A Crisis of Theological Illiteracy

By J. Oliver Jones

2007

 The story is told of a Pastor who entered the Sunday school class room of a group of primary age boys. He asked them, “Who knocked down the walls of Jericho?” No one answered. After waiting a couple of minutes he said, “Surely someone in here knows what happened to the walls of Jericho!” Finally Johnny, who was frequently in trouble for various acts of mischief answered, “Pastor, I know what you think, but honest, it wasn’t me, and I don’t know who did it!” The Pastor looked in surprise to the Sunday school teacher, only to be told, “Sure enough sir, he has been in the class all morning. I really don’t think he did it.”  By this time the pastor was a little upset at the lack of knowledge of even the basic Bible stories. Not only did the children not know the answer, but apparently some of the teachers did not know either. 

The Pastor called for a meeting of the Board of Education wanting to discuss the lack of Bible knowledge among some of the church parishners. After relating to the Board his experience with Johnny and his teacher, the chairman seemed very concerned. Then he looked to the Pastor and said, “Rev. Stevens, I have known Johnny’s parents for many years. I agree Johnny is a little mischievous at times, but I know he’s been raised not to lie.  So if he says he didn’t do it, and the teacher says he was in the classroom, well Pastor, I just don’t see why you don’t believe them!”

 

I agree – it is a cute story! No doubt the Pastor was even more upset after his meeting with the Board. But what is not cute is how true this story has become in so many churches! The lack of Bible knowledge and understanding is at an epidemic level all across America. I am not speaking about the lack of knowledge among the vast unchurched multitudes, but about the lack of basic Bible knowledge and understanding among those who are classified as Christians! Look at the following statistics among those surveyed by George Barna from these mainline Protestant denominations (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists (not Southern Methodist!!).

  • § Only 35% of mainline Protestant church members believe Christ is sinless.
  • § Only 34% believe the Bible to be totally accurate.
  • § Only 27% believe that works do not earn salvation.
  • § Only 20% believe that Satan is real.

 

This means that 73% of mainline Protestant church members believe that works earn salvation while 65% of these same people believe that Christ was not sinless. The Baptists (all types) are usually more conservative, but the statistics were only a little better.

  • § 43% believe that works don’t earn salvation, meaning that 57% believe they do.
  • § 55% believe that Christ was sinless, meaning 45% of Baptists believe He was not sinless.
  • § 66% hold the Bible to be totally accurate (what have they been reading to make some of them think Christ was not sinless?).
  • § Only 34% of Baptists believe that Satan is real, meaning that 66% do not (which means that at least half of those that believe the Bible is true haven’t read it at all!).

 

Of nondenominational Christian churches, Barna reports that 48% believe Satan is real, 60% say works don’t earn salvation, 63% affirm that Christ was indeed sinless, and 70% believe the Bible is totally accurate. This is better but it still isn’t good!

I believe there are many reasons for this problem. The Bible can no longer be allowed in the public classroom. The Ten Commandments can no longer be placed on the walls of public places without risking the wrath of the ACLU. Prayer is not allowed in our schools, or now even before most sporting events. Debate about taking the words “under God” out of the pledge of allegiance, and the phrase “in God we trust” off our currency is ongoing. The phrase “separation of church and state” is thrown around like it is a real constitutional issue. For the most part, it would appear that God is no longer welcome in the everyday lives of people.

In addition to all the negative talk about God and the “harmful” effects He has on our society, there is also the issue of what has been called the “dumbing down” of America in most areas. Children play fast passed electronic games that require little or no imagination rather than read.  Teens talk on the phone for hours, sit in front of the TV or computer, and are involved in all types of entertainment, but take very little time to learn the vitally important meaning and purpose of life. Adults work harder and longer hours trying to keep pace with the standard of living they see portrayed in commercials as that which will bring happiness and contentment in life, leaving little time for the reading of the Bible or involvement in organized Bible study. God just has to be satisfied with His one hour per week on Sunday mornings.

