One of the most serious problems facing the Church in the 21st century is the problem of Biblical illiteracy. Simply put, most professing Christians do not possess a sound and coherent understanding of the Bible...
This article was first published in the Winter 2008 issue of Bible and Spade.
'My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge' (Hosea 4:6).
One of the most serious problems facing the Church in the 21st century is the problem of Biblical illiteracy. Simply put, most professing Christians do not possess a sound and coherent understanding of the Bible, beginning with sound doctrine and general Biblical history. Evidence for this sad reality is quite overwhelming. And there are several salient reasons for this dangerous trend.
The Church Has Been 'Dumbed Down' by the Culture
The public education system has churned out millions upon millions of young people, while holding to relatively low standards of achievement. We live in a society today where challenging children and teenagers with high standards is considered harmful to their 'self-esteem.' Bad grades written in red ink are considered a cause for counseling. Instead of pushing children to excel, standards of academic achievement are lowered. Failure and difficulty, properly controlled by loving parents, should be used to motivate and develop character. Christian children are not immune to these lowered standards. Children in the Church are not properly challenged to learn fundamental doctrine and matters of Biblical history. They are also not properly taught to pursue personal holiness. Instead, Sunday school is designed to keep children entertained. Like most of our society, many Christian parents seem more concerned with appeasing children and entertaining them as opposed to disciplining and educating them. This culture of entertainment creates short attention spans and an aversion to learning.
Regarding the educational and intellectual state of the Church, Daniel Wallace succinctly says:
Those in ministry must close the gap between the church and the academy. We have to educate believers. Instead of trying to isolate laypeople from critical scholarship, we need to insulate them. They need to be ready for the barrage, because it is coming. The intentional dumbing down of the church for the sake of filling more pews will ultimately lead to defection from Christ (2006: 337).
The Church Has Adopted the Cultural Mandate to 'Feel Good'
Experience rules supreme in today's culture. 'If it feels good, do it,' and forget the consequences! This mindset is at its worst in the entertainment world, particularly with reality television. One of my favorite pastimes is watching NFL football. I marvel at the athletic ability of the players, the required mental toughness and the nature of the sport. However, these days I have to tolerate players dancing around like they just won the championship after making routine plays that require no such celebration. This chest-pounding, self-aggrandizing behavior is all about doing what 'feels good.'
This type of 'feel good' approach to life has also infected the Church on a massive scale. Sunday sermons are no longer designed to give praise to a just and holy God and call sinners to repentance, but to make Christians 'feel good' about themselves. 'God wants us to be happy,' we are told. Experience matters most. This teaching is totally antithetical to what the Bible teaches about man and his relation to God. Randall Price has said it well: '[T]he church remains in a crisis with an experientially oriented evangelicalism' (2007: 26).
Personal experience is important for the individual Christian, but should not hold a place of primacy in the life of the believer. 'Christian faith is not being built on the firm foundation of hardwon thoughts, ideas, history, or theology. Spirituality is being built on private emotional attachments,' writes Gary Burge. 'In short, the spiritual life has become less a matter of learning than it is a matter of experiencing' (1999).
The mandates for Christian thinking and holy living are found within the pages of Scripture. Therefore, believers must have a fundamental grasp of Biblical teaching as they walk through the process of sanctification, which means they must study it to understand its meaning! And leaders in the Church must teach it to them so they can properly understand it! 'Experiencing God' and having good feelings can be dangerously misleading due to the influence of the sin nature and evil forces in the spiritual realm. Gary Johnson explains the pervasive problem in overemphasizing experience and essentially promoting antiintellectualism in the modern American church:
the idea that faith must be accommodated to culture has undermined the teaching of the church's faith. Popular evangelical faith has developed a bias against theology (not to mention the intellect) and has elevated the bias to the level of a virtue…This is reflected more and more in the pulpits of professing evangelical churches. Doctrine…is purposely avoided (2005: 1).
They focus on practical matters, such as family concerns and personal growth, not doctrine, sometimes mixing psychotherapeutic concepts with biblical teaching. They often emphasize religious experience. They seek to feel God's love, not understand church theology, a theme that plays well with the decreasing importance of denominational doctrine among baby boomers (Cimino 1998: 2).
