A New Year’s essay by Michael Phillips, intended for selected friends to illuminate his spiritual pilgrimage, January 1, 2007
Most of those who know me well know that I have taken a somewhat unusual inward spiritual journey over the past 30-40 years, one that might be described as “the road less traveled.” As most of you know, I grew up in a traditional Baptist environment, went through the charismatic movement in the 1960s, the political upheaval and Jesus movement of the 1970s, and have all my life been what is loosely called “evangelical” in my general outlook and spiritual perspective. As such, I have found it necessary (and that truly is the right word—necessary in order to breathe freely and expansively in my spirit, necessary to keep my brain and heart alive and thriving and growing, necessary to ward off that danger inherent in all religious experience, formula and cliché)…I have found it necessary to challenge and re-think many of the doctrinal specifics of belief and implication in which I was trained.
What follows is not an autobiography of that journey by any means, but rather an attempt to place it into a wider context, perhaps to explain, in retrospect, this “necessity” I have felt to explore Christian thought beyond the boundaries of the teaching I received at the various stages of my life, from earliest boyhood to adulthood to the present.
I turned sixty two weeks ago. Many of you, my close friends in life, are creeping upward too, it seems a good time to pause and reflect where we have all come…and why. Maybe in a way I want to challenge you in some of the same directions in which others have challenged me through the years, and thus pass along my own the enthusiasm for an expansive world of ideas. Whether any of you have inwardly felt some of the same spiritual hungers I did years ago as a young growing Christian, I have no way of knowing. If so, I hope and pray that perhaps something in my experience might stimulate you into higher vistas in your own walk with God.
There have been those who have had doubts about me. Our dear pastor and friend, now with the Lord, bless him, thought I was going off the deep end spiritually many years ago when all this started and I made the “mistake” of trying to express to him some of the theological scenery along my own road less traveled. I was to find (it shocked me at first) that people are extremely suspicious of and argumentative against those who challenge the status quo. I have received much criticism through the years, some of it from those closest to me. Misunderstanding and mistrust is never pleasant, but I now look upon it as part of the process. In spite of criticism and an occasional sense of spiritual aloneness that has effected both Judy and me (could I have had a more gracious, understanding, patient—should I say longsuffering!—helpmeet to share the journey with?), I knew that I had to continue walking the road I had chosen.
From a young age I was compelled to try to find truth wherever the quest took me, even when it took me into unfamiliar regions outside the norm. I was a thorn in the side of several dear Sunday school teachers, always asking why and never satisfied with cliché answers from the Sunday school teacher’s manual. Many can be satisfied with standard stock explanations pulled out of the lexicon of orthodoxy. I was never such a one. If something didn’t make sense to me, it was like a burr under the surface of my brain until I could resolve it.
Whatever some might call such a trait, I cannot be more thankful to God for it. That divine curiosity and discontent has informed and energized and goaded my Bible study and thought and prayer all these years, and, like Robert Frost says of the road less traveled, it has made all the difference. However solitary it has occasionally been for Judy and me, I am so grateful for this road on which God has taken us, and for the way in which he has faithfully, lovingly, and patiently guided the journey,
Now that I am sixty and can look back with a little perspective, my heart is tenderly drawn toward many whom I have loved through the years. Some of you have understood my quest, some of you probably have not. But you have loved us, and we have loved you, and for that both Judy and I are grateful. My hope and prayer is that perhaps a similar season of opening into more may come in your life. For some perhaps it already has begun. If I can stimulate any of our thoughts and prayers (myself included) in such directions and out of the backs of whatever spiritual wardrobes we are living in to the wide world beyond, I will be glad.
If this reminiscence and “theological challenge” has nothing for you, please simply ignore it. God may have you on a different path toward intimacy with him. Perhaps another time may come when you grow curious or when a challenge comes in your faith that will prompt you to pursue of some of these ideas and find them helpful. If so, then this will have been a worthwhile endeavor.
How We Arrive At Ideas
To illuminate the road I have taken, let me comment first, by way of opening, on how most of us arrive at our systems of belief. Why do we believe the way we do? What are the consequences of the methods by which we acquire belief? Do those methods insure that only truth gets through, or are there opportunities for untruth also to sneak in unseen?
These are critically important questions for Christians to consider. At least I found them imperative in my life. I did not want to believe anything without good reason for doing so. I wanted to know what was true and what wasn’t.
Most Christians, in whatever segment of Christendom they find themselves, come into faith and church life and are given an enormous body of teaching concerning what constitutes correct and “orthodox” belief. Some, like myself, grow up all their lives in a church setting. This body of teaching comes almost by osmosis through the years from Sunday school classes and overheard discussions and then later from sermons and teaching one receives in a multitude of settings. Some churches recite various creeds that place the most significant elements of belief into concise statements. In the Baptist church of my own childhood, once a month, on communion Sunday, we recited together in unison a lengthy “Church Covenant” that was pasted on the inside cover of our hymnals, an in-depth statement of Protestant and Baptist doctrine.
This sort of thing has been going on through the entire history of the church. The early creeds dating from the second and third centuries were developed so that converts to Christianity would know “what Christians believed.” Many people were illiterate. No Bibles were available for the masses to read for themselves. Knowledge about spiritual things had to be transmitted by pastors and priests and teachers, and the creeds were a useful tool to focus belief in a succinct way.
Through the years the liturgy of the Catholic and Orthodox churches expanded this process, codifying the correct dogma of belief into regularly repeated liturgies of the mass. The Reformation brought new teaching in whole new directions, yet still utilized much the same method—memorized and recited “statements of belief.”
The Westminster Confession of 1647 set reformed Calvinist theology into a massive document defining in painstaking detail what the English Parliament considered “orthodox” belief on every point of doctrine in suitably complex King James English. This enormous treatise was summarized for ease of teaching into what was called “The Shorter Catechism,” a series of 107 brief questions and answers (with scriptural proof texts), which were still being used to teach Scottish boys and girls (through strict memorization) in schools throughout Scotland 200 years later in George MacDonald’s day.
In all these instances, from the very beginning days of the Church, we can see two factors at work: Orthodox belief is codified into a structure in order to be easily understood and passed to others (the creeds, liturgies, covenants, and confessions, etc.) And secondly, the specific elements of belief (doctrines) are taught by church leaders to children and new believers so that the accepted body of doctrine will be “correctly” passed down and preserved.
This process was as clearly at work 1500 years ago as it was in my own upbringing in the church where my best friend was the pastor’s son. It is a process that effects us all more than we realize, whether we grew up in the church or not. Whenever we enter into the Christian life, this process takes over. My first challenge is that we all simply recognize it.
A few examples from the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession might be instructive. They illustrate clearly this general method of codification of doctrine followed by indoctrinal teaching:
Question 1: What is the chief end of man? Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.
Question 6: How many persons are there in the Godhead? Answer: There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.
Question 19: What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell? Answer: All mankind, by their fall, lost communion with God, and are under his wrath and curse, and so liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell for ever.
Question 21: Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect? Answer: The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be God, and man, in two distinct natures, and one person, for ever.
Question 29: How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ? Answer: We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.
Question 84: What doth every sin deserve? Answer: Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.
Question 85: What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse, due to us for sin? Answer: To escape the wrath and curse of God, due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.
Obviously, the basic idea was good, just as it was in the 4th century when the Nicene Creed was written. People have to know what to believe and it can be argued (though it is an open question) that somebody has to teach them. But it is also not hard to observe how even truth itself can grow stale from repetition. Not only stale, but it is easy to see how fallible men, by injecting their own opinions along the way, infuse God’s truth with ideas that might not be from God at all—as in the insertion of the word “elect” in Question and Answer 21, adding to the wonderful truth that Jesus Christ is our Redeemer the subtle suggestion that he is not the redeemer of all men but only certain select and chosen individuals.
