No one likes to be told they are wrong. Correction and critique are things we go out of our way to avoid. Those who can ask the tough questions about your life, probing deep when they suspect some spiritual sickness, are not often not welcome friends. We don’t pick up the phone when they call. We avoid them at work. We don’t return their emails. Why? Because they can tell us the skinny about our life and we don’t want to hear it. We are prideful people who, like the priest, choose to walk far around the problems in our life, and we ask others to do the same.

As problematic as this mentality is with regards to things having to do with moral integrity, I believe that the problem is just as severe with regards to theological integrity.

Everyone hates to be critiqued. I remember going into seminary with a good deal of pride and arrogance. I did not recognize it at the time, but now that I look back now I can see it. I remember in my first preaching course, I could not wait to get in front of the other students and the professor and deliver my masterpiece. They would call me “Michael the Golden Mouth.” Oh yeah . . . recognition was coming. But my teacher did not see things the way my mind’s-eye had envisioned. I remember I preached for fifteen minutes on the Psalms. Afterwords I had to sit down and listen to my professor rip me to shreds in front of twenty other seminary students who gawked in fear as they knew they were next. Here is the type of critique we came to expect.

  • “Where did you come up with that? That is not in the text. Good sermon, wrong text.”
  • “You selectively used that translation because it supported your view.”
  • “That was completely boring. Your audience will be thinking about the football game within two minutes.”
  • “You need to go home and come back and tell us what the text really means.”

This hurt. Many students want to drop out of seminary after their first evaluation. We have to have post-sermon-support-groups encouraging others that this still may be God’s call for them.

Writing an exegetical paper in the New Testament department was no less fearful. Upon turning it in the comments would come back:

  • “What makes you think you can use Strong’s for your word study? Don’t you know it is outdated.”
  • “You took this completely out of context.”
  • “You cannot use a John MacArthur commentary for an exegetical. It is a preaching commentary!”
  • “Did you check your sources or did you get this from secondary sources?”
  • “How did you come up with that interpretation when the entire history of the church has failed to see it?”

In the theology department the damage got worse:

  • “You completely misrepresented your opponent. Rewrite this paper.”
  • “You are selectively quoting Luther. Did you read him yourself or get this from someone else?”
  • “Your prejudice is guiding your beliefs. Who’s to say that your mom and dad were right?”
  • “Your certainty level on this is uncalled for. You may be right, but you have to hold this in tension.”

Concerning these critiques, there is something you should know – most of the time I was theologically correct in my conclusions. I thought that this is all that mattered. Hey, if I did not do the word study right, who cares? As long as I came to the right answer -wasn’t this acceptable? Isn’t the right answer what we ultimately are trying to find? This was not good enough! I learned that how you come to your conclusions is just as important as the conclusions themselves. In the end, I was humiliated so that I could be humbled.

In just about every discipline of thought, you have accountability. If you are a doctor, you cannot just develop and prescribe a new medicine because your mother told you all your life that it worked. If you do, you will go to jail. As a scientist, your works will be scrutinized by your peers in published journals. As a physicist, you cannot invent a new law of nature based upon a dream or vision. As a judge, you cannot judge people based upon subjective opinions or a deep inner peace. The constitution prevents this. If you are a soldier, you cannot disregard your superior and come up with a new battle plan because you were enlightened by a new book you read on fighting techniques. In all these areas there is an accountability structure that provides discipline and guards against novelty and abuse. Within each exists a system of checks and balances that, for the most part, provides integrity. In other words, you cannot just do or believe anything. If you violate these constraints, you will be humiliated and humbled.

Sadly we have an epidemic of theological discipline in the church today. People think that they can believe and teach anything based upon a subjective experience or a provision of hope. This epidemic is caused due to lack of theological accountability. We don’t think we need people to tell us we are wrong. We don’t have any system of checks and balances; in fact, we often avoid them. We think that if we have the Bible and the Holy Spirit, we have license. There is no way to be humiliated so that we can be humbled.

Because of this lack of discipline we have people out there believing and teaching based upon wild hairs. They are prescribing spiritual medicine that they invented. Sadly the average person is the spiritual test rat. I wonder what Kenneth Copeland did when he first got the idea that faith was a force that we could control. Did he consult anyone about this? Did he have theological advisers? Did he have someone who would tell him he was wrong? Did he consult church history or biblical exegetes? Did he even have a method for validating his beliefs? 

