No, answering letters about spiritual growth is no chore for me. I’m happy to do it, and tentatively hopeful that they’ll be received in the spirit in which I write them. I hope I can answer yours, and that you’ll receive it as one being shepherded, not flayed.
Your difficulty is what I can only call a hodgepodge theology. I don’t mean that your theology is erroneous, or even immature. I mean that your theology is an eclectic mix, a cobbled-together mishmash of your own making, a quilt-work of competing voices, stitched and held together only by your own mind.
Now before you get angry at that statement, I have to state that I have no objection to any Christian listening to a variety of great Christian teachers. It’s one of the blessings of living in the internet age: having fingertip-access to some of the greatest preaching and preachers ever, some of it recorded and audible for our listening edification. You can read just about any classic in Christian history for free. There has never been a time when Christians had so many options to hear or read sound doctrine. As a pastor, this possibility is a great encouragement to me. There is the chance that my people will listen to the best voices, and grow.
But like most gifts, the potential for good use is balanced by the potential for misuse. Your stagnation is a result of the misuse of all this abundant Christian teaching.
You see, if we were to pick an image to describe theology, we should not use an image that suggests a collection, such as library, or files, or a mixture, like a recipe or a formula. Theology is not an amalgamation of facts, or a mixture of ideas. Theology is like a web: every strand is connected, in some way, to the others. Theological ideas relate to each other like the interdependent structure of a molecule. Remove, modify, add, and you change the structure of the whole.
This is why the most important aspect of your theology is your overall perspective, the unifying concept that relates the parts to each other. And while the parts are meant to help you put together the whole, the whole is what gives meaning and significance to the parts. A. W. Tozer once said, “One trouble with us today is that we know too many things. The whole trend of the moment is toward the accumulation of a multitude of unrelated facts without a unifying philosophy to give them meaning. The neat little digest magazines tend to encourage faith in the idea-hopping type of study. This produces an informed superficiality worse in many ways than ignorance itself.”
This unifying philosophy gives you many things. It positions you with respect to other Christians, churches, denominations and movements. It positions you in time, with respect to church history, trends, cultural fashions and ideas. It positions you with respect to the various voices and movements of our day. It defines your posture towards culture and modernity. It gives you your hermeneutic for interpreting not just the Word, but the world. Thus, it contributes to your very Christian identity.
Now your problem is one that I see in many Christians, particularly children of the internet age. You have no definable position, no recognisable loyalty, no clear pattern of doctrine. You simply collect and assimilate, listen and absorb, hear and accept. In fact, you’ve been conditioned to mistake your amorphous theology as a sign of “discernment”, as if sampling something from every plate in a buffet makes you a connoisseur or a nutritionist. You’ve been misled into thinking that living in theological no-man’s land is a sign of great independence of mind, a mark of thinking for oneself. How I wish it were.
In truth, the lack of a theological position is like keeping your mouth open all the time. You may get more air in, but you’ll get other things in there, too. As Chesterton put it, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
That something solid is the place you plant your theological flag. And it is not usually in the stratosphere of abstract ideas. It is usually with a certain group of people, inhabiting a certain place. In other words, as much as it is providentially possible, your primary theological position should be that of your local church. Your church should be like choosing a spouse. Choose your love, and then love your choice.
I fear you have been misled into thinking that the church is just one more [live and unplugged] voice alongside those on the internet. And, before you assume all sorts of narrow and nefarious motives for me saying these things, I freely and happily admit that the internet is full of preachers and writers far better than I will ever be. If this were a question of finding the highest quality teaching out there, why should anyone ever go to church again? But I have to ask you to trust that I am not motivated by petty jealousy or the self-interest of having more people attending my church. I say these things because no Christian can grow without a coherent theology. Coherent, organised theology does not come from a pot-pourri of teachers, from the lucky-packet of YouTube’s recommended, or from a jumble of people, doctrines, and perspectives loosely considered orthodox, or conservative, or biblical. Growth comes from a stable, logical, and internally consistent system of Christian doctrines, with a unifying principle.
This is the reason why Christian history shows groups of Christians becoming convinced of a set of ideas, perspectives and truths. Those ideas become a system of doctrine, which often becomes a movement, a position, a denomination. This is not an evil. It is a sign that people were trying to be reasonable, rational, and coherent with Scriptural teaching: which is more than can be said for many internet warriors.
Genuine theological positions are like tastes: partly caught and partly taught. They come through months and years of absorbing the theological stance of a church, taking in the hermeneutic, and choosing the position as your own. Yes, if you’re wondering, that requires trust, something that some Christians refuse to give. You have to grant some trust to a person to even understand what he is saying; and from there, you can evaluate if his position is biblical, and invites more trust, and more loyalty. Those who stand in permanent distrust are doomed to live in theological limbo. Ironically, their refusal to trust, in the name of greater discernment, ends up making them all the more vulnerable to every wind of doctrine. We all have to start somewhere.
Mike, to put it simply, you joined our church, but I fear you are not really one of us! By that I mean, your theological loyalties are still drifting. No, I don’t need some kind of cultic loyalty from you to my person. I need you, as a Christian who wants to grow, to have theological loyalty somewhere, to someone. I need you to see your theological web needs a centre and a perimeter. If that theological position is not to be our church, then it should be another’s. Find it and anchor yourself. Let there be a gravitational centre to your Christian doctrine. Without this, your growth will have the lurching and stop-start feel of someone who surges and slumps with every wind of doctrine.
Your pastor and friend,