The Layers of Christian Growth

By Kersley Fitzgerald

Having been born and raised in the church, I tend to take the Bible at face value. I have heard the Bible preached/taught nearly every week of my life. I know the standard rigmarole — 66 books, about 40 authors, written over 1500 years — Paul's words are just as much Scripture as Jesus's.

I'm writing this series on the early Christian leaders for Compelling Truth. While doing research, I found one article that put things into perspective. The church leaders who immediately followed the Apostles wrote a lot in defense of Christianity regarding particular heresies. That was the main threat — people coming into the churches with warped, misguided, or maliciously deceptive teachings. The next tier hammered out theology as accurately as they could. They figured if people knew the right stuff they wouldn't be caught up in the wrong stuff. Optimistic, but they did have a point.

That made me think about the New Testament. Five books of stories, several letters, and one book of prophesy. I think I've taken it for granted that they are all inspired, they all belong together, they're all to be read and learned from.

As you may know, there's a large contingent out there that tries to minimize the writings of Paul. It largely stems from the fact that Paul criticized certain behaviors and actions that we'd like to indulge in.

In addition, in a lot of cases, Jesus didn't speak on these issues. Sometimes due to audience. In Israel, surrounded by Jews, Jesus didn't have to worry too much about meat sacrificed to idols, eating blood, homosexuality, and the like. Since their return from Babylonian exile, the Jews had pretty much walked the straight and narrow. In addition, they knew their theology as far as Judaism was concerned. It was often misapplied, as Jesus gently explained to the Pharisees several times, but the basics were a part of the common culture.

What they needed was a radical worldview change within the theology. They needed to understand the fulfillment of the beliefs they'd been given. In a way, this was harder than joining a whole new religion, just as it's often faster to build a new house than renovate an old one. So He "said it slant," as Eugene Peterson says. He told parables. He talked about sons, inheritances and pigs, and selling everything to buy a field, and sweeping the house to find a coin. Stories, with the occasional "brood of vipers" directed at the Pharisees, was what was needed to change their worldview.

But when Paul, Peter, James, Jude, John, and the mysterious writer of Hebrews wrote their letters, they weren't establishing a worldview, they were refining it. They were laying the groundwork for the application of the worldview they'd established when they were with the churches personally. We have very little information about the initial evangelistic efforts besides a few examples in Acts. What we have is (sometimes exhausting) dissertations on how to live out their beliefs in an antagonistic pagan environment.

There are layers here that modern people don't always experience in step. I don't know if these steps are prescriptive, but they just might be. We get a LOT of questions from people who argue theology without having first developed an understanding of the biblical worldview. Like the Pharisees, they want to talk philosophy and ethics without first gaining understanding of their relationship with God. As Westerners, we like to think everything can be broken down into logical bits and built upon. But having come more from the Eastern side of things, Jesus started with relationship. Not necessarily mushy Jesus-is-my-friend relationship, but how we fit into God's picture. Of course, this has to be undergirded by correct, strong theology, but it's not the theology that's center stage yet.

It's after we understand God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and where we stand that we concentrate on application and living this stuff out in a world filled with false teaching. If your childhood was anything like mine, correct behavior was emphasized over your relationship to God. That can lead to bitterness, not to mention the somewhat logical misinterpretation that our relationship to God is based on actions. What gets even goofier is when theology comes in before relationship. Have you ever read theology with a critical, unbelieving eye? It's kind of wacked. It's little wonder the Pharisees — who had behavior and theology mastered — had such a hard time understanding what Jesus was trying to say. He was building a worldview on a Person and a relationship while they were trying to build a relationship to a philosophy grounded on a God they only half-knew.

These layers aren't sharply defined. The teacher has to base the student's worldview on right theology. You can't argue away false teaching without right theology. And some, like CS Lewis, do come to the relationship through the back door. But it gets to be a really big hang-up when people hear us talking about sexual purity or the Trinity or how Mormons aren't Christians when our worldview and relationship with God is such a mystery. Yeah, it informs all these public faces, but people are getting drowned by Calvinism/Arminianism when we need to be talking to them about pigs and pearls and coins.

Thinking about the early church's writings this way, strangely enough, gives me a little more sympathy for two wildly different groups. The first is seeker-friendly churches. What a lot of people don't know is that Bible-based, theologically sound seeker-friendly churches show their story layer in the service, but cover application, false teaching, and theology behind the scenes in classes and small groups. The layers are often spot-on even when the show is unnecessary.

The second group is Muslims. I'm making my way through Nabeel T. Jabbour's The Crescent through the Eyes of the Cross. What it says is true. I get hung up on honor killings and female genital mutilation while the Muslims are saying, "Back up a step. You can't even see the world through our perspective; how could you possibly understand how our worldview informs our actions?" The crazy thing is, the book was written by a Lebanese Christian — and he has the same problem understanding Muslims as any Westerner. Paul didn't. He understood pagan religions and worldviews, and he was able to enter into that worldview so he could compare it with his own.

This is why when I get a 20-something guy who's terrified that he had a bad thought the day before yesterday, my first advice is for him to relax. Go back to Christ. Get grounded in Jesus. Live out of that, and the obedience will follow. If he's worried because he met an atheist and the atheist's arguments sounded so reasonable, it's similar — relax. Go back to Jesus. Read His word. Obey what He said to do and you'll understand more how those commands were to protect you. If he's hung up because He can't figure out how a loving God can send people to hell, it's the same. Get your understanding of God right — His love and His holiness, His relationship to His creation, how obedience protects and how other teachings cause great harm. Then you can get your head around the theological nit-noids.

Image Credit: timlewisnm; "onioned"; Creative Commons

* Am I the only one who looks at that picture and instantly feels my eyes burn?

TagsChristian-Life  |  History-Apologetics  |  Theological-Beliefs

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Published 9-18-2014