The only thing I know about your reaction to this list of top 10 theology stories is that you won’t agree. Maybe partially, but not entirely. And that’s okay. None of us sees the full picture from God’s perspective. In five years we may not be talking about any of these events and trends (see what I mean by reviewing my lists from 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012). Actually, you’ve probably already forgotten a number of entries on this year’s list!
Yet before we turn to 2014, it can be encouraging or at least instructive to take stock of the last 12 months. Perspective is a rare gift in our social media age. If you fasted from Twitter and Facebook this year or traveled overseas then you know what I mean. The controversies that consume so much time and energy in the United States suddenly appear petty or at least irrelevant to most of us. Certainly they don’t hinder God, who has lots of practice working with and through sinners. “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? . . . He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision” (Psalm 2:1-4).
So consider my list an admittedly foolhardy attempt—written from the vantage point of an American who subscribes to The Gospel Coalition’s confessional statement—to discern the most important theology stories 0f 2013. Consider it an opportunity to reflect on whether your priorities align with God’s and a challenge to spread good news in a world that seeks peace but finds none apart from Jesus Christ.
If you’d like to go deeper into debating the significance of these stories, and track my greatest hits and misses from past lists, listen to this interview I recorded with Mark Mellinger.
10. Does it matter who says it if it’s good?
Historically the church has debated whether the validity of sacraments such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper depend on the morality or orthodoxy of the one who administers them. The debate continues today in the case of preachers who achieve great ministry success despite consistently worrisome behavior. Does the authority of the Word depend on the character of the preacher? For that matter, how much do you actually know about your preacher’s private life and whether he really believes what he says? Allegations of plagiarism against Mark Driscoll add new angles to these old debates. Now that he has admitted to inadequate citation, does that mistake invalidate the rest of his work? If he depended on a ghostwriter who said good and godly things, does that means the books should be condemned? No matter how you answer those questions, seriously consider the thoughtful responses to the problem of author platforms and our idolatry of successful ministry leaders.
9. Black and white, we’re closer than ever—and just as far apart as always.
This year was bound to stir up emotions over race relations in America as we remembered the tumultuous events of 50 years ago in 1963. Indeed, George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin revealed that we cannot just move on from our past. Theological unity does not necessarily result in understanding of how life looks from opposite sides of the ethnic divide. At the same time, response to an ill-informed panel discussion on Reformed hip-hop revealed how much evangelicals agree on when it comes to contextualization. We may not agree on the causes of ethnic strife, but we seem to understand that no one speaks from a privileged place of neutrality.
8. Purity and modesty provoke backlash in a sex-saturated culture.
The year kicked off with a provocative halftime act from Beyoncé at the Super Bowl. Whether you saw power or bondage explains a lot about your views on purity and modesty in a culture that idolizes sex. Few Christians lined up to defend Miley Cyrus when she upped the ante in a MTV Video Music Awards performance that attracted just the kind of attention she desired. But many did weep over who she has become. Meanwhile, LifeWay announced they would relaunch their True Love Waits campaign on its 20th anniversary, even as such high-profile advocates as Joe Jonas confess that the rings did not inspire them to wait for marriage. Pop culture provided the backdrop for vigorous debates about why so few young adults who grow up in evangelical churches resist sexual temptation. Purity has become a loaded term in an age when so many Christians seek forgiveness and hope for wholeness after sin. And modesty has become a weapon in a culture that focuses more on women’s provocative behavior than the men who expect and encourage it.
7. Should American foreign policy privilege Christians?
This year left little indication that U.S. foreign policy prioritizes religious freedom. Washington reached an agreement with Iran’s leaders to curtail their nuclear ambitions, but American pastor Saeed Abedini remains imprisoned. After Western military aid assisted in toppling the government, Libya remains volatile. Witness the murder of American teacher Ronnie Smith, who had been inspired to serve by a John Piper sermon. Media attention has turned to Egyptian Copts, whose security has continued to decline since the United States withdrew support from former president Hosni Mubarak. President Obama’s deliberation over whether to assist rebels in defeating Syrian ruler Bashar Assad provoked an unresolved debate among American Christians. If Syrian Christians support the regime, however despotic, and stand to suffer under whatever radical Muslim group takes its place, can we in good conscience support an American military strike? Or would the common good be best served in a scenario where the Christians endure particular hardship?
6. ‘Gay’ Christians speak out.
Active gays who deny biblical teaching on sexuality have long since spoken loudly and proudly about their lifestyle. But with few exceptions, celibate Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction had largely remained silent about their plight, in part because of fear and misunderstanding within the church. Yes, high-profile examples such as Rosaria Butterfield’s train wreck conversion inspire us. Her story has a happy ending now that she is a mother and wife of a pastor. But what about Christians whose feelings never change? Their plight led in part to Exodus International shutting down and Alan Chambers apologizing for ex-gay ministry. Testimonies such as those featured on the new Living Out site speak to the struggle to walk with God in faith when no relief is in sight. Any hope of changing minds on homosexuality needs to privilege such voices as the rest of us learn to speak with empathy and understanding. The last 10 years of cultural shifts might have looked quite different if the church had invited these believers to speak out earlier.
