No one likes to be told they are wrong. Correction and critique are things we go out of our way to avoid. Those who can ask the tough questions about your life—probing deep when they suspect some spiritual sickness—are not often not welcome friends. We don’t pick up the phone when they call. We avoid them at work. We don’t return their emails. Why? Because they can tell us the skinny about our life and we don’t want to hear it. We are prideful people who, like the priest, choose to walk far around the problems in our life, and we ask others to do the same.
As problematic as this mentality is with regards to things having to do with moral integrity, I believe that the problem is just as severe with regards to theological integrity.
Everyone hates to be critiqued. I remember going into seminary with a good deal of pride and arrogance. I did not recognize it at the time, but now that I look back now I can see it. I remember in my first preaching course, I could not wait to get in front of the other students and the professor and deliver my masterpiece. They would call me “Michael the Golden Mouth.” Oh yeah . . . recognition was coming. But my teacher did not see things the way my mind’s-eye had envisioned. I remember I preached for fifteen minutes on the Psalms. Afterwords I had to sit down and listen to my professor rip me to shreds in front of twenty other seminary students who gawked in fear as they knew they were next. Here is the type of critique we came to expect.
- “Where did you come up with that? That is not in the text. Good sermon, wrong text.”
- “You selectively used that translation because it supported your view.”
- “That was completely boring. Your audience will be thinking about the football game within two minutes.”
- “You need to go home and come back and tell us what the text really means.”
This hurt. Many students want to drop out of seminary after their first evaluation. We have to have post-sermon-support-groups encouraging others that this still may be God’s call for them.
Writing an exegetical paper in the New Testament department was no less fearful. Upon turning it in the comments would come back:
- “What makes you think you can use Strong’s for your word study? Don’t you know it is outdated.”
- “You took this completely out of context.”
- “You cannot use a John MacArthur commentary for an exegetical. It is a preaching commentary!”
- “Did you check your sources or did you get this from secondary sources?”
- “How did you come up with that interpretation when the entire history of the church has failed to see it?”
In the theology department the damage got worse:
- “You completely misrepresented your opponent. Rewrite this paper.”
- “You are selectively quoting Luther. Did you read him yourself or get this from someone else?”
- “Your prejudice is guiding your beliefs. Who’s to say that your mom and dad were right?”
- “Your certainty level on this is uncalled for. You may be right, but you have to hold this in tension.”
Concerning these critiques—concerning these beatings I took—there is something you should know—most of the time I was theologically correct in my conclusions. I thought that this is all that mattered. Hey, if I did not do the word study right, who cares? As long as I came to the right answer—wasn’t this acceptable? Isn’t the right answer what we ultimately are trying to find? This was not good enough! I learned that how you come to your conclusions is just as important as the conclusions themselves. In the end, I was humiliated so that I could be humbled.
In just about every discipline of thought, you have accountability. If you are a doctor, you cannot just develop and prescribe a new medicine because your mother told you all your life that it worked. If you do, you will go to jail. As a scientist, your works will be scrutinized by your peers in published journals. As a physicist, you cannot invent a new law of nature based upon a dream or vision. As a judge, you cannot judge people based upon subjective opinions or a deep inner peace. The constitution prevents this. If you are a soldier, you cannot disregard your superior and come up with a new battle plan because you were enlightened by a new book you read on fighting techniques. In all these areas there is an accountability structure that provides discipline and guards against novelty and abuse. Within each exists a system of checks and balances that, for the most part, provides integrity. In other words, you cannot just do or believe anything. If you violate these constraints, you will be humiliated and humbled.
Sadly we have an epidemic of theological discipline in the church today. People think that they can believe and teach anything based upon a subjective experience or a provision of hope. This epidemic is caused due to lack of theological accountability. We don’t think we need people to tell us we are wrong. We don’t have any system of checks and balances; in fact, we often avoid them. We think that if we have the Bible and the Holy Spirit, we have license. There is no way to be humiliated so that we can be humbled.
