Taking the church’s theological temperature

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, September 23rd. We’re so glad you’ve joined us today. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Every other year since 2014, Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research survey 3,000 Americans with 35 theological questions. Topics include things like the deity of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and sin.

EICHER: Two weeks ago, Ligonier released its current research.

WORLD reporter Paul Butler analyzed the data and talked with one of the researchers about what it may mean. 

SESAME STREET: Hello everybody! Today I’m in the doctor’s office having my checkup. You should get a check-up too, if you want to keep body and fur together…

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Good advice from our old pal Grover. In this classic Sesame Street segment, he’s assuring kids that a regular checkup is good for their health and nothing to be afraid of. 

During checkups, a doctor takes your temperature, listens to your heart, and has you step on the scale. All data that’s helpful for finding any anomalies. 

NICHOLS: About six years ago, we just realized, we’re just sort of awash in a sea of polls when it comes into election season…

Stephen Nichols is the president of Reformation Bible College, in Orlando, Florida. 

NICHOLS: We thought: “We need a poll on theological issues. We need a poll on issues of eternal consequence.”

Nichols also serves as the chief academic officer at Ligonier Ministries. He was part of the initial group to call for a national survey: taking America’s theological temperature.  

NICHOLS: Theology is made up of two words. The first word is the Greek word for God. And the second word, the “ology” part means: “to study.” It’s what we believe about God. It’s what we believe about His word. And it’s what we believe about what he’s doing in this world. And so I can’t think of a more important subject than the subject of theology.

Researchers asked everyone the same questions, regardless of their religious affiliation. LifeWay then collated those answers and entered them into an online interface. Nichols is most interested in how evangelicals responded.

NICHOLS: As you take a step back and you look at the big picture of the survey, it raises the question, what, what does it reveal that is of the most significance? 

Eighty-four percent of evangelicals believe that salvation is by faith alone. Ninety-nine percent affirm that God is a perfect being and cannot make a mistake. And ninety-nine percent also acknowledge that Christ will someday return to judge the world. 

Now evangelicals score very high on a few questions like these due to the analytical methodology. For this study, researchers did not rely on religious self-identification. They designated people as evangelicals if they answered certain key questions in a particular way. So on those statements, there’s great uniformity. But when looking at some of the other questions, Nichols identifies some worrisome trends. 

NICHOLS: I see two things that are troubling. One is that when we look at the general population, we can see a lot of theological confusion. We can see a lot of what, we would call as Orthodox Christians, heretical beliefs, alive and well in the American public. 

And the second troubling trend? 

NICHOLS: The church is lagging, not too far behind culture, on really crucial issues, issues that get right to the heart of the gospel.

For instance, 32 percent of evangelicals believe people are by nature good. Thirty-six percent say the Holy Spirit is just a force. Fourteen percent aren’t sure if Jesus is God.

And when it comes to the exclusive claims of Christianity? 

NICHOLS: This one stands out. 

The survey worded it this way: “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”

NICHOLS: Now, when we put that statement to the general population, 63 percent said, they agree with that statement and that of course should trouble us, but it might not surprise us. 

What was surprising—evangelicals didn’t answer much differently.

NICHOLS: Almost half, 46 percent of evangelicalism, agree with that statement. Now to be an evangelical means we are about the gospel, that there is salvation and no other name than the name of Jesus Christ. And so here you have evangelicals affirming a pluralistic doctrine of affirming that there is salvation outside of Jesus Christ and outside of the gospel. I think we can easily classify that as troubling. And it shows that we’ve got a lot of work to do within the church.

But that’s not Nochols’ only concern. The study also shows that 13 percent of evangelicals think the Holy Spirit may tell them to do something the Bible prohibits. Fifteen percent believe that gender identity is a choice. Sixty percent are confused whether Jesus was created or not. 

NICHOLS: And so you’re left scratching your head. Where does this come from? And I think the answer is this. We have far too long neglected the serious study of God’s Word. We just don’t devote our time and attention to God’s Word like we should…

But it’s not all bad news. One finding is actually pretty encouraging and points to the solution. 

NICHOLS: The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe. Now, when we put that statement to evangelicals: 90 percent, nine in 10, affirmed and agreed with that statement. What that tells me is evangelicals value their Bible. evangelicals see their Bible as their authority. So I want to build on that. And I’m going to latch onto that and say, okay, let’s go, let’s hop in there and let’s study our Bibles. 

The State of Theology survey data is available to anyone online for free. Churches can also conduct the survey with their own members and use the responses to identify areas for further study. 

For Nichols, this year’s theological checkup provides clarity on what Bible colleges, seminaries, and local churches need to do to improve the overall health of believers.  

NICHOLS: You know, as we look at this survey and we see things that trouble us, we can sort of sit back and just opine about how bad it is. I think that would be the worst possible response. I think instead we need to be encouraged. We need to be inspired to roll up our sleeves and jump in there and study. And I think one of the things that we need to engage very significantly is the study of theology.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Paul Butler.


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