When did you first realize that lying can be effective?
I suppose I always knew from our first ancestor that sometimes the easiest way off the hook is a little white lie. Who can know? And Adam lied to God! It’s much easier to lie to Mom and Dad—you know, given their lack of omniscience and omnipresence.
But things have changed. The internet—like no other media before it—fools us into a false sense of omniscience. We know everything from reading blogs, listening to podcasts, and scrolling through Twitter. It fools us into a false sense of omnipresence. The world conforms to the little screen in the palm of my hand. Where can anyone go to escape my gaze? Where can I not peer, with or without permission?
Maybe the lies we tell about other Christians don’t prick our conscience because we’ve repeated them enough times that we now believe them. Plus, they work! Powerful leaders bow to our demands. Readers flock to our website for the latest report. Petitions circulate. Statements gather signatures. If the innocent suffer, well, what do they say about revolutions and omelets? You can’t make one without breaking a few eggs.
The internet has surfaced an epistemic crisis for Christians who profess to stand for truth. As lying becomes more effective, it becomes more popular. And as it becomes more popular, it becomes more difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially for international readers not familiar with American dynamics.
This year’s list of top theology stories shows how difficult it can be to separate rumors and lies from facts. There’s almost always more than meets the eye. Rarely does a theology story lend itself to clear-cut interpretation. The debate is often what makes the story noteworthy, what makes it rank on this year-end list.
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 2019. And remember, healthy debate serves the cause of truth. We’re not omniscient. We’re not omnipresent. But in humility we’re guided by the Holy Spirit to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). A bit more healthy fear of God might help us pause before we pass along the latest lie about another Christian.
10. Prosperity preacher takes job in Trump administration.
No one could have been surprised when President Trump hired his spiritual adviser and prominent defender Paula White. The real surprise came when so many Southern Baptist pastors endorsed the prosperity preacher’s new book. We like to imagine our theology worked out in reasoned, careful deliberation. But our beliefs have been shaped—in ways known and unknown, expressed and repressed—by our biography. We’re apt to see theological orthodoxy in someone we like, someone we know, someone who fights on our side in political battles. And vice versa.
9. Are we supposed to boycott Chick-fil-A now?
For years Christians stood with pleasure by the growing purveyor of fast-food chicken sandwiches as liberals protested the founding family’s theological beliefs. So you can understand Christians’ sense of betrayal when Chick-fil-A announced they would no longer donate publicly to The Salvation Army and Fellowship of Christian Athletes, noted for their biblical convictions. But is there any such thing as “Christian chicken,” as many of the chain’s fans jokingly nicknamed Chick-fil-A? No. But there is real stigma attached to corporations that refuse to join the emerging theological consensus of progressive activists.
8. Hong Kong fights for freedom.
Apparently the communist leaders of China didn’t get the memo that the world is becoming increasingly religious, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. Because they’re scrambling to stop it, as seen in their brutal repression of Muslims and crackdown on Christian churches. The fight for freedom continues in Hong Kong, with or without Christian support as churches debate whether Scripture dictates they join the protest or stay above the fray.
7. Notre-Dame cathedral fire unites believers and unbelievers, Catholics and Protestants.
It was an odd and unexpected moment of unity. The spectacle of Notre-Dame de Paris nearly burning to the ground suggests many unbelievers still long for transcendence and solidity, and many Protestants have an implicit theology of sacred spaces. Architecture matters, as anyone running a capital campaign—let alone trying to rebuild Notre-Dame—already knows, whether or not anyone can explain a theology of place.
6. United Methodists formally uphold biblical sexuality.
Was the latest rejection of same-sex blessings by United Methodists the final break for the divided denomination? Perhaps, but the status quo hasn’t yet convinced biblical revisionists to repent or leave. Many have been surprised and dismayed by the new global, orthodox identity for United Methodists. But we should increasingly expect the majority world to assume leadership in setting theological priorities and trajectories.
5. Sex abuse in SBC sparks broader debate over gender roles.
The “day of reckoning” came this year to the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Credit the SBC leaders who assumed responsibility instead of fighting journalists in semantic games over the size and scope of the problem. Meanwhile, amid the broader reckoning over abuse of women by church leaders, many SBC leaders sparred over women preaching. The SBC was probably overdue for debating its complementarian consensus and basis for cooperation across differences of belief and practice in some 47,000 churches.
4. Can the president visit your church?
There was no way for David Platt to “win” when he got the call about the president’s impromptu visit to McLean Bible Church. Platt was going to alienate one side or the other, even though he opted for the biblically mandated approach: he prayed for President Trump. Pressure continues to mount for churches to subsume their theological vision to party platforms in the never-ending culture war. But even genuine threats must not tempt evangelicals to forsake our high calling as gospel heralds to a world that demonizes cultural enemies.
3. Joshua Harris deconstructs his faith.
Not until Joshua Harris joined the #exevangelical ranks did many know such terms as “deconversion,” “deconstruction,” and “purity culture.” But they’re not new, championed for years by leading progressives, including “voice of the wandering evangelical” Rachel Held Evans, who died unexpectedly this year at only 37 years old. Does your theology help wavering believers “doubt toward God“? If your church stigmatizes doubt and questions, expect more cases of “lost magic.”
2. When is a hug more than a hug?
At first it seemed to many a simple good-news story. The brother of the murdered Botham Jean asked the judge to allow him to hug the convicted killer in an act of forgiveness, received gratefully. But the Bible’s theology of forgiveness has been widely misunderstood and co-opted for therapeutic means. Thus many lacked proper theological vocabulary as they processed what they had seen. Even as we celebrate this powerful display of the gospel at work, let us not forget that God demands repentance and loves justice.
1. Kanye walks the aisle.
The first rumor I saw defied reason. Kanye West has enrolled at The Master’s Seminary? Not quite. But the whispers grew louder until Kanye himself finally confirmed that he had been born again. Given our tribalism, though, it’s not enough that Kanye converted. We want to know if he converted to the right team. Why’s he hanging out with Joel Osteen? Will he be woke enough? Does he believe in limited atonement? Thank God he spared you from working out your theology in the world’s brightest spotlight.