5. Popular TV finds faith.
At the beginning of 2013 you may have never heard of Duck Dynasty. Now you can’t avoid the Robertson clan. Maybe next year Jen Hatmaker will be the breakout star on HGTV. Or maybe Ed Young Jr. as he blends Christianity with a Kardashian flair for reality TV. If you’ll watch it (and oblige their advertisers), TV networks will run it. And the demand right now for faith-themed programming is hot. Breakthrough miniseries hit The Bible guarantees many imitators. Doubtless many viewers only mildly familiar with Christianity can learn about God from the Robertsons. And millions who would never open a Bible watched its drama play out on their screens at home. But as we’ve learned from reality TV, editing makes all the difference. How does our view of God change when we don’t see the full picture? When the Christian’s home life is made for TV, and when God’s Word is constrained by advertising demands, what do we miss? The most recent flare-up over Phil Robertson’s comments on homosexuality reveals the peril for such Christians, no matter how high their ratings.
4. Culture warriors shift from offense to defense.
President Obama’s re-election late last year ensured that the White House would continue to press the cause of gay marriage and deny the rights of religious institutions to conscientiously object to the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage act confirmed that Christians would need to shift strategies. No longer could we press on the offensive for traditional marriage. We would need to enact an defensive strategy to protect the integrity of our schools, hospitals, and businesses. Next year’s Hobby Lobby decision will be another key test. Lest veteran believers see this shift as cultural retreat, new Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore argues that younger Christians activists might be even more theologically conservative than their elders. Indeed, this new strategy will in some way correct mistaken evangelical notions about what can be realistically accomplished through political means in a world that needs the gospel above all.
3. Wrath of God does not satisfy Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The doctrine of propitiation seen in passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Romans 3:25-26 has been debated by theologians for centuries. And the “satisfaction theory” of the atonement is often credited to 11th-century theologian Anselm. Perhaps its most popular expression today can be found in the modern hymn In Christ Alone by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” Concerned that the line promotes an errant “view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger,” a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hymnal committee asked to change the lyrics to say, “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” Once Getty and Townend rejected the edit and the Presbyterians dropped the hymn from consideration, outlets such as USA Today, The Washington Post, and The Economist picked up on this debate that cuts to the core of the good news about Jesus. You don’t often see such an important theological debate hit popular media, but hymns and praise songs do more than biblical commentaries to catechize Christians.
2. Strange Fire book, conference force evangelicals to pick sides.
We’re living in perhaps the most dramatic global expansion of Christianity in history. Yet many evangelicals often have little idea about what Pentecostals and charismatics believe. Longtime charismatic critic John MacArthur’s new book Strange Fire forces evangelicals off the fence and demands they pick a side: you either see this growth as the work of God or Satan. He contends that if you’re cautiously open to the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, then you implicitly endorse common Pentecostal malpractices, such as the prosperity gospel. Already MacArthur has emboldened cessationist allies even as critics pick apart his biblical arguments. When self-described “charismatic with a seat belt” Mark Driscoll showed up uninvited at MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, social media documented this heavyweight clash in real time. That odd encounter produced more heat than light, but MacArthur’s influence will ensure that none of us can remain agnostic to the purpose and practice of the charismatic gifts.
1. Pope Francis makes fast friends.
With Billy Graham nearing the end of his life, only one church leader can compel the world’s attention. Pope Francis assumed leadership of the Roman Catholic Church under peculiar circumstances, and he has captivated attention ever since. It may not be surprising that Pope Francis was named Time magazine’s person of the year when you consider that his competition included the aforementioned Bashar Assad and Miley Cyrus. But when you learn The Advocate, a gay magazine, also awarded him the same recognition, you start to wonder what the world sees in him. When he says “I am a sinner,” do they see humble confession or tolerant surrender? When he says “proselytism is solemn nonsense,” do they see careful differentiation between forced conversions and the gospel call to repentance and faith, or do they see an ally in the effort to privatize religion? When Time first congratulated Pope Francis as person of the year, the editors credited him for his “rejection of church dogma.” But they failed to point to one church teaching he had rejected. Wishful thinking, perhaps?
The world will see what they want in the church, whether for good or ill. And evangelicals will rightly reject Pope Francis’s claim to the keys, but we can’t help watch how the world responds to him for lessons we can learn and implement. May the Lord give us compassionate, humble spirits and open a door for us to proclaim good news of salvation that comes by faith alone.
Remember, if you want to learn more about why I included these theology stories and ranked them in this particular order, you can download my interview with Mark Mellinger.