Bad Theology Is Dangerous in a Pandemic
Bad theology is dangerous, as dangerous as any virus, and it seems to spread more quickly. That’s why the apostle John said we have to “test the spirits” to see if our thinking is aligned with God’s Spirit or the spirit of this age (1 John 4:1).
Bad theology dishonors God, stains the reputation of Jesus, and disillusions believers. In this pandemic, in an age of uncertainty, every person’s soul, believer or not, is searching for something solid to lock into. If we, as Christians, are not grounded in our faith, now is maybe the easiest time in our personal histories to fall for bad ideas that sound spiritually solid but are, in fact, erroneous. Making this even more dangerous, we know that Satan and his crew are constantly trying to fool us (1 Timothy 4).
Here are a few areas of bad thinking currently circulating that are particularly dangerous. The most dangerous ideas are those that sound biblical but aren’t, and these certainly qualify. Feel free, of course, to disagree with me, comparing my words with Scripture. Paul commended a group who did just that with his teaching (Acts 17:11), and all of us need to be open to scrutiny.
Presumption of “God’s Protection” Versus Genuine Faith in God’s Promises
In the recent protests in Michigan, along with signs saying, “Shut down the lockdown,” and “Lock her up,” referring to the governor, were signs reading, “Jesus is my vaccine.” Is Jesus our vaccine?
Early on in the pandemic, when we were making the hard decision about going online with our large gatherings, I read about various pastors around the country who kept their churches open as an act of bold faith in the face of the virus. Churches like us who went online to “flatten the curve” were viewed by that crowd as people crippled by fear, not believing that “no weapon formed against us can prosper.”
One such pastor in Virginia who stayed open, claiming God’s protection for his parishioners, refused to close “God’s house of prayer” and was dead from COVID-19 by April 11. Liberty University kept classes open after spring break because Jerry Falwell couldn’t imagine that God would allow the campus to be impacted by the virus. It was an act of defiant faith, until he, to his credit, changed his thinking and took classes online.
Now, through contract tracing, we are learning that religious gatherings around the world have been among the most significant “super-spreading” events that have infected many people. While writing this article, the first headline I read in this morning’s news was about a small California church that defied state orders and met on Mother’s Day, only to expose hundreds of people to the disease since some were, in fact, COVID-19 positive.
Most of these people genuinely believe that God will protect them from the virus and believe they are operating in faith. What is dangerous about this is that what feels like faith is often just presumption, and presumption is not something God honors. How do we know the difference between faith and presumption?
When God clearly states or promises something, believe it. Stake your life on it. But if he hasn’t, don’t! God hasn’t promised to keep believers from suffering, from getting diseases, or being exempt from a pandemic. In fact, Jesus told us that we will not only suffer like everyone else in this broken world, but we will suffer even more because of the added exposure of persecution.
In history, believers have fallen sick and died from diseases as much as anyone. In fact, in many cases, they have been sickened and died at higher rates in pandemics because they chose to risk their lives to care for people who were sick, and in the process, caught the disease. They did so knowingly and willingly, nursing others back to health that had been abandoned and would have otherwise died. They weren’t trusting Jesus to be their vaccine; rather, they were sacrificing their lives for the sake of others.
Risking our lives for others by caring for the sick is commendable. Putting others at risk by meeting too early, refusing to social distance, not washing our hands regularly, and so on as acts of faith is not commendable. It is, in fact, foolish and reprehensible.
Let’s trust God to do what he has actually promised to do and not presume he will honor our foolishness as faith, especially when the lives of other people are at stake.
Liberty as the Highest Virtue Versus Love as the Highest Calling
As Americans, individual liberty is ingrained in us so strongly that we are instantly reactive to any communal or collective call that might infringe on that liberty. We may not understand how unique this is in the world because most cultures are far more communal in their worldview than we are.
What we may not realize as American Christians is that the Bible provides a communal worldview far more than an individualistic one. The Bible does promote individual liberty but within the bigger framework of love. The highest principle is not liberty but love. Love always guides and limits liberty as Paul makes clear in passages like 1 Corinthians 9 and Romans 15. God gives us freedom to choose to serve others, not ourselves. The Bible promotes a “we” worldview, not a “me” worldview.
I love the privilege of living in a country that promotes and protects individual rights. But what we must also understand is that those rights only work within the framework of a communal worldview—not a here for me perspective but a here for others perspective.
The preamble to the Constitution states that our liberties embrace the needs of a community of citizens: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union...promote the general Welfare.” A society of individual rights divorced from the common good, rooted in self-centered independence rather than others-focused interdependence, is destined to implode.
