In today’s interconnected world, beliefs and ideologies spread like wildfire, often reaching vast numbers of people across society. The more popular a belief becomes, the greater the likelihood of it being misconstrued and subjected to ridicule. This phenomenon is particularly evident when it comes to religious and philosophical doctrines. As certain beliefs gain popularity, they attract not only devoted adherents but also those who are only superficially acquainted with them. In this blog, we will explore how misrepresentation can take root and evolve, leading to a “doctrinal butterfly effect” and the subsequent emergence of new, misunderstood doctrines.

The Cycle of Misunderstanding:

When a belief gains significant traction, it piques the curiosity of those both within and outside its circle of adherents. Some of these individuals might seek to critique or oppose the belief, resulting in the formation of polemics. Whether through books, blogs, or sermons, these responses may inadvertently misinterpret the original doctrine due to misconceptions or incomplete understanding.

The Doctrinal Butterfly Effect:

It only takes one small misunderstanding to set off a chain reaction of misinterpretation. The initial misrepresentation begets a corresponding misunderstood response, which, in turn, is embraced as an accurate representation by nominal believers. This process creates a new understanding of the belief, one that might deviate significantly from its original tenets.

The Case of Dispensationalism:

One vivid example of this phenomenon can be found in the realm of dispensationalism. Among evangelical Christians, a vast majority may adhere to certain defining marks of this doctrine, such as the rapture, the antichrist, and the Mark of the Beast. However, due to its widespread popularity, there is a significant number of both adherents and non-adherents who lack a comprehensive understanding of dispensationalism (where the original position was at and where it has developed), leading to misconceptions and misrepresentations. I have never read a treatise against dispensationalism that was not a strawman, arguing against a position that no longer exists or never existed among those who truly understand.

Other Doctrinal Positions and the Complex Reasons for Misrepresentation:

Dispensationalism is not alone in facing this issue; other doctrinal positions also fall victim to misrepresentation. Whether it be Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, or numerous others, when a belief becomes ingrained in the cultural fabric, it becomes susceptible to misunderstanding from both insiders and outsiders.

Here is an example of each:

Calvinism: “God just flips a coin and decides who to elect.” Reality: God has a reason for election; it is just that this reason has nothing to do with the righteousness of the elect.

Roman Catholicism: “They worship the saints.” Reality: Catholics do not worship the saints. They ask them to pray for them just as we ask a friend to pray for us. But since they are closer to God, their prayers can be more effective.

Arminianism: “They believe we can choose God on our own.” Reality: No they don’t. They believe that only through the grace of God can we be restored to a state where we are able to make a true free-will decision. Outside God’s grace, man can do nothing.

The Nominal Believers’ Defense:

Once a new (mis)understanding of a belief emerges, it becomes dogmatized and fiercely defended by nominal believers. These individuals, often lacking a deeper comprehension of the original doctrine, may dig their heels into positions that were never genuinely defended in the first place by any in the know. Then, those in the know spend all their time correcting folk positions that have arisen.


The prevalence of misrepresentation of beliefs is a complex issue that affects various ideological spheres. As beliefs gain popularity and become integrated into society’s culture, they are exposed to both internal and external misunderstandings. This cycle of misinterpretation can lead to the formation of new, misunderstood doctrines, causing confusion and divisions among adherents and critics alike. To foster understanding and promote informed discussions, it is crucial for individuals to approach the exploration of beliefs with an open mind and a willingness to seek deeper insights beyond surface-level representations. We all need to find the “best of” from each position and battle for or against it. Attacking strawman arguments is at best based on the sin of laziness; at worst, it is willful deception in order to make your own view look more correct. And this is pride. Only through effort and obedience to the 9th Commandment (“Do not give false testimony against your neighbor”) can we break the cycle of the doctrinal butterfly effect and build a more cohesive and understanding society. And only then can we get closer to the truth and understand God’s movements.

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

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