If we are to be fruitful and godly Christians we need to have a theological core without being theologically crusty.
These truths need to be more than a set of beliefs we assume. They should be the lens through which we look at ourselves and the world. There are many Christians and churches that don’t deny any cardinal doctrine of Christian faith, but they still don’t have a theological core. They have, instead, a musty statement of faith they barely understand and hardly believe and wouldn’t dare preach. They are animated and motivated by politics, church growth, relational concerns and the like, but the gospel is merely assumed. “Yes, yes–of course we believe in the Virgin Birth, and the atonement, and the resurrection, and heaven and hell,” they say. But its all periphery, not core. It’s all assumed, not all-consuming. Theologically hollow congregations and pastors may like to think they will bequeath a gospel legacy to the next generation, but the truth is we only pass on what is our passion. New converts and new kids won’t think and live and love like mature Christians, let alone be able to articulate the Christian story, if our beliefs rest in a pamphlet and not in our hearts.
I make no apologies for having a theological church. The church ought to be about the business of the gospel, and the gospel is a message of historical fact plus God-given interpretation. That’s theology. I hope we never feel like we have the “theology thing” down at URC just because we have solid book studies and long, meaty sermons. The “theology thing” is a lifelong project of being transformed by the renewing of our minds. We want to be thinking Christians who know what we believe, why we believe it, and live and die in the comfort of these beliefs.
Having a theological core means, among other things, that our unity is theological. Of course we want to be united in love and purpose too. But whatever actions and affections we share in unison ought to radiate from a theological core. There is so much talk around the broader church about being missional Christians that it’s easy to think the church should be missional-centric. And in one sense, mission is certainly at the center of what we do. But mission itself is not what ties us together or fires us up. It’s only when the mission is defined and it’s genesis is proclaimed that we can rally around mission.
Which brings me back to the main point. We desperately need Christians and pastors and missionaries and churches and denominations and movements and institutions which are theological to the core, where doctrines are not simply items to be checked off the dogmatic grocery list or statements to be dusted off out of the ecclesiastical attic. We must all be theological because being a Christian means we embrace a message about who Jesus is and the victory he won for us. And that’s theology.
So, core, yes. Crust? No.
Please, don’t skip the last part of this post, especially if you really liked the first part. Because you may just be a crusty Christian if you’re not careful.
What makes a Christian crusty? A number of things. For starters, it’s an attitude. It’s a demeanor where being Calvinist or paedobaptist or inerrantist (three things I am gladly) are put on like armor or wielded like weapons, when they are meant to be the warm glow of a Christian whose core radiates with love for Christ and the gospel. I believe in theological distinctives–I believe in them and I believe it is good to have them–but if the distinctives are not manifestly the flower of gospel root, the buds aren’t worth the blooming.
A second mark of crusty Christians is approachability, as in, not having any. There is a sizing up-ness that makes some theological types unnecessarily prickly. They are bright and opinionated and quickly analytical. As a result, knowingly or unknowingly, they emit a vibe which communicates something between “You Max Lucado reading moron!” and “I wish R.C. Sproul were here to teach you a thing or two!” Crusty Christians are hard to be around. They are intimidating instead of engaging and growling instead of gracious. They are too willing to share their opinions on everything and unable to put any doctrine in any category not marked “absolutely essential.”
When theology is more crust than core, it’s not so much that we care about good theology too much, we just don’t care about some other hugely important things in the same proportion. So we end up largely skeptical of a prayerful, fruitful, warm-hearted, godly, Arminian leaning pastor. Now, I might think such a pastor is prayerful, fruitful, warm-hearted and godly despite too much emphasis on libertarian free will, but I sure hope to be mighty thankful for all his prayerfulness, fruitfulness, and warm-hearted godliness. Some Christians allow evangelism to trump all other considerations, others size up fellow Christians by their attention to social justice concerns, but a lot of us do our judging with theology. If the theology fits, the lack of mission, prayer, and compassion doesn’t matter much. But if a few theological pieces are misplaced in the puzzle, see you later and don’t let Hymenaeus and Philetus door hit you on the way out.