Thomas Jefferson echoes biblical values when he argued that at the core of a society must be “civic virtue,” not self-centered individualism. Somehow, over the centuries, we have lost that perspective. And we are seeing that now in our fractured, me-centered culture.
As believers, we may not realize how much we have been influenced by the spirit of our age. I am confident that I don’t. We read the Bible and interpret how we should live in culture through an individualist lens that is contrary to a biblical worldview.
Rather than recoiling at the idea of giving up our individual rights for the sake of others, we, as believers, should look for every opportunity to do so. Such sacrificial living is the way of Jesus. That’s what is troubling when I see well-meaning Christians flaunt personal liberty at the expense of others as a biblical right. Rather than fighting for our rights, we should be seen as people who allow love to govern our liberty, and therefore, be fundamentally self-sacrificing, not self-serving. We lay down our rights for the good of others (Philippians 2).
American Exceptionalism Versus Kingdom Perspective
I have traveled widely enough to be a very thankful American citizen. I appreciate the freedoms we have in this country and the unique heritage we share. As imperfect as the American experiment is, we have all (admittedly some more than others) benefited in many ways growing up in a country like this. To the extent that any nation implements biblical wisdom, it will benefit, and because many of the founders of our nation operated within such a worldview, we have certainly benefited.
We do, however, have to be very careful not to get confused. America is not God’s people on this planet in the way that he chose Israel in the Old Testament era to be his people and to serve as a light to the nations. And as believers, we are Kingdom citizens before we are American citizens, or citizens of any other nation. Paul reminds us we are citizens of heaven and ambassadors to the kingdoms of peoples of this world, including America.
Those of us who grew up here often have a very America-centric view of not only the world, but also, of the Bible. We have a narrative in our own mind of American exceptionalism that God doesn’t share. That’s why this pandemic has shocked many who have a hard time understanding why God would allow America to suffer far more cases and far more deaths than any other nation. Has God forgotten about his people? Is he judging us because we, as his people, have forsaken him? Is he calling back his people to himself?
I don’t claim to know all that God is up to in this pandemic. What I can be confident of, however, is that America is not the focal point of his work on this planet. That’s where his global church fits in. He has chosen to create a new entity, the Greek word Ekklesia, literally his “called-out” ones. From every nation on this planet, he has called out a new people, his church, to create our own counterculture that displays the values of his kingdom and carries out his redemptive mission.
Our mission, therefore, is not to create a “Christian nation” but to build his church. What God is up to is global and even cosmic, as we read in Ephesians 3:10-11: “God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
As unique as America is in many ways, it is not God’s nation but part of the kingdoms of this world. Therefore, whatever God is up to is not America-centric. He is working out his plan for the growth of his kingdom on this planet. So, let’s be careful about interpreting events from an America-centric point of view that God does not share.
My prayer for our American culture is that God might use this to strip away our arrogance and sense of exceptionalism on this planet. With our wealth and power, I believe we were arrogant and comfortable in ways that have, in one quick swoop, been challenged. I do hope that we, as a culture, will turn to God, just as I hope every culture around the world chooses to do.
We, as his people and his church, are key in helping to make that happen as we give a picture of a better alternative way of life. We are citizens of heaven that have been placed in America to be ambassadors and missionaries here, which means we should engage our civic opportunities, pray for our nation and its leaders, and influence our culture for good any way we can.
We live in unusual times, to say the least. In such uncertain times, let’s make sure we lock into certainties that are true and avoid being guided by ideas that are dangerous to us, to others, and to God’s greater mission in this world.
How do we do that? Let’s make sure we are allowing God’s Word to shape our worldview and mold our values, not our favorite media outlet or social media posts. An excellent article in the Dallas Morning News, Too Many Evangelical Christians Fall for Conspiracy Theories Online, and Gullibility Is Not a Virtue, by Ed Stetzer and Andrew MacDonald, posed the question why Christians in particular seem most susceptible to conspiracy theories, including ideas far more outlandish than those listed above. They argue rightly that “gullibility is not a Christian virtue.”
We are, in fact, responsible to avoid foolishness and to guard ourselves from those who “turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths" (2 Timothy 4:4). We who represent the most powerful message on the planet can ruin all credibility when we propagate foolishness. Why would anyone listen to our core message if we are so easily pulled into foolish thinking in times such as these?
It is our responsibility to focus on the gospel, or Christianity’s core message, and to deepen our understanding of the Bible so that we can spot bad theology when we see it. Spend time in the Bible regularly, apply practical Bible teaching (sermons) as a habit, seek out wise counselors, read solid biblical thinkers, and stay in community with others who can lovingly give feedback and perspective.
Let’s be careful to avoid bad theology in a pandemic so that we can be known as reliable witnesses of the good news of Jesus and be the “here for good” people God calls us to be.