The central motivating factor in my ministry over the last ten years has been the need for Christians to engage the intellectual side of the faith with more confidence, hope, and joy. I began The Theology Program in 2001 which now is in hundreds of churches and has effected tens of thousands of people. I can barely keep up with the demands of this ministry as its need and potential becomes more evident each and every day.

The intellectual side of Christianity.

With all of this success, one inevitably finds those who continue to place much needed anchors in my mission. While I believe what I am doing has been given to me by God, I also understand that the intellect is not all there is. In fact, while I want to produce more confidence, hope, and joy in the lives of believers, I also want to instill a deep sense of humility. Theology done right should always produce a confident humility. Theology done wrong produces an ironically insecure emotional confidence that is made up of what I call “cut-and-paste” theology and apologetics (“just give me the answers, I don’t care how we get them”).

Anchored as I am in the reality that the intellectual side of our faith is not necessarily the end, but a foundation to all that is being built, I am more confident than ever that the church today continues to face a major crisis in its philosophy of faith and education. The majority of churches simply do not stimulate serious discussion concerning matters of theology. Most people do not find the church as a safe place to ask serious questions. In fact, most people are trained to fear any doubt, reserve questions, or to put away any sinful antagonistic feeling concerning any challenge that comes to the table.

The church, unfortunately, more often than not, is in the obscuring business. No, not intentionally, but it is true. We protect ourselves and those we love from any “false doctrine” that leads away from Christ by hiding the issue or give a quick sound-bite apologetic which obscures and belittles the arguments of any opposition.

But here is the problem (and don’t miss this): one day the opponent will find an audience. Someway, somehow, whether it be in college or through a New York Times best seller, the opposition that we have dedicated ourselves so much to hide will be found. When this happens, a different tale is told, and this tale is much more convincing coming from an educated adherent than it was coming from us.

Those who trusted us then feel betrayed. They begin to feel that their intellect was being molested for many years without their realization. Then they move into recovery without us. This recovery often finds a line of many other people on a trail called “apostasy.” It is not a happy trail, but more of a trail of tears, evidencing the emotions of those who feel they have been betrayed by those who were supposed to love them most.

This describes the intellectual epidemic that Christianity is facing today. Of course, it does not have to be such. The future of theological education need not repeat the sins of the fathers. But we need to change.

This change involves risk. We don’t like risk. That is why we lock our doors every night and set the alarm. That is why we purchase cars with anti-lock brakes and airbags. We are trained to prevent any problems. But in this case, we cannot take the chance that intellectual isolation will birth true committment. Its track record is simply not very good.

We need to turn the air-bag off for a while.

This risk has to do with opening the curtain that hides the wizard. People need to be educated, not indoctrinated. Most certainly there is a time when indoctrination is necessary since early in our lives we don’t have the capability to think critically. But some time between the ages of 5-10 we need to transition to a point of critical engagement. This includes critical engagement of what we already believe. The church should be facilitating this. This is simply discipleship 101. But the problem is, most of us don’t know how to critically engage issues ourselves. We have been trained to be scared.

The church needs to begin to expose those in the church to alternative explanations, showing that we don’t live in fear of “those of whom we do not speak.” We need to welcome doubt and questions even at the deepest level. The church should be a safe place that people feel welcome when they are going through intellectual trials, not a place they run from.

Recently, a lady wrote this about de-conversion on Scot McKnight’s excellent blog:

“A common feature of deconversion for many is the overarching role played by a search for intellectual coherence. Reason alone brings few if any into the faith – but reason alone drives many away despite significant social and personal cost. Those who walk away find not faith and fellowship but freedom and intellectual coherence. I cannot overemphasize this point. The intellectual questions and struggles are painfully real. In many of the cases – especially for those with clearly developed commitment to the faith before being swamped by doubt – the issue is not sin, rebellion and self. . . .

The shame is that the church – rather than dealing with the problem at its core, rather than providing a forum for Christians to question and grow – has often responded in a reactionary and destructive fashion. It is easy (incredibly easy in fact) to find an advocate to lead one to reject the church and join the freedom of the secular world; it is hard, often well nigh impossible, to find an advocate to help one explore the hard questions of the faith.”

We would do well to listen to this women. Sadly, I believe her statements are to the point and insightful.

