by Tom Olago
Based on the numbers of denominations, sects and cults professing adherence to Christianity, it is not really surprising that there are wide margins of difference in how these different groups understand and interpret the Bible. Within Protestantism, there is still much theological debate and confusion around doctrines and principles – especially those not considered central or cardinal to the Christian faith. And even within mainstream church affiliations that hold fast to the central doctrines of Christianity, there is still considerable confusion and disagreement within church laity with regards to the understanding and interpretation of Biblical doctrine.
This conclusion is well exemplified by a recent survey of views about Christian theology conducted by LifeWay Research, which were summarized in an article by Bob Smietana. The survey feedback brought out some interesting and startling observations of what American evangelicals believe. Researchers asked 43 questions about faith, covering topics from sin and salvation to the Bible and the afterlife. They wanted to know how people in the pews—and the streets—understand theology.
Of the survey’s initial 3,000 responses, this report looked at the 557 who came from Protestants who described themselves as evangelical—which would be about 19% of the American population. The online survey was commissioned by Orlando-based Ligonier Ministries and was intended to “take the temperature of America’s theological health.” The poll has a margin of error of +1.8 % with a confidence interval of 95 %.
Some highlights extracted from Smietana’s report, based on the LifeWay research are as follows:
• 67% of Americans say heaven is a real place. But they disagree about who gets in.
• About half of Americans (53 %) say salvation is in Christ alone. However, just under half of Americans (45 %) say there are many ways to heaven—which conflicts with traditional views about salvation being linked to faith in Jesus.
• About 6 in 10 Americans (61 %) say hell is a real place – but you have to be really bad to go there. Overall, Americans don’t seem too worried about sin or being sent to hell. Two-thirds (67 %) say most people are basically good, even though everyone sins a little bit—an optimistic view of human nature at odds with traditional teaching about human sin.
• Most Americans (71 %), say people must contribute some effort toward their own salvation.
• Two thirds (64 %) say in order to find peace with God, people have to take the first step, and then God responds to them with grace.
• Many Americans also don’t mind being disconnected from a local church. About half (52 %) say worshiping alone or with family is as good as going to church.
• Almost all (82 %) say their local church has no authority to “declare that I am not a Christian.”
• More than half (56 %) believe their pastor’s sermons have no authority in their life, while slightly less than half (45 %) say the Bible was written for each person to interpret as they choose.
• About 7 in 10 (71 %) Americans believe in the Trinity (one God exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). However, more than half of evangelicals (59 %) and two-thirds of Americans (64 %) say the Holy Spirit is a force – not a personal being (despite scripture clearly referring to “He” and “Him”, as the third Person of the Godhead, and not “it”).
• About half of Americans (48 %) believe the Bible is the Word of God. Four in 10 (43 %) say the Bible is 100 % accurate, while a similar share of Americans (41 %) say it’s helpful but not literally true.
• About 4 in 10 (42 %) Americans—and more than half (55 %) of non-Christians—say churches should remain silent about politics.
• Less than half (48 %) of Americans say sex outside of marriage is a sin. Christian groups are split on the topic.
A similar analysis of results conducted by Christianity Today concludes that most American evangelicals hold views condemned as heretical by some of the most important councils of the early church. The writer of the CT article, Kevin Emmert states that evangelicals did however score high on several points. Nearly all believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead (96%), and that salvation is found through Jesus alone (92%). Strong majorities said that God is sovereign over all people (89%) and that the Bible is the Word of God (88%). Almost all say they believe in the Trinity (96%) and that Jesus is fully human and fully divine (88%).
Some areas of controversial and erroneous belief extracted by Emmert from the research findings include:
• Four in 10 (41 %) say people who have never heard of Jesus can still get into heaven.
• 3 in 10 (30 %) say people will have a chance to follow God after they die.
• Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans (18 %) say even small sins should lead to damnation, while about half (55 %) say God has a wrathful side.
• 90% (9 in 10) evangelicals believe the local church does not have authority to say a person is not a Christian.
• More than 1 in 7 Americans (15 %) say the Holy Spirit is less divine than God the Father and Jesus. A third (33 %) believes God the Father is more divine than Jesus. One in 5 (19 %) say Jesus was the first creature made by God. All of those run counter to Christian doctrine as found in historic creeds of the Church.
Christian leaders and theologians have expressed various views – mainly concerns -regarding these study findings. Excerpts from comments shared are as listed below:
• R.C. Sproul, founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries: “What comes screaming through this survey is the pervasive influence of humanism.”
• Stephen Nichols, chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries: “The church in every age has faced theological confusion and heresy. In this survey we see a wake-up call to the church. We cannot assume the next generation—or even this present one—will catch an orthodox theology merely by being in the church…this study demonstrates the stunning gap in theological awareness throughout our nation, in our neighborhoods, and even in the seat next to us at church”.
• John Stackhouse, professor of theology and culture at Regent College in Vancouver: “We continue to hold adult Christian education in low regard…A sermon on Sunday morning and a conversational Bible study during the week won’t get the job done of informing and transforming people’s minds along the lines of orthodox Christian belief” adding that “We continue to have a severe public relations problem regarding the term evangelical”.
• Timothy Larsen, professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College: “What matters is not what self-identified evangelicals know or believe, but whether they are being discipled over time into mature believers…“If the answers are not getting better with more Christian discipleship, that would be alarming.”
• Howard Snyder, a former professor at United Theological Seminary, Asbury Seminary, and Tyndale Seminary: “Western Christianity, not just evangelicals, have viewed the Trinity as ‘a mathematical problem to be solved,’ not as a central revelation of the personal and tri-personal nature of God”.
• Beth Felker Jones, professor of theology at Wheaton College: “Orthodoxy is life-giving, and God’s people need access to it.…Church leaders need to be able to teach the truth of the faith clearly and accurately, and we need to be able to show people why this matters for our lives.”
To those brought up and raised on sound Biblical doctrine based on the final authority and infallibility of the Bible, it is shocking that Christians in general seem to hold so many erroneous and heretical ideas, not to mention the stark levels of ignorance regarding important tenets and doctrines of the faith. Clearly there are gaps and even heresies in teaching from many pulpits, not to mention that many Christians do not seem to be bothered to open the Bible and read for themselves what God has to say about these things. As stated by Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, many Americans do get the basics right, but they’re often fuzzy on the details.
No doubt it’s time for evangelicals and all other professing Christians to heed seriously the instructions so clearly laid out in the scriptures for every Christian to follow. Clearly we are each responsible to ensure that we study God’s word to share with others and apply it correctly to our own lives. We are in peril if we fail to do so and to check that spiritual leaders are not themselves deceived and misleading us. Listed below are just a few examples:
– These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so (Acts 17:11)
– Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3)
– As His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Peter 1:3-4)
– All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16)
– Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons (1 Timothy 4:1).
– “…that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—(Ephesians 4:14-15).
– Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).