Such is the lethal shortcoming of codified doctrines, whether the Westminster Confession or a Baptist Sunday school manual—they are susceptible to untruths hitchhiking their way into our belief systems on the back of truths, there to remain and henceforth to be erroneously taught as truth along with eternal truths of God’s authorship. In time, few of those steeped in the orthodoxy are able to recognize the subtle distinction between the man-authored doctrines and the God-authored truths.
It is also easy to see how much teaching (even that originating as God-authored truth) can be turned into rote dogma, and why the orthodoxy of Christian doctrine, in the case of the Shorter Catechism, became nothing but memorized confusion (truth and untruth intermingling freely,) with little practical meaning for many schoolchildren of 18th and 19th century Scotland. Memorization of dogma has never been the best means for injecting vibrancy and life into any set of beliefs. It is not a problem limited to 19th century Scotland. The potential of exactly the same thing exists to this day in all the fellowships in which we find ourselves.
What I find interesting is the extent to which—though perhaps not by so rigid an instructional system as having one of Scotland’s Calvinist schoolmasters slap the hand with a leather thong for wrong answers—we all learn matters of faith by this same method—by the teaching of codified doctrine.
The specifics are not the point here, but rather the method. In a thousand subtle ways, nearly all Christians accumulate their beliefs and come to adopt a general belief system (each with its own individual doctrines), in much the same way. New Christians or converts take classes to learn the basics of belief. Some churches hold classes of instruction prior to confirmation and baptism. Bible studies follow where beliefs are reinforced. We are taught what constitutes correct belief. All denominations and churches have their own methods, teaching what those in our particular church and in our particular corner of Christianity believe…and are supposed to believe.
Then we continue to be instructed in Bible studies and in books and by pastors and priests from the pulpit week after week after week, year after year.
The instruction from teachers and books and conference leaders is given out as truth, as correct doctrine. Rarely does one hear anything along the lines of, “Some people believe that the opening chapters of Genesis are myth, others believe that they took place literally as written, others believe that the literal events evolved over a long and unique time frame…you each have to read and study and pray to decide for yourselves what you believe.” That is not the kind of teaching Christians generally receive. Though the specifics differ, and though doctrinal beliefs vary widely, what is taught instead is: “This is the truth…this is correct belief.” You might hear a liberal pastor preach, “Early Genesis is myth,” and a fundamentalist pastor preach, “Early Genesis is literal fact.” But both will urge their particular belief upon their congregations as representing truth. In general their hearers, investing such men with the authority of their position, will accept what they are repeatedly taught.
In this process, we all gradually accumulate a theological “outlook” on matters of spirituality and on our own Christian faith that more or less reflects the tradition that has (directly and indirectly) come to us. We view this process of honing and refining what we believe, and of continuing to learn through study and received teaching, as the correct and normal means of “growth” in the Christian life. The greater our knowledge, the more widely read we are, the greater becomes our familiarity with the Bible and with the history and traditions of our particular church. Eventually it is likely that that we will begin teaching and instructing others in the same beliefs. New teachers and spiritual leaders grow up to pass on what they have learned. And thus these beliefs and doctrines and outlooks are perpetuated and passed down, generation to generation.
In the 4th century, after more than a century of heated dispute, Augustine came up with a doctrine to explain the trinity to everyone’s satisfaction. It was taught and passed on to his followers, was codified into church-wide doctrine, continued to be passed down, and now in the orthodoxy of our day it remains inviolate as if Jesus had taught the specifics of the doctrine himself.
The concrete sets. Dogma becomes hard and inflexible.
Such is the process with all doctrines, though many are not of such long-standing acceptance as Augustinian trinitarianism. “Inviting Jesus into your heart” is a new doctrine devised in the 1950s and 1960s, largely by Billy Graham and Bill Bright. Before that time salvation had not generally been described in those words, and Jesus certainly never hinted at such a thing to Nicodemus when discussing being born again. But now we are so accustomed to the new phraseology associated with the Graham/Bright formula that many evangelical churches teach the prayer of “invitation” into the heart as the primary if not the only means of entering into salvation. One would hardly know that for 1900 years of the church’s life salvation was viewed differently.
Thus, we imbue many man-made Christian doctrines with a level of scripturality and truth that perhaps exceed their actual historical veracity. Thank God that most of the doctrines that endure are indeed substantially true.
But what about those that aren’t?
Development of Indoctrinated Christian Belief Systems
The process by which we arrive at our Christian beliefs is clearly one of indoctrination, neither more nor less.
I use the word “indoctrination” without value judgment as a good or bad thing. It is simply something we must recognize as influencing us in a thousand ways. I recall a service I attended a while ago in which the pastor, as he began his sermon, asked everyone to take out their bulletins and pencils or pens. There had been provided a sermon outline, complete with questions and blanks to fill in. As he went on to preach, the same information was flashed on a huge screen by an overhead projector. As he came to each point, for which he succinctly gave the answer in well-phrased cliché-speak and with accompanying scripture passage, he paused for the congregation to write down, word-for-word, exactly what he had said. Note taking was never so easy!
Much of the information was excellent. He gave the congregation a good deal of truth. But the process was one of indoctrination. He was “teaching doctrine.” That is what indoctrination is. No one was thinking for himself. No questions were raised. No challenges of bold thought were issued. The dogma of formula-evangelicalism was simply dished out on a silver platter to be taken as given without comment.
Through the 1900 years of the Church’s history, clearly not every doctrine taught has been true. Indeed, we all know well enough how much untruth has wormed its way into so-called “Christian” teaching. But initially it is all taught as truth. It takes time for individual Christians to realize in each case, “This particular teaching we have been receiving is not true.” Often that realization is initially accompanied by dispute and condemnation (even in times past the martyring) of the doctrinal whistle blower. But time gradually reveals that he was right, and that the doctrine as codified was wrong. More and more people gradually come to accept what might at first have been considered heresy.
What if someone had stood up in the middle of that sermon, pointed to the screen, and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, pastor, but that point you just made is not true.” It’s just not done. (Nor am I suggesting it should be.) Yet 200 years from now (unless Tim LaHaye’s prediction of pre-2025 for the Lord’s return is right), it may well be that Christian thought will have widely recognized the point in question no longer to represent truth.
The doctrines of the Christian Church are thus in a constant state of development and evolution and change, as gradually more and more truth is revealed through time. Any orthodoxy that becomes stagnant and unresponsive to the fresh blowing of the Spirit’s winds is an orthodoxy doomed almost by definition to drift toward error. We’re all aware now how much untruth came in with the zeal of the charismatic movement 40 years ago. Many of you to whom I am writing, were opened during those days, as was I, to the practical reality of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit—one of the true elements of the movement. Yet at the same time there were also many who suffered painfully from its excesses. Whenever new truth sweeps into the Church, parasites of untruth come in with it to corrupt and spoil the purity of what God has revealed. Achieving balance takes time. All truth is progressively revealed.
As a simple example we are all familiar with, Christians in the 1st century believed that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. From all we can tell, Paul believed and taught this himself. But though it was considered widespread correct belief, it was later seen to have been a false interpretation of Jesus’ words. Even Paul was wrong and had to change his belief on the second coming.
This is an astonishing idea—Paul for a time taught a false doctrine.
It reveals everyone’s vulnerability. Truth is continually being revealed. No man or women possesses a thorough grasp on every aspect of truth, which is why all codifications of doctrine will inevitably be susceptible to error. There may even still be lurking other subtler untruths in some of Paul’s ideas that time has not yet revealed in full.
