15 December 2014

The Desperate Need for Theological Study

by Dr Mark Keown

The recent media controversies over a church which scattered money all over the stage and a church leader calling for gay people to commit suicide or be killed by the state shows how important it is that Christians study theology.

In the first instance, while the motives may or may not be genuine, the scattering of money over the front of a church is a manifestation of the syncretism of the gospel to money and a misunderstanding of a Christian theology of money – what is termed “the prosperity gospel.” The prosperity gospel comes from an imbalanced reading of Scripture whereby one appropriates a whole range of Scriptures, mostly in the OT, to support the view that if one is faithful to God and tithes appropriately, one will necessarily be blessed materially. This view neglects a whole range of texts which indicate that the righteous suffer while the wicked often prosper (e.g. Job), Jesus who was righteous yet poor, even dying naked and with nothing (not even a robe), and Paul’s teaching which speaks of times of plenty and want in the Christian life (e.g. Phil 4:10-14). It neglects the now-not yet tension of Scripture whereby in our ultimate final resurrection state we will experience the fullness of complete material blessing and freedom from poverty and suffering, in the present this may or may not be the case. There are indeed many wonderful Christians around the world who are in deep material deprivation and even who die of hunger. Unlike the ancient religious perspective that material deprivation indicates the disfavour of the gods or God, the Christian perspective is that material state is no indicator of obedience. The good and bad suffer alike in a fallen world, but the good news is that God is with us in our struggles and in the world to come such suffering will end. Prosperity teaching represents a false over-realised eschatology whereby we expect the blessings of heaven now failing to recognise that this is not necessarily the case, even for the righteous. This is the very sort of thing Paul was trying to sort out with the Corinthians.

In the second instance, we have a totally vile misinterpretation of Scripture whereby a church leader believes – no doubt on the basis of passages like Lev 18:22 and 20:13 which advocates the death penalty of homosexual relationships – that gay people should commit suicide and even be put to death by the state. This ignores the fact that while Christian ethics grows out of a whole biblical narrative, Jesus is the one who sets our ethical agenda. It elevates ancient Jewish case law over the gospel of Jesus who specifically challenged many aspects of the Levitical code. Indeed, this reading of Scripture ignores the explicit teaching of Jesus, who, while condemning sexual immorality as “evil”, repudiated the death penalty (Matt 5:38-48) and advocated indiscriminate love for all. Jesus also advocated warm inclusion of all, whether sinful or not. Case in point, his table fellowship with sinners (e.g. Mark 2). Jesus’ confrontation in John 7 over a woman caught in adultery calls for us all to repent and go and sin not more, but to stop casting judgment over others. We who name Christ as Lord are to love all people as God demonstrated his love for us in Christ. One who truly understands the gospel would never wish a person commit suicide, but treat them with love and encourage them to come and encounter Jesus who loves them whoever and whatever they are and have done.

Both situations cause me to think how important it is that people who want to be leaders of God’s people study theology. It is as you study theology, delving deeply into the Scriptures and considering the different ways it can be understood and read. You realise how important it is to read the Scriptures through the lens of Jesus who came and showed us what it means to be truly human. We need to gain the tools of how to go deeper into Scripture and put the story together with the empharsis on the right syllarble (to quote Austin Powers). My encouragement to everyone who has not yet done so and is in ministry to enrol in a good theological college near you and go deeper. I set out on that journey 25 years ago and aside from becoming a Christian and marrying my wonderful wife, it was the best thing I ever did. I dare you to.

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