Integrity of belief is essential for every Christian. We all need trustworthy sources to which we can turn to test our beliefs. We need to have learned how to handle the Scriptures properly. We need to learn not only the right beliefs, but how to come to the right beliefs the right way. We all need to be humbled . . . often. We even need to get the snot kicked out every once in a while. We need battle scars of discipline. We need to have friendships with people who will tell us we are in left field. We need to fear discipline enough that we will think twice about believing or teaching something novel. 

In the early church Christians went through a rigorous discipling process (notice the connection between disciple and discipline). Once you became a Christian you went through a three year boot camp. You were called a catechumenate, derived from the Greek katechein, meaning “to teach” or instruct.” For three years your theology was shaped and scrutinized by superiors in the church. Did you get that? Three years. During this time your superior(s) mentored you through the faith. We see this illustrated in ancient church documents such as the Apostolic Traditions, the Apostolic Constitutions, the Canons of Hippolytus, and the Testamentum Domini. The church would not accept a new convert to the faith without this rigorous discipleship process. They took serious Christ’s command to “make disciples.” From the Didascalia Apostolorum we read, “When the heathen desire and promise to repent, saying ‘We believe,’ we receive them into the congregation so that they may hear the word, but do not receive them into communion until the receive the seal and are fully initiated” (2.39). This initiation did not come for three full years. Why? For two reasons. 1) The early church did not assume that a profession of faith was sincere, having seen many who once professed and then turned away either in doctrine or in practice. 2) They wanted to ensure the health and stability of the new converts belief. Cyril of Jerusalem reflects on the importance of theological stability: “Let me compare the catechizing to a building. Unless we methodically bind and joint the whole structure together, we shall have leaks and dry rot, and all our previous exertions will be wasted” (Prochatechesis 11). This training provided both a fail-safe that Christianity would be represented correctly and that the “believers” would truly believe, knowing what they were getting themselves into. In other words, they gave them an opportunity not to believe so that they might truly believe.

This process may seem extreme to us today, but consider where we are at. Once one becomes a Christian, the most they receive is a four week membership class that deals less with theology and more with church polity. But for the most part they don’t even get this. We tell them to ask Christ into their heart then we send them on their way with our blessing. In reality, we don’t know what has been created. At best, we have just placed a new born baby on the streets telling them to be filled and happy.

Is it any wonder that the church has such an epidemic for theological integrity? Should we really expect any different?

Who are you accountable to for your beliefs? When you get a wild hair about some theological issue, where do you turn? Better, where does this wild hair come from and who gave you the right to have a wild hair. “Wild.” Look it up in the dictionary and you will see that it means “undisciplined, unruly, or lawless.”

People need serious theological training. People need discipline. People need to know that they cannot do whatever they want with Christian belief and expect there to be so many lab rats available. If you have not been trained theologically, you need to be. This does not mean that you have read a book or two on theology, but you need to be in some sort of program that systematically, from beginning to end, takes you through the Christian faith, teaching you not only what to think and believe, but how to think and believe. We all need to be critiqued, disciplined, and humbled. We need more spiritual black eyes. We also need to be prepared to do the same with others.

Proverbs 11:14 Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.

Proverbs 13:10 By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.

Proverbs 19:20 Listen to counsel and accept discipline, That you may be wise the rest of your days.

Proverbs 6:23 For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life.

Proverbs 13:18 Poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline, But he who regards reproof will be honored.

Proverbs 12:1 Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.

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

    33 replies to "The Evangelical Epidemic of Theological Accountability and Discipline"

    • Joanie D

      It used to bother me when I would hear of some Catholic teacher who was forbidden to teach any longer under the Catholic umbrella. But I came to realize that it makes sense that if the teacher was NOT teaching what the Catholic leadership says were the official beliefs, then it made sense to tell that person he could not teach on their behalf, paid by their money, influencing their children, etc. I may STILL have agreed with what the teacher was saying, but I understood he was going to have to “go it alone” if he wanted to continue teaching in that way.

      Michael, that is interesting about the three year thing. How soon in the church history did that begin though? We read in Paul’s letters about the disciples coming together for the special meal which some call “Love Feast” some call “Communion” or whatever. It sounds like whoever was now confessing Jesus as Lord was a part of those gatherings. That would have been soon after Jesus resurrected as Peter and James were still alive when Paul was writing those letters.

      And I do agree that some people are promoting dangerous, non-Biblical teachings and they are sucking in people looking for someone to tell them what to do, what to believe.

      Joanie D.

    • Nick N.

      As a Charismatic-Pentecostal I can certainly relate to what is being said as I lament over the fact that so many of my brothers and sisters are so loose with the text of Scripture and Church history (I can’t tell you how much it hurts every time someone says to me, ‘you’re Pentecostal??). Experience reigns supreme in the circles I travel in and I’ve found personal experience to be at best subjective and at worst deceptive.

