This is week 3 in our five-week Credibility Gap series, and during this series we are taking an honest look at some of the reasons so many people have recently turned away from the church or worse become antagonistic towards Christians. Our hope is that by taking this honest look together, we will become a community that both helps narrow the credibility gap AND leads more people to Jesus. This is our prayer. And I want to begin by saying that Barry did a great job in the first two sermons… if you haven’t heard those sermons, please listen to them. They aren’t ‘easy-listens,’ but they both powerfully say that if we ever want to narrow the gap that keeps people from considering Jesus these days, then we will have to be vigilant about making certain that first, our individual lives and second, Grace Church as a community are wholly devoted to Christ. I know that there was nothing heart-warming about Barry’s challenge to us to look honestly into our souls to see if there is any hypocrisy or misplaced allegiances that could lead to others questioning the credibility of our faith… I know that addressing the credibility gap this isn’t the most uplifting of subjects… BUT our mission is first and foremost to ‘make disciples of Jesus’ and so we want to be a community that does everything it can to narrow the gap that might hinder a person from finding faith in Jesus… and so, for these five weeks we are talking about these things openly and honestly.
Today I’ve been asked to talk about something that may seem at first to be… how shall I say this... a rather odd or even esoteric subject. I have been asked to talk about how certain theological positions have the potential to widen the Credibility Gap… how some theological positions have become harmful to our mission of leading people to Jesus. Now, I know that saying that we are going to be talking about theological “positions” can glaze the eyes… I can hear the ‘Harmful theologies?’ Please, Tim!’ I get that… but I ask that you stick with me. I promise I will do my best to NOT make this time ‘esoteric.’ But before we dive into this subject of ‘harmful theologies,’ I want to quickly read a passage of scripture that I believe will help us as we think about engaging with who are disaffected or dismissive of our faith. That passage is James 1:2-5… and I would like for everyone to turn to this passage because these verses have helped me… particularly in areas like those we will be talking about today.
While turning Welcome Fishers and those online.
James 1:2-5. Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. ‘Troubles’ is way too nice of a translation. The Greek word here is (pi-ros-MOS) and this isn’t just any old ‘trouble.’ means ‘to question someone’s integrity or virtue.’ And I have to say that when people start talking to me about why they’ve turned their back on the church or why they think that Christians are dangerous… it’s almost impossible for me not to take their criticism personally. But James had something unexpected to say about this kind of ‘trouble! Something that might explain why he says troubles are an opportunity for joy. He says, ‘For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. ‘Endurance’ comes from the Greek word (Hoop-om-on-ay) and it means to be ‘unmoved from your purpose’… is being steadfast… it’s ‘staying behind in difficult times when others leave.’ And THIS kind of endurance can really help when people are questioning the credibility of our faith. It keeps us in the room… it gives us a chance, after showing others that we are willing to have our integrity put to the test, to lead them to Jesus… and that should give us joy. Then Verse 5 says, 5 If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. I think it is appropriate for us to take James at his word here and ask God for wisdom as we begin talking about today’s subject… I know I need it… so I am going to pray for wisdom and then we’ll get going. PRAY
One reason I felt it was important to read this passage first was that it shows me that narrowing the credibility gap is nothing new for followers of Jesus. Almost everything James talks about in his letter is related to showing a doubting world that Jesus is worthy of following. And the issues in James’ day are still issues today: Christians living for power and wealth widened the credibility gap then and it still does today; saying one thing but then doing another widened the credibility gap then and it still does today; living with one foot following the ways of the world and one foot following the ways of Jesus widened the credibility gap then and it still does today. But one thing that James didn’t talk about in his letter, one thing that doesn’t seem to have yet become a big issue in the earliest days of the 1st Century Church was harmful theological positions driving people away from considering Jesus. But today there are certain ‘theological positions’ that have taken root in the ‘modern’ world of Evangelicalism, (and by ‘modern’ I mean the last 200 years or so). And sadly, these theological positions have helped to widen the credibility gap. And we believe that we need to honestly examine these theological positions, so we can be sure that all that we say about God is useful in leading people to Jesus.
