Theological Agnosticism Coming Soon to a Church Near You

by BJ Rudge, Ph.D.

What is the current state of evangelicalism?

In the past, differences among evangelicals usually focused upon secondary issues such as worship style, the role of women in the church, and the proper structure of a service. Despite these differences, evangelicals always found common ground on the simple truth that the Word of God was the final authoritative source. The reality of this truth was confirmed in my own childhood experience as I visited many different evangelical churches with my parents. While some churches would sing hymns, and others would have a worship band, one thing that was always consistent was the preaching of the Word. Regardless of the denomination, the minister would begin the sermon by opening up the Bible and expounding upon the truths found within it.

As I look at the current state of evangelical Christianity, I no longer see the centrality of the Word of God being a common thread that unites us. In a typical Sunday morning service many messages from the pulpit today make little to no reference to the Bible. Instead of the Bible being the main source of instruction for the body of Christ, many ministers now rely solely upon personal stories, jokes, skits, pop psychology, and various media outlets to instruct their congregation. Evangelicalism can no longer be defined by the principle of sola scriptura, as the Word of God is no longer seen as the final authority in all matters.

What has been the main motivation among evangelicals behind this shift away from God's Word? While there are varying factors, the main one is a desire to be "relevant." In this attempt to be "relevant," the Gospel message is watered down to avoid offending anyone. Also, "outdated methods," such as the preaching of the Word, are replaced with new seeker and user-friendly methods that are designed to appeal to people's needs. At the foundation of this attempt to be "relevant," many evangelical churches have in essence re-defined Christianity according to the post-modern culture.

A key characteristic of the post-modern culture is the denial of absolute and exclusive truth. Truth is defined in terms of relativism and subjectivism. Relativism teaches that one person's truth is no more valid than another person's truth; while subjectivism teaches that truth is found in one's subjective experience. Thus, Scripture is no longer seen as the ultimate and absolute authority in the life of the believer. As a result, the distinctive features that once separated the body of Christ from the surrounding culture are now blurred. Instead of reforming the culture through the Gospel message, many evangelicals have allowed culture to reform the Gospel message. In essence what you have is no longer "biblical" Christianity but "post-modern" Christianity.

With the emphasis now away from God's Word and upon experience, what does "post-modern" Christianity look like?" The best way to describe "post-modern" Christianity is to see it like a chameleon. Just as a chameleon changes colors in order to blend into its environment so, too, "post-modern" Christianity changes colors based upon the subjective feelings and experience of the individual(s). Just like people picking and choosing different foods at an all-you-can-eat buffet, evangelicals are now picking and choosing what they will include into their form of Christianity.

Christianity has become a smorgasbord of opinions and beliefs with no clearly defining parameters on what constitutes the true message of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, in "post-modern" Christianity evangelicals are claiming such biblically erroneous ideas as (1) God does not care what religion people believe, (2) there are followers of Christ in other religions, (3) the core of Jesus' Gospel is not a call to repentance and faith but to work with other religions for the greater good of mankind (social gospel), (4) New Age techniques like meditation and yoga can be reconciled with biblical Christianity, and (5) there is no final judgment.

When you remove the absolute and authoritative Word of God and rely upon subjective experiences, you end up with a "free for all" of beliefs. Thus, no one should be surprised when evangelical leaders make outlandish claims that they are both Muslim and Christian, or when evangelical leaders participate in other religion's festivals. Just as it was during the days of the judges in the Old Testament (Judges 21:25), the church is full of people today who do whatever seems right in their own eyes. In the end, "post-modern" Christianity has led evangelicalism into theological agnosticism, where we no longer know what we believe and why we believe it.

I have heard numerous people try to justify this shift from the centrality of Scripture. Beyond their claim this enables the church to be "relevant," the main argument is it helps keep the church pews full. However, does the number of people who come through the doors of a church always signify a healthy church? An answer to this question can be determined by examining the fruit that is being borne by "post-modern" Christianity within evangelicalism.

The first fruit being produced is biblical illiteracy. The average Christian today no longer adheres to a biblical worldview. Instead of looking at the world through the lense of Scripture, the average Christian relies upon his own feelings and experience. As a result, core doctrines that have been historically held by the church are now not only being questioned but even denied. For instance, recent surveys have shown that a growing number of Christians deny the existence of Satan and hell (Genesis 3; Revelation 20:10-15), that Jesus lived a sinless life while He was on earth (2 Corinthians 5:21), and that Jesus is the only means to obtain salvation (Acts 4:12).

A second fruit that is being produced is false teaching. Since truth is to be experienced, rather than obtained through studying God's Word, evangelical churches have become feeding grounds for unbiblical teaching. Perhaps, the greatest example of this has been the influx of New Age teachings that have crept into the church. With an emphasis upon meditation, emptying the mind, mystical experiences, and manipulation of energy, evangelicals have repackaged Eastern religious practices with Christian labels.

The question we need to ask ourselves is not "does this experience/practice make me feel closer to God," but "is this experience/practice validated by the teaching found in God's Word?" We need to heed the warning given by the apostle Paul, "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!" (Galatians 1:6-8).