There are a multitude of such examples we could point to through history where Christian belief changes because of the courage of a few individuals to challenge the generally accepted system, and to raise the possibility that perhaps untruth has crept into the orthodoxy. Second coming orthodoxies have had to change a hundred times throughout history, as have others. Yet such growth must always combat the inertia of the system. Once lodged into the orthodoxy, it’s almost like the gates of hell itself cannot budge the church into fresh thought. Though historically we can observe this process at work, at any given time the forces against change and toward preservation of the orthodoxy of that particular time are extremely powerful. It’s the same force that excommunicated Galileo for saying that the earth went around the sun. The specifics change with gradual enlightenment, the general principle does not.
Obviously in this process, too, many delusionaries and self-proclaimed prophets and apostles come along trying to pass off the most contemptible ideas or the most extreme experiences as truth. In the second century a teaching infiltrated the church that Jesus had never really lived in the flesh at all, but was a phantom, an illusion, a mirage.
Clearly this was a false doctrine that had to be stamped out in order for the truth of the gospel to be preserved. There have been thousands of such crackpot notions, and crackpot leaders and teachers through the centuries which mainstream Christianity (even, Christian “orthodoxy”) must vigorously counter.
The kind of thing I am talking about, however, concerns more subtle questions involving ideas and beliefs within the bounds of biblical truth, attempting to isolate and ferret out the parasites of untruth that time has allowed to infiltrate. None of the issues I have subjected to the scrutiny of my own scriptural magnifying glass fall very far outside the norm. They have been issues of doctrine within mainstream Christian belief, and such is the focus of my attention here.
Some doctrines are more true than others. Some doctrines are absolutely true (God exists.) Some doctrines are absolutely false (God will reward in heaven those who murder infidels.) But the teaching of all doctrine is indoctrination, and it is a process used by Christians and Jews and Muslims alike, and by all segments within Christendom.
The pastor I mentioned who told his congregation to write down his carefully worded phrases of correct belief was using the same process as terrorists use to inculcate their evil dogma of death into their new recruits. In neither case are followers encouraged to think for themselves, but merely to accept the dogma as given.
Thus, within Christendom, from its sects and cults to its most respected denominations and institutions, indoctrination takes place and we are all influenced by the process. I was indoctrinated growing up (I believe mostly in the direction of true truth), as you have been indoctrinated into your present system of belief (which I also believe has been mostly in the direction of truth.) But we have all been indoctrinated. It is simply the process. We have not acquired the majority of our Christian beliefs in a vacuum. There are Mormon doctrines and Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrines and Evangelical doctrines and Catholic doctrines and Orthodox doctrines and Baptist doctrines and Pentecostal doctrines and Methodist doctrines and Anglican doctrines, and many others. We are continually influenced, pressured, taught, and encouraged toward a certain outlook by those around us.
Nor is it quite so easy as to assume, “Well, of course that is true…but our system of belief is the most accurate representation of true scriptural Christianity,” a perspective which evangelicals in particular are notoriously guilty of. Everybody thinks that. Cults think the same thing. Terrorists think it. So we have to be humble and cautious, even about our own precious belief systems.
Orthodoxy—In the Eye of the Beholder
What I find most interesting and significant in this process of indoctrination are two factors.
One, the invisibility of the process. We don’t generally perceive the indoctrination (good or bad, right or wrong, truth or untruth) at work. We flatter ourselves into thinking that we are “growing” and “learning” and “studying” and are of ourselves figuring out what to believe. But there are not really very many true original thinkers among us. I recognize to what an enormous extent I am like a sponge, constantly soaking up influences and ideas from everywhere about me. We absorb what we are taught.
Even those who change horses in midstream simply move from one region of indoctrination within Christendom to another. (I know several longtime Catholics, for example, who have become evangelicals, and likewise some evangelicals who have become Catholics, and quite a number of Protestants who have become Orthodox; my mother, raised fundamental Baptist, became an Episcopal just short of her 50th birthday.) As soon as the change is made, (for reasons usually involving genuine hunger and spiritual search and open mindedness) the indoctrination of the new system takes over to replace the old. They quietly learn a new set of doctrines and new jargon by which to express spirituality. A different slant on what represents “orthodox” belief comes to replace the “orthodoxy” out of which they came.
Everyone calls what they happen to believe “orthodox.” How curious it is how many different interpretations there are of what represents orthodoxy. It was recently said of one of my books that my theology is occasionally “unorthodox.” What that really means is that it diverged from that particular reviewer’s brand of orthodoxy. I was once told by an evangelical Presbyterian minister friend about a particular doctrine that is considered outright heresy in fundamentalist circles, that it represents the norm of belief among Christians he associates with. “Orthodoxy” merely means the majority opinion within one particular belief system. We mustn’t forget that at one time “orthodoxy” forbid the reading of the Bible in English. We cannot invest “orthodoxy” with more Godliness than is really there.
So am I unorthodox? Many of my readers find nothing unorthodox in my writings whatever. Others send me tracts because they read a sentence I have written and assume that I am not saved, and then take it upon themselves to witness to me for several handwritten pages. The definition of “orthodoxy” with respect to doctrinal specifics is very much in the eye of the beholder. The trouble is…we’re not told that. As we are being trained and instructed in belief, we are told that there is only one true orthodoxy…and this is it. We have it. The we, of course, is our own environment of spiritual outlook. Everybody else (meaning everybody of differing belief) lies outside the orthodoxy. To reemphasize, “Orthodoxy” is but the majority opinion of our church or group. It may, or may not, represent Truth with a capital T.
In reality the unseen pressures toward widely held group-doctrines and outlooks press upon us from all sides, conforming us without our even realizing it to the perspective of the particular Christian environment in which we find ourselves—from the songs that are sung, to the topics preached about, to the lingo and expressions used, to the books read, to the leaders that are admired, to the social and political outlook emphasized, to the biblical proof-texts quoted, even to the translations of the Bible that are used. We are all conformists more than we realize. Therefore, as we receive the teaching of our group or church or particular theological outlook, we comfortably adapt to it. We conform our perspective to fit those around us. We use the same words. We see things the same way. In everything from the second coming, to the role of the Bible in faith, to the structure of the church, to the balance between “faith and works”…we all have points of view and beliefs that tend to harmonize with our particular group. Thus, Pentecostals and Mormons emphasize different things, as do Catholics and Baptists, or Episcopals and Seventh Day Adventists, or Lutherans and Greek Orthodox.
The second fascinating factor in this indoctrination process is this: Those of nearly all outlooks along the Christian spectrum of belief, as mentioned, tend to think that their particular corner of Christendom possesses the most complete revelation of truth. The fact that many different churches and denominations exist, with varying points of view, is not really such a bad thing. It’s the fact that they all think they’re right that is so destructive. Pentecostals don’t simply think that non-Pentecostals view things differently, they think that the rest of the body of Christ is wrong in not recognizing the importance of spiritual gifts. Thus, a term like “full gospel” is used as a subtle way of emphasizing, “We possess the full truth, you do not.”
Nearly all elements within Christendom do exactly the same thing. Seventh day Adventists share this view the about Saturday worship—it isn’t just a “difference.” They see those who worship on Sunday as wrong.
Evangelicals don’t just view their perspectives on scriptural literality, salvation, and the second coming as “viewpoints” within the vast milieu of Christian belief, they view them as the only legitimate positions to hold. Christians who interpret the Bible, salvation, and the second coming differently they see as wrong. End of discussion.
Every sect and church and denomination, therefore, has a codified “correct doctrine” on every subject imaginable. And they see to it—by a thousand unseen pressures—that their people maintain strict adherence to that orthodoxy on: The trinity, salvation, the atonement, heaven, hell, sanctification, spiritual gifts, worship, the nature of God, sin, prophecy, the Old Testament, repentance, grace vs. works, evangelism, church life, communion, baptism…and a hundred other matters of faith.
