Posted by: Rodney Shaw | May 8, 2009

What Do We Believe?: The Priority of Theology

Faith is always contextualized within culture, and therefore the church must continually discern how to be light and salt in its given context. Each generation has not only the challenge but the responsibility to engage in serious reflection. There are always generational rifts where past norms come into conflict with innovation. Each new era brings its own vocabulary, music, understanding of the world, dress, and much more. As difficult as it may be, we must differentiate between our cultural preferences and our theological affirmations.

This is particularly an issue in North America. We are seeing the transformation of our culture in a much more accelerated fashion than what has been seen in the past. Immigration, multiculturalism, and pluralism are reshaping cultural norms. As we move farther away from World War II and the subsequent Cold War, nationalism—a self-awareness of Americans as an elect people ultimately rooted in independence and Christianity—is waning and along with it the accompanying traditional values that once were shared between society and the church. Not only so, but the advances of technology and communications are pushing societal change at an unbelievable pace.

So what does this mean for the church? What do we salvage from culture? What is useful for the church? What is harmful? What can we redeem for our own purposes? How much leniency can we have with regard to cultural expressions from church to church or from minister to minister? Do we abandon or modify previous responses to culture as we seek to respond to today’s culture? Are there any boundaries at all?

The church has always been faced with the issue of culture. The gospel story is filled with cultural nuances from first-century Palestine. The first dispute in the church was between widows of two different cultures. The first major conference in the church was focused on how to proclaim the gospel in foreign cultures. The epistles often address issues that arose from culture.

The priority of theology

Theology is our starting point. Theology is the basis upon which everything rests. It is imperative that we have a solid theological foundation from which we minister. Simply put, theology tells us what is true about God, humans, sin, redemption, the created order, and eternity. Until we can articulate theologically what is true about these things, we are not prepared to have a conversation about culture, methods, politics, preferences, or anything else for that matter. Just as a successful organization aligns all its activities with its mission or vision statement, so a minister and church aligns everything with theology. Everything we do must be consistent with our theology. This does not mean that every program or method is itself theological, but it must be consistent with our professed theological affirmations.

Theology is also the starting point in maintaining fellowship with one another. Until we have discussed theology, discussing matters like vocabulary, attire for worship, music, service formats, and preaching styles is not very helpful. A brisk discussion of theology very well could either end the conversation, for some may realize that they have different theological positions, or it could open up new horizons for conversation as we explore practical ways to flesh out our theology in practical ministry and lifestyle in diverse contexts.

Theology is universal.

It is important to remember that theology is universal. Sound theological positions that are true today were also true in the first century. Theological truth is equally true for all people no matter their cultural, geographical, or historical location. Accordingly, what is theologically true for North Americans is also true for Ethiopians and Russians. Whatever we affirm to be theologically true for Western capitalists must also be true for Chinese Christians cloistered in house churches. There obviously will be different ways of living out our faith in various contexts, but the underlying theological affirmations will not change. In this regard it is helpful and humbling for North Americans to remember that a majority of Christians, including Oneness Pentecostals, live outside of North America and Western Europe. Our theology must work in these places too.

Theology transcends patriotism, politics, and economics.

It is true that theology influences and works itself out in many areas of life; however, that is not the same as saying that all these things, themselves, are theological. Theology transcends what one thinks about pacifism, nationalism, ecology, globalization, immigration, concealed handguns, and other concerns. Now this is not to say that theology does not have a bearing upon these things, for in many cases, it does. (God is deeply concerned about what we do with neighbors and money.)

Positions on patriotism, politics, and economics should never divide fellow believers unless there is a clear theological difference on an underlying core doctrine. A white man in his sixties from the rural South is likely to have very different views from a twenty-something who is the grandson of immigrants in the urban Northeast. Both can be fully American and fully Apostolic, while their opinions can be drastically different, and both can hold credentials with the UPCI and unite around the gospel. At the risk of over-simplifying complicated issues, let us look at two examples.

