State of the Church in America

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Over the years, churches and councils have developed catechisms and creeds to summarize the key doctrines of the Christian faith. Many of these affirmations of truth show clearly how the church has traditionally viewed Scripture and its authority. As American churches move farther away from the authority of Scripture in our lives and churches, are we losing some of the doctrines that generations of Christians have considered fundamental to the faith? What kind of an effect is this having on morality within the church?

Historical American Christianity

It is clear from many of the old catechisms that the early American church believed the Scriptures—and the Scriptures alone—were the authority in their lives. Two prominent documents, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646–1647) used by Presbyterian and Reformed churches and the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742) a creed used by Baptist churches, both use almost identical wording to describe the authority and exclusivity of the Word of God,

All which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life . . . . The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself  . . . .

The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.1

The doctrine of the American church has historically been largely based on the Scriptures. Since they believed that Scripture was the ultimate authority, it was Scripture that dictated what they were to believe. For that reason, the fundamentals of Christian doctrine were firmly accepted and a high standard of morality permeated churches and, by extension, much of the culture.

An Alarming New Trend

American churchgoers of today do not understand what the Bible being God’s Word actually means.

Today, while many churches and denominations still give lip service to the old creeds and catechisms, the state of the American church shows that they interpret these affirmations of truth in a much different way than did generations before them. According to a Lifeway survey, eight out of ten churchgoers in America think that the Bible is God’s Word and that it is accurate.2 While on the surface, this looks like a great statistic, a closer look into churches shows that American churchgoers of today do not understand what the Bible being God’s Word actually means.

Scripture is clear that the Bible is to be our standard for living (2 Timothy 3:16, John 17:17, Psalm 119:142). Yet, according to a Pew Forum survey, only four in ten churchgoers rely on the Bible and religious teaching to determine right from wrong.3 Instead, nearly half rely on their own common sense and experience. Sadly, not even half of churchgoers read their Bible outside of church! The result of this biblical illiteracy is a staggering decline in belief in traditional, biblical doctrines and rampant immorality. For example, one of the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith is that salvation is found in Christ alone (Acts 4:12, Romans 10:9, Ephesians 2:8–9) and yet the Lifeway and Pew Forum surveys show that as many as eight in ten Christians who attend mainline denominations think that other religions can lead to God and four out of ten think that salvation can be achieved by works.4 Obviously, many churches are largely no longer basing their thinking on the Word of God.

This shift from the Bible as the foundation for theology and doctrine has also led to the Bible no longer shaping the church’s morality. According to a Barna Group survey nearly four in ten Christians think that abortion is morally acceptable, well over half think that cohabitation (living together before marriage) is fine, and a significant minority have no problem with pornography.5 And these are just some of the completely unbiblical moral views within the church!

A strong stand on both biblical doctrine and biblical morality go hand in hand.

It makes perfect sense that a strong stand on both biblical doctrine and biblical morality go hand in hand. James 2:20 says that “faith without works is dead.” Real faith is believing in the person and work of Jesus Christ. James says that faith is accompanied by works, and a lack of works demonstrates a dead faith. Jesus also said “a tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33). It should be obvious then that a strong stand on the fundamental doctrines of the faith, as revealed in Scripture, will be demonstrated by a strong stand on biblical morality. A significant decline in one most likely includes a decline in the other.

According to research done by America’s Research Group and published in our book, Already Gone , two-thirds of young people are deserting the church and often the faith. This is largely because they began to doubt the accuracy of the Bible and their lingering questions were never answered. The church has drifted away from its biblical moorings and the next generation is recognizing the hypocrisy and bailing out.

These alarming statistics highlight a problem that is pervasive across denominations. Christians do not know what the Bible teaches and what they believe. Theology has become a pick-and-choose based on what feels right and comfortable, not on what God’s Word actually teaches. This change has come because we have rejected the authority of God’s Word in many areas. Instead of allowing God’s Word to dictate our beliefs and practices, we have allowed the humanistic philosophy that man determines truth to be our guide. The tragic result of this compromise is a quick slide downwards into utterly wrong theology, rampant immorality, and the hesitation to call anything wrong.

The old catechisms of churches highlighted that “the supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit.” In other words, Scripture alone was to be the authority. Sadly, this is no longer true for American church as a whole. Instead of allowing the Scriptures to be our ultimate authority, we have added man’s words from outside Scripture into the pages of Scripture. This is largely evident in Genesis where God’s Word clearly teaches that He created everything fully formed and functional in six, literal, 24-hour days around 6,000 years ago. However, man’s evolutionary and old-earth ideas teach the exact opposite and, rather than accepting God’s Words, the church has largely adopted man’s words. Ideas completely outside of Scripture have been forced into it, instead of allowing the Scriptures to be the measure of truth. Of course, as can be expected, compromising God’s Word with man’s didn’t just stay confined to Genesis 1–11. It is spreading all throughout the Bible and the results are disastrous. After all, if God’s Word isn’t true in the beginning, where does it begin to teach the truth? Sadly, this has resulted in many who simply do not trust the Bible.

We need to base our thinking on God’s Word in every area and teach our young people to do the same.

So what should the church do about this? We need to get back to our foundation! After all, we can only be the salt we are called to be if we are still salty (Matthew 5:13). We need to be bold in proclaiming God’s truth to this generation, the church, and to our lost culture. So many churches have compromised on biblical teaching, especially in Genesis. But Genesis lays the foundation for every biblical doctrine from why Jesus is the only Savior to why abortion is wrong. We need to base our thinking on God’s Word in every area and teach our young people to do the same. It is God’s Word—not man’s humanistic philosophies—that is “living and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12) and that is “truth” (John 17:17). As God’s church, let’s uncompromisingly proclaim the Word and the gospel “that is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16).

Footnotes

  1. See “The Westminster Confession of Faith” and “The Philadelphia Confession of Faith.”
  2. Rankin, Russ. “Research: Spiritual Maturity Tied to Strong Doctrinal Beliefs.” http://www.lifeway.com/Article/research-spiritual-maturity-strong-doctrinal-beliefs.
  3. “Religious Beliefs and Practices,” http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2religious-landscape-study-chapter-1.pdf.
  4. “Americans Draw Theological Beliefs From Diverse Points of View,” https://www.barna.org/barna-update/5-barna-update/82-americans-draw-theological-beliefs-from-diverse-points-of-view#.VFoRjlPF8SR.
  5. “Morality Continues to Decay,” https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/129-morality-continues-to-decay#.VGz52ovF98E.

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