I have a number of books in my office with titles along the lines of What Christians Believe. It is a title that, in my view, reveals enormous presumption and actually a gross ignorance concerning the wider world of the dishomogeneous body of Christ. In every case (mostly they are written by evangelicals who are notorious for equating “evangelicalism” with “Christianity”) the implication is that the author’s particular explanations as he proceeds through the major doctrines uniformly represents Christianity in some whole and authoritative way. Yet invariably the fundamentalist doctrinal bias is so thick you can cut it with a knife. It’s not what “Christians” believe, but simply a rehash of the codified formulas (usually with a strong Calvinist bent) of one particular narrow slice of that enormous historical system of belief called Christianity.
Isolation—Recipe For Self-Righteousness and Potential Error
Rather than recognizing differences among us as indication that God’s truth is larger than any structural or organizational or doctrinal attempt to house it, Christ’s church has become infected with two positively fatal attributes—divisiveness and self-righteousness. These tend to make us look inward rather than outward, focusing all the more on our own group and sect and outlook, and our own system of belief and practice and experience and our own set of doctrinal ideas as the accurate representations of truth. Divisiveness, sectarianism, disunity, and self-righteousness increase further and we become isolated within our own corner of Christendom all the more deeply. And make no mistake, as huge and seemingly vibrant as evangelicalism has become in our time, all taken together it still represents but a small segment of Christendom.
This inward focus, too, is invisible. In our preoccupation with our own brand of truth and experience, we don’t realize how isolated from the larger body of Christ we become. We justify this isolation (bolstered by the self-righteousness inherent in it) with the belief that we possess the full revealed truth of God, and that no other corner of Christendom possesses the truth quite so clearly. Self-righteousness thus becomes self-perpetuating.
It has been my experience that evangelicals are more susceptible to this tendency than other Christians, and yet most blind to it at the same time. We have the truth, the proper perspective of Scripture, the interpretation of the end times, the correct political outlook, the most vibrant worship, the inspired theology of the cross, the scriptural formula of salvation, and so it goes.
This self-righteous assumption can be so deceptively subtle it never comes within a mile of being recognized. It positively drips from well-known Christian personalities—liberal and conservative—when being interviewed by the secular media. They do not merely assume that they possess the clearest perspective of truth within Christendom, they are antagonistic rather than receptive toward ideas from the outside. They do not want their precious (though indoctrinated) orderly set of beliefs challenged by one who attempts to inject fresh thinking into the theology of the system.
This is curious. It is more than curious, it is astounding. One would think that we would crave fresh thinking, and be on the lookout for it at every turn. The simple fact that the codified doctrines we all adopt have come down through the years along with a host of potential invisible errors, should make us desperate for fresh thought and interpretations. But one doesn’t see such hunger anywhere in the church on a large scale.
The response of friends and pastors and church acquaintances and mentors and relatives and publishers and editors to my own questions about the veracity of certain elements of our mutual Baptist or Protestant or evangelical belief system has confirmed time and again through the years just this outlook. We’re not hungry for those errors and limitations to be exposed. If I so much as write a phrase, much less a whole sentence, that seems suggestive of an unfamiliar idea, my editors are quick to pounce, and out comes the red pen. Some of the most thought-provoking material I have written over the years has never made it into the published editions of my books. It has disappeared, as the saying goes, on the cutting room floor. Fresh ideas are not encouraged. It isn’t simply a matter of whether those ideas are right or wrong that reveals the doctrinal stagnation of the church. It’s that they are dismissed out of hand without intellectual or spiritual consideration. Some of my ideas will surely be proved wrong, as well as some of them proved right. The danger is the knee-jerk response that fears bold thinking and distinctive interpretations. In my books I have to dole out ideas with a thimble lest something I say cause an editorial uproar. More than once, a mere phrase has gone all the way to the company president (in two different publishing companies) for resolution. You would be astonished at what minor points they were that caused these uproars. Not once in over 30 years of writing has an editor or publisher expressed, “I admire your courage to explore truth.” Rather there is a raising of the eyebrows, perhaps a pregnant silence, or most often a knee-jerk comment of critique.
Over the years I have accustomed myself to being seen as a theological black sheep, even though my books have gradually reached a wide audience of appreciative readers. It has been an interesting dichotomy, to be both lauded and condemned for precisely the same thing—for being willing to inquire and probe and challenge in the quest to investigate the high truths of God.
(There have been others, perhaps all the more special for being in the minority, whose support has been incredibly life-giving. Some of you have understood, some of you have trusted God’s work in me even when you didn’t understand. I thank God for each one of you, and for your love and support more than you know.)
So here is where we find ourselves. Nearly all Christians exist somewhere along the spectrum of organized Christendom and its parallel spectrum of doctrinal belief and outlook. They have settled at that point on the spectrum largely through a process of upbringing and/or invisible indoctrination. They believe what they believe because they have been taught to believe it, and taught that they are supposed to believe it, and taught (however subtly) that to believe otherwise is wrong.
In such a state of belief, doctrine, practice, church life, and experience most people live out their Christian lives, satisfied, fulfilled spiritually to some degree or another, usually more than a little doctrinally complacent, happy in the cocoon of their spiritual environment, almost entirely oblivious to the wider body of Christ about them, and oblivious as well to the more expansive beliefs held by many other Christians, which are not the same as their own beliefs but which may have equal scriptural and historic legitimacy.
A Quest To Discover Unity
When Judy and I were students at Humboldt, God began to prick us both with a vision for unity within the body of Christ. It was this spiritual vision more even than our love for one another that first drew us together. Our mutual love followed, growing out of that vision. At first it was merely a matter of unity between Christian groups on campus, particularly between our evangelical “CCF” (Campus Christian Fellowship, which was affiliated with InterVarsity) and the Catholic Newman Club. As time went on and years passed, it took on continually wider implications, and opened doors in many directions. Unity, once perceived, is an eternal truth that cannot but shove against borders and barriers and boundaries. It is a truth that is constantly pushing further. All forms of narrowness and isolation begin to crumble in its light.
We soon discovered, however, that unity was a principle that could go in two directions. For some, we began to realize with dismay, unity simply meant unity between those of like mind—the unity, say, between several evangelical churches. It is a good thing. But is it truly worthy of the high name of unity? We were convinced that unity had to be more. It had to be a oneness existing even between those of unlike and disparate doctrinal outlook. Unity doesn’t mean that all Christians eventually become evangelicals any more than it means all Christians eventually become Catholics or Mennonites. It means evangelicals (along with everyone else) recognizing that they do not possess all truth, and that there exist believing disciples of Jesus Christ all along the spectrum. Unfortunately, this is too big a pill for most Christians to swallow. One of the reasons true unity has always been so rare a commodity within Christ’s body is that the first quality necessary to recognize it is humility, a quality that has historically been sadly lacking in the church.
My Doorway Into Narnia
This realization that unity must span a greater spectrum, that it had to bridge the gap across differences of doctrinal outlook, was a huge realization. It opened the door into new and more expansive worlds in many directions. It is not understating it to say that this realization about unity was the doorway into my own spiritual Narnia.
In a very real sense, each of us keeps our set of Christian beliefs tidily arranged within the defined walls of our spiritual wardrobes. Once God got the truth through to me that there were other wardrobes around, with different theological clothes hanging inside them, that was all it took. He was soon pulling me through and out the back of my Baptist wardrobe into the expansive world where truth was not defined by limiting what God was capable of.