      We definitely need accountability but I’m not entirely convinced that systematic theology is the way to go. I’m quite sure that you aren’t suggesting that theological training is the only means of establishing accountability but from this post it seems as if you are emphasizing it as perhaps the most important (please correct me if I am wrong). I believe that the Christian faith is not just something to be learned in the classroom and understood intellectually, but it is also something to be lived out in daily practice (I’m sure you would agree).

      I think we need to hold knowledge and practice in tension allowing them to balance each other out. For example, I don’t believe that some of the most important matters require much training (theological that is) at all — We’re to love God, love the brethren, and love our neighbors and I feel that this can be harder at times than any exegetical paper one has to write in seminary — but at the same time I believe that there has to be an intellectual knowledge that only comes from proper training concerning essential doctrines such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection. I don’t believe that we can (or should) neglect one to emphasize the other.

      And I just want to throw this out to possibly start some discussion (I apologize if it is off topic — I don’t think it is, but it may be a wild hair 😉 ), but how do you convince someone that they need serious theological training when they’ve had an experience with God? You talked about three years of discipleship, but what do you do (and I encounter this all the time) with the person who appeals to having had a Pauline experience where they were called and then trained alone for three (or however many) years as Paul apparently did? I usually point to Eph. 4:11-14 and note that Jesus gave us teachers for a reason, so we should use them — but what does everyone else do?

    • C Michael Patton

      Great word Lisa.

    • C Michael Patton

      Joanine, it stated in the second century. The early church would not even baptize people until they got through this discipleship. I am not sure I agree with that, but it is interesting how seriously they took it.

    • C Michael Patton

      Nick, I would never suggest that theology is the end, but I would say that it is foundational to everything else. It provides a proper understanding of the one with whom we are in relationship. For example, if one were to love God based upon the belief that he wants them to be health and wealthy, your theology has caused you to love what could be a different God with the name of a Christian God.

      Concerning your problem, this would be covered in Prolegomena, Introduction to Theology. This is where people are taught how to think through and receive revelation. There is a hierarchy of sources for our beliefs. Personal experience is one of the options, but it is not above Scripture or history (the authority of those who have gone before us and their understanding of Scripture). Once we elevate experience above either one of these, we demonstrate the arrogance which I spoke of in the post. It is at this point that we need to get a spiritual slug in the nose.

      Hope that makes sense.

    • JohnT3

      I enjoyed this post Michael.

      Paul in Galatians 1:8 and John in 1st John 4:1 are two verses I have had discussions with many of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

      The Bible is clear that no matter what you gift or position in the body you are not above correction and everyone is held accountable for it. The two verses I listed above are just two examples where it falls to everyone to hold everyone accountable.

      Part of the problem is that we reach for the rod when correcting someone and beat them over the head with it and not follow the examples of 1 Corinthians or Galatians where humility on the part of the one doing the correcting and training is absolutely essential.

      Anyway just a few thoughts.

    • Josh

      Great post Michael,

      I was just curious if you wouldnt mind listing some of the books you used to get this information or those that explained the method and process of this 3 year discipleship “program”.


      Your brother in Christ,


    • Nick N.


      You said: “For example, if one were to love God based upon the belief that he wants them to be health and wealthy, your theology has caused you to love what could be a different God with the name of a Christian God.”

      That’s deep. I know this isn’t the point of the post so I don’t expect a response in this thread, but I pray that you will eventually write a post and open up discussion on this topic another time. I was just wondering — with this understanding (and it is one that I share with you) do those of the Calvinist persuasion feel that those of the Arminian persuasion (or vice versa) are serving/worshipping a different God with the name of the Christian God? I have heard some on each side of the fence make this judgment — I’m curious about your thoughts concerning this — and also, at what point does the line get crossed to where we can say that it is another God? This is relevant to something I’m going through right now with some friends who insist that Oneness Pentecostals and Trinitarian Pentecostals believe in the same God with different understandings.

      Again, I don’t expect a response in this thread… Thanks for listening…

    • C Michael Patton

      John, I agree. You can really tell those who arrogantly correct others (watchdogs, heresy-hunter) are those who have never been corrected themselves.

    • C Michael Patton

      Nick, those are awesome questions. The questions themselves are good enough for a post, especially “at what pont does the line get crossed to where we can say that it is another God?”

      Right now, I don’t really know. I do know with regards to the Calvinist view and Arminian view, I am not willing to say that they have a different God. I may post on this sometime if I can ever get my thoughts together enough to where it is not just a bunch of questions.