Folks, this is not an advertisement for The Theology Program, but it does communicate the need for discipleship in the church that moves beyond a simple teaching of right doctrine, rather it walks people through the issues, teaching them how to think without an absolute predetermined end. God ultimately provides true and lasting faith. But from the human perspective, we must be responsible not only in the discharge of the Gospel, but how we discharge it.

In the end, wouldn’t it be better to have someone reject the faith under your informed and intellectually honest education process, than to accept an obscured version of the faith that is predisposed to collapse?

I believe that Christianity is ultimately persuasive. Christ has risen indeed! In fact, the more I am challenged, the more convinced I become.

Folks, it is worth the risk. The future of the church, from a human perspective, is not in how many converts we make, but in how many true disciples we lead. Things have to change now.

Join with me.


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

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]

    22 replies to "The Intellectual Crisis of Today’s Church"

    • Geoff Youngs

      Oh that churches would take this to heart and learn to distinguish between being a fool for Christ and having a full frontal lobotomy for Christ…

      I remember clearly the double jaw drop I experienced when I first read Packer’s Knowing God: I was shocked to realise that I had heard about knowing God for years and never stopped to seriously consider what it meant. And shocked by the thoughtful simplicity of Packer’s description of an apparently highly presumptuous claim.

    • AndyC

      To be able to reason with those who hold to different systems; to be able to defend one’s beliefs; to engage in discussion in today’s societal context yet hold to time proven articles of faith should strengthen the faith of a believer. Anti-intellectualism hurts the body of Christ as much as unsound teaching. Responsible Christians should avoid the first in order to be able to combat the second.

    • rick

      I am all for such a focus, and I think you have a segment interested in such studies.
      However, many today (probably for various reasons) just want the quick answers so that they can focus on other topics.
      How do we get them involved/engaged in such studies? Force feed them if necessary?

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      The charge of anti-intellectualism by CMP lacks sufficient nuance, and thus I cannot fully agree with it.

      For I have certainly met a significant number of intellectual Christians, as well as a significant number of “anti-intellectual Christians.

      So regrettably, CMP’s sweeping, blanket statement lacks (cough, cough) thoughtful, intellectual depth.

      And so I look forward to his response clarifying what I believe to be a humble and unintentional error on his part.

    • Thomas Twitchell

      I remember the line from the movie Patton as something that went something like this: “I read your book, Rommel, you SOB.”

      The fact is perhaps the greatest failing of Fundamentalist Chrisianity was their anti-intellectualism. As Scripture says, Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire;
      he breaks out against all sound judgment.

    • J.R.

      This is a very nice blog Michael. Many of your blogs I feel incompetent to intelligently respond to but this one struck a tender and passionate cord.

      Let me give you a brief back ground of myself. I was raised in an extremely fundamentalist Baptist home where everything was cut and dry and very dogmatic. Doubt and questions of theology were generally met with a polemic attitude. The King James Bible was the only bible allowed in the home and my dad was a firm believer in spare the rod spoil the child. I did not necessarily see the love of God in our home only a dogmatic system of living.

      Needless to say my teenage and young adult years brought about swift rebellion to God and everything I was “told” to believe. I DO NOT blame my dad for this rebellion but I do partially blame the system in which my sisters and I were taught our theology. It seemed everything from smoking, drinking, gambling, wearing anything but a suit to church would send one straight to hell.

      I was blessed to have a family who worship God and one who tried to raise their children in a Godly manner. This is what I believe brought me back to my knees in search of my Lord and Savior. Sadly, my younger sister is still in rebellion.

      I continue to attend a Southern Baptist Church in the OKC area (but I don’t hold to the belief that I was brought up with that Baptists are the only ones going to heaven) and I do strive to know and understand the God of my worship. Some of things I was told to believe as a child I questioned and have since come to an understanding of on my own. But there is still much I question (mainly non-essentials) and don’t understand. I feel there is not an avenue where I and others can explore our beliefs and/or uncertainties and come to an understanding. My church does offer the standard generic classes but they don’t offer truly biblical study courses. Courses where believers can come together using exegesis and proper hermeneutics to flush out biblical teaching to determine timeless principals.

