Just over a month ago, I was shaken to the core as I watched a group of people storm the United States Capitol. The foreshadowing of the last several years left me unsurprised such things could happen. What did baffle me and ultimately shook me was that many of these actors, insurrectionists, believed their actions were justified by God.
Along with the flag of the United States, they waved Confederate flags and “Jesus is my Savior” and “Trump is my president” flags. Several people erected a wooden cross on the Capitol grounds, and there appeared to be a heavy display of Christianity as people violently tried to take over the Capitol. The eyewitness accounts that came out afterwards sent me spinning. In one video, a man with his body painted, covered in fur, and wearing horns, prays. In another, a group of rioters are seen standing on the Senate Chamber floors. They stopped for a prayer, “Thank you heavenly father for gracing us with this opportunity.”
Since that day, I have wrestled with this fact; those who stormed the Capitol and thanked God for ‘allowing’ them to do so, read from the same Scriptures as I do. We clearly run-in different circles, but both claim to be followers of Christ. It made me reckon with how easy it is to preach bad theology. It made me wonder if I would even know when I was being taught bad theology.
There is an unfortunate history in the church of using Biblical teachings to mislead and harm others.
I have been reading “The Color of Compromise” by Jamar Tisby, and he dives into this reality at the beginning of his book. European Christians made sure enslaved Africans didn’t have access to specific Bible stories and highlighted, out of context, certain pieces of scripture to justify the enslavement of Africans. They even went so far as to debate whether or not enslaved Africans could be Christian, and if they were baptized, should they be freed. They concluded, wrongly, that their freedom would not be granted if baptized. The liberation found in baptism did not include an earthly freedom.
I am not naive to think I am beyond reach of bad theology, and I don’t think you are either. So how might we guard ourselves and stand against blatantly bad theology? Here are some questions I ask myself and a few practices I try to engage:
Who is contributing to my theological understandings?
For me, this is critical. An hour-ish weekly worship experience is only a part of my theological and faith formation. It is fruitful to add to weekly worship rather than to rely solely on it. Dig into scripture within your community; a small group is a common practice at my church, close colleagues and other theologians. This isn’t to diminish the exegetical and prayerful work of pastors and leaders, but to expand on it. When I engage with others like this, it provides a robust interpretation as everyone reads and interprets with a different lens.
Our lenses are developed through our past and present experiences in the realms of family, work, education, and relationships. We can see the potential fruit of this practice in the four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all write about their experience with Jesus and each does so with a different lens. While these writings leave us with questions and grey space, we have a richer story because of all four books. Each writer sees things in a slightly different way; expanding on and filling in the greater gospel story. I encourage you to spend more time reflecting on your faith, theology, and scripture within a greater community.
What is my mindset?
A few weeks ago, I was hit with this question: Do you believe you know all there is to know about God? I was in conversation with a colleague, and I found myself judging their theology of God’s presence today. I caught myself and wondered where this was coming from. It was less about whether either of our theologies were correct. This was more about my mindset. I immediately denied someone else’s understanding of God.
After our conversation, I wondered how often I enter theological conversation or Biblical reflection with a fixed understanding of God, salvation, humanity, or more. How often do I hear a sermon or read scripture with the mindset that I know all there is to know about God or the scripture being shared? How often do I prepare to preach a message believing I already know what God has to say through a verse? I encourage you to reflect on your mindset as you engage in theological conversions.
Can I name and articulate my theological understandings?
Many of my theological understandings are in a state of remodeling. However, being able to articulate what I believe as of this moment is a helpful tool. It can be hard to work through or call out bad theology when I’m uncertain about my current theological understandings. I’ve begun writing these understandings down, shorthand and long forum, just to get in the habit of articulating my thoughts.
Ask: Can you say more?
We can ask questions and ask for more. The truth is, clergy, lay leaders, authors, and theologians have put in work to be the leaders they are today. They are knowledgeable and dedicate a significant amount of time to leading and teaching. When I hear a message from another church leader that doesn’t sit well, I understand these things; they may have misspoken, I may have misunderstood, and I can hold them accountable to an unclear or hurtful message. I must actively remind myself that I don’t have to sit in wonder about what someone might have meant or sit in the pain of their words well-intended or not. I encourage you to ask for more when more is warranted.
A few more questions:
...What is this theology asking of me?
...Is this a challenge that invites me into a deeper relationship with God, others, and myself?
...Does this theology lead me to unwittingly or knowingly dehumanize or oppress others?
...Does this make sense within the context of a greater Biblical story?
...What does this say about who God is or who I am according to God?
...Who else can I talk with about this?
Add some of your own framing questions, anything that might help you regularly work through new and old theological understandings.
Pray for Wisdom
We have been given the gift of prayer and the gift of wisdom. I live with the dual reality that there is much to know and much I’ll never know. I will place my trust in God and ask for clarity when things seem murky. I will ask God for wisdom when discernment is difficult. I will repent when it’s made known that I have preached, believed, or acted wrong.
There is no one-size-fits-all-five-step plan to combat bad theology. I’m also not arguing to question everything down to your very being. However, if we can get into the habit of living at the four corners of robust dialogue, genuine curiosity, regular reflection, and Godly wisdom, we might do alright.
Jess Gulseth is a seminarian at Luther Seminary in St. Paul seeking ordination in the ELCA. Jess is a Director of Children & Family ministry in the Des Moines, IA area.
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