Jeffrey Bingham, the chair of the theology department at Dallas Theological Seminary, has a phrase he uses when people advocate something that is not a part of the historic Christian faith: “It’s something, but it’s not Christian.” More and more lately I have been asking this question: When do we, in our zeal to remove possible stumbling blocks to the Gospel, offer a form of Christianity that is no longer Christian?
The last few months, in keeping up with my weekly reading of “what is happening now” in theology, I have begun to experience theological nausea. My spirit is sick and it is about to hurl. I don’t know what that looks like, but it does not feel right. There are simply too many “opt outs” being offered – we are beginning to look more like a cafeteria than a church.
In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty . . . right? Let me try to briefly state the issue that I have, today, at 5:24pm CST. I am getting the feeling that Christian apologists and theologians, in order to make our faith more palatable to the outside world, are attempting to move all difficulties of our faith into the “non-essential” category in order to create “opt outs.” This is where just about everything outside of the person and work of Christ becomes negotiable. When does the form of Christianity we offer become something different than the historic Christian faith?
Some examples are in order here (please forgive the snarky spirit of the following):
1. Problem with the doctrine of eternal punishment? No problem. We have these two less common options: universalism or annihilationism. You can believe that all people will eventually be saved or that all the damned will cease to exist.
2. Problem with the truthfulness of Scripture? No issue at all. There is no need to believe that the Scripture is true in everything it says, only the “big parts” like Christ’s resurrection.
3. Problem with a donkey talking and other crazy things? Let me point you to an important word: “metaphor.” Yep, just about any portion of Scripture can be turned into a metaphor, myth, parable, symbol, or any number of things. Point being, you don’t have to accept it.
4. Problem with creation account in Genesis? No need to get down. We have lots of options here, including our latest, theistic evolution. The point is that whatever modern science proposes, you can accept. (See number 3 for the means of acceptance.)
5. Problem with God’s allowing for evil? Easy. We have an option that says God, in order to preserve freedom and true love, cannot know about (much less intervene) in the free-will evil choices that people make. Therefore, he is off the hook. Its called “open theism.” Have fun.
6. Problem with the doctrine of election? I understand. This is a particularly nasty one. However, no need to fear. You don’t have to believe this. There is a modified form of divine election which says God’s choice is based on your choice. There . . . the sting is gone.
7. Problem with the exclusivity of Christ? Again, we have the answer. Nowadays, we have this idea called “inclusivism.” With this fancy option, we say that people can be covered by the blood of Christ without actually accepting the Gospel. Awesome.
8. Speaking of the “blood” of Christ, some of you might have a problem with the idea that the Father sacrificed his son (and that he was actually happy about it). You know all that archaic stuff about sacrifices and the shedding of blood? You don’t have to accept that either. There are some who believe that Christ was an example rather than the subject of “divine child abuse.” God’s forgiveness is based on his love, not blood.
9. Problem with homosexuality being a sin? Don’t let that hold you back. Many of our most astute theologians have been able to rework this issue so that there is an option on the table which proposes that homosexuality was not universally condemned in the Scripture. Though the ranks of those who advocate this may be few, it is enough to create a loophole to get out of this one. There are even many “gay churches” that you can attend.
10. Problem with male headship in the church and family? This is one of the easier ones. We have tons of representatives in the church (even denominations) which disagree here. You are free to reject any idea of male headship based upon “cultural context.”
Okay. I am done with the examples…
Here is the problem I have. While I hold to pretty traditional beliefs in these areas, many (not all) of these listed I agree with. In other words, I do believe there are some legitimate alternatives, most notably on the issue of election. While I am a Calvinist, being very committed to unconditional divine election, I understand there are alternative options here that are viable. In short, I don’t believe that a rejection of unconditional election amounts to a rejection of Christianity.
However, when does our removal of intellectual and emotional stumbling blocks create an aberration of Christianity that is Christian only in name? When does our theology get manipulated enough to where it is no longer Christian theology? When do we offer so many choices on the Christian smörgåsbord that the cafeteria’s name needs to change? When does our theology cross the line to where it is “something, but not Christian”?
While writing this, I was talking to a friend who said that she knows a person whom she is trying to evangelize, but that this person has some “issues” with the Christian faith. She wants to bring the friend to the Credo House to discuss them with me. I said in jest, “No problem. Whatever issue the person has, we have multiple alternatives! I can get out of anything.” In other words, whatever their problem is, so long as it is not about the resurrection of Christ, “we know a guy” that can take care of it, if you know what I mean.
I am suspicious of any mindset that is compelled to produce all of these “opt-outs” in order to make Christianity more palatable. Who said that was our job? When did palatability become a test for veracity? Sometimes we believe things that are not palatable, don’t we? Is our desire to be intellectually and culturally viable causing our witness to misrepresent “the faith once for all handed over to the saints”? When do we lose the “fellowship of the saints” due to our minimalization of the Christian faith? Just because something is hard to believe, does this give us the right to scavenger hunt for other options? When have we pulled up so many anchors that we are adrift in a different sea? When is it “something, but not Christian”?
I am tired of all the options. Can we just preach our convictions in the church and not the cafeteria?
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]