Theology


I do not know Ray Ortlund, or anything about his beliefs (so I am not endorsing him), but I came across a very interesting article by him today entitled What It Means To Be Truly Reformed. He believes in Reformed theology, and is discussing how even the word of God can be manipulated and twisted so that it is no longer true. If we are adding to or subtracting from the Word, then we are changing it. Many abusive churches do this, and as Ortlund says, it can even become a club used to hurt others.

I really appreciate how he closes the article, which is the excerpt I highlighted below. These four excerpts draw out the pieces I believe really apply to disillusioned and abused believers, but I encourage you to read the whole article.

Theologically, I am Reformed. Sociologically, I am simply a Christian—or at least I want to be. The tricky thing about our hearts is that they can turn even a good thing into an engine of oppression. It happens when our theological distinctives make us aloof from other Christians. That’s when, functionally, we relocate ourselves outside the gospel and inside Galatianism.

But no matter how well-argued our position is biblically, if it functions in our hearts as an addition to Jesus, it ends up as a form of legalistic divisiveness.

In other words, “When Christians, whatever the label or badge or shibboleth, start pressuring you to come into line with their distinctive, you know something’s wrong. They want to enhance their own significance by your conformity to them: ‘See? We’re better. We’re superior. People are moving our way. They are becoming like us. We’re the buzz.'” What is this, but deep emotional emptiness medicating itself by relational manipulation? This is not about Christ. This is about Self.

Whatever divides us emotionally from other Bible-believing, Christ-honoring Christians is a “plus” we’re adding to the gospel. It is the Galatian impulse of self-exaltation. It can even become a club with which we bash other Christians, at least in our thoughts, to punish, to exclude and to force into line with us. What unifies the church is the gospel. What defines the gospel is the Bible. What interprets the Bible correctly is a hermeneutic centered on Jesus Christ crucified, the all-sufficient Savior of sinners, who gives himself away on terms of radical grace to all alike. What proves that that gospel hermeneutic has captured our hearts is that we are not looking down on other believers but lifting them up, not seeing ourselves as better but grateful for their contribution to the cause, not standing aloof but embracing them freely, not wishing they would become like us but serving them in love (Galatians 5:13).

Ray Ortlund’s blog, Christ Is Deeper Still.

I grew up in the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches. Overall, their beliefs are very similar, and by the time I left the care of my parents and church I had a good start to a foundation. I had only been a believer for two years when I stepped out my own, not realizing there were dangers that lay ahead.

In college, I attended InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Covenant Church, and a non-denominational church. I also studied Religion, and was exposed to a large range of belief systems. When Christianity was discussed, it was often in negative light or a very weak manner. After college, I served with a ministry in the south (Bible Belt) and then went overseas with Youth With a Mission. I returned to the states to look for a solid church home for several years before settling into a non-denominational church. Twelve years later, I was abused.

Since that time I have received counsel from leaders of many different churches, worked with counselors with different belief systems, attended several different churches, and I have been exposed to a very large number of books, sermons, web sites, conferences, etc. They do not all share the same viewpoints and beliefs.

I am a theological mess!

The mixture of things I was exposed to has broadened my mind and stretched me, but it holds many dangers.

I have been exposed to so many varying teachings and beliefs, that sometimes I don’t know what to believe.

Sometimes things I read or hear sound really good, and then I start to realize that it is misleading or shortsighted in some way. It leaves me wondering how often I read or listen to things and do not realize it is distorted or off target. It isn’t that these writers and speakers intend to mislead, because I am sure they firmly believe what they share, but unless we know the whole truth, the parts can mix us up or may not make sense.

Not long ago I learned that a very well-known pastor I have read and listened to believes the Bible is a product of humans, and not inspired and created by God. He used to look to the Bible for truth, but now he just accepts that certain things will remain a mystery. The news shocked me and made me wonder why I did not know this about him. It made me realize that I do not know much about the beliefs of those I have listened to and read.

Not knowing about those speaking into my life has left me in a very dangerous position where I can be mislead and deceived.

