–May of 2010
A Bishop’s Bad Theology
I recently had the privilege to speak at a minister’s conference in India. While there I had the opportunity to meet with the bishop of the Evangelical Church of India. Since the ECI is the product of the American Holiness Movement, I asked the bishop about his denomination’s commitment to historical holiness doctrine. He gave me a rather scornful look and said, “Oh, it’s still in our doctrinal statement, but holiness is not my concern! My concern is evangelizing and planting churches!”
The old bishop told me much with the tilt of his head, the tone of his voice, and the dismissive wave of his hand as he uttered those two simple sentences. I understand enough about leadership to know that when a leader “leans” into something with passion it generally happens. I also know that when he ignores or downplays something it will generally be forgotten. This behavior becomes the “working theology” of the leader; and unfortunately for the old bishop, his is neither biblical nor Wesleyan.
His first mistake is a failure to understand that the Great Commission equally embraces both conversion and discipleship. When church leaders or pastors promote evangelism and neglect discipleship (the teaching of biblical doctrine), they put the church on a growth plane that is a mile wide and an inch deep. How could anyone claim to be discipling and yet ignore the primary call of scripture to holy living?
Frankly, true evangelism cannot even exist in a doctrinal vacuum. One cannot have an experience with Jesus Christ apart from what Christ has revealed about Himself in the Bible. Romans chapter 10 tells us that people need sound Biblical information before they can be saved. One can certainly join a church and even have a religious experience without any Biblical teaching, but one cannot have a true conversion experience without some knowledge of the gospel. Paul clearly attributes the radical change that took place in the lives of the Roman Christians to the doctrine they were taught. “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (Rom. 6:17).
Furthermore, sound doctrine is essential to spiritual formation. Converts without a root quickly wither and die. To view doctrinal teaching as a hindrance—a boundary or a divider—s to fail to understand even remotely the importance of theological thought on the spiritual life of a believer. In reality sound theology is the map that enables us to put the pieces together for a full understanding of biblical truth, which in turn opens the door to subsequent growth. The hard work of doctrinal instruction is not to make “smart” Christians, but “faithful” Christians! “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee”(1 Tim. 4:16). You will never have solid spiritual formation outside the context of sound doctrinal instruction.
The second mistake is that the bishop doesn’t understand the theological consequences of his words or his emphasis. He makes holiness sound like extra baggage that ought to be, or at least can be, left aside. Sort of a “tack-on” that can come later after the important work of saving souls is done. Sadly he doesn’t understand the centrality of holiness to the whole process of redemption. The desire to be holy is implanted in the hearts of all born-again believers. They immediately manifest a desire to live a new kind of life. They become sensitive to sin both in themselves and in their environment. They long to live a life that is pleasing to God, even though they may not understand fully how to do it.
From a doctrinal perspective, the bishop is actually throwing out his Wesleyan theology and unwittingly embracing a version of Reformed theology. Reformed theologians disconnect justification and sanctification. To them justification is merely forensic and doesn’t affect any real change. It only affects our standing with God. Sanctification happens later in a slow process or maybe not even until death. In this theological scheme real holiness simply takes a back seat. Wesleyans, however, believe that sanctification begins in justification. The work of regeneration or initial sanctification starts the process of making us into the image of Christ. John Wesley said, “God justifies no one whom He does not also sanctify. The work of sanctification begins at justification. It begins the moment we are justified…It gradually increases from that moment…till, in another instant, the heart is cleansed from all sin, and filled with pure love to God and man.”
To reduce conversion to a simple transaction that has no commitment to faithful discipleship, no hunger for holiness, and no real personal change is effectively to sell the gospel short. To make holiness an aggravating addendum that can be left out or tacked on later is to abandon a holiness witness and to sell out the gospel. I may not be a bishop, but I know better than this!