The quest had begun—a quest to explore ideas outside the doctrinal room called Arcata First Baptist Church. It was not a quest of doubt, it was a quest to discover who God was. I was trying to put together a mature faith of my own. I was by then realizing that the orthodoxy of evangelicalism was not big enough to house it. God’s truth lived in a larger world. I wanted to explore that world. I wanted to know God as he really was. I wanted to know what he had planned, not just for me, but for his entire creation.
Many factors contributed to this expansionary exploration in which Judy and I found ourselves participating—Lewis’s Narnia itself was an enormous influence. As much as any single factor, Narnia broke the barriers of limited thought, as did the writings of Hannah Hurnard and William Barclay and of course George MacDonald. Our One Way Book Shop—where we mixed and mingled with Christians from across the spectrum every day—contributed, too, in major ways to a wider outlook on God’s body.
Along with all this, as mentioned, came the surprise that people did not look favorably upon spiritual quests outside the box. After a discussion with our pastor in which, as I perceived it, he verbally cut me to shreds for the directions of my inquiry, telling me angrily that I was on thin ice spiritually, that I was in danger of backsliding, that I had no business writing about things of faith. I came home and sobbed on our bed for half an hour. It truly was winter during those first few years in my spiritual Narnia. The pain of the quest was sometimes almost more than I could bear.
Once outside the orthodoxy, however, I could never go back. I didn’t want to go back. The quest soon broadened to encompass more areas of thought than merely Christian unity. To describe it as a questioning of certain of the doctrines of evangelical and charismatic orthodoxy conveys an altogether erroneous impression because in most minds “questioning” is somehow associated with a losing or a lessening of faith. In my case, the so-called questions were prompted by a hunger for more faith, a deeper understanding of God, and a sounder perspective of the theology toward which the gospels point.
I hope you can see this distinction. It is a little like what in mathematics is called a “double negative.” In the terminology, minus a minus equals a plus—two negatives make a positive.
In spiritual terms, to doubt a truth (minus a plus) may lead to a loss of faith. But to doubt an untruth (minus a minus) leads to the plus of more faith. That’s what I was trying to do with my questions—get rid of untruths in my belief system so that the truth that remained would be untainted, pure, true truth.
To question, for example, the common view of unity as between those of like mind was prompted by a hunger to find a greater unity, not a lesser. My questions and doubts, so to speak, were directed against the limitations of that perspective, not against the high truth of unity itself.
I likewise began to question (I wish there was a better word to use, but I’m afraid we’re stuck with it) the limitations of the evangelical formula of salvation and the limitations of the evangelical formula of prophecy, in much the same way that I had already questioned the limitations of the charismatic formula of “Spirit filled” experience several years before.
All these “questions” were motivated by the hope of finding a greater and more encompassing salvation, not a less, and a more expansive view of prophecy and Holy Spirit infused life.
My beliefs were getting larger not smaller. The so-called “questions” can only be understood in this context. I was questioning the smallness of the doctrine inside the box, hoping to discover the largeness of God’s full universal eternal truth.
Trying to talk about it as time went on, however, was like trying to describe Narnia to one who hasn’t been there. Most are satisfied with the spiritual confines of their belief-wardrobes.
The Salvation Conundrum
One example of this principle of an expanded perspective will illustrate the kind of larger thinking I am talking about. There is a dogma within evangelicalism, an outgrowth of Calvin’s doctrine of election, which views the human condition in terms of two exclusive humanities, one entirely lost, one entirely saved, with a clear split between the two.
But as I met people who didn’t fit the formula, and as I looked around to observe aspects of life and the world left unsatisfactorily explained by it, what could I do but wonder if the formula told the whole story. It was a formula of limitation. I was trying to shed the limitations of my beliefs. God’s full truth, it seemed, should not have asterisks all over it, saying that such-and-such was true…except for this, and except for that. If God’s love and truth are infinite, it seemed to me that all the asterisks of limitation ought to dissolve in the light of that infinitude.
Judy and I were part of a door-to-door evangelistic effort in our church. The program was unbelievably rote. Every response memorized to counter “possible objections” was a superficial cliché. And when we found ourselves “witnessing” one evening to a couple who were obviously already Christians, yet we had nothing to offer but to spout back jargon that had no connection to their lives, I knew something was seriously wrong.
Two individuals came into my life simultaneously about this same time who represented two opposite poles of this salvationary conundrum.
A fiery young street Christian named Dave began frequenting our bookstore, where he hung around for hours preaching to the choir—mostly me. Dave’s “major” so to speak, was hell. He could talk about nothing else than his burden for the lost souls burning now and those who would later be sent to burn for eternity. He was consumed by thoughts of hell. It dominated his entire life’s outlook. He could work himself into such a frenzy that he could yell and weep at the same time.
The other fellow who came to hang out in those days was a sweet, good-natured non-Christian. Gentle and somewhat simple-minded, Harry always had a smile on his face, and, as it struck me at the time, was incapable at that point of making the kind of salvationary decision or praying the sort of sinner’s prayer that Dave would doubtless have pressed upon him had he known Harry’s state. A press toward a “commitment to Christ” simply would not have computed in his heart and brain. All sorts of pat answers could be trotted out against such a conclusion. But I was there. I knew Harry. I knew how meaningless the evangelical phraseology would be.
Because they met in a Christian bookstore, I think Dave assumed that Harry was a Christian. Harry was simply one of those whom Dave badgered with ceaseless entreaties to get out onto the streets and get ‘em saved and keep the lost out of hell.
The two young men passed like ships in the night. Sweet Harry never had a clue what Dave and his ranting was all about. Dave never had a clue that right in front of him was one of those “lost souls” he was so burdened for. He was so full of himself, so incapable of seeing people with Christlike compassion, that I doubt he even knew Harry’s name.
Dave was one of the most imbalanced Christians I have known. He was like many I have met through the years—people who can preach and preach and preach, but who never see with the eyes of humble, Christlike compassion. After those few months when our lives chanced to cross, I never saw Dave again. Gradually Harry drifted away too.
As I juxtaposed these two young men in my mind, I wondered what God thought of Dave’s deranged obsession with hell and Harry’s sweet, simple-minded “lostness.”
Rather than simply memorizing “the wages of sin is death” to throw out when witnessing, I wondered on a deeper level just what salvation really meant, what was the difference between being a Christian and a non-Christian. Was it really as cut and dried as the witnessing manuals presented it? Had both Dave and Harry died while we were talking, would Harry immediately be sent to the fiery doom of Dave’s imagination, and Dave be welcomed into heaven, an instantly sanctified saint saved by grace? Neither scenario computed in my brain. Did Dave really display “faith?” Was Harry really standing in “rebellion” toward God, the wages of which were hell and death?
I point to my lengthy conversations with Dave and Harry as the time when pat-answer, proof-text evangelical-speak began to unravel. I know just about every answer and proof-text some would dish up to “answer” the dilemma (and I will probably get letters from some who think I am a biblical dunce for being confused about so elementary a doctrine)—about goodness having no bearing on salvation, that only God knows each human heart, that we are all unworthy, that salvation comes only by Christ’s blood, that in our human wisdom we cannot understand God’s ways, that though we may want to find an excuse for good people like Harry, God’s word makes clear that his holiness cannot live in the presence of sin, that there is no eternal life outside of saving faith no matter how good one’s life, etc. etc.
I regularly receive mail from readers full of knee-jerk clichés and lengthy proof-textual passages of scripture which they think I am unfamiliar with. I can only assume there to be no Daves and Harrys in their lives. Any honest thinking person who looks deep into the eyes of a Harry with the love of Christ has to wonder how little we must really know of the love God has for the lost ones of his world. There is something wrong with us if we do not raise probing questions to our Abba-Father about such dear ones.