Then of course there is the issue of the church feeling it has to compete with the world for the time, attention, and money of the people in the congregation. After all, if too much is expected, they will stop coming.  The Pastor certainly can’t preach or teach anything too heavy since the people won’t know what he is talking about. So the lessons have to be brought down to the level of the people, and when it comes to the Bible that can often be a pretty low level! So, does this picture seem bleak enough for you, or should we go on?

 

Other Disturbing Findings

  • § The most widely known Bible verse among adult and teen believers is “God helps those who help themselves.”  The only problem is that this is not a verse found in the Bible, and it is in direct conflict with the primary message of the Bible.
  • § Postmodernism has convinced many that there are no absolute universal moral truths. According to Barna, “A minority of adult and teen believers contends that absolute moral truth exists” (only 32% of born-again Christians professed to believe in absolute moral truth).
  • § Less than 10% of believers seem to possess a biblical worldview that guides them in making decisions or in their lifestyle or behavior.

 

Additional Quotes

Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College states, “If it is true that Biblical illiteracy is commonplace in secular culture at large, there is ample evidence that points to similar trends in our churches.”

George Lindbeck, Yale University theologian, observes, “When I first arrived at Yale, even those who came from nonreligious backgrounds knew the Bible better than most of those now who come from churchgoing families.”

David Wells, theologian and author of, No Place for Truth, proclaims, “I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy.”

 

Is There a Solution to

Biblical and Theological Illiteracy?

In an article written by Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D., he outlines five solutions to this crisis. I would like to list his five solutions and make a brief observation on each one.

First, church leaders need to be aware of the crisis. Sadly he observes that many church leaders resist the notion that their people are subject to such a lack of knowledge or practice of the Word.

  • Observation: I strongly believe that believers as a whole are in a terrible state of ignorance as it concerns the Bible and the need for Christ-likeness in one’s personal life. Even in the most conservative and evangelical of churches, the need for vast improvement is obvious. Church leaders must take this seriously and develop a plan of action to reverse the trend toward spiritual illiteracy!

Second, pastors and church leaders need to evaluate what their people know and believe. Dr. Vlach suggests a questionnaire about the basics of Bible and theology be given to your church people in order to find out where the weaknesses are in your particular flock. He states, “It can no longer be assumed that the people in the pews ‘know the basics.’ Many do not!”

  • Observation: This may seem like a quick way for the Pastor to get voted out of the Church! It could also be a real eye-opener for the Pastor. I believe for this to be effective, the people themselves need to understand the severity of the problem and be willing to work together with the church leadership to develop a solution.

Third, church leaders must use powerful ways to instruct their people in the truth. “This includes a well-planned systematic approach to biblical truth” say Vlach.  Barna adds, “Rather than giving people disjointed morsels of spiritual truth each week, we must have a systematic method of enabling people to buy into a biblical worldview that transforms their life.”

  • Ø  Observation: This is the exact approach of the Light of Life study materials. From the first quarter, Laying the Foundation, to the eighth quarter, Concepts of Theology, the approach is one of systematic progression.

Fourth, church leaders, including pastors, must alert their members to the unbiblical worldviews and philosophies that have crept into the church. Vlach continues, “False teachings have subtly infiltrated our churches, and church leaders must combat these destructive errors and heresies.”

  • Observation: Again, I can not more strongly agree. Far too many conservative evangelical Christians cannot distinguish the truth of God’s Word from false doctrine. It was for this reason that the booklet, Ten Vital Questions Every Christian Should Ask Their Pastor was written. It deals with this very issue, the ability to distinguish truth from error. Indeed, truth makes us free!

Fifth, we must encourage diligent and gifted teachers in the church. “We need to identify the young men and women in the church who have the gifts of teaching and intellect and encourage them to pursue their gifts” says Gary Burge. When the gift of teaching and those who teach well are once again held in high regard, we will “help bring about the rebirth of biblical literacy and informed faith in North America.”

  • Ø Observation: This is the reason Light of Life Ministry has already begun work on the study, Learning to Teach. The development of this study is being led by Pat McDonald, LOLM Board member and Bible teacher. Our intent is to have this study ready and available by 2007 year end.

There will be more to come on this topic. But for now, please pray with me for God to move among us to raise up pastors and teachers who will with boldness, passion, and anointingProclaim the Truth!

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