When this list started in 2008 I was a little more than a year removed from my time as news editor of Christianity Today. I loved that job, loved my colleagues, and loved following events around the world to help Christians understand and interpret them. I left that job to pursue a master of divinity degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School so I could transition into pastoral ministry. Three years later God had different plans and led to my current role as editorial director of The Gospel Coalition. It’s become a hybrid position where I’m still responsible for tracking news developments even as I think more deliberately about relating their import to church leaders tasked primarily with preaching and prayer. In the process I’ve developed new convictions about the opportunities and dangers inherent to the journalistic role.
I’m not satisfied with how we ascribe value to certain news stories over others. While social media direct us to stories that might have been overlooked in older newsrooms, these outlets and cable news lead us to obsess with certain stories and ignore others for no apparent reason. While news editors formerly acted as judge and jury for public knowledge, our mob mentality hardly produces better results. The trending hashtag does not necessarily reflect what’s most valuable in the kingdom of God. In fact, this fallen world threatens to distract us from from thinking about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Phil. 4:8).
As you’ll see in my list of top theology stories, I haven’t solved this problem. You may recognize these stories from your news feed, but you might arrange them in a different order or replace some altogether. I don’t claim unbiased perspective, and even if I did, past failings would betray me (see my lists from 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013). The only thing I know for sure is that I have blind spots based on my particular gifting and experience. You do, too. None of us sees the full picture from God’s vantage point. You’ll hear more from me in the coming year about how we can respect these differences and refocus on Christ to become a courageous, compassionate, and commissioned church.
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 of 2014. 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.
10. Mental illness plagues celebrities and their families but remains taboo inside churches.
You can’t judge someone’s overall health by trying to gauge their outward happiness. We thought we knew the gregarious comedian, but Robin Williams shocked the world with his suicide (he was the top Google search of 2014). Pastors, too, face the temptation to put on a brave, happy face even as they endure scrutiny from outside and various spiritual turmoils on the inside. According to Lifeway Research, almost one-quarter of Protestant pastors have struggled personally with mental illness, but only 34 percent of these pastors even speak about the subject regularly with their congregations. Those who do still face significant backlash. We’re beginning to reap the spiritual benefits of biblical counselors’ maturing and balanced insights, but even as high-profile pastors lose their children to suicide, Christians must still overcome stigma to seek healing of body, mind, and soul.
9. Digital age reveals prevalence of sexual abuse in church.
Though we cannot hide from our heavenly Father, we follow in the example of our ancestors Adam and Eve and pretend as if he can’t see our misdeeds (Gen. 3:8–10; Heb. 4:12). Why do we seek such a futile escape? After all, God’s Word tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:9–10). Protestants apparently didn’t fully learn this lesson when watching the Roman Catholic Church bungle its abuse scandal to devastating effect. But recent publications indicate that perhaps evangelicals finally realize in a digital age that it’s futile—indeed, evil—to try and conceal such sins. The Bob Jones University apology will hopefully embolden more victims to come forward. And the sexual abuse conviction of Nathaniel Morales may warn even seemingly healthy churches that they cannot be too vigilant in protecting their children. The digital age will also produce accusations that may turn out to be false, but a biblical theology of sin cautions all church leaders against putting too much faith in themselves to handle such sensitive matters without the help of expert counsel.
8. Debate over justification and sanctification reaches breaking point.
Can someone be too focused on the gospel? Of course not. Unless “gospel” becomes shorthand for privileging certain biblical teachings and isolating them from others. Then again, Paul told the Corinthians that the matters of “first importance” are Jesus’s death for sins and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3–4). Shouldn’t those priorities dictate how we read the rest of the Bible? This hermeneutical tension didn’t suddenly leap from the biblical text in 2014, but as co-founders Don Carson and Tim Keller noted with regard to recent changes at TGC, the debate over the relationship between justification and sanctification became “increasingly strident” this year with charges of legalism and antinomianism. They said, “Recently it became clear that the dispute was becoming increasingly sharp and divisive rather than moving toward greater unity.” How do Christians find that unity? Perhaps futher debate will resolve the outstanding issues. But we must all first humble ourselves before the God of the Bible and each other to live out the grace we so fervently preach.
7. Mars Hill ‘brand’ collapses.
As the controversies involving pastor Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill continued to pile up in 2014, many wondered if yet another apology and further consolidation of power would continue to insulate him from the consequences of his sins. But as his Board of Accountability and Advisers diminished and media pressure mounted, Driscoll finally resigned. We didn’t know the true instability of his house of cards until Mars Hill then itself dissolved into separate churches and Jeff Vanderstelt agreed to lead the former Bellevue campus in a sharply different direction. The contrast underscores how Driscoll and Mars Hill’s mistakes shifted debate back to the Bible’s teaching about polity and the character requirements for elders. Expect a new round of debate in 2015 if and when Driscoll returns to ministry.