Once I had encountered Dave and Harry, the many truisms of my past (truisms that contained truth but which were incomplete, truisms I had even used myself to lead people to the Lord) were no longer satisfactory. They could not resolve the dichotomy that said, in spite of Harry’s good nature and sweetness, that he was on his way to an eternity in hell if he did not go through a certain process of mind and utter certain rote words which he would have been incapable of uttering with intellectual clarity and honesty. To have put the sinner’s prayer in front of him would have been like asking him to recite a paragraph in an unknown foreign language, a procedure which would have left him in as big a fog as before.
The prayerful scriptural inquiry that resulted over the course of the next three years drove me into the depths and essence of salvation itself. It was not a search merely to resolve the questions raised specifically by Harry and Dave. It was the much larger question whether the maxims of my upbringing were big enough to contain the full implications of a hundred other important queries about the Christian faith. Did the formulas satisfactorily answer the quandaries?
Eventually through the writings of Francis Schaeffer, I was able to look beyond the “two exclusive camps” view of humanity—one entirely saved, the other entirely lost. He clarified that there exist gray areas in humanity which evangelical-speak does not take into account. In this process, I left a lower untruth in order to embrace a higher truth founded in the discovery that God is bigger, more encompassing, higher, broader, and more Almighty than any such narrow formula can define. This wider outlook about salvation infused me with more tolerance and love for those around me. No longer were they merely sheep and goats, saved and unsaved according to a precise formula of final judgment. Now they were people, into whose eyes I could look with compassion and patience and understanding, and perhaps a little more of the feeling Jesus had when he looked upon the multitudes and saw them as sheep without a shepherd.
Abandoning the formula led me closer to the heart of God. In discovering more of God’s nature we always find ourselves living less by rote dogma. God himself, one finds, is not so neatly boxed up.
The initial areas in which I began to look beyond the formulas were four—unity and salvation, as mentioned, along with the Holy Spirit’s work and my own personality and temperament.
I had to look beyond the boundaries in these areas for sheer spiritual survival. I had to know if God’s was a large Unity or a small unity. I had to know if I was a Christian though I didn’t fit Billy Graham’s or Bill Bright’s formula. I had to know if the Holy Spirit was active in my life though I didn’t fit the charismatic formula and had never spoken in tongues in my life. I had to know if God loved me and accepted me as I was, even though I was not outgoing and perennially joyful?
What began as a search to understand God’s outlook, purposes, and methods as pertaining to my life in these four areas, gradually became a quest to discover more truth in other areas too. If there was more to unity, salvation, and the Holy Spirit’s work, there must be more to God’s purposes and methods in all aspects of revelation that had been so simplified by formula as to gut them of their essential power. It was a startling thought.
The Bible became, no longer a book of proof-texts, but a multi-layered mystery of revelation. Its truths could not merely be memorized like sentences from a phrase book for evangelical-speak, and then activated by remote control when looking up: “Where to find help when…” or “How to respond to…” or “Scriptures to give when non-Christians say…”
The mountainous truths of the Bible had to be mined like precious ore, and would only be accurately revealed to one who had probed deep into the mineshaft called Abba. Only that one tunnel leads to the riches of the Father-lode.
Once the way into that mineshaft began to reveal itself and I began to find truth buried deep inside it, the process of discovery could not be stopped. Truth became its own reward. Never again could platitudes satisfy my hunger. I wanted to know who God was and how he worked beyond a phrase-book mentality.
Stepping Out of the Wardrobe Into God’s Narnia of High Truth
About this same time in the early 1970s, Judy and I began to discover the writings of George MacDonald, in whom we found a kindred spirit on almost every level.
Two more jargon-heavy theologies eventually came under my prayerful scrutiny—the role of church in the life of the believer, and the widely accepted outlook on the end times, in those years popularized by Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth. The queries into these doctrines, too, drove me yet more diligently in my quest to know God, as well as driving me deeper into the new outlet for communication that God was beginning to open up—writing.
Actively mentored by George MacDonald’s prophetic voice—I was now looking at everything with new eyes, eager to discover God’s more amid the vast sea of evangelical rhetoric.
Obviously there are a hundred mini-stories besides that of Harry and Dave that could be told as part of this process. Many of you have been involved in it. But I promised that this would not be an autobiography and that pledge is already in serious jeopardy!
I suppose my chief reason for drifting so far down memory lane is simply to make the point that no Christian belief system or orthodoxy is immune from error and narrowness. If we want to walk with God in the fullness he intends, we have to keep our minds and hearts awake. Sometimes we have to question our beliefs. We are not immune from error. Evangelicals who so pride themselves on their true perspective on Scripture and God’s revelation to man, are far more susceptible to error than they have any idea. Evangelical wardrobes have confining walls surrounding their doctrines just like all other belief systems.
So questions, dare I say it, even doubts, if they are properly directed and submitted to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, are positive steps forward in faith.
Yet when the doctrines are set in stone, how do we ferret out those errors of interpretation that have crept in? The challenge before us is to sift the wheat from the chaff, to look up and beyond the confines of the narrow cocoons of doctrine and belief in which we find ourselves, and to distinguish between the false and the true.
That’s why I set out to discover more. Again, the word narrow is used without value judgment. All belief systems are “narrow” in the sense of being limited in scope. They represent but a slice of the whole. Yet who among us, wherever we find ourselves, recognizes this? Are we mature and open and wise enough to recognize, not merely that we have been indoctrinated (with the benefits and limitations of the process, teaching us both truth and untruth), but also that our perspective (whatever it is) is generally a narrow one? Such humble realization is the doorway into higher vistas of God’s more expansive truth.
Now and again comes a boy or a girl or a man or a woman who cannot be satisfied, who recognizes the limitations of the indoctrination that has influenced him, who is grateful for the truth he or she has received but who desires to know what untruths and narrownesses and errors may have crept in unseen along with that truth, who wants to rid himself or herself of these errors in order to see truth more broadly. Such a one desires to discover and experience God’s life and truth beyond the confines of his own limited spiritual environment. He hungers for all the truth God has for him.
This is one of the reasons I am writing this, perhaps to open the door to dialogue with some of you, and to encourage you to open the door of your mind and heart into wider horizons of truth, absent fear, beyond the indoctrination…into the door of your own spiritual Narnia.
We must all learn to think boldly about our faith at some time in our lives. Better here than there. Better to do so voluntarily now than to have the Lord rebuke us later for our complacency and the self-imposed limitations of our beliefs concerning his character and work.
It was not that I suddenly sensed falsehood or wrong in what I had been taught. To this day I reflect upon my Baptist upbringing with great affection and fondness. It was a wonderful environment in which to be nurtured spiritually. Those individuals who were part of it are ones whose memories I love and admire and honor in the Lord with all my heart. When this time I speak of came in my mid-twenties, it was simply a season to ask God for a more comprehensive outlook.
One of the best friends of my youth grew up in a Catholic environment. He had to grow beyond the limitations of his “Catholic” indoctrination (including good and bad elements) in exactly the same way I had to grow beyond the limitations of my “Baptist” indoctrination (including good and bad elements). The whole broad and expansive truth of God cannot be housed by any single Christian doctrinal creed or theological perspective.
We are all both the beneficiaries and the victims of the indoctrination and teaching we have received in our Christian experience.
But now we are presented with an enormous problem. The very recognition that the indoctrination of our particular outlook may contain untruth, followed by the desire to sift the wheat from the chaff, are ones that will bring skepticism and condemnation. Each cocoon of belief not only assumes itself possessive of full truth, it is also committed assiduously to the preservation and perpetuation of the purity of its doctrinal system. Any challenge to any aspect of that system is met with instant rebuke and rebuttal.