Global warming. A sound theology of creation will certainly bring one to a sense of stewardship over creation, but it will not render a verdict on whether the earth is warming, and if it is, whether human activity is a factor. This is left to the realm of science and politics. Opinions on global warming vary among Christians. Some believe the earth is warming as a result of human activity. Others do not believe the earth is warming, or if it is, it is not the result of human activity. Both positions cite supporting data. Both positions have the backing of scientists. Both positions are often situated in a particular political context. There is no biblically correct position on global warming. Accordingly, there is no reason why we cannot, and should not, see a wide range of opinions on global warming within the church. Further, there is no need to castigate a fellow believer who has a different opinion on this matter.

Social action. Before we condemn or condone social outreach on a political level, either writing it off as an expression of liberalism or affirming it as a good gesture, we would be better served in the church to have a theological conversation about Christian ethics. Scripture has a lot to say about the poor, the needy, the underprivileged, love, and care for one’s neighbor. Clearly there are many ways to interpret these passages, but any opinion that is rooted primarily outside theology should not divide believers.

Theology transcends culture.

As stated above, multiculturalism complicates things, for there are numerous subcultures in North America. In the United States, for example, there is an overarching American culture, regional cultures (Northeast, Midwest, Deep South, etc.), state cultures, city (urban) cultures, town (rural) cultures, and overlapping all these are family and ethnic cultures. Even still, these categories are sweeping generalizations. All these could be subdivided many times.

Theology must always stand above culture, constantly critiquing and judging. Culture must never be elevated to the status of theology. All of our religious beliefs must be rooted in theology and then expressed in ways that are meaningful in our respective cultures, but we cannot elevate cultural expressions and preferences and make them theological.

One example that could be cited is attire for worship. In some subcultures wearing jeans to church would be disrespectful and would show one’s cavalier attitude toward God. This was true across the board thirty years ago. Wearing jeans in worship still could send this message depending on where one is located and what are the norms for that location. However, it is false to make a generalized claim that jeans are universally inappropriate for worship. In today’s multicultural world, many executives no longer wear suites. In many places formal attire no longer represents what it once did. Now, people even wear casual attire to watch a symphony or opera. In fact, for some, a suit would be inappropriate for worship for it is considered to be the garb of Wall Street and Corporate America, the very symbols of greed and materialism. Others would appeal to the costliness of suits and say that jeans are much more consistent with the simplicity and modesty that Christians ought to exhibit.

No doubt there are various opinions on this, but whatever opinions we may have about such things are mostly rooted in cultural preferences, not theology.

Theology transcends methods.

Church methods and theology are like oil and water: one will always be on top; one will always be in service to the other. But once again, believers should not divide over differences of opinion with regard to method unless there is a clear theological difference behind the method. But we must be careful that our methods truly are consistent with our theological affirmations or else they will betray us. (This is the topic of the next article in this series.)

Why are we talking about this?

If we do not keep theology as our priority we run the risk of passing judgment on those with different political or cultural preferences, even though they are doctrinally apostolic. That would be a tragedy. The flip-side of the coin is this: many have indeed changed their methods and changed a lot of cultural expressions in their churches. If this is truly a cultural preference, no harm has been done. However, we have many—too many—examples from our own history where people began with simple, cultural and methodological changes, all the while assuring us that they still believed our theology, only to eventually wind up making huge theological changes and leaving us. These situations have usually caused a lot of hurt and mistrust. So when we see drastic shifts in church methods or preferences for new cultural expressions, we naturally are concerned.

We all need to be honest with ourselves. If we want to have more relevant cultural expressions in our churches, we need to be honest about our true motives and intentions. If we are indeed wrestling with our doctrinal positions, we need to have the courage to say so, get counsel from trusted elders, and try to reconcile ourselves with the apostles’ doctrine. If we cannot reconcile ourselves to this, we should move on. That is the ethical thing to do. Likewise, if a fellow minister opts for cultural expressions and methods which are different from our own, and if he is committed to apostolic doctrine, we should encourage him in his work; he is doing the work of the kingdom.

So what do you believe?

To make theology a priority means that we need a well-thought-out theology. Do you know what you believe? If you have never written a personal statement of faith, you should. You should take the effort to commit to writing those things that are most important. These questions may help.

