Navigating the landscape of Christianity often feels like standing in front of these signs. Everywhere you look it seems like another Jesus follower has a different take than you. As I will argue below, the best thing to do is figure out what your non-negotiable beliefs are and then be open to the rest. These are 3 reasons why many of us probably have flawed ideas about God and all three support each other:
1) Our ideas may not actually be informed by scripture
If we are honest with ourselves, all of our beliefs are not informed by scripture – many are simply opinions. We are all victims of our context and experience – these things shape us even more than we can imagine. We are influenced seriously by the voices we choose to listen to, the preachers we give credibility to, and the authors that write the books we read. And while I believe that I’ve made the right interpretations on matters of opinion, all the people who disagree with my opinions would say the same thing of themselves. As one professor of mine said, “If I thought your opinion was right, I’d change mine”. This is why it is so incredibly important to approach theology with humility. Once we believe we have all the right answers, we are in trouble. Of course, saying our ideas about God are formed from scripture can mean many different things to many different people depending on how you handle the whole hermeneutical process. As I have learned by now, you can make ‘God say’ most anything you’d like by using verses in ways they were never intended to be used. In fact many of the most prevalent ideas about who God is in popular Christian culture aren’t biblical at all; they simply have the appearance of truth. There is a certain humility that comes along with realizing that there are 2 billion Christians on this planet and at least 75% of them disagree with you about a lot of things. I also could have titled this one, “we take ourselves too seriously”.
2) We Find Too Much Identity in Denominations
Every type of church has things they focus on more than everyone else: some focus on the sovereignty of God, others on the Holy Spirit. Some hone in on grace and others on taking care of the poor. Some emphasize holiness, missions, baptism, fighting injustice, the resurrection, or the cross. I have found that all of these distinctive focuses can be instrumental in helping me gain a well-rounded perspective of scripture. Many churches spend most of their time talking about one or two things like talking points. The danger in that type of teaching is that we can find too much identity in the specific focus we hear each week and not enough in the whole picture scripture paints. One particular tradition has popular teachers that spend the majority of their time talking about how everyone else has it wrong and are in clear violation of scripture -- they see themselves as the doctrine police. This eventually breeds a “we are the only Christians” mentality and the people in that tradition end up listening only to the teachers in that tradition.
I tell people all the time that I am a pastor – the obvious follow up question is “what denomination are you”. I try to say something like, "I'm not". The church universal is full of people with different perspectives and they are all my brothers and sisters; they all worship YAHWEH, all proclaim Jesus as Lord, and we have all received the same Spirit. I am a big believer in having dialogue with people who have different perspectives because I like to learn new things. And while I disagree with many of their ideas about what scripture says, I am convinced that unity will begin when we refuse to let those differences of opinion divide us or make us become opponents of one another. Our current situation seems off base in light of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and Paul’s tough stance against divisions in the church in his 1st letter to the Corinthians. Divisions happen when we are unwilling to have healthy + humble dialogue about our divergent opinions and when we elevate ‘being right’ to a place of prominence over the unity of the Spirit. I should note that divisions can also happen when a segment of the church gets the core of who God is wrong and I don't see any issue in taking them to task over it since I would maintain that the character and nature of God Himself is worth defending -- but I digress. Ultimately, one of the ways we can gain a wrong perspective of God is if we isolate ourselves in one particular tradition, standing firm on a ‘tenets of faith’ instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to teach us through all of His people.
3) We entertain too many questions about “positions” and not enough about “belief”
As an intellectually geared person, I often find myself asking a lot of questions. When it comes to scripture, I tend to see the questions the text raises in terms of theology – but I can often fall into the trap of being so worried about having the correct ‘position’ that I don’t actually end up letting the Holy Spirit change me according to what the text says. True belief always translates into life change. Spiritual maturity really has nothing to do with how accurate our doctrinal positions are and has everything to do with how obedient we are to the teachings of Jesus and how responsive we are to the voice of His Spirit. While questions that challenge our intellect are intriguing and often very important, questions that make us consider whether we are really following Jesus in real life are just as important. However, they can make us uncomfortable because they often reveal the inconsistencies between what God says and what we do. The truth is that the Holy Spirit still has a lot of work to do in each one of us when it comes to forming beliefs centered on God’s truth. Many of the smartest bible scholars in the world have exactly zero relationship with the Father because they have never submitted to the Lordship of Jesus and have not learned to be led by the Holy Spirit.