It’s difficult for me to explain certain problems with spiritual stagnation without discouraging the person I’m writing to. Some problems don’t seem like problems to a person; they seem like virtues, and to point them out is to often risk deflating a believer’s zeal. I trust you’ll resist that tendency as I try to point out what is holding you back.
Richard, your Christian life began in a very mixed-up, wonky church, by your own admission. All sorts of charismatic hoopla and spiritual acrobatics were standard Sunday fare. But, by the grace of God, you did hear the gospel message of God’s saving grace in Christ, and you believed. There was a diamond of truth amidst the abundant mire of false teaching.
You told me that it was a friend who rescued you from that church and invited you to his home group Bible study. A new world opened up for you, as you experienced serious interest in Scripture, a militance against false teaching, and an unflagging allegiance to pure biblical teachings. It felt like a second conversion for you, a seminal moment of awakening to Christianity rooted in nothing but Scripture.
It seems, however, that the home study had certain doctrines and foci that it revolved around. Studies of Daniel, Revelation, the minutia of pretribulationism versus mid-trib or post-trib rapture positions, studies of Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholicism, the Word-Faith cult, the Illuminati and one-world government. I could guess at the other topics taught there, and probably be 100% correct without having attended it, not because of a prophetic or psychic gift, but because such fiercely independent groups are, ironically, predictably similar in their interests.
Richard, it is not unusual in times of mass theological confusion for Christians to organise protests against the falseness around them. Small Bible studies, conducted by earnest Christians, attempt to get back to Scripture. Often these studies do a real service: they point out the boundaries of the faith. By exposing false teaching and teachers, they help Christians sharpen their discernment and no longer accept everything that goes under the banner of Christian.
But as the saying goes, water cannot rise above its own level, and these studies seldom rise above the spiritual maturity level of their leader. Unfortunately, that is often not very high, because the man in question has often developed a kind of anti-church, anti-tradition, anti-education stance. He begins to define the very purpose of his home study as a perpetual warning for Christians on two fronts: beware of false teaching, and be ready for the last days. Hence the foci: identifying false teachers, and eschatology.
Even though that home group dissolved a few years ago because of in-fighting (the significance of which you have seemingly not reflected upon), you still look back nostalgically on that time in your life. You’ve told me you miss the intense Bible study, the exploration of mysteries, the liveliness of comparing current affairs to biblical prophecy. You even feel that the home studies were truly “meaty” compared to what you get at church. I think this perspective is keeping you stagnant.
First, I think what makes up much of the nostalgia was the transition from your charismatic church to a group focused on Bible study, not necessarily the content of the study itself. The first time any Christian gets serious with the Bible, it is a watermark event in his life that he will never forget. You’re right to treasure the memories of an awakening discernment. But I do not think it was because of the content of what you studied. Rather, it was simply that you studied at all.
That brings me to my second point. You have mistaken detailed theology for deep theology. Elaborate eschatological schemes are indeed detailed in their precision, but they hardly represent theology that is profound, awesome in its scope and explanatory power. For example, did the home group ever delve into how the union of two natures affected whether Christ could or could not sin? Did it ever consider if the simplicity of God prevents a personalistic mutualism in the Trinity before the Incarnation? Did it examine if natural or federal headship has implications for the atonement? If these ideas seem foreign to you, then I rest my case. Some food is not necessarily meaty; it’s just chewy.
Most importantly, for our discussion of spiritual stagnation, you have mistaken discernment for spiritual growth. You have thought that an enlarging vocabulary of Christian doctrinal themes is synonymous with growth. It is not. Fascination with parts of the Bible is not the same as conviction. Curiosity about theology is not the same thing as humility. An eagerness to solve biblical mysteries and problems is not the same as a desire to grow into the image of Christ. It is possible to have all the first set of qualities, and none of the second.
Consider, would your home study have ever done a study on conquering anger, or dealing with depression, or sexual purity, or marital roles? Why not? And as you read the New Testament, do the apostles seem more concerned with Christian character or with identifying the ten toes of Nebuchadnezzar’s image? Are they more concerned with godly families, godly testimonies, and godly priorities, or with explaining the identity of the Nephilim? Why does the New Testament emphasise godliness, if end-times and identifying false teachers is supposed to be our emphasis?
You see, there’s a reason why the immature perpetually hover around these topics. Just as it is easier to do small talk rather than asking personal, penetrating questions, so it is easier to study those esoteric topics that keep the spotlight off my sin. It is easier to soar in the stratosphere of speculative study than to have to mortify my flesh and put on righteousness. It is far more comfortable to examine whether Togarmah is modern day Turkey and if Gomer is modern day Germany in Ezekiel 38 than it is to forsake worldliness, and change my speech, thoughts, financial habits, or entertainment choices. There is little cost to mere “warning theology”: after all, I’m on the right side of the warning, looking outward at all those who’ve got it wrong.
Richard, the real “meaty theology” is the kind that makes you more like Christ. What good is an eschatological expert whose moral and family life is a disaster? What good is the man who can identify all the errors in the Christian world except those glaring ones in his own character? What is the point of studying the Word, if it does not cause us to love Christ more deeply, and to resemble Him more clearly?
I do not say that intense studies of eschatology or false teaching have no value or place. But I ask you to evaluate your own aversion to the plain teaching of Scripture on sanctification. Evaluate the fact that you are bored with anything in Christian doctrine that is not speculative, arcane, or esoteric. Consider if you have become addicted to ‘solving mysteries’, and have little tolerance for the hard, plodding work of spiritual discipline.
Richard, become interested in God Himself. Become interested in the attributes of God. Commune with Him and be in His presence. Become fascinated with His works in redemptive history. Study every book of the Bible. Explore all of theology: biblical, systematic, historical. Above all, become intensely interested in practical theology: how spiritual growth works, how we should worship at church, how to do evangelism and missions, how to defend the faith, how to choose wise ethical choices in a highly complex world. Learn how to counsel yourself, and then counsel others in the many maladies of the soul.
That home study was not the high-point of your spiritual life. It was a stepping stone. It’s time to step up and on towards real spiritual maturity.
Your friend and pastor,