I have been taught many conflicting things.

Sometimes I don’t know what to believe, but there one thing of which I am absolutely certain.

The Lord is greater than any theology or belief I hold. He can fix any mixed up belief, deceit, misleading, or shortsighted understanding I hold.

After all, he is God!

One of the comments I hear from church leaders about those who are struggling with their faith and with disillusionment is that they are not mature. Recently I came across the work of Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich about the stages of faith development. Their research and concepts are built on over 2000 years of history and theology.

Hagberg and Guelich define six stages of development, and a seventh component: The Wall.

Stage 1 – “the discovery and recognition of God” (33)
Stage 2 – “a time of learning and belonging” labeled “the life of discipleship” (53)
Stage 3 – “the productive life”
Stage 4 – “the journey inward” – “a deep and very personal inward journey” that “almost always comes as an unsettling experience yet results in healing for those who continue through it” (93). Wholeness looks a lot like weakness at this stage.
THE WALL
Stage 5 – “the journey outward” where our “focus is outward, but from a new, grounded center of ourselves” (133). At this stage, “we surrender to God’s will to fully direct our lives, but with our eyes wide open, aware but unafraid of the consequences” (133). We possess a new-found confidence that God loves us fully, just as we are.
Stage 6 – “the life of love” where God’s love is demonstrated through us “to others in the world more clearly and consistently than we ever thought possible” (152). By losing ourselves, we find ourselves.

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Most evangelical models of Christian growth and maturity stop at stage three. The church primarily focuses on stages 1 through 3, and the highest numbers of people are found at stage 2. This raises a question about how the church, church leaders, and programs support and guide people beyond stage 3.  Many church leaders do not know of or understand anything beyond stage 3, and when they witness the struggle of stage 4 they question and judge the person’s faith. This results in many people leaving the church when they experience stage 4. They find the faith they once held and the heart they served with in stage 3 has changed. Faith as they knew it doesn’t work any longer.

At stage 4 our understanding and views of God and faith are radically challenged. This can be so disruptive that we may feel we are losing our faith. Those around us may feel we are hopeless, lost, and they may even question if our faith was real. We may question our own faith and wonder if we ever understood what we believed. Stage 4 is marked by questioning, exploring, doubting, sinking into uncertainty, wrestling with issues, falling apart, rethinking belief systems, and experiencing a crisis of faith. “Our sense of God is shaken and we can find no new direction, only more questions” (197).

The reality of stage 4 is that no one would choose to walk through this kind of experience if given the choice. Stage 3 is a comfortable and fulfilling place. The church recognizes, approves, and support of people that ”arrive” at this level of faith development.  Why would we move from the productive and fulfilling life when what lies ahead is a road of struggle, questioning, and redefining everything we have built our life upon. Stage 4 involve an experience of “The Wall”. The Wall is not something we can go over, under, or around. It is not something we can fake our way through, or simplify. The only way to move past it is to go through it. “Sometimes people drop off the journey totally at this point. Overwhelmed by pain or crises in our lives, we absolutely cut ourselves off from God” (107). Sometimes people want to turn back to stage 3, seeking the comfort and ease of what they have known before and often church leaders who do not know the way through will encourage this also. Going through The Wall may be the most difficult thing we ever experience. We must come to a point of accepting who we really are, with all our imperfections, failures, and sins. It is only through this acceptance and through a complete surrender to God that we will move forward. Some people place The Wall at the beginning of stage 4, and some place it at the end. It may vary depending on the person’s journey, but stage 4 and The Wall are intricately linked.

The stages of faith development are both sequential and cumulative.  We move from stage 1 toward stage 6 one stage at a time, and we must experience each stage. However we do not stay at a single stage. Once we have experienced a stage we may move backwards and forwards revisiting different aspects of a prior stage to learn and grow at a new level. It is difficult to comprehend a stage you have not experienced. We may be able to grasp the stage immediately ahead, but not those that lie further along the journey. This is especially true for stage 4 where the doubts may be seen as disbelief, disillusionment, and a complete departure from faith.