What would be the result, in a Pentecostal setting, if one stood up and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking and praying about it, and I’m not sure God wants everyone to speak in tongues. I think perhaps an error has crept into our doctrine, along with the truth that God wants to manifest himself in real and personal ways today.”
What would be the result, in a Catholic setting, if one stood up and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking and praying about it, and I’m not sure it is scriptural to make confession to a priest. I think perhaps an error has crept into our doctrine and tradition, along with the truth that God wants us to confess our sins to him.”
What would be the result, in an evangelical setting, if one stood up and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking and praying about it, and I’m not sure Jesus is going to return visibly to earth. I think perhaps an error has crept into our theology from misinterpretation of a few prominent verses of Scripture.”
What would be the result, in an Orthodox setting, if one stood up and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking and praying about it, and I’m not sure God is pleased with our extreme use of icons for worship. I think perhaps an error has crept into our doctrine, along with the truth that God wants us to honor saints who have come before.”
Do you imagine that the pastors and priests and leaders, hearing such comments, would reply, “Hmm… that’s an excellent and thought-provoking point. Perhaps we should submit the matter to prayer and study. Have any of the rest of you had thoughts along those lines? Perhaps there are elements of our outlook that are indeed in error that we should reassess.”
Two weeks ago I received a manuscript back in which half a page of what I had written had been stricken out in full by my editor. I had been attempting to characterize salvation as a process of growth rather than a momentary experience. The specific incident is not so important as the fear it reveals of ideas that may prompt people to think outside the box. It is this hidebound perspective that causes me to vow about once a month to stop publishing altogether! The frustration of bumping up against such intellectual and spiritual inertia, stagnation, and formularistic dogmatism sometimes saps about every ounce of creative energy I possess.
Challenge or call into question any creed and you will be attacked by the proponents of that creed. The creed has to defend itself. Those who will be most vigorous in such defense will always be the creed’s hierarchal officialdom—its scribes and Pharisees, its leaders and teachers. Their stature and authority is dependent upon the creed. They have to defend it, or their standing is undone.
Those who desire to think boldly about matters of faith are therefore not usually welcomed into the fabric of most Christian groups, and especially not into positions of leadership. Leadership, in all Christian groups, becomes far more a matter of dispensing and preserving the existing orthodoxy as searching for more truth that God might have to reveal. Under the banner of instructing and protecting the faithful, the spigots of potential new truth are shut off.
Bold thinkers are more ostracized than praised. One wonders who was the first bold thinking Christian in the first years of the Church to suggest that Jesus was not coming back in the first century, and what was the initial reaction to his or her unorthodox idea. Yet time would prove the “new” idea right. Bold thinking requires courage if truth in the Church is to continue to increase.
And thus, in the same way that I wondered above what would be the result in various church settings if certain sacred-cows were questioned, I have asked…
—if “church” has wider implications than worship services and meetings and groups and structure and organization…
—if the prevailing prophetic paradigm of Lindsay and LaHaye is true, and whether Jesus really is coming back as soon as we think…
—whether the operation of the spiritual gifts are uniform for everyone (Translation: Does one have to speak in tongues?)
—what is the true “Israel” and whether fundamentalism’s preoccupation with the physical land of Palestine is scriptural…
—whether today’s rapture theology is a complete misreading of Scripture rooted in man’s carnal nature rather than prophetic insight…
—whether Philippians 2:10-11— instead of explaining it away as do evangelical “literalists,” who only take those portions of Scripture literally which bolster their own elder traditions—might actually be gloriously true…
—whether death may perhaps not be a final closed door of opportunity and spiritual response…
—if salvation is achieved by formula (Translation: Does one have to pray some version of the sinners’ prayer and experience a moment of repentance to validate what is called saving faith?)…
—about the horrendous implications of the near universal mistranslation of Matthew 25:46…
—whether the Calvinist explanation of the work of the cross absolves us from our share of that work as is commonly taught concerning “sanctification”…
—if God’s Fatherhood is more significant toward our salvation and toward our daily walk than most Christological doctrines suppose, and is in fact the source of salvation itself…
—whether hell itself might lie in God’s domain not the devil’s, and might be a tool in God’s hands toward redemption rather than a mere repository in which for evil to be punished…
—if the “conservative Christian” political agenda is the way Jesus would have his followers present his ideas to the world…or is it in fact directly opposed to his own example…
—what is the nature and extent of the triumphant Unity which God intends to ring throughout the entire universe.
Who is the God We Worship?
Such queries as these where I have pondered higher aspects of truth, though terrifying to many Christians, have been significant milestones in my own spiritual journey for the simple reason that they all point in generally the same direction—to the larger question we must all face sooner or later: What is the nature and character of the God we worship?
Because Christians are not trained in implicational thinking, most do not pause to consider the logical consequences of their ideas. They maintain their doctrinal beliefs in a vacuum. They do not ask if they make sense. They blindly accept what they have been taught without question.
The most significant belief where implicational thinking is absolutely required concerns the nature of God. MacDonald states it succinctly: “Everything depends on what kind of God one believes in.”
Believing in God wrongly makes us incapable of knowing him as we must know him. There are, therefore, a few key areas where a reevaluation of traditional evangelical orthodoxy forces one to ponder the nature and character of God. Obviously nothing can be so important for a Christian than the nature and character of God. Yet what do most Christians believe about him? I have become convinced that many of us (myself included for years) may have been superficially worshipping a false image of God altogether.
If we do not correct these falsehoods in our belief system, especially when God gives us the insight and the prodding that should make us able to do so, we will be held accountable for the consequences of that false belief no less than an ancient pagan worshipping a carved stick or stone or an engraved figure of gold.
Thus I find myself not only concerned but angered with what I hope is a righteous anger to hear what some of the most respected names in evangelicalism imply about the Father of Jesus Christ. Men such as John Piper, who writes: “God and the saints in heaven will be happy in heaven for all eternity knowing that many millions of people are suffering in hell forever…the vindication of God’s infinite holiness is cherished so deeply.”
That hundreds of thousands of Christians blindly accept such false teaching is as destructive to the coming of God’s kingdom as their anointing of evangelicalism’s false author-prophet who will one day be held accountable, along with the others who have been involved, for the damage done to the cause of the gospel by the Left Behind saga.
All I can think to myself is, “Who is the God these men worship!” He is certainly no Abba-Father I can find in the gospels.
It is a great truth that we become what we worship. If indeed we worship a false god, a hypocritical god, a self-righteous and vengeful god, what positively dreadful implications this has for the state of the Church. Scarce wonder that the church has never in its history exhibited the Christlikeness of the spotless bride.
The Challenge: To Isolate Untruth, Formula, and Cliché
Those who feel an inner disquiet with the implications of traditional theology cannot forever ignore it. Eventually the sense of unease comes calling. What can it be but the Holy Spirit speaking, deep calling to deep? True men and women begin casting their gaze about for something more worthy to believe of their God.
Nor is it merely a question of rooting out errors and untruths that have crept into our orthodoxies. There is also the lethal tendency, indeed almost the inevitability of any codified doctrine to drift toward formula and ultimately cliché. Even where our beliefs are accurate, this problem still erodes the practical reality of that truth. Even truth itself, where it becomes formularistic and dogmatic, can be as problematic to vibrant growing faith as untruth.
We look at the dogmas of others and can readily perceive stale formula, but are not so adept at perceiving where our own belief systems have become infiltrated with clichés, often that defy reason and which look ridiculous from the outside. We continue to adhere to them. We are so accustomed to the lingo that we scarcely pause to ask what it means.