Striking the balance is not easy. But let’s try hard to be discerning and grounded without always looking for the next theological misstep in our friends, our family, or the songs we sing. And let’s be able to tell the difference between wandering sheep and false teachers. We must delineate between a slightly ill-informed wording of a phrase and a purposeful rejection of truth. We must pursue a passion for fidelity to Scripture and a winsomeness that sweetens the already honey-like drippings of the word of God. Let us be more like a chocolate covered raisin, likeable on the outside and surprisingly good for you on the inside, and less like a tootsie roll pop with its brittle, crunchy exterior that must be broken through before anyone can get to the good stuff. Our theological heart, if it is worth anything, will pulse throughout our spiritual bodies, making us into someone more prayerful, more godly, and more passionate about the Bible, the lost, and the world around us. We will be theologically solid to the core, without the unnecessary crust.
6 Questions for the Potentially Crusty
Yesterday I wrote about the necessity of having a theological core and the danger of being spiritually crusty. I certainly don’t get it all right myself, but here are a few questions that can help prevent crustiness as we unapologetically exult in the precious truths of Scripture.
1. Do we actually care about evangelism? The plight of the lost should break our hearts and the opportunity to share the gospel should be a delight.
2. Do we wear smallness as a badge of honor? “Successful” ministries are not always sell-outs and small churches are sometimes just not very healthy.
3. Are our passions in the right proportion? It’s fine to be passionate about our view on baptism, as long as this passion does not outshine our passion for the cross, the Trinity, and the glory of Christ.
4. Do we (or our pastors) preach with personal, passionate, pleading? The truths we believe are not for dissecting as much as for heralding with joy and humble intercession.
5. Do we know ourselves? We need to understand our gifts, our personalities, our strengths and weaknesses. We need to be ok with who we are and not try to be Driscoll, Piper, Keller, or anyone else. A sense of humor also helps. The Lord probably laughs at us on occasion so we should be able to laugh at ourselves.
6. Are we fighting the battles that matter most in our context? Don’t spend gobs of time preaching on the emergent church if no one in your church has heard of it. Don’t waste a lot of time defending the Pauline authorship of Ephesians if no one around you has ever thought anything different. Understand the issues of worldliness and disobedience that most affect your friends, church, and family.
6 More Questions for the Potentially Crusty
I’ve been writing about the need for core theological convictions without a crusty, crotchety shell. Christians should be a kind of inverse tootsie roll pop–a soft, sweet exterior surrounding a strong, solid interior. Yesterday I suggested six questions to help prevent crustiness in the theologically devout. Today, six more questions.
7. Are we bringing everything up all the way to the glory of God? This is is one of the things I appreciate most about John Piper. Instead of just arguing for justification by faith alone or God’s all-controlling sovereignty, he shows how these precious truths bring glory to God. If we don’t bring everything up to the level of God, our churches will have factions of book people, youth people, social justice people, evangelism people, etc. We need to see how our unique interests and callings relate to God.
8. Are we experts in Scripture first? It’s quite possible to be well-versed in Van Til’s apologetics, Calvin’s third use of the law, and David Well’s critiques of evangelicalism without knowing well the verses of the Bible. We need to know the Bible better than any other book, memorize it, pray it, and teach it (not just a catechism) to our children.
9. Are we theological snobs? If many of my readers are Calvinists, then many of my readers have gone through a crusty Calvinist stage. Some, sadly, never leave it. Certainly, we need to be discerning and help our people grow in their understanding of truth and appetite for meat. But beware the “I’m hipper than thou” attitude that looks down on everyone interested in Left Behind or Facing the Giants are benighted fools. The truly wise learn to benefit from those who don’t get everything right.
10. Can we accept that there are Romans 14 issues? The tricky question (the trickiest question in my opinion) is which issues are Romans 14 issues. But for starters, we should at least affirm in principle that sometimes we will agree to disagree. We will say at times, “Let each person be convinced in his own mind.” This doesn’t mean the issue is pointless or unimportant. It means we recognize that the Scripture is not abundantly clear on every issues and we must allow for differences.
11. Are we resounding gongs and clanging cymbals? If we have convictions and disagree with others, some people will call us loveless. But, that doesn’t mean we have to live up to the charges. We need to love our friends, love the church, and love our enemies. We should not be scared to love and talk about love just because liberals have hijacked the word.
12. Do we possess deep and pervasive piety? I know that pietism is a bad word in some circles. It conjures up notionas of anti-intellectual sentimentality. But we got pietism because Protestant scholasticism had gotten dry (or at least many of the churches of the time had). If we want to be more than intellectual people who happen to be into theology, we need to cultivate deep affections and deeper sanctification. As Reformed Christians (assuming many of you are), let’s lead the way, not only in theolgocial integrity, but also in meditation, Scripture memory, intercession, and earnest worship. What our families, friends, and churches need most from us is our own personal holiness.