    • C Michael Patton

      BTW: Here is an example of those who think they can say anything:

    • Lisa R


      I understand your dilemma well. Like you, I was of the mind that our Christian experience was summed up in experiencing God and that academic, systematic study was non-spiritual.

      However, I would like for you to consider one word, which the greek word Epignosis. A few places this is used is Eph 1:17, 4:13; Col 1:9,10; II Pet 1:2,3 and II Pet 3:18. (There are more and I’m sure the bible scholars can chime in). The english word is knowledge but epignosis is different from gnosis also translated as knowledge, which is a theoretical understanding. Epignosis, however, is an experiential knowledge that has a foundation in gnosis. Take skiing for example. In order to ski you have to actually get out there and do it. But it is not a haphazard activity because it should be built on the foundation of basic principles, a theoretical framework of “how to ski”. And safety concerns should make the foundation more solid to include “how to ski properly and safely”. So in other words, the experience is supported by the knowledge. And the partnership of learning and doing work in concert for us to have the full benefit of skiing.

      I contend it is the same way with our spiritual walk. Paul exhorts us to have an epignosis of our Lord. But is that not supported by the knowledge of who God is and who we are in Him? And this does require a disciplined and systematic approach to scripture, understanding scriptures in context and relative to what the whole of the bible says about a particular topic. Otherwise, what is the foundation for our experience?

    • Vance

      Hey, if I can find a proof-text, I am goin’ for it! 🙂

      Seriously, though, let’s keep in mind the degree of knowledge, study and understanding that would be required for various types of people. Those who are Church leaders and “teachers” (as one of the described gifts of the Spirit), and will thus be responsible for passing doctrine along, would there not be a higher degree of in-depth study involved? If you are joe six-pack in the pew, who (let’s face it) is not the brightest knife in the drawer, but sincerely loves God, what level of theological study would be appropriate?

      *hint*, michael, here is where you plug the theology program . . .:)

    • Lisa R

      Joe six-pack in the pew…that’s funny.

      I think we all have an obligation to study to show ourselves approved but I agree with you that it will vary.

    • Mark Hunsaker


      Great post. I’m nearing the time when I’ll enter seminary though, and now you’ve got me a little scared! 😉

      Seriously, I loved the post. I’m convinced that God is raising up servants in His kingdom along the very lines that you speak about here.

      Keep up the great work…

    • Nick N.

      “brightest knife in the drawer”… Now that’s funny!

      Almost as funny as “sharpest bulb in the circuit” — LOL 😛

      Mixed metaphors aside, I have to agree with Vance — the clergy require more training than the laity (IMHO).

    • C Michael Patton

      Vance, I would say that while there would be a greater responsibility among those who teach and lead, we need to re-examine the low bar that we have become too used to.

      I am sending my kids to school for 6 hours a day for nearly 20 years. If we value the knowledge that they are getting in school in such a way, why not make the theological knowledge at least meet this standard? Why to we allow for such ignorance in theology in the church?

      I think that a new Christian should go through an extensive three year program of discipleship. I think that children need to have a similar program.


    • C Michael Patton

      The sources for the three year study were primary sources. You can get these through the internet. Clinton Arnold wrote a nice peice for this in JETS in 2004. I will ask him if I can send that out or post it soon.

    • C Michael Patton

      Josh, that last post was for you!

    • Vance

      Nick, I have a client for whom English is a second language and she is in the habit of mangling her metaphors, my favorite is “I am at the edge of my rope!”. It has become such an inside joke around the office that we routinely create such mixes for our own amusement and now I am doing it automatically!

      I guess it gives some credence to our moms when they used to say “if you keep making that silly face, it is going to stick like that!”

    • Joanie D

      Michael, it AMAZES me when intelligent people choose to follow a guy like that and give him their wealth and complete loyalty. I feel sad for their families as well.

      Joanie D.

    • C Michael Patton

      Well, such is the state of the religious way of thinking. I blame Kant.

    • Lisa R

      Sorry Nick, I should have read your comments a little more carefully since you were talking about others and not yourself. I do encounter that as well and sometimes its just downright tough to convince a person that has put so much weight on experience that disciplined study has to be there as well. When I was really wrestling with the continuation of sign gifts, I wanted to hear the perspective of friend of mine who has an M.Div and serves on the pastoral staff at a pentacostal based church. I wanted to hear her exegesis but what I got was a discussion on experience. Go figure!

