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Does It Matter What We Believe? Print E-mail

Written by Rick Wade

Does what we believe matter, or just that we believe? A study recently released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, suggests that most religious people in America think what they believe isn’t so important.{1}

According to the report, eighty-three percent of people identifying themselves with mainline Protestant churches believe that many religions can lead to eternal life. That might not come as a surprise to those who are familiar with the changes in mainline churches over the last century.

But what would you say if you knew that fifty-seven percent of people identifying themselves as evangelicals believe that many religions can lead to eternal life? Fifty-seven percent! That means the majority of evangelicals are what we call “religious pluralists.” Are you surprised? To add to our embarrassment, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have stronger convictions about their beliefs being the true ones than do evangelicals.

Some findings in the survey were real head-shakers. For example, thirteen percent of evangelicals surveyed believe God is an impersonal force. It might be a little reassuring to learn that evangelicals don’t have a corner on the “confused beliefs” market. Six percent of atheists surveyed believe in a personal God, and twelve percent believe in heaven! What are we to make of this?

Whatever it might mean precisely, it at least means that specific beliefs are the property of the believer, not of the religion itself. Fidelity to the beliefs of particular religions (or irreligion, in the case of atheism) means much less today than in the past. I can associate myself with a given group, but I retain the right to decide for myself what I should believe.

It’s understandable, in a sense, why people think this way, including evangelicals. This pluralistic mentality infuses our social consciousness. We aren’t to exclude people of other races or the other gender from all the multitudinous areas of society. Businesses are forbidden to discriminate on the basis of “race, color, national origin, religion, or sex.”{2} I’m not arguing against any of this. I’m simply pointing to our social mentality which requires (or aims at) the leveling out of differences. The refusal to extend special status is applied to religious beliefs as well. But this doesn’t mean we simply tolerate people of different beliefs; now we’re supposed to affirm their beliefs!

In addition to this pluralist mentality there is the serious problem for evangelicals of the reduction of doctrinal teaching in churches. David Wells lamented this loss in his 1993 book, No Place for Truth, or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? He was spurred on to write the book after having a student in his seminary class on theology ask him how he could justify spending so much money on a class that “was so irrelevant to his desire to minister to people in the Church.”{3}

One problem some people have with a strong concern for doctrine is that it tends to divide Christians. In so far as we do segregate ourselves from other Christians over non-essential beliefs we are in error. Unity is very important. But nowhere in Scripture are we taught that unity is to be preserved regardless, at the expense of truth. After exhorting the Ephesians to be unified in the bond of peace, Paul lists what we are to be unified around: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (4:3-6). We aren’t to be united around the conviction that when it comes to religion, to each his or her own.

Another reason for a reluctance to insist on doctrinal integrity is the postmodern mentality about truth. This issue is being played out now in discussions about what is called the “emerging church.” The desire to correct an overzealous modernism in its confident claims of truth is showing itself in some Christians who align themselves with this movement in a diminishing of the importance of doctrinal commitments. The attempt to avoid both absolutism and relativism has them walking a tightrope which too easily swings toward a pluralist mentality.

What does it mean to give up on the importance of specific doctrinal beliefs? First, and very obviously, we have abandoned biblical Christianity. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul states specific beliefs that are essential: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (verses 3-5). Jesus made the bold and definitely non-politically correct claim that he was the only way to God (John 14:6). Paul says that salvation comes to those who confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9). Throughout both Old and New Testaments, we are presented with claim after claim presented as being true.

Second, we must hold fast to the historic teachings of biblical Christianity if we are to have anything to offer the world. One of the most significant results of liberal watering down of Christian distinctives is that, over time, attendance in mainline churches dwindled; they had nothing to offer that was different from what people could get outside the church.

Wells notes that “the great sin of Fundamentalism is to compromise; the great sin in evangelicalism is to be narrow.” Whereas evangelicals once strongly opposed doctrinal decline in liberalism, now, Wells says, “evangelicals, no less than the Liberals before them whom they have always berated, have now abandoned doctrine in favor of ‘life’.”{4} We’re doing well in the arena of social relief; we’re doing very poorly in training our people in basic Christian beliefs as beliefs that are true for all people for all time.

Wells notes these consequences of the loss of doctrinal conviction. First is simply the loss of conviction. What do we stand for? You’ve heard it before: A person [or church] that stands for nothing will fall for anything. Second is the loss of what might be accomplished when spurred on by a theological vision. Is being nice and doing good the substance of our marching orders? Third is the loss of any really meaningful sense of what “evangelical” means. Fourth is the loss of unity with the spinning off of individual interests.

If Christianity doesn’t have the truth about how one might obtain eternal life, it has nothing more to offer than religious experience (whatever that might be for a given individual). It has lost all its substance. Since it claims to be the only way to God, what has been aptly said many times bears repeating: either it is true for all, or it is not true at all.

Notes

1. U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices: Diverse and Politically Relevant, June 2008; religions.pewforum.org
2. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, www.eeoc.gov/facts/qanda.html.
3. David Wells, No Place for Truth, or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 4.
4. Ibid., 129, 131.

© 2008 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Rick WadeRick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at rwade@pobox.com.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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