunprofessor.com. He can be reached at [email protected].