Are Theology Debates about Fear or Faith?

For over 15 years I had been deeply involved in one particular faith based institution. I had given a great deal of time and energy to do everything I could to inspire people to follow Jesus more fully and completely with every aspect of their existence.

The last few years of my involvement in this church I had been doing some teaching at the many adult bible classes and it had been going quite well. Toward the end I started doing more teaching in the college group to fill a void that had been created.

As a part of this class it was my desire to teach the students that it’s ok to ask tough questions about the bible and that we shouldn’t fear these questions. One other desire was to teach the students that it’s ok to disagree theologically and that we shouldn’t let those issues divide the body, especially when they have nothing to do with salvation.

The way I decided to orient this lesson was to have a friendly debate with a fellow on the topic of open theism vs classical theism. I won’t go into all the details but to make a long story short because of my views on open theism I was told I could no longer teach at this particular faith based institution.

It was deemed that an open view is outside of the theological boundaries in this institutions statement of faith and is a major issue not a minor one. All though it was acknowledged that this point had nothing to do with salvation.

As I reflected on all that had happened it became clear that what led to this decision and the conversations with me prior were more about fear than they were faith. There was a fear of what would be said if an open view was being taught at this institution and it got back to the mother organization. There was a fear of what others would think if it got out that this view was being talked about. There was a fear that this view made God look less Sovereign, etc.

Ultimately when it got back around to the college kids, I found out that all the things I set out to teach actually back fired and we taught the opposite things. The actions of the leadership who made the decision taught dis-unity. They taught that it was not ok to ask tough questions and that church was not a safe place for genuine theological dialogue.

Emphasizing again that with most of the debates, when the opposition strikes so strongly it is more out of fear than faith. Consider much of the recent debate over Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins. Things that were said, assumptions that were made, things taken out of context to falsly prove a point, all done out of fear not faith.

What it really boils down to is, those who strike back out of fear are afraid to be challenged. They are afraid of what may happen to their faith if the things they were brought up believing were true could potentially turn out different than they thought.

Perhaps a more pertinent observation is that those who are in the fear camp view theology as more important than people.

To which a marvelous quote from a Rabbi friend comes to mind:

“If a Christian wants to know what you believe he will examine your doctrine. If a Jew wants to know what you believe he will follow you around for three days.”

All this is tragic because we should strive to read the bible for all its worth. We should strive to seek after truth and not let dogma, tradition, agenda’s, culture etc get in the way.

Only genuine faith based dialogues can achieve this. Fear dialogues leave one person feeling attacked. Faith dialogues happen where there is a true sense of community among believers, where people are more important than theology (or right beliefs).

Unfortunately this is not very common.

As Kurt Willems points out in his blog post where he outlines how too often the church is not a safe place and how diving into theological waters is sometimes like jumping off the high dive for the first time.

May we jump without fear and engage in genuine and faithful dialogue.

9 thoughts on “Are Theology Debates about Fear or Faith?”

  1. Red

    couldn’t agree more. how can we expect people to be free to believe and to question if we show them by our actions that actually they aren’t. When people questioned Jesus he didn’t send them away with a flea in their ear, he listened and gave his advice/view/opinion… their choice to agree, listen or ignore…
    challenge is good.
    enjoying your blog by the way, just came across it a few days ago…
    red 🙂

  2. Dan Martin

    This fear is deep-seated stuff, Ben. I contend it’s at the root of most creeds, and most “heresy” witch-hunts throughout church history. I still grieve the way it played out in your experience…I truly hope some of the creative souls in that class you were teaching, don’t just learn the “sit down, shut up, and don’t rock the boat” lesson that the leadership effectively taught.

  3. Jonathan

    Ben, thanks for your good thoughts and the very practical way you’ve treated this topic.

    I believe, and this comes from a strict SBC upbringing, that it is our tendency to want to get our hands around the whole of truth. I remember the first time way back in school that a professor gave me a definition of “systematic theology.” He said it was an effort to “cohesively state the entirety of our faith.”

    But there are so, so many questions, and, of course, if we weren’t so fearful of not having all our ducks in a row, there would be many, many more.

  4. Kurt Willems

    Excellent post! Sad to hear how dogmatic people can be. I have been the victim of it many times over and someday when I feel it appropriate I will share about this more in the public world. However, your point to drive things home from your Rabbi friend is inspiring!

    “If a Christian wants to know what you believe he will examine your doctrine. If a Jew wants to know what you believe he will follow you around for three days.”

    Wow! I want to be that kind of a rabbinic Christ follower. Disciples learn by following and imitating not by listening and regurgitating.

  5. Ruth Martin

    Sadly, I think fear has been the basis for a lot of folks. Clearly, fear is a powerful tool for controlling people — I believe that is why so-called “Christian teachers” play it so heavily. But I put that in quotes deliberately. Such people are in blatant violation of one of Jesus’ main themes: “Fear not!”, and as such do NOT represent him or his ways.
    Please see my posting on that topic, Word Study #16, on

  6. Aaron Martin

    Congratulations Ben on being kicked out of that teaching situation. It seems as if you might be in very good company. If I read the 9th chapter of John correctly it sound like a very similar situation. I suspect you are much better off without similar “Pharisees” breathing down your neck, even though it is very disappointing when these “self imposed” authorities will not even give you the chance for any real dialogue.

    Frankly I wonder how many people really give a damn about open theology versus classical theology. The people I am encountering are far more concerned about their families, employment, health issue, etc. Theological issues seem to be far more for those who have forgotten the real issues of life and living. “Anyone care about the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin?”

  7. Dan Martin

    Frankly I wonder how many people really give a damn about open theology versus classical theology.

    You know, Dad, on one hand this question makes a lot of sense…but you might be surprised just how many it really seems to be. A great deal of the pushback we have gotten, to be sure, has been from the self-imposed “defenders of the faith” whether ordained or not. But there are an awful lot of people, as you well know, who stake a lot of their faith-life on the notion of God planning everything.

    Where it matters the most, actually, is that the question of Open Theism has become a litmus test among many, as to what you really mean by Scripture being authoritative. As a proxy for the larger battle, I do see it as an important concept, in that the classical view of God’s foreknowledge and predestining of some or all stuff, is one of those views that comes from a highly selective reading of the Bible and the superimposition of a systematic theology lens over the texts. In other words, advocating Open Theology over against the classical view is really part of a larger stance that demands we let Scriptural texts speak for themselves without cramming them into the classical “orthodox” boxes.

    Beyond that, it does have ramifications for the political and obedience issues that come out of an honest reading of scripture. If you actually have a choice as to how, and to what extent, you actually follow Jesus, then you might be motivated to choose with more consideration.

    There is, of course the rather tangential philosophical issue. That’s for discussions over beer and has little intersection with reality. But it’s amazing how much of a reach the issue does have, still, into actual life.

  8. Pingback: Link: Organized Christianity lacks belief | Christianity Simplified

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