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The Power of Fear: The Fear of Theological Uncertainty

In my book Reality Check For The Church I have a section devoted to the fear of theological uncertainty. Much of this blog entry comes directly out of that book.

I believe that this is a problem that can be found anywhere but is more likely to be found in small churches


My personal journey

A few years ago as I was writing this section of my book, I received an email from Tyndale University College and Seminary. I graduated from both the college and seminary and the email said that one of the teachers I had at both levels had recently died. Dr. Don Leggett taught for more than forty years and I had the privilege of taking several courses with him.

As valuable as those courses were, a statement he made outside of the formal teaching time made the greatest impact on my life.

He said if a person isn’t living with tension in his understanding of Scripture, he isn’t understanding the Bible correctly.

As I applied that to my own life, I came to understand that if my interpretation of Scripture fit neatly into my theological package without any loose ends sticking out, my theological system was my authority rather than Scripture. Part of Dr. Leggett’s legacy for me has been that over the years the areas of certainty in my theological understanding have grown fewer and the areas of tension have increased.

It is a difficult place in which to live but one that more accurately reflects the truth of Scripture.

I grew up in a church setting in which certainty was held up as an ideal. We were dispensational in our theology, Baptist in our ecclesiology, and fundamentalist in our approach to Christian living.

There were only two groups of people – those who were wrong and us. We had a monopoly on the truth, which meant that anyone who disagreed with us had to be in the group that was wrong.

With that background, you can understand why I found Dr. Leggett’s words life-changing.


The problem in our churches

A lot of people do not want to live with tension in their theology. They enjoy having a nice neat system into which every verse of Scripture and every part of life can be made to fit. Reality has a way of forcing us to rethink our theological and ecclesiological systems. Many people don’t want to do that.

A world in which everything fits into a system can be a very comfortable place to be. A nice black and white world offers us simple answers to every problem. Many people oppose anything that might move them out of their comfortable world.

The problem is that many of the issues that we face fall into a less certain understanding of the world and of our theological position and while that place of uncertainty is more true to Scripture it is not nearly as comfortable. Biblical tension can be difficult to live with.


The first-century church

The first-century church knew what it was to live with theological tension. Whether the people in a church were from a Jewish background, such as the church in Jerusalem, or from a Greek background, such as most of the churches that Paul planted, their theological foundations would have been shaken to the very core of their being.

For those with a Jewish background, the truth that Jesus was God would have been earth-shattering. They had been raised with the reality that there was one God, and that truth set them apart from every other religion in the world of that time. They were the only monotheistic religion in the world of their day and they were proud of that fact. It was what made their belief system different from all the false religions.

Then they had to come to terms with the fact that this Jewish man who lived among them and died on the cross for their sins was God. While today we understand this in light of a fully developed theology of the Trinity, for a person coming out of a first-century Jewish background, this had a huge tension.

On the other hand, Greek believers had been raised with just the opposite belief. There was a god for every occasion. In Athens there was even an altar to the “unknown god.”

Now they had to adjust their thinking to the fact that there is only one God and this Jewish Messiah was that God.

One God created the world. One God sovereignly oversees the affairs of humankind.

All of these multiple gods that they had worshiped all of their lives were just worthless idols with no real power to influence their future. That was the tension for Greek believers.

Whichever side of the cultural mosaic of the first century a person came from, a belief in Jesus Christ brought with it a deep theological tension that people had to cope with. There was no avoiding it then and there is no avoiding it now.

The only way to avoid that kind of tension is by allowing our neatly packaged theological systems to shape our beliefs rather than coming to scripture with an open mind and allowing the Word of God with all of its tensions to do the shaping for us.


A present day application

In many churches the pastor and some leaders are willing to live with this tension but the people aren’t. In these cases pastors need to patiently introduce the concept of theological tension and over time change the mindset of the members.

This is important not only so that the church can move forward in unity but also because it is a concept that is essential to true spiritual growth in the individual members.

A person cannot truly understand the truth of Scripture unless she understands the concept of theological tension. The Bible does not fit neatly into anyone’s system. For that reason no one has an absolute understanding of the Bible.

There is no one who is going to get to heaven and God is going to point her out as the one person who had it all correct. None of our systems contain perfect truth.

If we are true to Scripture, we must all confess that there are things that we simply don’t understand.

To be locked into a theological system that we believe has all the answers leaves us unwilling to search the scriptures for further light on a subject. When we are locked into a system we tend to search the scriptures for proof to prove our system correct and we tend to interpret difficult passages so that they fit into our system.

As I have already said, when we do this our system becomes our guide to truth rather than the Bible. When that happens we live in a world without tension but also a world that is closed to discovering biblical truth.

Over the years I have been involved with several churches in their search for a new pastor. One of the questions that I like to ask a prospect is this:

Since your graduation from Bible college or seminary what are a couple of  areas of Biblical truth in which you have changed your understanding of what the Bible teaches?

I have had people whose answer has been that they couldn’t think of any areas. They believed then exactly as they had believed when they graduated on all matters of theology or ecclesiology. With all of their personal study, all of the books that they had read and all of the conversations that they had entered into, nothing in their belief system had changed.

My automatic response to those candidates is to reject them as possible future pastors for the churches involved.

To not change our position on anything is to allow our system to dictate our beliefs rather than the Word of God. The answer to the fear of theological change is to teach our people how to live with tension rather than how to live within the confines of a system that ties everything up in a neat bundle devoid of tension but also devoid of any openness to new truth.

4 thoughts on “The Power of Fear: The Fear of Theological Uncertainty

  1. Marie Campbell

    in first sentence of the paragraph entitled A Present Day Application, you state that ‘in many churches the pastor & some leaders are willing to live with this tension, but the people aren’t’. Is it not often true that the opposite is true, it is the pastors & leaders in a fixed, unchangeable position, always right, no need to change? this is sometimes, maybe often, the cause for church splits, or actual closing down?

    1. Ron Johnston Post author

      It certainly works both ways as you point out. Whenever either group takes a fixed, unchangeable position it leads to tension within the church.

  2. Marie Campbell

    “I grew up in a church setting in which certainty was held up as an ideal. We were dispensational in our theology, Baptist in our ecclesiology, and fundamentalist in our approach to Christian living.” is this still true there, Ron?

    1. Ron Johnston Post author

      I am not familiar enough with the church at this point in its history to be certain how much it has changed. My sense is that there is more openness to other views now than there was when I was growing up.

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