(by Lisa Robinson)

I love Tim’s clip here asking the question can theology destroy our faith.  He honestly assesses, yes if it the information is not applied towards a genuine relationship with God.  Information should not be feared because any genuine relationship is built on having the information.  So theology is understanding about God and how we think about God, that as we grow in understanding through Bible reading and instruction, prayer and genuine fellowship, should provide a tool for facilitating growth. The discipline of systematic theology will involve the study of how others have come to conclusions of the main tenets of the Christian faith.  I think this is a valuable and fruitful exercise, combined with Bible study, as we grow and mature in the true knowledge of Jesus Christ. It also gives us a better understanding of theological differences.

It occurs to me however,  that the topics of theology have to be introduced progressively according to the maturity of the believer.  I think the programs at Reclaiming the Mind/Credo House do a great job of that in helping people think about their faith without supplanting the core necessities for spiritual growth.  But, theology can become a stumbling block when theological debate takes precedent over spiritual growth.  This is especially critical for young, immature believers in Christ.  What do I mean by stumbling block? It is something that causes a believer to sin, which will deter spiritual growth.  Here is how I believe theology can do this.

In Matthew 18, Jesus is responding to his disciples question of who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven

Truly I say unto you unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in my name receives me  (Matthew 18:3-5 NASB)

Simply put, Jesus is addressing the fact that those who place faith in Him, will be received.  It is not exclusively a reference to children, as some of argued, but reflects those who would humble themselves in recognition in the work and person of Christ.

When believers come to Christ, they need to be instructed in Christians basics.  Period.  That might involve laying out what competing positions hold to, but the goal of Christian instruction is to ground the believer in their identity in Christ and their knowledge concerning the revelation of God.  As believers mature and learning increases, then it is feasible to start introducing competing viewpoints and especially those that might be directly opposed to what that particular denomination or affiliation espouses.

We read in the gospels Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees.  The problem with the Pharisees is that in their quest to preserve obedience to the law, they imposed a righteousness upon the Mosaic legislation that was not intended.  It makes sense, since Israel as a nation was scattered and anticipated restoration of covenantal promises that had been transgressed through Israel’s apostasy and subsequent exile.  

It occurs to me that we can adopt the mentality of the Pharisees with respect to our theological systems with respect to new and young believers in the faith.  Let me explain.  When someone accepts the gospel message and places faith in Christ, in many regards they are like clean slates though not really since we bring pre-suppositions into perspectives based on prior experiences.

What Jesus is addressing with the Pharisees are attitudes of the heart that have prevented them from seeing who He is.   Such attitudes that we can adopt also with respect to the ability to understand Him and His purpose, including

  • Self-righteousness
  • Pride
  • Divisiveness

This becomes evident in the insistence that certain doctrinal persuasions or theological systems must be the only solution.  I believe theology becomes a stumbling block when we impose our theological systems upon believers, and especially in an effort to steer them clear of positions we are opposed to.  It is when we adopt the attitude like the Pharisees that insist in the righteousness of our system and that belief in THAT particular theology is vital for Christian maturity.

We can utilize language against certain positions or systems that can establish a hostility, particular when inflammatory language is used in reference competing positions

  • Calvinism is evil
  • Dispensationalism is heresy
  • Arminians contribute to their own salvation
  • Egalitarians reject God’s authority
  • Complementarians are dictators

I fear that when we impose a particular system with an emphasis on hostility towards other positions, what should be a pure catechesis in the faith is now tainted with rejection of other viewpoints.   This will probably sow seeds of the attitudes that Jesus was opposed to in the Pharisees – self-righteousness, pride and divisiveness.  Christian belief now becomes belief a particular flavor and development in the faith is juxtaposed to rejection of certain positions that without Christian maturity, will most likely involve the inability to embrace others as true brothers and sisters in Christ.

When this happens, it is very much a stumbling block because the one who has come to Christ in childlike faith is burdened with the necessity of upholding certain views on one hand, and rejecting others on the other.  Because the believer is not grounded in the faith, the likely tendency will be to go with whatever influence is persuading their beliefs to avoid the potential of isolation from the group.   The group dynamic takes over, and the young believer feels compelled to accommodate their views, to ‘go along to get along’.

