We’ll remember 2016 as the year we’d rather forget. Normally I search for at least a few positive stories and trends in my annual year-end survey of the year’s top theology stories. But this year overwhelmed me with distressing, unresolved developments. And my focus on theology precludes some of the saddest stories, such as the ongoing civil war and refugee crisis in Syria, and some of the strangest, such as the apparent epidemic of scary clowns.
You’ll see in this list a theme of fear and loathing vs. faith and love. As we see our neighbors mediated through our reading, watching, and listening we’re tempted to fear and loathe them, because someone’s paying to keep our attention. And the easiest way to keep that attention is through anger and fear. But I’ve noticed in my church and community I’m more likely to see my neighbors, even when we disagree, as people who can teach me, as people made in the image of God, as people who need the gospel of Jesus Christ. Locally I know all about our serious problems. But I’m stubbornly optimistic about God’s plan. Why do I struggle, then, to see God at work in stories I only know from a distance? Please join me in prayer that bring good from what appears to be evil.
Some entries in this list may not appear strictly theological. But at The Gospel Coalition we aim to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ affects all of life. And you’ll find assumptions and beliefs about God in each of these events and trends. 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 2016. And consider it an opportunity to reflect on whether your media consumption habits prompt fear and loathing of your neighbor or faith and love from God.
10. High-profile attrition reveals crisis in pastoral vocation.
9. God will not be mocked—but you will be.
Who knew the most influential medium of theological criticism would be a satirical website? That’s what happened with the launch of The Babylon Bee. No one escapes the biting wit of Adam Ford, but theological liberals, prosperity preachers, and post-evangelicals usually wear the goat’s horns. Surely they often deserve it. The Babylon Bee is perfectly pitched for social media sharing in a “fake news” era. But will mockery lead to repentance?
8. Trinity debate erupts in battle of blogs.
It’s not exactly Nicea or Constantinople, but democratized discourse on the internet has amplified voices unheard in previous generations. And it has facilitated ease of interdisciplinary contributions. Debates over the Trinity have been notoriously difficult to follow and explain, even among the most learned scholars. So this summer’s flurry of posts about eternal subordination within the Trinity and the implications for gender roles stood out for involving pastors, professors, and lay leaders in high-stakes heresy hunting. This essential Christian doctrine offers significant resources for godly living, but when we search for useful contemporary applications and speculate too much beyond biblical warrant, trouble often follows.
7. Assisted suicide grows in availability and popularity.
Assisted suicide spread this year to California, Colorado, and Canada as polls reveal that a strong majority of 67 percent of Americans believe this practice is morally acceptable for terminally, painfully ill patients. Christian arguments for the dignity of all life made in God’s image suffer limited effectiveness in Western culture, which views “death with dignity” as the compassionate choice. What happens, though, when option becomes expectation for the suffering? Without acknowledging God as Creator or recognizing purpose to suffering, there are no cultural resources to resist technocratic exploitation.
6. Christian education weathers threat—for now.
5. What good is church authority if you can’t enforce it?
Leadership is granted by the led. Consider the crisis in the Roman Catholic Church where even the so-called vicar of Christ can’t force his progressive reforms on unwilling conservative bishops. Or the United Methodist Church, where African and Asian believers ensure the biblical standards for pastors won’t change but American liberals openly flout their sin. Or InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which opted for voluntary disclosure over inquisition with staff who object to historical teaching on sexuality. What’s to stop any church member or even pastor from simply jumping to another church when authorities catch him in unrepentant sin? Though we know authority can be abused, church discipline is a means of grace. May God raise up leaders who enforce it with convicted humility and members who accept it with grateful sobriety.
4. New culture war front opens in public bathrooms.
No one could have been surprised after the Obergefell decision in 2015 that transgender identity would supplant same-sex marriage as the newest battle in the never-ending culture wars. Several conservative state legislators and the governor who signed the North Carolina “bathroom bill” went down to defeat in November. President Obama’s demand that all public schools must allow gender identity to determine bathroom usage made many Christian parents rethink their approach to education. The Supreme Court appears poised in 2017 for another one-solution-for-all decision that prioritizes progressive ideology over child safety. How, then, does Christian theology from creation to consummation speak to a society that has transgressed even the most basic biological facts of human nature?
3. Public violence makes victims of us all.
This year everyone felt under attack. African Americans who watched Alton Sterling and Philado Castille perish found further reason to fear a routine encounter with police could end in death. Former Dallas Police Chief David Brown became a household name and rare unifying figure when five of his officers were killed this summer. Most of the voices saying “black lives matter” are not violent, and most of the police officers serving under durress are not looking for trouble. But hyperbolic media prey upon our prejudices to sow fear and loathing, because that’s why we tune in. Perhaps the most distressing example was the horrific Pulse nighclub shooting in Orlando, which combined homosexuality and Islam in a made-for-cable-TV melee of blame that somehow implicated evangelicals. Truth and love may not always prevail, but these virtues must at least characterize Christians.