A third fruit being produced is worldly lifestyles. Evangelicalism today is full of people who base their moral decisions upon circumstances. An example of this situational ethics was a survey asking Christian teenagers whether it was wrong to have sex before marriage. A good majority responded that it depended upon the circumstances, primarily, if the two people loved each other. This approach to morality is simply the logical conclusion when the Bible is removed as an authoritative and absolute guide for truth. Thus, the church becomes inundated with every moral perversion that goes on in the world, and since one person's truth is just as valid as another person's truth, church discipline has become extinct. "Post-modern" Christianity has certainly changed the way the church looks since the time when the apostle Paul called for the church to judge the immoral behaviors of those in its congregation (1 Corinthians 5).

A fourth fruit being produced by "post-modern" Christianity is false conversions. With the removal of the preaching of the Word, a typical evangelical service is designed to entertain the audience. While there are some who make genuine professions of faith, there are many whose commitment to Christ is nothing more than a mere feeling spurred by a certain song or the dimming of the lights. The understanding of the commitment and sacrifice that is required is rarely shared (Luke 9:23- 24), as Jesus is portrayed as only our friend and Savior without any mention that He is also our Lord and Judge (Matthew 26:64; Hebrews 4:13).

The health of a church is not determined by what walks though its doors, but on what comes out of its doors. What is coming out of many churches are "trees bearing bad fruit." The desire to be relevant, fill the pews, and not appear judgmental is actually destroying evangelicalism.

As recent surveys have shown, the next generation of teens and young adults no longer fill the pews of our sanctuaries. This should not be a surprise. When the church reflects the very practices and beliefs of the culture, how can it be expected to provide this world with a unique message of hope? When the Bible is viewed as just another book and Jesus is seen as just another way, Christianity loses its uniqueness as it is absorbed into our religiously pluralistic culture.

In a conversation with a college professor, he noted similar concerns as were mentioned above. However, he felt "post-modern" Christianity was at least beneficial in opening up dialogue with non-Christian faiths, emphasizing the importance that faith is not just a mental exercise but also a personal experience, and that the church should always be reforming and looking for new ways to communicate the Gospel message to nonbelievers.

While this professor is right in acknowledging these positive fruits, the dangers of "post-modern" Christianity supersedes the positives as it has undermined the authoritative Word of God and built a man-centered, rather than a Christ-centered, theology. Therefore, the church must stand up and share the authoritative and absolute truth of the Gospel message.

The Challenge

"Post-modern" Christianity has presented the evangelical church with a great challenge, and if evangelical believers are going to be equipped to contend for the faith (Jude 1:3), and be prepared to give a reason for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15), then we must heed the following.

First, pastors need to get back to sound biblical preaching. God's word is essential for a believer's life. While personal stories, jokes, skits, and various types of media are not unbiblical methods of communication, they certainly should not be the main source(s) of instruction during a Sunday morning service. God's Word should be! Instead of the Bible being a footnote in Sunday morning messages, we need to adhere to Paul's command, "I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all long suffering and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:1, 2).

Second, each believer must commit him/herself to studying God's Word. The Bible provides God's people with proper direction (it tells us why we are here and where we are going), proper doctrine (it tells us what we need to know), proper discernment (it tells us how we can know right from wrong), and proper discipline (it tells us how we are to live). The Bible is a road map for the believer as he navigates through life. As the psalmist said, "God's Word is a lamp unto [our] feet and a light unto [our] path" (119:105).

Third, the church must look to the Bible, not experience, as the final determiner of truth. While experience and emotions do have their place in a believer's life, when it comes to determining truth, the church must ultimately look to God's Word. Jesus said, "Sanctify them in truth; Your Word is truth" (John 17:17). We see in the book of Acts that when the church had to make decisions on doctrine, they went to Scripture. In Acts chapter 15, when the church met in Jerusalem, James went back to the written word to validate the Gentiles' inclusion into the body of Christ (Acts 15:16-18). Rather than being tossed to and fro from the subjectivity of our experiences and emotions, believers must be grounded upon the absolute authority of the Word of God, and be like the Bereans who received the Word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether the things Paul said were true (Acts 17:11).

Finally, while we need to ground ourselves upon the Word of God, we must avoid letting our faith become merely an intellectual exercise. This was the problem with the church at Ephesus. Christ praised them for their doctrine and discernment (Revelation 2:3) and their hatred of false teaching (2:6), but rebuked them because they had left their first love (2:4).

Without love, Christians are ineffective in their ability to point others to Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul made it clear that without love we are nothing and whatever we do profits us nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-4).

The Gospel must not be merely understood, it must be lived out. The greatest way we can live out the Gospel message is by loving God with all our heart, mind and soul, and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27). If we fail in doing this, then as Jesus warned the church in Ephesus, He will remove our lampstand (church) from its place (Revelation 2:5).

We live at a time when the love of many is growing cold because of all the trials and tribulations we are facing. However, true believers must keep the flame of love for our Lord and each other burning brightly.

As the lost in this world desperately seek answers to their spiritual longings, may evangelical believers and churches be houses of light and salt who accurately proclaim a message of hope, but also live the Gospel out through acts of love.