What is non-negotiable?
What must I preach in order to be consistent with the New Testament?
What must a sinner believe and do in order to be converted?
What are the marks of maturity in a Christian’s life?
What spiritual disciplines should be exhibited in the life of a mature Christian?
In what ways should a Christian live a separated lifestyle from the world?
What is my obligation to the church?
What is my obligation to the world?
What could cause me to break fellowship with another Apostolic?
What would I be willing to give my life for?
Do I have a solid, biblical basis for these positions?
How do my beliefs compare to the Articles of Faith of the UPCI?
Do I have anyone I can talk to about doctrinal concerns?

 

Take the survey: “What Do You Believe?”

This article was simultaneously published in the May-June 2009 Forward.

© Rodney Shaw and rodneyshaw.wordpress.com 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Rodney Shaw and rodneyshaw.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Responses

  1. Excellent post. I was searching to see what you have to say about the time between 9:00 AM and 11:00AM on Sunday mornings being “the most segregated in America.” What is the theological underpinnings of racial segregation among Christians in America?

  2. hh.. luv it )

  3. Bro. Shaw, that was a most excellent article!!! I couldn’t agree more!

    I enjoyed the survey as well.

    I really appreciate your initiative to help find doctrinally correct and culturally relevant answers to questions that have plagued us in Pentecost for the last generation.

    I want you to know that I appreciate the work you’re doing here with these controversial topics. Keep up the good work!

    Thank you and God Bless!

  4. Bro. Shaw, this is a great post. It is quite thought provoking and I want to revisit and read it again on another day when my mind is fresh. I hope you don’t mind my advertising your writing on my blog. http://www.janaallard.blogspot.com

  5. I always enjoy reading your thoughts. Always very honest and balanced.

    I hope the results will be available to everyone, for better or for worse, instead of a spun back-office analysis. What is stated in that survey has many implication.

  6. ASM, thank you for your wonderful response. Many are asking “how to become righteous” before the Lord. The answer is to “serve” love; God’s Agape love. The simplicity of the gospel has been lost. One must jump through hoops, walk on fire and chase the elephant to be saved.

    Concerning rebellion in the “church”, the greatest rebellion of all is against love.

    When one learns to “serve” love, they will be serving God in all of His righteousness. Pleasing the Father is serving love. Every decision we make concerning the flock should be…”does this action serve love”. To know God is to know love. Be blessed.

  7. Probably the best “apostolic” article I’ve read in a LONG time. Challenging and thought provoking. Well done!

  8. Sounds like 1992 all over again … taking inventory for?

  9. Brother Shaw,

    As always, great article! Thank you, for being willing to stick your neck out there and question many of our stances on various issues.

    ASM, just my humble response to your post:

    What is love? Well, it isn’t a good feeling, and it isn’t good intentions. Love is a commitment. Love isn’t as shallow as butterfly kisses, a walk on the beach, a gaze into an eye. When Jesus died on the cross, love’s song wasn’t sung beneath the moonlight on a warm summer day. Jane Austen didn’t author it, and Shakespeare didn’t find it. Jesus Christ authored it, and Jesus Christ revealed it through His sacrifice for His commitment to you and I. Loves picture that day was seen through the lens of commitment gazing upon the agony, pain, and loneliness that a crucifixion presented. A death that He had no business dying. It wasn’t roses, sweet smells, and beautiful music. It was blood, sweat, tears and the water flowing from a broken heart. This act of love was performed on a dusty hill called Golgotha, which means, “the place of the skull.” He didn’t want to live the life nor die the death that He deserved. He was so committed to us, that He lived the life and died the death that we deserved. God is love, and love is commitment.

    So, it is time that we commit ourselves to God. Our problem is we are too busy trying to create our own way of doing things. Anything you offer to God is filthy rags. He didn’t come to give us a chance to author our own way. Isn’t that what got Cain in trouble? Jesus came, died, was buried and rose again so that we could be redefined by Him. You could love Him with all of your heart, and you could fear him with all of your soul, both wouldn’t save you from yourself, and a hell that we are all destined for. The only one that can save us is JESUS! Without Him, we don’t know what holiness truly is. Without Him we don’t know what love truly is. We need JESUS!