One of the most visible and blatant such dichotomies within our belief system that defies common sense altogether is the incongruity inherent in what we say about the trinity (the Father and Son are one) and the common view of the atonement, in which the Son purchases our salvation against the wrath of the Father. Was there ever such an inversion of truth, such a division in the “oneness” of the Godhead as to believe that Jesus protects us from the justice of the Father which must be exacted for our sin, the Lord’s sacrifice warding off the retribution of the Father against sin?
We grow so used to the contorted means by which Scripture is twisted in knots to explain such dichotomies that we don’t bat an eye to hear the doctrine repeated week after week, year after year. We can recite the scriptural proof-texts from memory, we can pull them out if we’re called upon to “witness.” But never do we stop to really think the thing through, and then stand up and say, “Wait a minute…that doesn’t make sense.”
Another example is one that in the world’s eyes makes of Christianity little more than a gigantic hypocrisy and is the primary stumbling block against widespread acceptance of the message Jesus brought to the world. It is the dichotomy between our saying, God is love, and then out of the other side of our mouths saying that God’s is a conditional love, and that he will punish and torment unrepentant sinners in hell forever. Of course we are taught the cliché that God’s love is unconditional, but any thinking person can see clearly enough that, as the gospel is usually presented, it is not unconditional at all. There are huge strings attached. If you do not go through a certain process of repentance and belief, a process which according to Calvinism isn’t even available to everyone, God’s love is not for you. You are on your way to hell.
In the world’s eyes, we are saying two opposite things at the same time, and torturing out of a few passages of Scripture various explanations that defy reason but preserve the dogma. Then we add that, because God’s ways are higher than our ways, the dogma isn’t even supposed to make sense to the mind of carnal man. Again, we become so accustomed to such ridiculous explanations that we shut our eyes to how upside down much of the doctrine actually is. Common sense is turned on its head. Those like myself who stand up to challenge the formulas are accused of being tainted by liberal theology. Evangelicals are thus, quite rightly, accused by the world of being non-thinkers.
The Quest Continues
After almost 40 years of trying to dig deeper and pray higher, by no means do I think I have all the elements of the Christian faith figured out myself yet either. Not a week goes by that some major new question does not present itself, or some major piece of the puzzle suddenly fits together. I remember coming home one day and announcing to Judy, “I’ve just figured out the atonement!” That’s what makes it so exciting. We are liberated from having to think that we possess all the answers.
I find it tremendously challenging and exciting and rewarding and mentally stimulating. It’s a process of continually growing into a deeper knowledge of God. We can learn something new about him from every individual we meet, from every experience, from every question or uncertainty that rears its head. So we search, study, probe, inquire, question, pray, and humbly ask the Holy Spirit to be a lamp unto our feet as he leads us out the back door of limitation into the wide world of God’s high Logos truth.
When I began writing, I recognized that God’s primary call on my life was to speak to Christians. I felt that call to be one of challenging my fellow believers to think beyond formula-faith. That is why in my books I try to raise thorny issues—to make people think. Though editors do their best to prevent my looking too specifically and controversially at the scenery out the back of the wardrobe, such continues to be my attempt—to engage readers toward bold thinking, even fearless, faith.
In whatever avenues the Lord gives me voice, I try to follow George MacDonald’s example by pointing Christians toward expansive thinking in their walks with God. The motivation is not merely to raise questions but to help those whom I may to discover the high Logos truth of God, God’s character and nature…God himself.
I write not to those who would debate such issues as some of these I have raised. Indeed, though my scriptural study and research in most of the areas I mention has been extensive, I will not debate them. As long as men and women are satisfied to believe low things of God, let them be so satisfied. Their belief is its own reward. I write for those for whom certain views have become burdensome, to help the hungry heart sift and sort and think through his or her own prayerful journey. I do not care to persuade or convince, only perhaps to shed light on what can be a lonely path. My only attempt at persuasion would be to urge upon us all the imperative of doing what God puts before us to do, and loving our brethren of differing perspective.
That I care not to persuade removes nothing from my earnest conviction that these are matters every Christian must eventually wrestle through in the prayer closets of their own hearts. If we do not face them here, we will have to face them there. It may be that it will not be St. Peter or Mary or even Jesus himself who will meet us at the gates of heaven but the Father himself. The question he asks may not be, “Who died for your sins?” but rather:
“How could you possibly believe such things of me! Why did you not love me enough to get to know me as I really was? Why did you not summon the courage to doubt some of what your pastors and teachers taught? They have much to answer for…but you should have known better, especially after all my Son told you about me.”
That is the challenge—boldness guided by obedience, expansive thinking rooted in scriptural truth.
In the years since those early 1970’s when I was forced to begin thinking about my faith in new ways, the quest to understand God’s character and to know his heart has continued. In many respects it has been a solitary road. I will not say lonely for I have had the greatest life-partner imaginable with whom to engage in the pilgrimage. Judy and I have wrestled through ideas, emotions, and spiritual struggles for thirty-five years together and it has been stimulating, challenging, and constantly invigorating to our walk with God.
Most such tussles to understand God’s ways originate with questions, and often involve pain. The quest to know the heart of God never takes place in a vacuum. The profoundest insights usually come through disappointment, heartbreak, sorrow, and sometimes deep personal anguish. We have been extraordinarily blessed and our lives have not been nearly so difficult as many. But we have had enough of our share of trials (some of them severe) to keep us focused on the objective.
And too, adding to that heartbreak, is the knowledge that some of the pain has been self-inflicted. I have made many mistakes along the way, hurt people I loved, spoken when I should have kept silent, assumed for myself a greater level of insight than was the reality. The quest to understand the deep things of God, unfortunately, is not one that always breeds immediate maturity. I can speak to this principle from personal experience. Wrestling through ideas is a process that often brings emotions and personal weakness to the surface. But God uses such things, slowly matures us, and, if we are willing, is always at work behind the scenes to heal and restore relationships that our own hubris has injured.
So there has been a quiet humbling that has been intrinsic to the process too, painful but just as necessary as the world of ideas. One of the chief ideas God probably wants to “expand” in our hearts is a deeper recognition of our own weakness. At least he is privileging me to be made more aware of mine.
One calms through the years. No one has ever accused me of being particularly laid-back or phlegmatic! But I hope, as time has gone on and as the gray continues to encroach more and more across my dome, that the Lord has and will continue to deepen some of the quieter fruits of the Spirit in my heart. With them I pray that he also increases my awareness and sensitivity to others, which attributes probably were not in evidence as much as he might have hoped earlier in my life. God’s work within us all is a long, slow, and humbling one. He is indeed extremely patient with our human self-centerednesses. But as the bumper sticker says, he’s not finished with us yet. I for one am glad. I would hate to think of entering eternity with so much of my self still showing.
Though our spiritual journey has not been lonely, it has been solitary. Most churches we have found are so content with doctrine–speak, so proud of their “ministries” and so puffed up about their “worship,” that it seems all but impossible for the humble voice of Christlikeness to break through.
So our quest has not discovered much camaraderie through the years. We have not made this a solitary journey by choice. But once you start talking about more, about God’s being and purpose being bigger, evangelicals start looking at you funny. Two roads regularly diverge in a yellow wood. Those seeking more will always be destined to travel the less traveled path.
Such at least Judy and I have found it in our lives.
Do I still consider myself an “evangelical?” Probably, though perhaps a latitudinarian or a liberated evangelical, or an evangelical that has had a few glimpses of the high country through the lens of my own frail humanity.
Labels are of little interest to me. I would rather say that I am one who desires with all his heart to know God as he truly is. Beyond that, I would simply be known as one who is trying to be a son of the Father by attempting with faltering and imperfect steps to do his will, and as one who is an obedient follower of Christ, a “Christ-ian” who is seeking to become a child.
Michael Phillips, 2007