It’s pretty common today to hear some Christians say “Theology doesn’t matter.” Or another roundabout way of saying it: “All that matters is Jesus.”
But theology and doctrine are inevitable. Truth is, everyone is a theologian. 1 Whether or not you think it’s important to own a copy of a systematic theology text book for your home or church library is another matter, but everyone does theology (even the atheist!).
Because the second you say “theology doesn’t matter” you have just made a doctrinal or theological statement. “Ironically,” Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, says, “the insistence that doctrines do not matter is really a doctrine itself. It holds a specific view of God… So the proponents of this view do the very thing they forbid to others.” 2
And when folks argue that “all that matters is Jesus” while sounding very spiritual and godly on the one hand is quite naive on the other. For what sincere Christian is going to say “Nope, Jesus doesn’t matter” or “Jesus should have second place in our church”? The question really all boils down to what a person means by the statement. If they mean, “stop teaching theology and just give me Jesus,” then they are not only contradicting themselves but forgetting that one of the major aspects of Jesus’ ministry on earth was teaching. In fact, Jesus’ disciples referred to him as “rabbi” which meant teacher (Mark 9:5; 10:51; 11:21; 14:45). So if we are really trying to give the people Jesus, then a massive part of that is teaching what he taught. 3 And much of what Jesus taught involved “doctrines” like sin, judgment, Heaven, Hell, money, justification, the law, the Sabbath, the Last Days, and how he was the fulfillment of OT prophecy. Jesus was a theology teacher.
Another complication is the fact that Jesus was living in the most religious society on earth. His context was radically different from the one we find ourselves in today. He could explain things quickly and easily (he was God), because even the most average or uneducated of his hearers was still living in a thoroughly religious society. Today, in America, and many other places in the world, people lack even the most basic religious framework. Teaching the Bible or “Jesus” to them involves many layers of explanation that may have been assumed in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day. Almost no Israelite at that time in Israel would have argued over the authority of the Torah (the Romans would have); they may debated extensively the meaning of the words, but not the author or the authority they represented. Today you would be hard pressed in some corners of our society to find anyone who just assumed the truth and authority of the Bible. So giving people Jesus today involves teaching them about doctrines like the authority and reliability of Scripture, something that Jesus himself may or may not have had to do explicitly in his own day.
Healthy Churches Have a Solid Theological Base
Every healthy church will have a solid theological foundation, even if that foundation is not made up of extensive, scholarly, theological rationale. But a healthy church that goes light on theology or ignores theological conversation and discussion altogether does not exist. Dennis Bickers writes:
Everything must have a solid foundation on which to build… For the Christian and the church, that foundation is a good theology and doctrine… Although a church may function in many different ways, it’s essentially a theological organism that exists to transform people’s lives so those lives reflect Jesus Christ. A faulty or weak theology will result in a weak church unable to bring about that needed transformation. 4
“No Theology” or Just “Theology Light”
What many proponents of a light theological diet suggest whether explicitly or just in practice is a heavy focus on certain teachings; not that the church should abandon theology altogether, but simply that we should not get lost in lengthy theological discussions about every aspect of Scripture teaching.
But even this notion is one that seems to contradict the plain teaching of the Lord himself. For the last words he left us with before ascending back to Heaven from where he came was this:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20]
Notice Jesus says “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
- R. C. Sproul just published a book under this title. See it here. In the Introduction to that work he says “Everything we learn–economics, philosophy, biology, mathematics–has to be understood in light of the overarching reality of the character of God. That is why, in the Middle Ages theology was called ‘the queen of the sciences’ and philosophy ‘her handmaiden.’ Today the queen has been deposed from her throne and, in many cases, driven into exile, and a supplanter now reigns. We have replaced theology with religion.” ↵
- Keller, The Reason for God (Dutton: New York, 2008), 8. ↵
- Rightly viewed, this also includes the apostles teaching as well, not just the teaching given to us from the mouth of Christ during his earthly ministry. ↵
- The Healthy Small Church (Beacon Hill: Kansas City, 2005), 26. ↵
My life is one of contradictions. I’m a southern boy living in northern New England; a boring guy married to super-fun girl; a conservative pastor in a progressive Christian denomination; a changed man in need of change; a sinner loved by a holy and perfect God.