Because of this lack of discipline we have people out there believing and teaching based upon wild hairs. They are prescribing spiritual medicine that they invented. Sadly the average person is the spiritual test rat. I wonder what the “faith-is-a-force” people did when they first got the idea that faith was a force that we could control. Did they consult anyone about this? Did they have theological advisers? Did they have someone who would tell them that they was wrong? Did they consult church history or biblical exegetes? Did they even have a method for validating their beliefs?
Integrity of belief is essential for every Christian. We all need trustworthy sources to which we can turn to test our beliefs. We need to have learned how to handle the Scriptures properly. We need to learn not only the right beliefs, but how to come to the right beliefs the right way. We all need to be humbled . . . often. We even need to get the snot kicked out every once in a while. We need battle scars of discipline. We need to have friendships with people who will tell us we are in left field. We need to fear discipline enough that we will think twice about believing or teaching something novel.
In the early church Christians went through a rigorous discipleship process (notice the connection between disciple and discipline). Once you became a Christian you went through a three year boot camp. You were called a catechumen, derived from the Greek katechein, meaning “to teach” or instruct.” For three years your theology was shaped and scrutinized by superiors in the church. Did you get that? Three years. During this time your superior(s) mentored you through the faith. We see this illustrated in ancient church documents such as the Apostolic Traditions, the Apostolic Constitutions, the Canons of Hippolytus, and the Testamentum Domini. The church would not accept a new convert to the faith without this rigorous discipleship process. They took serious Christ’s command to “make disciples.”
From the Didascalia Apostolorum we read, “When the heathen desire and promise to repent, saying ‘We believe,’ we receive them into the congregation so that they may hear the word, but do not receive them into communion until the receive they seal and are fully initiated” (2.39).
This initiation did not come for three full years. Why? For two reasons. 1) The early church did not assume that a profession of faith was sincere, having seen many who once professed and then turned away either in doctrine or in practice. 2) They wanted to ensure the health and stability of the new converts belief.
Cyril of Jerusalem reflects on the importance of theological stability: “Let me compare the catechizing to a building. Unless we methodically bind and joint the whole structure together, we shall have leaks and dry rot, and all our previous exertions will be wasted” (Prochatechesis 11). This training provided a fail-safe that Christianity would be represented correctly and that the “believers” would truly believe, knowing what they were getting themselves into. In other words, they gave them an opportunity not to believe so that they might truly believe.
This process may seem extreme to us today, but consider where we are at. Once one becomes a Christian, the most they normally receive is a four week membership class that deals less with theology and more with church polity. But for the most part they don’t even get this. We tell them to ask Christ into their heart then we send them on their way with our blessing. In reality, we don’t know what has been created. At best, we have just placed a new born baby on the streets telling them to be filled and happy.
Is it any wonder that the church has such an epidemic for theological integrity? Should we really expect any different?
Who are you accountable to for your beliefs? When you get a wild hair about some theological issue, where do you turn? Better, where does this wild hair come from and who gave you the right to have a wild hair. “Wild.” Look it up in the dictionary and you will see that it means “undisciplined, unruly, or lawless.”
People need serious theological training. People need discipline. People need to be humiliated theologically. People need to know that they cannot do whatever they want with Christian belief and expect there to be so many lab rats available. If you have not been trained theologically, you need to be. This does not mean that you have read a book or two on theology, but you need to be in some sort of program that systematically, from beginning to end, takes you through the Christian faith, teaching you not only what to think and believe, but how to think and believe. We all need to be critiqued, disciplined, and humbled. We need more spiritual black eyes. We also need to be prepared to do the same with others.
Proverbs 11:14 Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.
Proverbs 13:10 By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.
Proverbs 19:20 Listen to counsel and accept discipline, That you may be wise the rest of your days.
Proverbs 6:23 For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life.
Proverbs 13:18 Poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline, But he who regards reproof will be honored.
Proverbs 12:1 Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.