The stages are normal. For those who are unfamiliar with the normalcy of stage 4 in Christian experience, their newfound doubts feel like an abandonment of faith rather than faith’s rediscovery and enriching. A faith-map that helps them see this as a normal and necessary step along the way to the life of love is priceless.” (Richard J. Vincent)

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I was one of those who was unfamiliar with the existence of stage 4. I did not see it as normal because I did not even see it existed. I felt as if my doubts and questions were a shattering of my faith, the loss of all I believed, and a dark chasm that I might never recover from.

This model of faith development has helped me to understand the journey I have been on the last few years. Some call Stage 4 and The Wall by other names such as the Dark Night of the Soul. No matter the name that is used, it is helpful for us to come to understand the process. Far too many churches only teach, understand, and accept faith development up to stage 3. Those who know and understand the other stages have a powerful opportunity to minister to and care for those who are on a journey that few will walk through.

Additional information about this faith development model can be found at:
http://www.theocentric.com/spirituality/christian_living/stages_of_faith_a_map_for_the.html
http://www.janethagberg.com/critical_journey/index.htm
http://kathyescobar.com/2008/06/10/a-nifty-chart-for-the-journe/
http://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/about/pdfs/JOURNEY_THROUGH_THE_WALL_Toby.pdf

We have a problem in the church, a problem that is growing because we are not recognizing and addressing it. Our problem is we are moving away from truth and toward our own wisdom. We have taken up moralizing and psychologizing issues and not looking at our issues as a result of a distorted understanding of God where we have hold other things as idols that take the place of God in our lives.

This information is quoted from Galatians: The Law and the Gospel by Timothy J. Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, NY:

  1. Moralizing: Basic analysis: Your problems is that you are doing wrong. Repent!
    This focuses on behavior but doesn’t go deep enough. We must find out the why of our behavior. To simply tell an unhappy person (or yourself) to repent and change their behavior is insufficient, because the lack of self-control is coming from a belief that says, “Even if you live up to moral standards but don’t have this, then you are still a failure.” You must replace this belief through repentance for the one sin under it all – your particular idolatry.
  2. Psychologizing: Basic analysis: Your problem is that you don’t see that God loves you as you are. Rejoice!
    This focuses on feelings, which seem to be deeper than behavior but it also fails to go deep enough. We must also find out the why of our feelings. To simply tell an unhappy person (or yourself), “God loves you – rejoice!” is insufficient. The unhappiness is coming from a belief that says, “Even if God loves you, but you don’t have this, then you are still a failure.” You must replace this belief through repentance for the one sin under it all – your particular idolatry.
  3. The Gospel: Basic analysis: Your problem is that you are looking to something besides Christ for your happiness. Repent and rejoice!
    This confronts a person with the real sin under the sins and behind the bad feelings. Our problems is that we have given ourselves over to idols! Every idol-system is a way of our-works-salvation, and thus it keeps us “under the law.” Paul tells us that the bondage of sin is broken when we come out from under the law – when we being to believe the gospel of Christ’s-work-salvation. Only when we realize in a new way that we are righteous in Christ will the idol’s power over us be broken. “Sin shall not be your master for you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). You will only be “under grace” and free from the controlling effects of idols to the degree that you have both repented for your idols and rested and rejoiced in the saving work and love of Christ instead.

Grace, a word and concept we don’t understand. Christ saved us by faith and grace, not by works. Grace frees us because it does not condemn and shame us, but it points us back to the work that Christ did for us. It tells us that the law will not, can not, was never meant to save us. It just shows us the contrast of what the Lord did for us and how we are liberated and free.

Moralizing and psychologizing will not save us, but the Gospel will. It is all about Christ’s work and not ours.

Several times now I have talked about the necessity of having a good, true, and complete understanding of God. What we believe, right or wrong affects how we live our lives. Due to that, it is so important for our beliefs to be right.

