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.
If you’re a Gen X pastor who planted a church, proceed with caution. The combination of major responsibility at young ages, combined with high-profile attention outside the local church, has felled too many pastors already. Whether they’ve been removed for abuse of authority, burnout, alcoholism, or something else, middle-aged pastors have not fared well in the megachuch spotlight. But is it even realistic that they should? Modern ministry makes some pastors leave the church so they can actually fulfill their calling to shepherd and teach. Whatever the circumstances, truly Christ-shaped ministers must resist today’s unique temptations to personal gain.
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.
Not even legislative reprieve in California or unexpected national election results brought comfort to Christian school administrators worried that anti-discrmination concerns will force them to choose between biblical teaching and financial survival. There is no choice in the short term but to fight to preserve government aid in the form of tax exemption, grants, and subsidized loans. Many Christian colleges can’t survive without it. But in the long term, some administrators are pushing for landmark compromise, while others plan to forsake government dependence in favor of full freedom to teach and enforce biblical morality. Either way the implications for theological education cannot be exaggerated.
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.
2. Popular women teachers challenge church teaching.
There’s nothing new to evangelical women looking to books, conferences, and social media for teaching. That’s why The Gospel Coalition publishes women in our Crossway imprint and on our website, and why we host a large national conference exclusively for women every other year. What’s new in 2016 is that several popular women teachers bucked biblical teaching on sexual ethics. Most prominent among them, Jen Hatmaker confessed her belief that LGBT relationships can be holy. Shortly thereafter another bestselling author and speaker on The Belong Tour began dating another woman. Long after these controversies pass, a bigger question will linger: Can we hear the challenging, demanding words of Jesus in a marketplace that gives us what we want instead?
1. Why did Donald Trump win?
There won’t be much debate about the biggest, most surprising news of 2016: the electoral victory of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States. Since November theologians and church leaders have hardly stopped debating why. Perhaps Trump was raised up by God to bring relief from a string of destructive Supreme Court decisions. Perhaps Trump was bolstered by white evangelicals who failed to reckon with our complicity in racial injustice. Whatever the reason, Trump dominated the 2016 headlines from beginning to end, starting when he boasted at a Reformed college that not even murder would dissuade his supporters, and when he prompted some Reformed students to protest his visit to an evangelical school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He also prompted debates on consequentialism and more than a few comparisons to biblical figures, pagan and Jewish alike. The same man who bragged that he’s never needed to ask God for forgiveness did more than anyone else in 2016 to reveal evangelical beliefs and divisions.