      Thankfully, through a very good bible study group here at my office a gentleman has mentored me through some of my questions and doubts. He is patient and understanding of my questions and his knowledge of biblical Greek is wonderful. Through this gentleman I was lead to the Theology Program. I first began to watch the videos on-line through self study and when I found out you would be teaching it at Crossings I knew I had to attend.

      I enjoy your approach to this class and I believe any layperson who feels called to teach or anyone who desires to know why they believe what they believe should go through this program. I have tried to get it started at my church but to my disappointment it does not seem to be a priority.

      As a father of two children I desire for them to come to their own understanding of truth. What I mean by this is I don’t want them to believe and come to faith because that’s what daddy says (I want them to place their faith in Jesus Christ and not in daddy’s faith). I want them to come to their own understanding based upon biblical truth. But now, like you, I fear the church has in some ways lost its calling of making disciples.

      The focus on the present day church can be anywhere from what type of music to play; do we build a gym to reach the inner city youth; do we stay with traditional bible study or go with home groups; to how can we grow the church? Anyone of these may bring people to the church but what do we have established right now to walk them through to Christian maturity? (I am speaking of my church)

      Have we allowed ourselves to become anti-intellectual to a point of being afraid to engage in irenic conversations about difficult or differing beliefs? Has our plan of evangelizing blinded our mission of creating disciples also?

      The answer to these questions is I don’t know. I can only speak from the perspective of my own church. I fear some of those we bring in through the music, gym, or home groups may one day fall to the secular teachings of the world around them. The message of God is love is not always reflected in the world around us. It is only reflected in what we know to be absolutely true. The sad thing is we are not all equipped to articulate absolute truth to the postmodern world.

    • C Michael Patton

      Thanks TaUD,

      My main issue has not to do with the exceptions in the leadership or even in the laity, but the broad ignorance in the church today as well as their anti-intellectual attitude. I would say that it is just pop-evangelicalism, but I find it among all those who claim to be Christian, no matter what tradition they identify with.

    • C Michael Patton

      JR, wonderful testimony. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this out my friend. Can I share this?

    • C Michael Patton

      Rick,

      “How do we get them involved/engaged in such studies? Force feed them if necessary?”

      This is a great question. I find that once people are exposed to true theological discipleship (not indoctrination) they find the thirst that they did not know they had. That is why our ministry tries to apply so many levels of initial engagement. That is what this blog, Theology Unplugged, Converse with Scholars, and our upcoming mini-theological discipleship course is all about. We give them a taste, and then they want more. Then we move them to The Theology Program.

    • Mike J

      CMP:

      One thing that I have noticed over the year that I have been reading your blog is that I never perceive a real strong sense of the damning character of error in your writings. I know that you’re orthodox, and that you truly believe these things (e.g. the Gospel), but you rarely seem to communicate how dangerous UNothodoxy is.

      I sense, and maybe this isn’t how you intend to communicate yourself, that you are, in a strange way, postmodern in your methodology. What I mean is this: I gather that for you, methodologically, it’s not so much about the destination (i.e. the ideas upon which one should settle), but the journey (i.e. as long as you are thinking critically). Now I’m not saying that you don’t have truth as the end or goal of your methodology. I am trying to say that this doesn’t come across to me, aside from the occasional explicit statement – which is the only way I know it.

      I agree that real interaction with the issues is extremely important. But your methodology seems out of step with Paul’s, for example, who said at one point ‘They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.’ (Titus 1:11). To put it another way, your approach has a lot of positive points but it seems to me to be just too out of step with the tone and approach in the N.T.

      I like that you’re not afraid of deconstruction. I seriously love that you want people to believe things for the right reasons – I am right there with you. But I really don’t like that I rarely leave your writings with a sense of the magnitude of the importance of truth and the devastation of the alternative.

      Thoughts?

    • […] Parallel Universe of Evangelical Christianity The impetus for this post comes from a blog entry at Parchment and Pen: a theology blog. I encourage everyone to go and read the full blog entry. The blog is written by an evangelical […]

    • Lawrence

      As I see it, the Holy Spirit guides the intellect to understand the
      message that the scriptures communicate to the believing heart.
      This communication is acomplished by reading and learning the
      the message that is being presented by a particular passage (John 6).
      The two inhibiting factors that I have noticed concerning the
      learning process are, (1) trying to place oneself above others and
      (2) leaders who discourage input that, in their perception, competes
      with their position as biblical big shot (see 1Cor. 1-4).
      Certainly, those who share what the Lord has given them in the
      way of knowledge in how communication works can be a real
      blessing to a Christian group. I believe this is what Paul is describing
      in Eph. 4. He also presents the negative side of the picture by
      pointing out that the goal of equipping the saints is to teach them
      not to fall for the tricks of those who would keep them guessing (Eph.
      4:11-16).
      Perhaps the reason that faulty preachers are having a field day is because
      many Christians prefer to remain in what Paul describes in 1Corinthians as
      a carnal state of development.

