The first article published by TGC on COVID-19 was written by a pastor in China at the end of January. At the time the disease sounded serious but distant. That same month TGC leaders Don Carson and Tim Keller traveled to Kuala Lumpur and spoke at a conference for Chinese pastors, minus the contingent from Wuhan. Five weeks later, TGC turned for COVID-19 insight to a Council member who’s also a doctor trained in infectious diseases. Immediately our social-media accounts became engulfed in an argument about why masks are not effective or even recommended by the CDC in fighting the novel coronavirus.
Two days later the United States shut down.
We’re still debating masks in churches that have been torn apart by infighting. We’re still not gathering in person at full capacity. And we’ve only just begun to debate vaccines, which will make the mask divisions look quaint. A good-old-fashioned debate on the Trinity would come as welcome relief to churches battered and beleaguered by the COVID wars.
Every year this list of the top 10 theology stories branches far beyond theology. That’s because you can rarely separate theology from personality and politics. You could not deduce a church’s position on masks in 2020 by asking about their views about predestination or the Lord’s Supper. But if you asked church leaders about the mainstream media and President Trump, you could probably determine how they would regard the threat of COVID-19. In 2020 theological unity took a back seat to political partisanship.
A good-old-fashioned debate on the Trinity would come as welcome relief to churches battered and beleaguered by COVID wars.
In any given year, the top three theology stories of 2020 would each claim #1. It’s not hyperbole to say the world will never be the same. The top three stories overlapped, and probably none of them would have played out the same way without the other. The extent to which the church can recover depends largely on whether theology emerges as more formative than ethnic identity or political party. That’s not to say ethnicity and politics are insignificant. Ethnicity is an important aspect of how God has created us, and politics a vital way we put our faith into action. But unless a church can argue theologically, there’s no chance for believers to progress in righteousness and unity at the same time. We’ll be doomed to lesser unity and tempted to sacrifice the pursuit of biblical righteousness.
In this year unlike any other, please 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 2020. Let’s fight for unity rooted in both truth and love. No other kind is worthy of the church set apart by the blood of Christ.
10. Social media creates a dilemma for users.
More time online by ourselves was the last thing we needed, but that’s what 2020 gave us. Government authorities responded by bringing antitrust lawsuits against Facebook and Google, tech giants who now dominate advertising revenues and even the very flow of information. When companies grow this large, they create enemies on all sides. Conservatives currently benefit from the Facebook algorithm but worry enough about censorship to create alternative platforms. Liberals raise big money from Silicon Valley’s overnight billionaires but fret that social media has destroyed local journalism and imperiled government accountability. The social dilemma for Christians is that while we worry about the messages conveyed by television, movies, and music, we neglect the more deeply formative effects of the online experience in general. It’s not just a problem that young children can stumble across the vilest content online. It’s that when you center the universe on a user staring down into a screen, it’s hard to imagine a God who created the wind and the waves, the birds and the bees. Social media spreads the gospel like we’ve never seen before. And it also undermines familiar notions of authority and truth.
9. What story does fertility tell of faith?
Inside many evangelical churches you don’t need long to figure out what topics are off limits. One of them is how much money you make. Another is how many children you want and when you hope to have them. Fertility is too sensitive to address even in polite company. This reluctance makes it difficult to discuss one of the greatest looming threats to Western civilization—an aging population due to declining fertility, a trend that many expect COVID-19 to exacerbate. Leading scholars link high fertility in Africa to that continent’s future leadership in the church, as it did in previous centuries for the United States. At the same time, new scholarship identifies declining fertility as a key factor in the emergence of the West as a military and economic power, with the church driving this trend. So it’s not clear how exactly fertility will shape the future, but history suggests theologians and church leaders should keep a close eye on the nursery.
8. Thousands of readers discover Jesus to be gentle and lowly.
Jesus was clear in Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” And yet something makes it hard for many of us to really believe or trust these words of comfort from our Savior. Dane Ortlund launched his new book, Gentle and Lowly, at the outset of COVID-19, which frustrated early distribution. But over the summer the book became a sensation by selling more than 130,000 copies and earning five stars on Amazon from more than 1,000 reviewers. The world may never stock this book in gift shops and warehouse stores. But the success of this book, especially among church leaders, suggests we’ve missed something right underneath our noses while buried in the Bible. Why does the character of Jesus feel rather foreign to us and yet so familiar to the Puritans cited over and over by Ortlund? If so many of us crave this reminder of Jesus’s love, church leaders should consider how we’ve presented Christ in our teaching and preaching.
7. Ravi Zacharias comes under closer scrutiny after death.
For several years accusations had persisted about Ravi Zacharias and a sexting scandal. But only after his death in 2020 was he accused of sexual abuse by multiple women. An internal investigation continues at his eponymous ministry (RZIM). It’s not clear such a ministry can adapt or even survive if its founder falls into disrepute. Many fans of Zacharias, a world-traveled apologist of Christianity, have insisted that we must not speak ill of the dead. Similar comments came from many served by L’Arche when founder Jean Vanier was posthumously accused of sexual abuse in 2020. But how else can we learn from a leader’s apparent sins, especially if at least some of his family and colleagues may have covered them up for personal gain? How can we claim to value a teacher’s orthodoxy if he didn’t demonstrate orthopraxy? The biblical requirements for church leadership plainly demand godly character and integrity. But Zacharias was not evidently involved in a local church, even if RZIM has been designated as one for tax purposes. Evangelicals valuing gifts over character will ultimately undermine the credibility of biblical theology.
