“I was led, albeit unconsciously, to believe that our faith must fit neatly into a box. This box is no ordinary box, however it’s a box with no lid, no opening, no keyhole.”
I vividly remember one Sunday morning as a young teenager asking a trusted mentor and ministry leader an honest theological question stemming from my personal reading of Scripture. I had become intensely interested in God’s Word and had a genuine desire to grow in my faith, leading me to think more deeply about what I was reading. My question came from a place of innocence—I didn’t know I existed in a community that avoided asking questions. Because of this, my inquiry was met with resistance and a gruff admonition to “just have faith.” Coincidentally, I wasn’t questioning my faith at all; I was simply questioning how to understand a certain theological concept and wanted to know whether different understandings of this idea were valid.
In retrospect, this response was damaging. I hadn’t been intentionally digging up a bone of contention (in fact, I was too young to know that these doctrinal sensitivities even existed), yet I was made to feel as though my theological questioning was inherently wrong, anti-spiritual, and worthy of condemnation. I was led, albeit subconsciously, to believe that our faith must fit neatly into a box. This box is no ordinary box, however; it’s a box with no lid, no opening, no keyhole. This seamless box that so carefully contains our faith is, in fact, so fragile that we can’t allow even the slightest crack to appear lest its contents spill out and be lost forever.
If our faith is so brittle and our doctrinal stance so weak that honest inquiry causes us to fear whether all is lost, we should perhaps question whether these closely held beliefs are worth maintaining. Perhaps you’ve heard, as I have, the house of cards analogy as it relates to this point. We fear that if one previously held notion is pulled away, then the entire house falls to the ground. Fortunately for us all, our entire faith foundation isn’t at risk if we engage these theological conversations. We actually know this to be true because many of us have shifted slightly over the years on certain issues and perhaps somehow actually feel closer to Christ and more grounded in our faith as a result.
The need of engaging theological conversations has become something that is very important to me, in part because of how I’m wired as an individual, and also because of my ongoing ministry involvement. I teach college students who are training for a life of ministry and service in God’s kingdom. This is an honour that I take very seriously. I find much fulfilment in working with young adults as they pursue the call of God, yet there is a certain weight of responsibility in preparing these students for denominational ministry. I’ve been doing this for long enough to have observed some interesting trends. A number of years ago during my years as a Bible college student, there existed a certain inherent loyalty to the denomination. Generally speaking, this type of institutional loyalty no longer exists. This has nothing to do with our denomination or even our individual churches. It’s a generational difference. Students are loyal to God and to their calling, but not to institutions. If students don’t feel as though they can squeeze into a box, they won’t. If students don’t feel as though they can, in good conscience, align themselves with a certain group or organization, they won’t. They prefer to be true to their own faith and conscience and find other ways to serve God and fulfil their calling.
It should be highlighted here that young adults are not intentionally looking to tear apart the doctrinal views that we adhere to. On the contrary, they are simply looking to understand, just as I had been as a young teenager. I think, as pastors and leaders, we have to put forth our best efforts to help these young students learn, grow and understand. These young people are the future of our Fellowship. We have to give them reasons to stay, not reasons to leave. While there are some people out there for whom “just have faith” is a sufficient answer, for many others this kind of response leads to disillusionment. This begs the question, How should leaders respond to theological questions?
First of all, we have to be students ourselves. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God,” as many of us memorized it (2 Timothy 2:15a, KJV). A better translation of “study” here is the idea of diligence. As pastors and leaders, we must demonstrate diligence in how we handle the Word of God, not simply tout platitudes or command mindless acceptance of doctrinal statements. Rather, we should be exceedingly careful to “accurately [handle] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15b, NASB). The only way to do this well is to continue to commit ourselves to careful study of His Word, to lifelong learning—all with a growth mindset. There are tons of good resources out there that can serve you well in this area. If you’re a leader who doesn’t particularly enjoy reading, you still have an obligation to stay current and continue growing. You could make use of audio books or podcasts that would be a great asset to your personal and theological growth; it’s also helpful to ask for resource recommendations from other pastors or leaders. When we all work toward growth, we shift our own culture in significant ways.
Second, we have to assume that people are asking the questions. In an age where information is so easily accessible, students in particular and parishioners in general are turning to popular sources to find answers to their questions. A quick Google search will turn up a plethora of information on any given question. The problem here is that a Google search will likely result in some theologically sound material intertwined with plenty of theologically suspect material. How is the average person able to discern between what sources, sites and videos should be trusted and which ones should be denounced? At the college level, it has become quite obvious that students are engaging with much online information. Some sources affirm our stance as Pentecostals, but much of this material is in direct contrast with our Pentecostal distinctives. We are constantly having to counter these views. As pastors, leaders and educators, we must assume that people are asking these questions and looking for information. If we don’t provide sound theological teaching, there is great potential that damaging theological influences will lead the charge instead.
This brings me to my third point. Given that people are genuinely looking to engage theologically, we have to position ourselves to engage these issues. Local church pastors especially need to prioritize this. Sunday teaching should not shy away from hitting on key theological issues; this is your time to teach the whole counsel of God. Further, all ages of the church need to have access to solid teaching. The youngest members of your congregation are receiving counter-theological messages every day of the week related to the existence of God, the place of the church in society, human sexuality and gender, and so on. If we don’t teach our children and young people what the Bible says about these things, their worldview will be adversely shaped by the opposing views they are hearing from a myriad of other sources.
From my perspective as an educator, it has become painfully evident that biblical literacy is at an all-time low; there are many reasons for this that can’t be discussed here. It is, however, very important that pastors and church leaders be aware of this trend as well as their own responsibility to engage with theological issues. In retrospect, the leader who wasn’t willing to respond to my youthful theological inquiry probably felt ill-equipped to adequately speak to the topic, so it was likely easier to deflect rather than to engage me. It would be preferable in such an exchange to admit our lack of knowledge or perhaps to ask to revisit the conversation after we’ve had some time to think about it and work out a solid answer. At the very least, we should provide some great resources or Internet links to theologically sound material that the individual can personally investigate.
Given that our students and parishioners are interacting with theological material—much of which opposes our own doctrinal views—we are no longer in a position to avoid these conversations. Admonishments to “just have faith” are inadequate as we have to be able to “accurately [handle] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB). I think we’ll all be much healthier if we work through theological issues together. Further, if we avoid helping our young people work through their theological questions, we risk losing them. Yet, if we are willing and provide space to participate in conversations on issues that matter, we position those whom we influence to better understand our theological views. And we ultimately pray that they’ll decide to join us in investing in what matters most to us as a movement—sharing the message of Jesus with the world around us.
Allison MacGregor is teaching faculty at Master's College and Seminary in Peterborough, Ont. This article appeared in the July/August/September 2019 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photo © istockphoto.com.