6. ISIS deals fatal, final blow to Christians in Iraq.
You can’t always trust media reports out of the Middle East, where it’s tragically easy to believe the worst of enemies who revel in evil. But no one’s disputing that the few remaining Christians in Iraq need a miracle. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, about 35,000 Christians lived in Mosul, near the ancient city of Nineveh on the Tigris River. This year the insurgent terrorist organization ISIS chased out all but a handful of the 3,000 who remained before the militant takeover. When Christian homes were marked with the Arabic letter ‘n’ for Nazareth, Western believers adoped the symbol themselves in solidarity with their beleaguered brothers and sisters. Neverthelss it’s hard to discern the purposes of God when recent research revealed that the blood of the martyrs is not usually the seed of church growth.
5. Christians split on value of faith flicks.
Depending on your perspective, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah provoked fascinating questions about faith and obedience or hardly merited more than a shrug. Viewers made Exodus the highest-grossing film of its December debut weekend, but critics inside and outside the church panned Christian Bale’s Moses as more Gladiator and less prophet of God. Pastors and theologians resumed their campaign against Heaven Is for Real when it hit the big scren, but their cries hadn’t stopped the book from already becoming a runaway bestseller. And the Christmas release of Unbroken thrills many believers who were inspired when they read the nearly unbelievable story of Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini. But it dismayed many others to learn that director Angelina Jolie ignored Zamperini’s brokenness that led to his repentance and profession of faith at a Billy Graham Crusade in 1949. Even the little-hyped Calvary deeply moved some viewers, surely the minority at a time when many moviegoers look for an inspirational escape in return for $15. In this “year of the Christian movie,” it’s not clear if we’re in the best of times, or the worst of times. Can the best of Christian theology move from Word to screen? Should we even bother trying?
4. Conservatives win big battle but continue losing ground on religious liberty.
Subsequent developments may make us feel rather silly for devoting so much time in 2014 to debating whether Christians should bake cakes for same-sex weddings. But at least for the time being, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the Hobby Lobby case against the Obama administration secures significant constitutional protections for religious liberty in the United States. The long-awaited ruling wasn’t so much a victory as a sigh of relief for religious conservatives. Likewise, Gordon College’s reprieve from a New England accrediting agency felt more like a ceasefire and less like a peace treaty. Almost everyone seems to anticipate, perhaps in the summer of 2015, a decision from the Supreme Court that would mandate same-sex marriage across the nation. It’s not likely religious liberty as we’ve known it will flourish in such an environment. For now, however, the law often supports Christians seeking to act on their values in the public sphere, even if public opinion shaped by media pressure trends in a worrisome direction.
3. Gay marriage debate moves inside evangelical churches.
For most of the 2000s debates over homosexuality have divided evangelicals from liberals in shared mainline denominations, leading many to split. But in 2014 evangelicals realized that many of their own have switched sides and now recruit others to follow along. World Vision grabbed the headlines with their decision to recognize same-sex marriages and subsequent reversal under immense pressure from peer organizations across the evangelical spectrum. The bigger story, though, is how many young adults in evangelical churches see no tension between homosexuality practice and Christian identity. Protests against Rosaria Butterfield at Wheaton College and the open ambition of young leaders to change evangelical minds reveal the challenge of teaching biblical sexuality in an age of expressive individualism and intolerant tolerance. Meanwhile in Rome, Pope Francis lurks as a wildcard in the debate, offering a global platform for the best evangelical teaching on marriage while simultaneously provoking Roman Catholic conservatives to begin speaking of schism.
2. Deaths of Garner and Brown re-ignite racial tensions.
Among evangelicals the phrase of the year might be “white privilege.” We heard it a lot as an explanation for why many white Christians could not understand the outrage over grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Depending on your perspective, Ferguson, Missouri, became synonoymous with police brutality or senseless looting, and “I Can’t Breathe” became a rallying cry for justice or marketing ploy for opportunists. Theological rifts appeared where none had been apparent, as some argued for personal responsibility and others warned against “gospel escapism.” This month’s “A Time to Speak” panel discussion in Memphis raised hopes for a united evangelical agenda, but popular-level response reveals strong theological resistance among whites to seeing sin in systematic, rather than purely individualistic, categories. This weekend’s assassination of two police officers in New York City make it all the more important for the church to step forward as a beacon of justice and mercy as an alternative to violence and retribution.
1. Ebola draws out the best and worst of us.
No other news comes close to Ebola in terms of reader interest in 2014. So what makes this my top theology story of the year? Criticism of the Western doctors treating Ebola offered stark contrast between the Christian worldview and human instincts to self-preservation. The gospel of Jesus may not compel all of us to head to Africa and assist in containing this deadly disease, but it certainly provides more than enough motivation for the brave doctors and nurses who do so. Time magazine recognized Kent Brantly of Samaritan’s Purse and other Christian medical personnel as their Person of the Year. Brantly, Nancy Writebol of SIM, and others follow in a long line of heroic Christians who have put their lives on the line by serving in harm’s way as many others fled. At the same time, more than 1.4 million readers who read Dr. Miguel Núñez’s article on Ebola for TGC reveal the anxiety spread by this disease when it crossed the Atlantic. So we give thanks to God for Brantly and many more who sacrificed their health for neighbors across the globe even as we ponder why disease stokes such great fear of our neighbors across the street.