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.

Paul says,

“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.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon 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. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    3 replies to "How bad can a Christian’s theology be?"

    • […] briefly covered the question “How bad can a Christian’s theology be?” in a previous post. While I admitted that we must be somewhat agnostic to this question, using the illustration of […]

    • Greg

      I would think that bad theology really becomes an issue to be concerned about when it messes up the work of redemption that Christ performed for a person.

      Worse case scenario is that all bad theology is a sin. As long as the person believes in Jesus for the forgiveness of his sins and follows Him, then that bad theology is replaced by the redemptive work of Christ. Before God, they have awesome theology! Or something like it.

      I think Paul could classify the weaker brethren as Christians even though they were still polytheistic because they also believed in Christ. Therefore Christ’s blood covered their weakness. They would be in trouble if their belief somehow lessened or did away with Christ’s redemptive act. I think Paul alluded to that actually happening when he talked about them still being in their sin if Christ were not raised over in 1 Corinthians 15. That’s bad theology that goes too far.

      It’s kind of like sawing off the branch you’re sitting on. You’ll fall out of the tree and die or get hurt. But if you only saw off branches you aren’t on, you might harm the tree and one of them might hit you, but it isn’t as bad as cutting off the one that supports you.

      I think about this question a lot when I think about the differences between Christian denominations and the general dislike some have for others. I used to say that some were not Christian because they had different doctrines then I did. But not anymore, largely because of how I think Christ’s work covers up bad theology.

      If you get Jesus right, then nothing else matters. At least not in a do-or-die sense. It is very important, but not that important.

      Thanks for thinking about interesting questions that nobody else is thinking about!

    • Simon

      I agree with Greg, as long as you get Jesus right, then everything else is negotiable.

      I often ponder this with some of the accounts of Jesus visiting people, or healing people. He spent minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes longer in the company of people whose lives he transformed, but then he went on to the next place.

      These people didn’t have ‘follow up’ they didn’t have seminary, they didn’t even have youtube or blogs to consult to increase their learning, or tidy up their theology.

      Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27

      Some people you can tell straight away that they’ve ‘got it’. I’ve always had a relatively good grasp on theology, and know, and knew all the theory. However, I had a heart of stone, and didn’t have compassion. Then recently I got a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26) and although to talk to me, I still have 99% of the same views I am a different person inside. In sharp contrast I have recently became friends with an older man who is a recent convert. His theology is terrible. Diabolical. However, he has a passion for Jesus that is rare, and that is *much* more important.

      Love for Jesus is key. There are lots of things we can and will get wrong, both theologically and practically. Theology is good but it is not God. Jesus is God. Get to know Jesus and concentrate on that, theology will follow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.