On Healthy Churches 4: Biblical Theology (Mark 2)

The new "semester" has started, and we're back into the swing of things at Karis.  That means that we will begin again working our way through Mark Dever's "nine marks of a healthy church" as we read and discuss his helpful book, What Is A Healthy Church?  The more complete explanation of these "marks" is found here.  I'd highly recommend both of them to any Christian desiring to find a good church or to help his or her congregation become healthier.  But if you're a committed reader, certainly pick the latter. This week we looked at Dever's second mark, "Biblical Theology."  We began by discussing a quote from another author, R.C. Sproul, who often says, "Every Christian is a theologian."  If theology is rightly defined as the study of God, then every Christian is a theologian, whether he or she admits it or not.  Some people will say, "I'm not really into theology or doctrine.  Let's just talk about practical things."  But the truth is that such people are constantly doing "practical things" based on an underlying understanding of God.  They are making choices, taking action, doing "stuff," based on a worldview, which, as a Christian, certainly should include who they think God is and how He works.  Someone also pointed out in our group last night that this also would apply to non-Christians.  Yes, if we take the idea that all people, even if they are in denial, are suppressing the truth (Romans 1) and know there is a God, then they are acting based on who or what they think this god is.  So, yes, they are theologians, too-- even if they think God is a tree or chance or a fuzzy feeling inside.  Some people are more explicit about their theology, not even realizing it.  When someone says, "I just know God is love," he or she is making a theological statement.  So the question isn't whether or not we are theologians-- we are; it's whether or not we are good theologians.  When I go to see Dr. Stixrud to get checked out, I want to know she's a good physiologist.  For the sake of God's glory ultimately, as well as the good of His children, including me, I should strive to be a good theologian.

We then turned to look at all the passages in the Bible that talk about sound "doctrine" or teaching about God and His gospel.  Read 1 Timothy 1:10-11, 1 Timothy 6:3, 2 Timothy 1:13, 2 Timothy 4:3, Titus 1:9, 13, as well as Titus 2:1.  It's clear that the apostle Paul wants people to have "sound" or "healthy" doctrine.  This is encouraged by the apostle for all Christians, but particularly the elders, those whom God has placed in authority over the church.  Those men have to have sound enough doctrine and the concomitant guts to walk up to people teaching things harmful and rebuke them.  Paul has the guts to say, "Deal with false doctrine.  Take out heretics.  Or the church will be in trouble."  Just as we want our physical bodies to be healthy, and putting good things in them makes them so, our teaching in Christ's church must be healthy or the Body, His Church, won't be healthy.  Spiritual junk food or spiritual poison will both harm God's people.  So we need to fight against it-- positively, by teaching the right stuff, and negatively, by taking on the bad stuff.

Now some in Karis would say, "Duh."  Tell me something I don't know!  I have seen such an eagerness toward, and hunger for, sound doctrine among young people today.  I think this is a result of the legacy of the 80s seeker, megachurch.  Christian kids have grown up hearing sermons on 8 Steps to Loving Your Job and and the like.  They don't have a clue what propitiation means, and they want to know.  To those that didn't grow up in SeekerLand, I explain that there is so much pressure in the church today to get "results," that people do what 2 Timothy 4:3 talks about.  They say what tickles people's ears, what could be called "easy listening."  They do whatever gets people in the doors, and they do whatever it takes to get people to stay.  Sound doctrine doesn't always do that.  But I'll tell you, as I said before, there is a new generation that wants something deep and substantive.  My experience at Karis and my visit to The Journey confirms this.  Once they come out of drinking spiritual poison-- and some churches sadly hand this out, too-- they don't want junkfood.  They want meat that will help them grow in the knowledge of the gospel.

We turned next to talk about "biblical theology."  Dever, in his book, takes biblical in a simple, general sense.  To have a healthy church, a congregation must teach doctrine about God that corresponds to the Bible.  But I took the opportunity to make another point here.  Many rightly make the distinction between biblical theology (in another, more technical sense) and systematic theology, both of which are "biblical" in the general sense.  Both should correspond to the Bible's teaching.  But, as Tim Keller puts it, biblical theology reads "along the Bible," seeing the Bible as a progressive storyline pointing to Christ’s person and work. Systematic reads "across the Bible," seeing Scripture as teaching on various matters that can be gathered from various places in the Bible, taught and understood, and applied to our lives.  We then talked about why both are essential.  With the first, we see the Bible as a big story about Jesus, of which we are now a part.  With the second, we see the Bible teaching us about various topics that can help us navigate our world.  Biblical theology, I'm convinced, is very important today when we talk about defending our faith.  It gives us a comprehensive way to understand the world that can be shared with those around us who, although they may deny the legitimacy of metanarratives, are desperately looking for one in which to frame their lives.  Systematic theology is also important as we try to understand all things in light of God's revelation, but for those that have no appreciation for biblical authority, at least yet, it's not that convincing.  Biblical theology also helps us respond to matters on which the Bible seems to be silent.  Let me give an illustration.  In Everyday Theology, mentioned here, there is a chapter about transhumanism, this philosophy growing in popularity that advocates using biotechnology as much as possible to evolve beyond our current human state.  Now, if you open your Bible, you're not going to see much about people implanting microchips in themselves.  You're not going to see much about stem cell research.  There are no Bible verses about cryonics.  The Scriptures don't mention bionic hearts.  But, that doesn't mean we can't respond biblically to transhumanism.  The Bible shows a storyline that ironically teaches what transhumanists desperately want.  Human beings were made perfect in the garden but fell.  That fall brought about all of the sin and sickness and death that we see all around us.  The Bible teaches, though, that Jesus came to not just be in a "personal relationship" with people, but to restore all things-- all of the creation, but also our bodies.  The Bible speaks of Jesus being resurrected and coming back with this new, glorified body that's similar to ours but of a different order.  One day, the Bible promises, those that belong to Jesus will be resurrected and will have these glorified, perfect bodies.  So we'll be transhuman.  And, now, between Christ's first and second advents, Jesus is in the process of transforming us-- not physically as many pentecostals say (not that God can't and doesn't heal)-- but spiritually, more and more each day, making us more and more as we were originally created, humans of a better kind.  So, while systematic theology is very important, biblical theology can help us answer questions in our culture that systematic theology can't.

