Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the importance of the local church in bringing believers to “the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13) That urging is every bit as important today as it was in the first century. The danger of remaining immature, or poorly instructed in the teaching of the gospel, can have profound consequences. I recently read William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America–and Found Unexpected Peace. I can’t summarize all his arguments for departing from the faith here, but one thing is clear, he did not begin with clear instruction about the message of Scripture.
Lobdell was raised in a bland Episcopalianism that, not surprisingly, involved no personal faith. He says he had screwed up his life in early adulthood by some poor decisions, but then in his late 20s, at the urging of a friend, he started attending a Southern California megachurch. Lobdell’s description of the teaching there is important.
The secrets had been there all along—in “Life’s Instruction Manual,” as some Christians call the Bible. Most of the lessons of Scripture were just common sense, but they carried the weight of God. Among them: Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Forgive and even love your enemies. Honor your wife. Be open and honest. Take care of the poor. Don’t gossip. Don’t run up financial debt. It all sounded good. And the Bible’s promise—God’s promise—was that it would lead to a fulfilled life. (p. 12)
Viewing the Scriptures in this fashion, as a kind of guidebook for life, is not unusual, but it’s a very truncated view of God’s revelation. While I disagree with his underlying diagnosis, Christian Smith wrote about this in The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. He questions this very thing, of presenting Scripture as life’s instruction manual, which ends up supporting a rather self-centered theology.
As one who had no knowledge of Scripture, it would not have occurred to Lobdell to question this, but imbibing this sort of theology leaves one unprepared and unable to deal with the substance of theology, which is most properly, the study of God. It further leaves one unable to deal with trial and suffering, which are an inevitable part of life. As Lobdell’s subsequent story shows, he wasn’t able to deal with his experiences through a biblical lens, and eventually gave up any claim to being a Christian.
The message of Scripture is the revelation of God’s glory in Christ. The Son of God gave himself on the cross to redeem sinners who deserved death and hell. The collection of those redeemed sinners, the church, exists to show forth the glory of him who called us out of darkness and into light. What is missing in Lobdell’s description, as it is from so much contemporary preaching and teaching, is that a fulfilled life is not God’s design for us—unless we define fulfilled as conforming us to the image of his Son. That quite often involves the sort of trial, opposition, and suffering that much of the New Testament describes as part of a disciple’s life. But that is also what is missing from a theology that makes the Bible into a traveler’s guide for making one’s way through life.
Local churches are the place where the sort of teaching, correction, admonition, and building up need to occur. An anthropocentric theology that puts us at the center of God’s plans will leave people impoverished and immature. Believers have a responsibility to hold forth the gospel, not a guidebook. Indeed, if we keep the Lord’s glory at the center of our theology, an abundant life (as defined by God) will follow. Brothers and sisters, make it your aim to know Jesus Christ and him crucified. The message of the cross remains foolishness to the world, but it also remains the power of God.