Do evangelicals still believe evangelical doctrines?
Survey reveals woeful ignorance of foundational doctrines
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A major survey of doctrinal beliefs was released last week, revealing several disconcerting trends about the beliefs of self-identified evangelical Christians.
Basic theological concepts, like the divinity of Christ, belief in original sin, and the exclusivity of the Christian religion, were among views rejected or confused by some who identified themselves as “evangelical.”
Participants were defined as evangelical by a few key markers. They had to strongly agree that the Bible was the highest authority, trust in Jesus as their Savior, and believe in the atonement and eternal salvation through Jesus Christ alone. However, answers from a significant percentage of those surveyed displayed a vast misunderstanding of core tenets of the faith.
These revelations showcase a deep-rooted problem with theological education and discipleship within much of the Western church. Only an honest admission and analysis of where we’ve gone wrong at the local, personal, and institutional level will result in more encouraging numbers when the next survey comes around in 2 years and beyond.
According to the survey, 43 percent of evangelicals say they believe Jesus was a great teacher but not God. To get something as fundamental as this doctrinal tenet wrong is to cease being not only evangelical but Christian in any meaningful sense.
For people who claim the Bible as their highest authority, this large percentage means that many do not read the Bible with much theological rigor, at all. This particular confusion, on the nature of Jesus, could be due to a poor understanding of the Trinity, something that a little theology lesson could clear up. Unfortunately, many churches have done away with doctrinal classes, those that would teach such concepts. Few are getting the robust lessons in theology they need in churches these days because classes have been replaced with small groups. While the community aspect of small groups is important, it seems that this alternative ultimately replaced necessary religious education over the years.
While we may be able to concede a poor understanding of the Trinity, what about this one? Fifty-six percent of evangelicals in the survey say that God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This increasingly universalistic view of God has risen 8 percent in the past six years and may point toward a vogue form of cultural Christianity.
Consider the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Glennon Doyle Melton and Brene Brown—celebrities who claim to be Christians but say Christianity is not “the only way.” The fast rise of secular voices that claim Christian identity has been confusing and led some evangelicals astray. These kinds of voices echo worldly sentiments that are antithetical to the gospel.
Oprah says we are good. Glennon and Brene add their own confusions. The world cheers them on, urging us to embrace “our truth”—whatever that may be. That’s why it’s not surprising that almost two-thirds of evangelicals in the survey say they believe that humans are born in a state of innocence, a complete rejection of original sin. In fact, Christianity says the opposite—that we are born as sinners and only made well, full, and able through the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.
It’s easy to say that a baby is innocent—because they look so innocent. Soon enough, they prove otherwise. But as members of the human race, we are all fallen due to the first Adam. This is a basic theological truth that should be taught to small children from day one. However, given falling church attendance and the fact that 26 percent of surveyed evangelicals don’t think Christians are “obligated” to join a local church, this confusion is less surprising.
Unfortunately, if people don’t believe they are born sinners, they may never comprehend their need for a savior. If they believe, as my yoga teacher used to say, “everything you could have, want or need is right inside of you,” the only savior you’ll identify is yourself.
The modern, Western church has often failed people in the area of theological education. We have allowed cultural Christianity to dominate and politics to infect parts of our church culture at times. Even so, for this percentage of self-identified evangelicals to have such a deep misunderstanding of foundational components of our faith is a scary revelation.
This survey conducted by Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research underlines what is at stake. It’s time to go back to the core, to prioritize Christian faith education in the home, in the church and through intentional discipleship movements across the country. This is the only way back to an evangelical Christianity that produced disciples, rather than doubters, confused disciples, or even heretics.
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