Christianity: Top Ten Misconceptions 

With a title like this one you might expect this to be a post on the top misconceptions non-Christians have about Christianity. That's next week. It seems fitting to look inward first, at the major mistakes we Christians make in thinking about our faith.

This list is constructed from a scientific sampling of exactly one person's opinions--mine. I would include my own misconceptions on this list if I could see them for what they are, for I'm sure I have my share of them. My hope for some objectivity on this comes from reading widely and from being open to discussion here. I am unabashedly claiming historic Biblical Christianity--what C.S. Lewis called mere Christianity--as my basis for observations.

These are not listed in order of importance--I don't think I could sort it that finely. 

1. It's about us.
Biblical Christianity is about the greatness and glory of God, who created everything else, including us, as an expression of his own will and a display of his own glory. He is the source, the goal, the end; he is the only eternal life, and to know him and to enjoy him forever is our purpose. Therefore Christianity is not about our personal fulfillment, and it most assuredly is not about our personal comfort or pleasure. It's about our coming into conformity with his character so that in our own very limited way we can reflect his glory. God's character is just and loving, which means that his ends include our good and our eternal joy with him; but it is for his sake that we live, and not vice-versa.

2. We hold the truth.
This has been my blog's motto since the start: we do not hold the truth. The truth holds us. Our attitude toward knowledge and truth should be to stand humbly before it, and to yield to it. Conversely, though, because there is truth, we must stand firmly on its side and not yield to falsehood or confusion. I've written on that previously so I will not take more time with it here.

3. The truth has been given to us; therefore we don't have to think.
Mark Noll wrote about The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Harry Blamires, Os Guinness, and others agree (actually Blamires and Guinness wrote first, but Noll's is the book I would recommend first now). Christian history is rich with great thinking: Paul, Augustine, Ockham, Aquinas, Edwards, and many, many more. Around 100 years or so ago, though, faced with attacks from "higher criticism" and from scientism (see number 8), some Christians beat an intellectual retreat toward "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." There is enough truth in that to make it dangerous. Whatever God says is certainly true and settled and we ought to believe it. But we also ought to be able to explain it to the next generation, and to a questioning world, which we have not done effectively. And while many truths of the Scriptures are plain and clear for any to see, many others require much thought. Even the plain doctrines, like Christ's death and resurrection for our sins, are worth libraries of study, to gain the greatest insight and to resolve the questions they raise.

4. It's about us (part two).
When Jesus saw the crowds he felt compassion on them. He wept over Jerusalem. He commissioned the disciples to take his message to the whole world. He told us to care for the needy, the sick, the lonely, the oppressed. We can so easily get wrapped up in our own programs that we miss the mission he has sent us on, which is to extend his love to those who desperately need it. Christian culture in the West is dangerously ingrown.

5. We progress in Christ through working for him.
My family was visiting churches when we first moved to this community, and one of these visits was right before the new year. The pastor at this church said, "Let's all resolve to do more for Christ in 2002 so we can draw closer to him!" I almost ran screaming from the room. Well, not really. But it's a terribly dangerous error, and it expresses what seems to have been Christianity's greatest heresy down the ages. It started early: Paul addressed it in Romans, Galatians, Colossians, and Philippians, it was covered in the book of Hebrews, and it was at the heart of most of Jesus Christ's conflicts with the Pharisees. It's the deadly mistake called legalism. It has made the source of true liberty look like bondage; it has put Christians in chains.

One way we can recognize this error in ourselves is when we hear ourselves thinking, "I did the right things today, so today I'm more acceptable before God." Or the converse: "I haven't been doing the right things, so God doesn't love me as much today."

Yes, we have commands in the Bible, and yes, Christians are "created in Christ for good works." So we are to do good. But these are not the means to our growth, and they are not they way we stay "okay" in God's eyes from day to day. God's commands are a picture of what he calls us to be, but the power, the means, the "fuel" for that is his work in us by grace. We progress in Christ by building our relationship with him through faith, and good works follow as an outflow of that. If we make the law our standard we cannot live up to it. God gave us the presence of the Holy Spirit to accomplish his purposes in us and through us.