I am only going to talk about two issues today… two among many… but I know that these two will be enough to get us thinking about this important subject. And here is the first harmful theological position: it is what I can only think to call an ‘Inappropriate view of the Bible.’ I want to be as clear as I can about this because I don’t want anyone to ever think that we don’t have a high view of the Bible as God’s word. We do! But there is a theological position resident in the Evangelical world that says that the Bible being a collection of different books, each with its own context and genre and message is not all that important. This theological position holds that the Bible is essentially one big ‘thing’ if you will; that every sentence or verse or even small part of a verse can stand alone and can have its own special meaning outside of any need to think about context or history or genre or anything like that… What this theological position holds is that you can pull out verses and break up verses and put verses from one part of the Bible end to end with verses from other places in the Bible all for the purpose of saying, well, saying just about anything. This is a huge topic, one that I would love to have the time to fully parse out, but what this view of the Bible has done is it has turned the Bible into a ‘you-can-prove-just-about-anything’ book. And people can and do come up with all sorts of things when they aren’t guided by anything other than what they decide the words on the pages mean. Here is an example that comes up frequently. In 3 John verse 2, we find this phrase in the middle of a much longer sentence, ‘Beloved, I wish above all things that you may prosper…’ Now, the Greek word (yoo-od-a-o) translated as ‘prosper’ here doesn’t mean become wealthy. It never means this is the Bible. It literally means to have a safe journey. But some people feel it is perfectly okay to pull this little bit of a verse out of the middle of a much longer sentence, use a modern definition for the English word ‘prosper,’ and then say that it’s God’s desire to make all of his followers wealthy… or worse that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. Now, you can see why a teaching like this, a teaching that is separated from any context or the author’s original intent would set off all sorts of ‘credibility warning signals.’ One thing guides our teaching throughout all of the ministries here at Grace is this: When we say, ‘God says this!’ or ‘God promises this!’ or ‘God does this!’ or ‘This is important to God!’… we work really hard to be certain what we are saying about God is absolutely true; I know I don’t like it when someone says things about me that aren’t true, and I am sure that God doesn’t either. And living by a theology that says the Bible is just one big book that can be read in any way a person wants to read it to say anything a person might think they’ve discovered is a harmful theological position. Bottom line is that this way of approaching the Bible leads to all sorts of things that just aren’t credible.
Something that really saddens me is that even though Christians call the Bible ‘God’s word’ and mean it and take it very seriously, most Christians, have no idea about how the Bible came to be or why it’s authoritative or even how it should be read. I am going to make an authoritative statement… a Grace Church statement. The Bible at its core is God’s self-revelation. God has chosen, in this time and place to primarily reveal himself to us through the experiences that people had with him, experiences that so moved and inspired those people that they had to write their experiences down. And God, through his Spirit, worked to make certain that what was written about him was accurate and that it was preserved for everyone for all time! This is what the Bible is! And a big step toward closing the credibility gap related to the Bible is simply knowing enough about the Bible to correct misstatements and misjudgments and being as truthful as we can about what the Bible actually is and what it says. I know this involves work… knowing how the Bible came to be and knowing how we should read it and how we can know what each book and passage is meant to tell us isn’t something that gets most people excited. But in our cultural reality this is the kind of work that can get people to see that the Bible is credible.
And here is something else related to faulty ways of approaching the Bible… ignoring whole parts of scripture through what is called ‘dispensational theology.’ Dispensational theology is complex, but at its core it holds that the Biblical timeline can be divided into spaces or ‘dispensations’ where God works one way in this space and another space he seems to have a completely different character. And what many dispensationalists believe is that we can just ignore whole parts of scripture because they were intended for a time period that is now long gone. Now stick with me here… My grandfather was a hyper-dispensationalist. He was so convinced that the Bible timeline was divided up into completely autonomous sections that he only read the parts of the Bible that were written to churches. ‘We’re living in the church-age,’ he would say. And he didn’t believe it was important to pay attention to what Jesus had to say because Jesus lived during the dispensation that ended when the church age began at Pentecost. Now that is extreme, I know. But this way of looking at the Bible is harmful, especially when people start asking questions about, say for instance, why does God seem to be so vengeful, and hateful, and violent in the Old Testament and so different in the New Testament? Let me just say, it doesn’t help to say, ‘He used to be that way… but he’s changed.’ Or worse, as some dispensationalists say, ‘Yes, God has changed his mode of operation for this time-period, but he still reserves the right to have a vengeful attitude towards people who aren’t a part of the church. Listen to some of Isaiah 13:6-13. Scream in terror, for the day of the LORD has arrived— the time for the Almighty to destroy… the day of the LORD is coming— the terrible day of his fury and fierce anger. The land will be made desolate, and all the sinners destroyed with it. The heavens will be black above them; the stars will give no light. The sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will provide no light. “I, the LORD, will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their sin… I will shake the heavens and the earth will move from its place when the LORD of Heaven’s Armies displays his wrath in the day of his fierce anger.”