Is it any wonder that in the discourse of theological dialogue, attitudes of superiority and dogmatism emerge, replete with hostility against proponents of competing viewpoints?  Now, I believe there are myriad reasons why this happens.  But my guess would be that the infancy stage of such perpetrators was influenced by hostilities as exhibited above.   Somewhere in the early stages of development, there was possibly an encouragement to disdain those that did not hold to particular view.  Somewhere in the early stages of development, it is possible that the essentials of Christianity became encumbered with additional belief requirements to gain acceptance.   No, not in every instance.  But certainly, such influence will have ramifications.

Now, I’m not saying that we play with heretical ideas regarding Christianity or demonstrate how such ideas are anathema to Christianity.  Believers, and especially young and vulnerable believers need to be cautioned against detrimental positions, which is the job of pastoral leadership.  But even those have to be treated with a methodology that evidences fruitful investigation and not just knee-jerk responses based on one’s doctrinal leanings.  I think far more ideas get ascribed the title of heresy than is warranted by the actual position.  How we treat even these topics can shape the approaches of the young.

So the warning to the Pharisee’s ought also to serve as an admonishment to those who would seek to influence the young of biased and uncharitable propaganda that shapes how the view and receive others.

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6).

Let us use discernment when engaging in theological topics and how we handle competing positions, particularly with the young lest we cause them to stumble and deter the ability to demonstrate Christianly respect and charitable interaction with their fellow believers.

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

    7 replies to "When Theology Becomes a Stumbling Block"

    • Laurie M.

      Necessary and well-spoken words, Lisa.

      Thank you.

    • I think part of the issue here is we need to help and encourage people to think through their views based on Scripture rather then accept something because our group holds it. This takes longer and is more dangerous (they may not reach our conclusions), but it is the only way to produce believers who really know and understand what they believe.

    • Alex Guggenheim

      The article’s fundamental theme is presented in Scripture. This is observed where bible doctrine is described as both “milk” and “meat” and that milk is considered elementary and meat being more complex doctrines (and though not stated as such, we also know that lying in between are intermediate doctrines). When a new believer, particularly an adult but not only an adult, attempts to establish a position on more complex doctrines before concretely/comprehensively being able to handle elementary doctrines, they will encounter just what is being described, a stumbling block. It is much like trying to handle Calculus without mastering fractions and other relevant elementary and intermediate kinds of math. You will constantly come upon unresolvable problems. It’s not complex theology itself that injures but the immature lust to receive its insights before you are ready to fully understand their arguments.

    • Ed Kratz

      Alex, well said and I agree, especially with your last sentence.

    • Thomas Mears

      Would it be tired to actually quote from God’s word? If there is no private interpretation and the only way to come to the knowledge of God is to Study to show ourselves approved not handling the Word of God deceitfully, and if you plant and I water but it is God that gives the increase and if you or I handle that word in an dishonest manner it will not be the young believer paying for it when we each give an account of ourselves.

      With over 5,000 manuscripts computerized and categorized; the scholars all agreeing that there is not more than 5% of the Bible that can be disagreed upon – in other words 95% of the Bible is as plain as the wrinkles on my face, one has to take a stand and draw a line because there are those that handle Choosing to adhere to grammatical construction and knowing and using the keys to Biblical interpretation and choosing not to – divides and confuses. humbling oneself to the obvious would entail admitting ones own frailties. The KJV only-ism and the “horns of the unicorn” is a prime example.

      What I’m sensing in this article, beside the SEO words used to gain front page google placement is the NATO creed of all roads lead to god and the only barrier to “unity” is Christians who do draw a line in the sand on Doctrinal issues that say “this is Christ and that isn’t”

    • Jeff Ayers

      How typical and ironic that “king James Onlyism” is the acceptable “whipping boy” to receive lashes at the hands of

      Pharisaical (self righteous)

      attitudes toward a large group of Bible Believing Christendom.

      Why is attacking KJ Onlyism such an acceptable pastime with bloggers and posters on this site?

      Where is the Irenic and gracious attitude so loudly touted when dealing with calvinists, Arminians, amillennialists and post tribulationalists, but conspicuously absent when addressing King James Only people?

      Lisa’s article is spot on—–but lets make sure that we “demonstrate Christianly respect and charitable interaction with their fellow believers”….yes even the loathsome and contemptible King James Only people.

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