      I will also add to this mix, how important training is for discernment against distorted teaching. Jude tells us it creeps in unnoticed. And it will do so as long as the Joe six-pack in the pew is taught that it’s ok for him to just love God. There’s a whole lot of funny stuff mixed in with some truth but a little leaven leavens the whole lump. And being tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine does not bring credibility to our faith or honors Christ. Just my 2 cents.

    • Michael K

      As one of the duller knives in the drawer I wanted to comment about the level of theological study Joe six-pack should be expected to comprehend as opposed to pastoral staff.

      While theological vocabulary may be a burden and escape me at times, the concepts and the exegesis used to formulate them are usually understood. I may ask a question or two for clarification but that’s all it usually takes. For the believer, I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit is extremely active in expanding ones level of discernment; as needed. Subjects and ideas that were meaningless to me 5 years ago can now seem obviously apparent.

      Please keep in mind that the dullest knife in the drawer sometimes simply requires a little polishing. 🙂

    • From The Balcony

      This blog post blew me away and brought out the deepest concerns of my heart for the church in our day and age. Thank you for expressing it so beautifully.

    • Vance

      Ah, Michael K, you give the lie to your claim to “dullness” in your very post. You are merely impersonating joe six-pack! 🙂

      Seriously, though, I think about my grandmother, who is 83 now and does not know ecclesiology from epistemology and I don’t really know that her spiritual life would be much improved by that enlightenment. I think we all should move forward toward the highest level of knowledge and understanding as we can (and have been advocating such study for years, so it is hard to even play devil’s advocate here), but for some, that level will not be very far along.

      As a thought experiment, put your church congregation in your mental eye and let it wander over the various folks you know in the pew. Now, for each, ask yourself how they would react to the type of training involved in, say, seminary level courses.

      Many would respond wonderfully and should be encouraged to seek out programs like the Theology Program. Others would react better to solid teaching in an adult Sunday School class.

    • Michael K

      Vance – I was specifically responding your Post# 14.
      Like – From the Balcony I too was blown away with some of the ideas in this post.

      Humor aside I agree with your last paragraph. For my wife sitting in a theology class would be like sitting in a class room with the Peanuts gang. All she’d hear from the teacher would be “waa waa waa”, and this is a woman who is an HR Director for a large international firm. I’ve asked her numerous times if the issue for her is one of not really wanting to understand or an inability to understand. She’s responded every time that theological discussions simply fly over her head. Sigh

      As someone who’s done years of Sr. High Sunday School
      teaching I believe it to be absolutely essential for a Christian to have a basic level of theological understanding. I believe we’ve achieved that basic level in our church be doing an exhaustive study of the Westminster Catechism. But I have to say the courses offered from this ministry are intriguing.

      (btw I just came across this site for the first time today so I’m still soaking in all the possibilities)

    • Lisa R

      Mike K,

      This is where I would put my plug in for the Theology Program because it really is designed with the average Joe in mind. Some people run or tune out, when they think “theology” but I think, no hope, you would find it quite user-friendly. I would encourage you and your wife to check it out.

    • Lisa R

      PS – that was not a paid advertisement : – )

    • […] the Parchment and Pen blog, C. Michael Patton recently wrote an excellent article entitled, “The Evangelical Epidemic of Theological Accountability and Discipline” in which he makes an excellent case why (albeit tacitly) theological education must […]

    • David

      I have just stumbled over this blog (I know it’s more than a year old) and have thoroughly enjoyed the discusssion. I have followed some of the other blogs and really appreciate the comments of many of your regulars. They show much insight and thought about the subject at hand.

      I just wanted to mention a point I picked up recently while reading Emil Brunner’s, The Mediator. In the introductory material you states a case for the purpose of theology in the church. He places theology as a fence or a hedge around what can legitimately be called Christian teaching. While we attempt to fence in the least amount of territory, there is always a degree of uncertainty, at least this side of heaven. With a correct understanding of biblical truth we can include both Calvinists and Armenians while excluding the new Messiah seen on the Today Show.

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      OK, so I’m one of those believers you refer to above that many might rather avoid. That doesn’t make me God’s man for correcting others, but it shouldn’t rule me out either. 8;)

      One of the things that makes me skeptical about those who promote their theological concerns is an appeal to significantly POST-Apostolic beliefs and practices. Really, appealing to the __Didascalia Apostolorum__ seems a bit suspect since it is considered a 3rd Century document highly unlikely to be the creation of the Apostles that it pretends to be.

      The New Testament doesn’t show much inclination to put off discipleship for three years, does it? I think it discourages disciples from becoming teachers, teacher, but I am starting to think–from the evidence–that it might take more than a lifetime to become completely committed to full submission to the New Testament Word itself, since there seem to be so few that approximate conformity to that calling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.