6. Jesus Christ is all I need.
Here's another one that "sounds so spiritual it must be true," but in fact it's terribly false. Some Christians believe all they need in order to be strong, healthy, and spiritual is Jesus Christ. Specifically, when they encounter problems or experience pain, they "just take it to Jesus." It does sound very spiritual, doesn't it? Certainly the source of all our salvation and healing is in Christ, and of course we should take all our needs to him. But God himself never said he would be all we need. We need each other. If you doubt this, look at when God said, "It is not good for man to be alone." It was when Adam was in a perfect, unfallen condition, with a perfect environment and a perfect relationship with God. God said that was not good enough. The phrase "one another" appears some 88 times in the ESV New Testament. We need each other: he designed us that way.

7. Forget the past and press on!
Paul wrote in Philippians,

"One thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

From this, many Christians have concluded that all of Christian counseling is wrong; we should not go back and review our past in order to solve our present problems. Now, I worry about Christianity having devolved in some places into a "therapeutic culture," but that's not because Christian counseling is wrongly based, it's because we suffer under misconceptions 1 and 4: we think it's all about our own fulfillment or about our own problems. But Paul had a very specific kind of past he was forgetting here, which you'll see by reading it in context: it was his past sources of personal pride. He was setting aside his own accomplishments. He did not intend us to forget all of the past.

The Bible has five specific things for us to do with our pasts. We have done wrong, and we are to confess it and repent (turn from it). We have suffered wrong, we have been hurt and we have experienced loss: for this we rightly mourn (Jesus pronounced a blessing for this) and we are to forgive. (We cannot fully forgive what we have stuffed into forgetfulness.) And we are to learn from our past experiences. Combining this with number 6, I would point out that often we need a friend or a counselor to help us do this well.

8. Faith is opposed to knowledge.
J.P. Moreland's newest book focuses strongly on this: the opposite of faith is sight, not knowledge (see Hebrews 11:6). The words know and knowledge appear in a combined 372 places in the New Testament (English Standard Version): it's certainly a Biblical concept! But even Christians fall into the mistake of thinking, "Faith is believing what you cannot know to be true." I'm sorry, but I can't believe something if I don't have reason to think it's true--can you? Here's a better view of faith: Faith is (1) believing in what is known though it cannot be seen, and (2) acting accordingly (for Biblical faith is never divorced from action).

The Church is infected, along with secular culture, with modern scientism: the view that if something cannot be known scientifically, it cannot truly be known at all. So when someone asks, why do you believe the Bible is the word of God, we proudly say, "Because I have faith in it!" (Listen here and here for examples of this.) This is unnecessarily weak; and what will we do with the Mormon or Muslim who says their book is the word of God because they have faith in it? There are dozens of good reasons to believe the Bible is the word of God. We can have actual knowledge on subjects like these, and we can build our faith on such knowledge.

9. The health and wealth gospel.
"God wants you to be prosperous! God wants you to be successful! God wants you to be healthy!" There are pockets where this is prominent. Only in America, as they say. It would never have sold in Soviet Russia, and it wouldn't be believed today in China, Cuba, Sudan, or any of the other parts of the world where the Church is growing in spite of persecution. It's a huge distortion of God's intention. Yes, ultimately God has good in store for all his people, but part of that good is to know his power in our lives when we are most desperately in need of it. It's to build our character--our souls--through testing. It's to let us share in the pain--and to share comfort as well--in a fallen world, in which we are genuine co-sufferers.

10. It's about building a Christian culture.
I spent ten years in the contemporary Christian music field and still have a lot of appreciation for it; but I still worry about "Christian culture." It's all just pop--or too much of it is, at any rate. One writer recently wrote, "If we were going to build a Christian culture, why did it have to be so shallow?" I suspect the answer ties into number 3 on this list: we are not only intellectually lazy, we are culturally lazy. Christians, let's stretch ourselves--let's be more interesting!


Well, that's my list. What would you add? (Please, though, we're not interested in potshots from outside Christianity like "The greatest misconception Christians have is that they know anything at all, or that anything they believe is true." Frankly, that's too easy. We know many of you feel that way. I'm interested in something with some actual thought and reasoning behind it.) 

Posted: Fri - June 8, 2007 at 11:00 AM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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