    • Rutledge Kuhn

      Questioning one’s faith should be a natural phase one goes through (and many times at that on sundry issues).

      The speed of information exchange is changing rapidly. Like it or not, our society has little time to grapple with all the information that is generated and must be sorted through.

      So many perspectives are given, that it seems that one lifetime isn’t enough to sort through to a final decision on all that arise. People seem to be content with summary conclusions – the cost to not be content is too expensive.

      Question: Within a given year, how much of the churches’ resources should be given over to addressing apologetic issues?

    • […] August 30, 2008 by ngilmour The Intellectual Crisis of Today’s Church […]

    • johnMark

      Mike J,

      I think you have hit on exactly what many today protest, for example, when critiquing orthopraxy in light of theological positions.

      It can be very difficult to figure out the theological positions of some people based on what they write and do. Let me use an example using John Kerry. Kerry says he believes life begins at conception, is personally against abortion yet always votes for the right of abortion. Based on his voting record one would never think he is personally opposed. (I know, I know, but this is for illustrative purposes.)

      I understand where friends like James White and Steve Camp stand theologically in their writings. They would certainly say that anti-intellectualism is a big problem in the church today. Whereas with others you can’t really tell what they believe or if they agree or disagree with a things they are critiquing. Nor can you tell how important a disagreement may be if there is one. As you said, “but you rarely seem to communicate how dangerous UNothodoxy is.” So I think your proposition of postmodern method is right on.

      As I just scratch the surface in fleshing this out, there actually seems to be two streams of intellectual subversion here. Anti-intellectualism and post-intellectualism. Anti would fall into the description CMP gave while post would be something like the positions McLaren holds. Something like where far-left meets far-right completing a circle.

      Thanks,

      Mark

    • Peter

      I was talking to a pastor I knew about his recent experience in seminary. Apparently you would get a good mark, no matter what your doctrine, if you did a good job of justifying it from the bible. I guess then he got an education, but not an indoctrination.

      Things were indeed dangerous for him in his new church, because his own beliefs didn’t line up with his congregation.

      I knew another pastor with his own non-denominational church. Very intelligent and charismatic fellow. But he never failed to have a wierd and off the wall opinion about some passage or other. Always well researched mind you, almost TOO well researched, because finding the material to dispute his latest idea was tough, and by the time you could find it, he’d be onto something else.

    • Apostate2000

      Thanks for the post CMP. I have been enjoying this site for a while now, but this is the first time I have left a comment.

      I too find that anti-intellectualism is rampant within the body of Christ

      The biggest problem that results from this is the lack of realism of the gospel to the believer. If believing Christ does not result in having real answers to real questions or objections. What good is it? (This means more than just spitting out “Trust God!” or “…because the Bible says so”, but rather, having compassion and respect for the question.)
      What good is a gospel that does not engage the reasons for or against it?

      I suppose, one might feel a sense of community at church on Sundays and Wednesdays, but more often than not, this turns to obligation and drudgery. One might feel helpful to others if he has all the right doctrinal answers, but this leads to pride and the action of beating others down with the truth rather than setting them free. One also might feel a rapturous connection to Jesus only to have it fade and be left wondering “What have I done to have God abandon me?”

      The common denominator in these answers is that belief and commitment are all on the “feel” side. Feelings (as great as they are, or can be) are fickle, often fading as quickly as they began.

      What needs to happen is for the church, that is, all of us who follow Jesus, to establish again the philosophic foundations of Christian thought. The lack of integration within ourselves is sometimes astounding. We live highly compartmentalized lives, not allowing our religious lives mix with our work lives or our social lives, etc. Compartmental living is not a result of lack of sincerity in having Christ as Lord (as MacArthur thinks) it is because of a refusal to address doubt in a substantial way.

