This is a question that I have often struggled with. 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 (ignorant 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 for which the church needs soldiers of the truth to rescue them from. 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 clear that Paul still believed that they were genuine Christians.
So how far can a Christian fall into bad theology? 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 monotheism. 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 in no way would 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. How bad can it be? I don’t know, but in this case there seem to have been Christian polytheists. I am open to thoughts.