    So, if any of us disagrees with the articles of faith for either being too harsh, or even being too liberal; let us not trash them or change them without looking into them with the word of God, and through prayer.

    I know for a fact that the men who wrote them didn’t write them without much prayer, and biblical study. If we are going to change them, or trash them, we better have bloody knees, and bloodshot eyes from the hours of prayer and study time in which we should make our decisions.

    It’s easy to sit back and disagree with something; it shouldn’t be as easy to change things that could possibly cause a brother or sister to fall. This isn’t my work, its God’s work, and I am going to make sure I follow Him in everything I do.

    ASM, I am willing to discuss these issues with you, and I am willing to hear your side. Please feel free to email me at, Davidhamilton83@live.com. I felt as you did at one time, that no one was willing to listen. However, I found that there are more that are interested than those that aren’t. Look forward to hearing from you.
    Blessings!

  10. Bro. Shaw, since I live overseas I usually get my Forward several months late (understandably) being able to view this on your blog is wonderful and refreshing.

    As I read this article I was reminded of the book, “The Art of Pastoring,” by David Hansen. In the chapter entitled, “Preaching” he defines preaching with this simple story, “In a Roman Catholic hospital in our town, in the elevator hallway, there stands a life size statue of Mary. Her face is perfect in serenity. Her body is upright but not tense. Under one of feet writhes a thickly muscled serpent; in its open mouth, fangs drip poison. That’s what preaching is. Preaching is stepping on the snake” (pg. 98).

    The modern Pentecostal/Charismatic movement has put great value in its eclectic approach to theology. A little of this, a little of that; put it all together and out comes some new form, revelation or book for the shelves. Unfortunately this has led to a dumbing down of preaching. It has led to preaching that no longer steps on the snake!

    The Oneness movement, for the most part, has stood against this eclecticism by codifying a fundamental doctrine and insisting on agreement. Our movement has greatly advanced because of our steadfast adherence to the fundamental doctrine. Our preaching has benefited by the consistent proclamation of the same message. We have stepped on the snake!

    Nevertheless, it is an increasingly reality that good theology is being traded for so-called relevance; that contextualization of the gospel to produce life change is being forsaken for a taste of the spectacular.

    In the 90’s we were encouraged to read all the leadership books we could get our hands on, which in and of itself was not bad. The rub, however, is this, good leadership principles are not the stuff of proclamation. Christ is the stuff of proclamation!

    We were encouraged to define our vision, state our mission and then revival would naturally follow. In the end, many became better leaders but few became better at theology and we began to value the art of leadership over the art of preaching.

    In your recent articles, however, I sense a real passion for us to return to a true Apostolic theology, which in turn would lead us to a true Apostolic hermeneutic, which would lead us to be able to contextualize the gospel to any culture.

    Great Apostolic leaders are not tried in the crucible of leadership they are molded in the press of theological thought. Our ability to discern the times and be relevant to the culture in which we serve requires a solid theology. When our theology is solid we then have a foundation upon which to carry out our missiological duty in this present world. If our mission is to reach the world then our priority must be theology. Without theology there is no mission!

  11. What is non-negotiable?
    Love. The greatest commandment is to love God and man.
    What must I preach in order to be consistent with the New Testament? Love, all the law and prophets hang on LOVE, thats the WHOLE Bible!
    What must a sinner believe and do in order to be converted? Love God
    What are the marks of maturity in a Christian’s life? Do they love God and man?
    What spiritual disciplines should be exhibited in the life of a mature Christian? Love for God and man
    In what ways should a Christian live a separated lifestyle from the world? Only in order to exude the love of Christ. All standards should be born out of love otherwise it is just filthy stinkin rags!!
    What is my obligation to the church? Love.
    What is my obligation to the world?Love.
    What could cause me to break fellowship with another Apostolic? Lack of love.
    What would I be willing to give my life for? Noe, thats hard to say isnt it? We’d all like to think we’d give our life for God and family but…
    Do I have a solid, biblical basis for these positions?Yes
    How do my beliefs compare to the Articles of Faith of the UPCI? The AOF are not really nesecarry when we have the Bible?
    Do I have anyone I can talk to about doctrinal concerns? No way!


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