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Tom Gilson, a senior editor of The Stream, Aug. 26, 2017
Does it feel strange to find Christianity under attack the way it is these days? We see history changing before our eyes, and it doesn’t look good.
Take heart: We’re in good company. Historian Michael Kruger tells us Christians in the second century were regarded as haters and as intellectually lightweight. I’d say that sounds familiar — but not totally, because the Christian movement also grew by about 40 percent per decade during that period. They changed history in all the right ways. That sounds less a lot less familiar.
I wrote not long ago about how they did it: They outlived, outprayed, and outthought their opponents.
Outliving, Outpraying, Outthinking
“Outliving” means they poured out their lives in love to their neighbors. “Outpraying” means they expected God to work in power, they prayed He would do it, and they saw Him doing it. Both of these are common sermon topics. They’re familiar material, at least in theory. (Whether we live up to what we say is another question.)
“Outthinking” means they entered into the battle of ideas, and won. They didn’t win everything, but they won a lot. They showed that Christianity has real intellectual substance to it.
Which isn’t such a familiar emphasis in our churches, is it? When was the last time your church devoted a sermon to developing the life of the mind? Where are we celebrating our students who go to grad school, other than seminary. If you attend Sunday School, when was the last time anyone gave you a quiz, as if they expected you to learn something there? Christianity’s intellectual tradition is huge, but our present practice is tragically lacking.
I could describe the problem on many levels, but for today I’m going to stick close to home. We have considerable room to improve, even in the basics.
Biblical Thinking Must Address Current Questions
In the evangelical tradition (the one I’m most familiar with), preachers put strong emphasis on learning the Bible. That’s foundational; it’s serious thinking; I affirm it all the way. Still, it isn’t enough. It isn’t even biblical to think that knowing the Bible is enough.
One reason has to do with the kinds of questions people need answered. A few years ago, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was selling like iPhones on release day. The book told all kinds of crazy stories about Jesus, the disciples and the Church. All of the craziness was easily disprovable, but people started thinking it was true anyway.
I remember a pastor telling me during those days even he wouldn’t even the DaVinci Code in his church. He was there to teach the Bible, he said, “And only the Bible!”
What? I wondered. Does he think there isn’t anyone here who’s asking questions about the book? If we run away from those questions, won’t they wonder whether Dan Brown might be on to something?
Solid Learning Includes Intentional Un-learning
I’m not saying there’s anything intellectually disreputable about studying the Bible. Far from it! It’s the one sure foundation for everything we know about the world we live in, and the God who rules it. So I want to know it from Genesis to Revelation. I want to teach it as well as I can. But we can’t teach the Bible without recognizing and addressing all the questions swirling around it.
Suppose, for example, we say, “Homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so, and that’s all you need to know!” The first part of that is true enough; but no, that actually isn’t all we need to know.
Consider the young man who’s been heavily influenced by the message that homosexuality is right and good. His pastor tells him, “The Bible says it’s bad,” and leaves it that, thinking that’s all he needs to say. There’s a very good chance this young man will think, “Well, then, I don’t like the Bible.” And why wouldn’t he? It contradicts everything he’s come to believe is both good and true.
He needs to know more than what the Bible says; he needs to know that it’s true and that it’s good. In fact he even needs to know something more about the opposing views, so he can see they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Changing History Through Outthinking Our Opponents
Paradoxically enough, the Bible-only approach is actually unbiblical. Look at the prophets, Paul and Jesus himself, and you’ll see how well they knew the characteristic sins and errors or their day. It formed the basis for the questions they dealt with; and they responded to those questions head-on. You’ll find great examples in Isaiah 44, John 4, and Acts 17. (I’ll let you do the work of digging in for more specifics in those locations — it will do you good!)
The earliest Christians followed that biblical example. They listened to objections against the faith, and they answered them. They outthought their opponents — and they changed the world.
History is changing all around us, driven by forces that oppose Christianity. Isn’t it about time we got back in the business of changing history, too? Let’s keep fervent prayer and sacrificial love in our list of preaching topics, but let’s add excellent thinking in there as well.