I just came across this video which is a trailer for Joshua Harris’ book Dug Down Deep. I do not know anything about the book, but I definitely believe in the message this video portrays about how our understanding and study of God (theology) matter.

I can not get the Vimeo video to embed, so please visit it at their site. DugDownDeep_Carnahan.mov

Today I was listening to a podcast by John and Stasi Eldridge of Ransomed Heart Ministry. They were speaking about Love and War, a new book they have written, but they spoke something that is very important.

“The Gospel that most churches are trying to apply to marriage is not strong enough medicine. You have to have a Gospel that heals the brokenhearted. You have to have as a reality, Jesus healing your soul.” (John Eldridge)

I think we can change that statement, and even believe that John Eldridge would agree if we said, the Gospel that most churches are trying to apply to the struggle areas in our lives is not strong enough medicine. We are continuing to struggle in our marriages, relationships, and life because of the Christianity that is being offered. The medicine is not strong enough. Our image of God is not big enough.

If we do not believe that Christianity is truth, that Jesus is the source of life, that the Gospel will heal our hearts and souls, then what are we believing in? Is our Gospel only about being saved for eternity and not about having different and changed lives here and now?

Is our Gospel big enough to change hearts? Change lives? Heal souls? Break addictions? Restore brokenness?
Is our Gospel big enough to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners? It should be…that came right out of Isaiah 61.

Is the Gospel being shared by your church big enough to make a difference in your life?

If not, then you are not hearing the true and complete Gospel.

A few months ago I learned about a set of beliefs, a theology, called Lordship Salvation. I had never heard of this theology before. As I read and studied about the theology I saw a lot of things I agreed with in the beliefs. Others referred to it as the most biblical theology, and advocated for it above other theologies such as Free Grace/Cheap Grace, or Arminianism.

Theology is defined as a system or school of opinions concerning God and religious questions.

I have a problem with theology.

My problem with theology is that made by man who is finite to understand and make sense out of a God who is infinite. Theology is a system or school of man’s opinions concerning God. It is man’s way of trying to describe, contain, and relate to God.

Our theology forms the foundation of our understanding of God and life.

Last fall I met the man who is now my pastor through someone who is now a mutual friend. When I first met my pastor I did not know anything about him, but after just a few words from someone else I had just met he expressed great compassion and care to me. We saw each other on a few other occasions before sitting down at my favorite local coffee shop to have a discussion about life, ministry, and people.

We discussed how we view life. We discussed our theology.
We didn’t label it or put it in a box by calling it by man’s contrived names.

I asked my pastor some difficult and direct questions that day because I knew that if I was going to place my spiritual life under his care that I needed to know how he really viewed life. I needed to know his theology because his theology would be the basis of how he related to me, how he lead others, and how he handled stress in life.

I asked questions that cut to the heart of the theology, without ever asking directly about his opinions concerning God.

  • Do you believe that there is a back door out of a relationship and it is okay to give up and walk away?
  • Do you believe  the Bible is THE source of truth?
  • What is the purpose of the church?
  • What do you believe is the purpose of community and how is it developed?
  • What happens when relationships get messy? Do you stick to others?
  • Do you believe leaders should cast vision, or develop vision in conjunction with others?
  • How do you view women?
  • What is the most important thing in your life?
  • When you are stressed, confused, burdened, or overwhelmed how do you respond?
  • Have you ever been broken in life? How has that changed you?
  • Why do you believe Christ came?
  • What is your greatest passion?

I do not have a theology that can be labeled with a man-made title. To do that means I have put God in a box and defined him in a way that won’t change. God doesn’t change, but my understanding of him is constantly changing. My beliefs, opinions, understandings, and acceptance of God continue to grow and change.

What is my theology based upon? In part, it is based on my experience. In part it is based on input from friends, family, pastors, youth leaders, and other leaders. In part is it is based on society. In part it is based on movies, books, podcasts, video clips, etc. Mostly though it is based on Scripture, and daily I am working to have it more based on Scripture than on any of the other parts.

I have a problem.

I have a theology.

There is a solution.

There is one God!

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