      If James Sire is right when he says “People live what they believe.” Then the area to address is belief, not living or lifestyle. If belief is to be addressed then we must face the doubts and by facing the doubts,

      Christ becomes real.

    • Tony Amodeo

      Hi.

      Just to let you know half your text is “in the black” and cut off on the right side

      It looks like my message also went into the “dark side” so the column needs
      to be moved to the left. Otherwise it is illegible.

      Pax.

    • From The Balcony

      Hey Michael
      I’m so glad you see the value of anchors in your life and in this ministry! I have an 82 year old woman at our church who is my anchor and will tell me face to face what i need to know! I know I’ve said it many times, but thank you for allowing my faith to grow substantially in substance through this ministry.

      As I’ve watched this site grow, it’s taken on a different character over the past 1 1/2 years. It’s become a place where very intelligent theologians and very intelligent laypeople often respond with vigor and complex verbage. Some of us “regular” lay people sit and simply watch the whirlwind of activity because much of it is above us and everyday life demands much of us. We learn from this conversation – it challenges us. Yet, I think there are a few things they could learn from us. Often though, our voice is muffled because we feel inadequate to participate.

      But that’s ok, especially if those strong, grounded anchors are firmly in place around your leadership and all involved remember the reason this ministry was created. Those anchors are essential so the winds of change don’t push some of us out to sea! I’m glad that I am challenged but not all are as persistent as I am.

      Sincerely, thank you for this ministry. You/Rhome and your family are often in my prayers.

    • C Michael Patton

      Balcony, thanks so much for the comments. I don’t want in any way to make theology less accessible. Can you help me? Can you let me know in what ways it seems to becoming less accessible?

    • Howard Pepper

      I guess I’m one of the few “deconverted” Evangelicals who frequents this site. I do appreciate the deeper thought expressed here than in most Christian contexts, and I’ve been in a great many–from birth to age 45 in many Evangelical churches, Biola Univ. (2 degrees), Talbot Sem. (M.Div.), and much more I won’t add here.

      In the dozen years since “leaving the fold,” I try to keep up on the Christian world some, and to engage in productive dialog over truths and important spiritual principles. This is one place where that is possible. I believe that I, and others like me, still share important common ground with sincere Christians, though thelogically, my slant on even the fundamentals is significantly different. I no longer take Scripture as divinely revealed in any unique sense, for example, but as a mixture of spiritual wisdom and archaic, often dangerous, dysfunctional beliefs.

      I do agree with the first part of the quoted woman’s comments in your article, Michael. However, I strongly disagree with her implication that if doubters had an “advocate” to help them “explore the hard questions of the faith,” they would remain orthodox Christians.

      I had many such well-qualified advocates over the years. An apologist myself, I long thought and taught that there were adequate answers for doubters and skeptics. It was only because I KEPT asking more and deeper questions and looking more broadly for the answers, that I eventually could realize the Gospels are the end result of various strains of largely localized myth-making. This combined with necessary social/religious reorganization, and based on a real Jesus who we can know spiritually but not historically; similarly the rest of the NT; and in somewhat different ways, the OT on which the NT was based.

      But it was not a purely “rational” line of reasoning in terms of biblical “criticism” or analysis. The most significant reason to NOT be orthodox is that the system, as a whole, IS fatally flawed, based on faulty presuppositions and unsupported claims. But that reason is backed up by a kind of “inner knowing” quite like what I (and apparently most others who were or are Christians) experienced earlier, on the “other side” of some of the same points.

      It is also backed by understanding one of Michael’s points: it is “discipleship” or growth in spiritual disciplines, perspectives, attendant actions, etc. that ultimately counts–not orthodoxy of beliefs. And that “discipleship” can be developed in any number of systems of religion or life philosophy, with results comparable to those seen from Christian faith. Those results include the potential of a MORE gracious, liberated, truthful standpoint, in my experience, than doctrinal orthodoxy allows for. (I’m not so postmodern that I deny any gradations in the EFFECTS of belief systems, or in their levels of “truthiness”–to borrow from the great philosopher, Steven Colbert). That takes us back to my theme of common ground in the dynamic processes behind faith development, regardless of outward conflict in many of the theoretical (or “biblical”) concepts.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God

      1 John 5:1a

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.