That is rough stuff… and it’s harmful to shrug off this kind of passage by saying, ‘Well, God isn’t like that anymore, but he can be if you don’t get in line.’ People who are skeptical to begin with just won’t buy this seemingly unpredictable God. I am not here to debate the notion of dispensations, but I will say this: Here at Grace we believe the whole of the Bible, every bit of it, is the story of God’s love for mankind. And so, when we get to passages like this one in Isaiah, rather than casually appealing to some theological position that won’t make sense to our skeptical friends, our task is to do the hard work of putting a passage like this into its actual historical context and identifying the cruel injustices that God was actually addressing in these angry words. We are confident that you’ll find that God’s intent, especially in places where his language seems harsh, is always to bring an end to some extreme injustice while at the same time longing to draw people back into a loving relationship with him. Here is the truth, most people don’t know much, if anything, about the Bible and even less about the world of the Bible. Most of what people know comes from someone they heard who sounded like they knew what they were talking about… or it’s something they picked up online or heard from someone that was trying to push them into a decision… and none of that is helpful. Grace people… we need to be helpful. When people ask about the Old Testament vengeful God, and they will because people always do, it’s best to ask, ‘What passage are you talking about?’ And then, if they actually give you a passage and you don’t know the specifics you can say, ‘I don’t know the specifics… But I will find out what is going on in that passage.’ Because, believe me, you can find the specifics. This stuff isn’t secret knowledge. Again, the bottom line is staying in the room… just staying in the conversation helps narrow the credibility gap. Does God get angry? You bet, but if you look at why God was angry, you’d have been angry too. And has God stepped into history to bring judgment? Yes, he has, but if we give people the facts, they’ll usually come to see that what we find is a good God doing exactly what a good God would be expected to do. Again, we believe that the Bible is one, long story of God’s love for mankind and I promise, here at Grace we will do our best to teach every part of the Bible honestly and openly because we believe that what the Bible actually tells us about God is something that everyone, if we can help ease them across their credibility gap, will find lifegiving,.
The second hurtful theology I want to talk about is one that I know will ruffle some feather. I know this because I’ve talked about this one in detail before in a sermon I gave in August of 2018 and it ruffled some feathers. And it has to do with theologies related to end times. There are 4 primary views on the prophesy related to end times, and only one of these 4 views, a view that is called the futurist position, that holds that there is prophecy concerning a rapture and a 7-year tribulation, a 1000-year reign of Jesus on earth and a coming battle of Armageddon that will be fulfilled in the future. And believe it or not, it is the minority view of ‘end times’ in the broader world of Christianity today. This is a fact… and yet, this view has dominated the Evangelical/Fundamentalist world in North America for close to 200 years. I am not saying that this position is necessarily wrong, but what I can say is that this theological position, which was only ‘created’ in the 1830’s by the way, has had a number of unexpected and unintended consequences that have widened the credibility gap! And here are some of them: this position leads to what is called ‘escapist theology’… we get out and those who disagree with us get left behind to endure terrible times of horror. It also gives Christians a pass on being concerned about this world’s brokenness because its focus is on being lifted out of the mess not fixing the mess. It also leads to Christians having no concern about the health of our planet because part of futurist theology is that the earth will be destroyed by fire and then recreated… and this theological position has also led many to assume that we can take advantage of the planet for our own profit without any responsibilities to care for it since it is all going to burn up in the end anyway. This theological position perpetuates deep us-versus-them thinking that spills over into all sorts of social and political realms that are almost impossible for people outside of the church to fathom! I could name many other ways that this theological position has unintendedly widened the credibility gap, but here is the bottom line: Jesus said he is coming back. And I believe with all of my heart that he will... but when and how, Jesus didn’t say… in fact, what he did say was that even he didn’t know when he would be coming back. Please hear me on this! The Jewish scholars in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ first coming had studied the prophetic scriptures intently related to the coming of the Messiah. They had figured out when and in what way He would come… they were certain that they knew what he would do and what was going to happen when he came. They had everything figured out down to a tee. And yet, even with all this effort, when Jesus came the only thing it seems that they got right was that he would be born in Bethlehem… I think it is absolutely possible that we are living in a similar time. Now, let me be clear, all of the futurist ideas about the end times could be right, but, even if they are, there is nothing we can do to speed up or slow down Jesus’ coming. Plus, experience shows that a strong emphasis on this sort of theology takes the church’s our focus off of the brokenness around us that needs our attention and puts our focus on living to hear a trumpets blast. I’ve heard it said that futurist theology can lead to people being too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. This is why we don’t major on end times things here at Grace. The world is full of too much brokenness and there are too many people who need to meet Jesus for us to major on what is at best speculative theology… we will certainly speak longingly of Jesus’ return, but as to when and how and such we will leave all of that to God himself to reveal to us in his own time.
The most popular Christian song of my youth was, ‘I wish we’d all been ready.’ Maybe you’ve heard of it. Well, it had this line in the Chorus, ‘The Son has come, and you’ve been left behind. I wish we’d all been ready’ I’ve been thinking about this song… and its title, ‘I Wish We’d All Been Ready’ still rings true to me today, but in a very different way. My prayer is that we, the people of Grace Church will be ready… but not to be lifted up out of this world like the song speaks of, but ready in these days to live out what James said in the first few verses of his letter. My hope is we will be ready to deal honestly with whether our own credibility can stand up under the scrutiny of a deep examination… that we will be ready to stay in the room and endure the ‘troubles’ that come from engaging those that are unsure about Jesus… and that we will be ready to only allow God’s wisdom to direct our thinking… our theology… as to what we say is true about God. I want us to be ready in these ways because these are the kinds of things that will help close the credibility gap. John 3:17 says that God sent his son into the world not to judge the world but to save the world through him. And the essence of our mission is to tell the world this truth. And my prayer is that we, Grace Church, that we will be a community that is ready to do all we can to make certain that everyone that hears this message from us, will not only find it credible, but that they will joyfully join us as we follow Jesus.