Wednesday, March 03, 2010

False Beliefs can Kill

A friend of mine recommended a book called Myths America Lives By. The title brought to mind a 20/20 episode I saw years ago by John Stossel called 'Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity'. I don't think the book and Stossel's reports have much in common except the word 'Myth' in the title and that both remind us how untruths can become conventional wisdom quickly. Often these myths are silly (you can catch a cold by being in the cold air, shaving causes hair to grow back fuller/thicker, etc.). Yet, some myths have more serious, even deadly consequences. The best example of this is the myth that chemicals are killing us. Stossel highlights America's fear of DDT. It was widely used in the middle part of the 20th century, yet was banned in the 70's. Certainly if DDT was having horrible effects on people/animals, it should be banned. However, the science, according to Stossel, doesn't support that. In huge doses (like what was sprayed in the 1950's) it can have harmful effects on bird eggs. But you don't need large doses to kill mosquitoes. Still, fear prevailed over science and the myth was perpetuated that DDT was bad. Not a huge problem for Americans, but a massive and deadly problem for many nations in Africa. DDT kills disease spreading mosquitoes. Without the DDT that America supplied, Africa saw a huge rise in malaria and malaria related deaths - thousands per day, millions per year and often the worst hit are children (see video below).

My point isn't really about DDT and malaria. My point is that false belief can be deadly. It can be deadly in secular affairs and also with regards to our faith (see, for example, 2 Peter 2:1-3). We act on what we believe. If we believe wrongly, we'll act wrongly. Wrong actions can often (always) be traced back to wrong belief.

This is something the contemporary evangelical church must come to grips with. By and large, the contemporary church has shunned doctrine in favor of 'relevant' and 'applicational' sermons. I remember sitting in a meeting in a previous church where I was advocating a series of studies that would circulate through the churches small groups on basic doctrine. I was shot down. It wasn't the first or last time my ideas have been shot down (thank goodness - I sometimes come up with real doozies). The problem was the reason for shooting my idea down. It wasn't that the people already knew the basic doctrines of the faith, or that they were getting it from the sermons. No, I was shot down because it was assumed that the people didn't need studies on theology/doctrine. It was argued that the people needed practical studies on marriage and parenting and communication and money management and how to share their faith (how can you do that if you don't know the content of your faith) and managing stress, etc.

I do think these things are important, but addressing them without addressing the underlying belief structures is a poor, dangerous, even deadly mistake. Broken marriages, poor stewardship, worry, etc are symptoms of improper belief. If we don't address the beliefs, we're not addressing the root, simply hacking away at twigs. And I'm not advocating irrelevant sermons or studies with no application. I'm just against putting the cart (application) before the horse (doctrine), or assuming the doctrine and skipping right on to application. That is the trend because many today are impatient with theology for the sake of theology. The Puritans, for all they got wrong, seem to me to have gotten this right. They usually divided their sermons in 'doctrine' sections and 'use' sections (and doctrine always preceded use and heavily outweighed it).

I'll be the first to admit that evangelicalism is in sad shape when it comes to knowing what we believe (recent studies show our youth know as little as those who don't attend church at all!) and in living according to God's revealed will (Barna has argued that never before have so many people claimed to be Christians and never before has it made so little difference in how we live). Many look at that and see two problems. I see one, with one solution - preach and teach doctrine! If we don't teach doctrine, the church will be prone to believe incorrectly. That's deadly in and of itself, but it will also lead us to act wrongly.

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