When I worked at the library at Dallas Theological Seminary during the days of my formal training, I had many beloved friends with whom I worked. We often talked about our dreams of ministry and changing the world through the Gospel of Christ. There was one girl that I worked with who was a foreign student from Burma. I will call her Stephanie. Stephanie and I became good friends. We found we had so much in common. She was incredibly passionate about the Gospel. Her relationship and commitment to Christ was something that I could not help but take notice of. She was in training to be a missionary, hoping one day to take the Gospel back to her home which was in such desperate need. Much of our conversation, naturally, turned toward theology. While we had some minor disagreements here and there, it was never anything significant through the years. She was solid theologically and in love with the same Lord as me. At least I thought . . .
It was just before I graduated that I found something out that would hit like a 10.0 on my theological richter scale. During a conversation we were having, she told me in confidence that she was Modalist. For those of you who don’t know what that means, it is a belief about the doctrine of the Trinity that has been condemned as heresy over and over again throughout church history. In essence, Modalists believe that there is one God who displays himself in three different ways, not persons. In other words, the Modalist does not make a distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is the Son and the Son is the Holy Spirit. God shows himself wearing three different masks. Historic Christianity formally condemned Modalism in 268 at the Council of Antioch and has not looked back since. God is one in essence, three in person. One what, three whos.
Getting the doctrine of the Trinity wrong is not a minor thing. Sure, I believe that people can ignorantly hold to false views of some things, being undiscipled. But what about illustrations like my friend here. She was trained at DTS. She was taught the orthodox understanding of the Trinity left, right, and center. Yet she denied it in favor of a false view.
I did not know how I was supposed to process this. For years I had no reason whatsoever to question the legitimacy of her Christian confession. Her “fruits” were ripe in every other area and every other doctrine. But now, I was left wrestling with the Lord about whether or not she, a convinced modalist, could really be a Christian.
This is a question that I have often struggled with over the years. It can hardly be denied that Christians can have beliefs that are wrong such as false views about the interpretation of certain passages of Scripture, the age of the earth, and end times (hey, someone has to be wrong). It is also true that Christians can have misunderstandings about more important doctrines such as the nature of the Trinity (modalism), the grace of God (legalism), and the will of God for your life (health-wealth Gospel). In all of these areas I concede that Christians, indeed even Evangelicals, can and do have wrong doctrine from which the church needs soldiers of the truth to rescue them. Even Paul sought to rescue the Galatians from a slide into legalism as believers were in danger of returning to the bondage from which their belief in the Gospel had rescued them. Yet, I believe that it is pretty clear that Paul still believed that they were genuine Christians.
So how bad can a Christian’s doctrine be? I don’t really know the answer to this question, but I did notice something today in reading Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that I had not taken notice of before. Paul is warning the Corinthian believers who he considers to be “strong” not to make the “weak” stumble. It would seem that the “strong” believers were eating meat sacrificed to idols and in doing so were causing much spiritual consternation among the “weak” who thought it sacrilegious to their new faith to participate in such a practice.
“Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. 7 However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. 8 But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. 9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11 For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. ” (1 Cor. 8:4-11)
Paul readily admits that there is nothing inherently wrong with eating meat that was sacrificed to an idol based upon the fact that the gods that the idols represented did not exist. In other words, good theology tells us that there is only one God. This is basic monotheism 101. It is a theological bedrock of the Christian faith. You cannot be a polytheist who believes in many gods and be a Christian, right? It would seem that this is the case, but what do we make of Paul’s exhortation here?
In this passage, Paul defines “strong” Christians as those who have a monotheistic worldview and act accordingly. But then in verse 7 he does some interesting. He says “not all have this knowledge.” There are two important questions here: 1) What is the knowledge? and 2) who are the “all” that don’t have this knowledge?
What is the knowledge? The knowledge that there is only one God and that the other gods don’t actually exist. Who is the “all”? We understand that the Roman culture in Paul’s day did not have the knowledge that there was only one God, as they were polytheistic. But the problem is that the “all” is not those outside the Church, but Christians within the Church. Notice, these people were “accustomed to the idol until now” (v. 7; emphasis added). Before, they worshiped the idols; now they worshiped Christ. Notice also in verse 11 Paul says that these people were brothers “for whose sake Christ died.” Could it be that Paul was conceding that there were redeemed individuals in the Corinthian church who did not know or truly believe yet that there was no such thing as other gods? Was Paul speaking of Christian polytheists? It would seem to be the case.
If I am right, this would in no way lighten the burden of the church for teaching good theology. In fact, it only strengthens it. Paul calls those who have bad theology “weak” and those who have correct theology “strong.” I know the intent of this passage is how to show grace to those who are weak in their faith, but it is a strong case that good theology is the foundation for Christian strength. If the Corinthian church was dealing with polytheism within its ranks, how much more should we, who did not have the Apostle Paul as our visiting teacher, be on the look out for those who need to have their foundation strengthened with the basics of the faith.
Is there such a thing as a Christian with bad theology? Yes. I think we all have some bad theology. I think we will all have adjustments to make when we enter eternity. But how bad can a Christian’s theology be? Can there be Christian polytheists? I don’t know, but in the Corinthian case there seem to have been. Can their be Christian Modalists? My friend I spoke of above has always served as a fly in the ointment for what would otherwise be my black and white view of this stuff.
What do you think?
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]