6. J. I. Packer dies at 93.
Packer’s health had declined in recent years along with his publishing output. He had long since made his mark on theological education and catechesis. But funerals are for the living, and we learned much about ourselves in how we remembered him. Packer was not primarily eulogized as a controversial figure, though theological convictions forced him out of the Anglican Church of Canada when they blessed same-sex unions. He wrote some of the best-known works on penal substitution, particular redemption, and biblical inerrancy. Packer also ran afoul of theologians to his right—Martyn Lloyd-Jones earlier in his career, and R. C. Sproul later in life. It says something about our own day that so many esteemed his “humility, respect for others, and true love for the church.” Today it feels harder to find his balance of theological conviction and charity.
5. Supreme Court redefines sex to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
President Trump’s first nomination to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, has been widely hailed for his stirring defense of religious liberty. But he hardly heartened conservatives when he wrote for the 6–3 majority to explain how the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s mention of sex also intended to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Formerly you could not be fired from a job because you’re a man or a woman; now you cannot be fired if you change from a man to a woman. It’s possible that the Supreme Court has reached a kind of compromise that exempts churches and other religious nonprofits. After all, religious liberty enjoys a 15-case winning streak at the Supreme Court (make that 16 after the November ruling against New York’s restrictions on religious gatherings under COVID-19). The bigger question, however, is whether subsequent generations will even bother to defend the biblical teaching on homosexuality. Carl Trueman calls J. K. Rowling the latest casualty in the war of transgender ideology, and Trueman’s acclaimed new book underscores the urgent demand for theological grounding amid cultural revolution.
4. Jerry Falwell Jr. forced to resign as president of Liberty University.
The world’s largest Christian university continues to search for a successor to Falwell Jr. after a sex scandal that would make tabloid readers blush. Falwell grew his father’s university into a behemoth of online education and even Division 1 football. Perhaps his most lasting legacy will be early and enthusiastic support of President Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries. Partly in response, Liberty’s black alumni helped to expose internal rifts at the school even before Jerry and Becki Falwell’s sexual escapades became widely known. The school’s unashamed partisanship and deep dependence on federal aid will make it an enticing target for the Biden administration. The question is whether Biden and his allies will view all Christian higher education as akin to Liberty. If so, any formal theological education that doesn’t conform to liberal sexual mores could be in jeopardy. Falwell’s transgressions at Liberty were an open secret long before he was finally dismissed. Why would the world take seriously Christian colleges that claim they cannot compromise ethical standards rooted in God’s Word, when places like Liberty have done so for years?
3. George Floyd’s death sparks national wave of protests over racial injustice.
Ahmaud Arbery’s murder in Georgia raised questions about police coverups and racist vigilantes that many figured had faded away in humid mists of Southern past. Jacob Blake’s shooting in Wisconsin gave way to furious debate over disparate police treatment of men carrying deadly weapons. Breonna Taylor’s death in Kentucky provoked demands for curtailing police powers. But George Floyd’s impossibly agonizing struggle to breathe while trapped under a Minneapolis policeman’s knee unleashed mayhem across the country. So far, however, not much has changed in way of tangible reforms, as focus shifted to efforts to defund police. Among evangelicals, concern for racial injustice increasingly meets accusations of heretical compromise with critical race theory (CRT). President Trump pleased many evangelicals when he prohibited federal anti-bias training that relies on CRT. Big-city politicians didn’t help matters when they applauded mass protests even as they scolded churches for meeting, even outdoors.
2. President Donald Trump loses re-election.
The result wasn’t surprising. President Trump had trailed former Vice President Joe Biden in polls ever since Democrats opted for the longtime politician over several younger and more progressive alternatives. Nor did President Trump’s refusal (thus far) to concede surprise many observers. We’ll never know if President Trump would have prevailed behind a booming economy had not COVID-19 intervened. Or if the racial unrest following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis explains why some whites (yes, whites) soured on him. But we do know that white evangelicals once again backed him with overwhelming enthusiasm, comparable to 2016. President Trump inspired a remarkable theological coalition: dispensational fundamentalists, postmillennial reconstructionists, prosperity peddlers, Reformed Baptists, and Southern revivalists, among others. Can any other Republican do the same? And will President Biden confirm their fears by allowing the Left to dominate his administration? Or will he cater to the more moderate black voters who bailed out his primary campaign and the broad constituency that gave him the most votes in American history?
1. COVID-19 Kills More Than 1.5 Million and Counting, Upends the World
This list always suffers from American myopia. But this year especially, the global pandemic has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of churches in different countries. We’re all dealing with the same disease, but we’re not dealing with it in the same way. Americans turned COVID-19 into a referendum on authority in Romans 13:7 and Hebrews 13:17. That’s not surprising given the country’s particular historic affinity for freedom and autonomy. Churches that had formerly cooperated adopted dichotomous strategies toward the bewildering, sometimes nonsensical local restrictions. The Supreme Court sided with the First Amendment rights of churches, thanks to a new associate justice appointed by President Trump. But no court can dictate how churches ought to love their neighbors in a pandemic, or what kind of risk a church should incur in order to meet in person. Time will tell which practices—especially video “church”—will move from contingency to permanent strategy when this pandemic finally abates.