I recently received Donald G. Barnhouse's Romans commentary for Christmas from my wife. It was published in the early 1950s. The preface provides an explanation and background for the writing of the series, which is opposite to the culture of the church today:
When I first became pastor…I began my ministry by preaching on the epistle to the Romans. My first Sunday in that pulpit found me giving an exposition of the first verse of the epistle. The second Sunday I started with the second verse; for three and one half years I never took a text outside of the epistle to the Romans. I saw the church transformed; the audience filled the pews and then the galleries; and the work went on with great blessing' (1952: i; emphasis added).
The modern evangelical Church often claims that this type of teaching is not needed to draw people into the Church. In fact, as stated by Gary Johnson above, this type of teaching is avoided by the Church, for fear of empty pews. The fact of the matter is, that is the exact type of teaching needed to bring about real transformation in people's lives. The Word of God has divine and mysterious power that radically transforms people. Entertainment programs, comfy couches, soft lighting and candles do not change lives. This is a shallow and unchallenging Christianity that ultimately discourages churchgoers and leaves them unchanged. As a result, churchgoers are not equipped to defend the faith, live holy lives, and profess the good news of the Gospel to a lost world.
The Church Has Allowed Elements of Unbiblical Worldviews to Infect Its Teaching
Most Christians integrate unbiblical worldviews into their thinking without even realizing it. 'Christians today have accepted and combined so many ideas from other worldviews and religions that they have created their own faith system' (Vlatch). What's worse is that church leaders do the same thing, unwittingly leading people to believe things about themselves, the world, and the nature of truth that are contradictory to what the Bible actually teaches. Theistic evolution, long-age reinterpretations of the first chapter of Genesis, 'local flood' nonsense, the sundering of much of the Old Testament from its historical connections, postmodernism, relativism, New Age beliefs, and a multitude of other unbiblical ideas have been unwittingly propagated in the Church for decades.
Contentious social and political issues are avoided, although they are explicitly addressed in Scripture or deduced from Biblical teaching, such as just war theory, abortion, homosexuality, the definition of marriage, the nature of man, the problem of evil, the proper role of government, capital punishment, property rights, corporal punishment and the raising of children, etc. Scripture touches upon all areas of life and reality, and is absolutely authoritative in its assertions. Christians must learn to reject views that are antithetical to Scripture, but they must be taught to do so by Church leadership. Instead of inculcating these unbiblical worldviews into individual minds and creating confusion, the Church should be challenging its members to reject anti-Biblical views and allow the truths of Scripture to renew their minds.
Bible and Spade and other ABR ministry outreaches are designed to provide Christians with archaeological and related apologetic evidences that illuminate and uphold the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. When Scripture is received as the infallible Word of God, people are radically transformed. We hope and pray that there will be a revolution of knowledge, sound doctrine, and apologetic emphasis in the American Church. And we hope that ABR can play a small role to that end.
Barnhouse, Donald G.
1952 Romans I. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Burge, Gary M.
1999 Greatest Story Never Read: Recovering Biblical Literacy in the Church, http://www.ctlibrary.com/ct/1999/august9/9t9045.html. ChristianityTodayLibrary.com Last accessed 2/14/2008. 8/9/99. Cited in Michael Vlach, Crisis in America's Churches: Bible Knowledge at All-Time Low, http://www.theologicalstudies.citymax.com/page/ page/1573625.htm. TheologicalStudies.org. Last accessed 9/09/2008.
Cimino, Richard and Lattin, Don
1998 Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Johnson, Gary L.W., ed.
2005 Whatever Happened to the Reformation? Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
2007 Searching for the Original Bible. Eugene, OR: Harvest House.
n.d. Crisis in America's Churches: Bible Knowledge at All-Time Low, http://www.theologicalstudies.citymax.com/page/page/1573625.htm
TheologicalStudies.org. Last accessed 9/09/2008.
Wallace, Daniel The Gospel According to Bart: Review of Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart D. Ehrman (New York: HarperCollins, 2005). Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49.