We next turned to five key teachings about God in the Bible that Dever says are essential:

  1. The God of the Bible is a Creating God
  2. The God of the Bible is a Holy God
  3. The God of the Bible is a Faithful God
  4. The God of the Bible is a Loving God
  5. The God of the Bible is a Sovereign God

Each of these, says Dever, is essential to be taught to have a healthy church.  We didn't have the time in our C-Group to look at all the Scripture references that teach these truths, but they're everywhere in the Bible.  We did spend a bit of time, though, discussing what happens if each is left out.  First, if God is not Creator, He doesn't own it all and we don't owe Him allegiance-- He's not Lord.  So, although we don't need to endlessly haggle about the details of creation account, if we capitulate and become evolutionists, we don't have a God who rules.  Second, often times in today's church, all people talk about is this friendly grandfather of a God who doesn't demand much and who isn't angry about anything.  But the Bible portrays God has holy.  This means, first, that He is majestic, greater and more glorious than us, and, second, that He is pure, separated from sin and totally devoted to His own glory.  Take this out, as the modern church has, and you have a God who looks like the dude in the mirror and who doesn't think adultery or genocide or gossip is a big deal.  Third, the Bible shows God throughout the Scriptures as faithful to His creation, and particularly to His people.  If we remove this from the picture, how can we know we can trust God's promises?  God hasn't abandoned His creation.  He hasn't abandoned His people.  And He never will.  The final picture in Revelation is of a redeemed people in a redeemed creation.  We can trust Him.  Fourth, God is seen as good and loving all over the Scriptures, and particularly to His own.  We can overcorrect, as a young, doctrinally-concerned church, and not emphasize His love enough.  If we do that, we have the angry, disinterested God of Fred Phelps and fundamentalist churches across our land.  Of course, if we have love, without holiness, we have no love at all.  Who wants a God who looks at what Phelps does and isn't royally ticked off?  But we have to see God's love, made meaningful by His holiness, all over the Scriptures and must make it our constant comfort and regular witness as His people.  Lastly, you don't hear much in the church about God's sovereignty.  But this is changing.  See this article and the Acts 29 Network as evidence.  If we remove this from God, we have a deity who made something He can't control and who is just hopeful, and not much more, that His holy, loving purposes will come to pass and He can be faithful to His people.  All five of these teachings about God are essential, as Dever teaches.

We then moved on to discuss how we deal with differences of opinion in the church.  The prevalence of "emergent" theology today, which is just microwaved mainline liberalism, makes it harder to talk about certain teachings as wrong or right.  However, the church must not take this postmodern, relativistic road, or, as I mentioned at the beginning, our churches won't be healthy.  But, on the other hand, we can't pull out the metal, folding chairs and beat each other over every issue.  I really appreciate Dr. Albert Mohler's "theological triage" idea.  Some issues are "first order," things that are essential to be considered a Christian-- the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, and the authority of the Bible would all be examples.  These are things to fight for, even die for.  These are things that are at the core of the gospel.  Second, some issues could be called "second order."  These are issues on which there may be significant disagreement among genuine Christians and which may necessitate those same Christians being in different churches.  But there is much love and unity around the gospel.  Baptism is a good example.  I have great Presbyterian friends.  We could partner with them, as Karis, to do ministry in many ways.  But the Presbyterian vision of the church, closely mingled with their understanding of baptism, is a much different one from ours.  So, we do best to be in two churches.  But it doesn't mean we don't love and appreciate each other.  In fact, I often share more in common with them than many Baptists.  Third, some issues could be considered "third order."  These are issues on which we may disagree in the context of a local church.  Eschatology (end times), spiritual gifts, and educating our children might be some examples.  We must as God's people pursue theological health, but we need to be able to navigate the issues, ordering them using a method at least similar to this, to make sure we're not fighting all the time.  As many have said, we should pursue unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and love in all things.  Let us not be a people that can't tell the difference.

We concluded by discussing how theology is truly applicable, and this idea of "give me something that applies, not theology" is ridiculous, as everything we're doing is, again, as we began, based on our theology, whether or not we want to call it that.  So let's pursue sound doctrine, Karis, and let's help each other see it worked out in our lives.  As John Piper has said, we should teach about God's sovereignty so that we will remember it on our deathbeds.  Theology is applicable.

Let me conclude here with three words of caution:

  1. As we pursue biblical theology, let's not allow ourselves to become blockheads who walk around like PhDs arguing about minor matters.  Doctrine matters.  But let's not focus on the head to the neglect of the head and hands.
  2. Let us remember to pursue this theology in the context of community.  God didn't intend us to learn all of this by ourselves, alone in our studies, or by listening to podcasts in isolation.  Theology is best lived and experienced in the context of the local church.
  3. May we pursue humility as we also study God.  Knowledge can puff up, as 1 Corinthians says.  Nothing should humble us more than studying who God is.  The irony is that sometimes theological growth means cranial growth, as well.  We must fight against this, as this is one of Satan's trickiest schemes.  I know.  I have been to seminary.