From denying the trinity to affirming sex between cohabiting couples, a recent survey of 1,000 US pastors makes for concerning reading, says Graham Nicholls. Could the same be true of the UK Church?
Just 37 per cent of US pastors hold a traditionally-accepted “biblical worldview”. That’s according to new findings from the American Worldview Inventory 2022, conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University.
According to the report, some of the beliefs held by more than a third of US pastors include:
- Sexual relations between two unmarried people who believe they love each other is morally acceptable
- The Holy Spirit is not a person but is a symbol of God’s power, presence or purity
- Having faith matters more than which faith you have
- A person who is generally good, or does enough good things for others, can earn a place in heaven
- The Bible is ambiguous in its teaching about abortion
- Determining moral truth is up to each individual; there are no moral absolutes that apply to everyone, all the time
Could that be true – that so many US pastors are not recognisably Christian in their beliefs and practice?
In the United States, around 60-70 per cent of the population identify as Christian and 30 per cent regularly attend church. In the UK, around 50 per cent identify as Christian but only about 5 per cent attend church. So it could be argued that, while the numbers attending church in UK are smaller, they are perhaps more dedicated, or less culturally or nominally Christian.
But still, the same trends may apply. There are many people here who call themselves Christians, even evangelical Christians, who plainly are neither.
How should the Church respond to this reality?
A time for lament
It is a cause of deep sadness that many church leaders just don’t believe the words of the Bible.
Across denominations, there are groups moving more towards a synthesis of Christianity, taking from other religions and a culturally-defined morality. This is desperately sad for them and the people they lead. They are, as Jesus describes the Pharisees, like the blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14).
As Brian McLaren calmly informs us in his latest book Do I Stay Christian?, he thinks it is: “highly likely that Jesus existed and that he was a uniquely extraordinary human being. But that does not mean I take every story about him literally.”
We must cry out to God that Christian pastors would teach and live the truth
Similarly, it is a cause of immense sadness that there are Christian leaders who no longer believe the Bible is God’s word; or that Jesus died in the place of sinners like us; or that God had a plan for sexual morality and it’s not just a lifestyle choice.
The irony is that when the worldview of most church leaders is indistinguishable from that of non-believers, there is no real incentive to persuade other people of the truth. What we call evangelism ceases and, often, these churches tend to die out or reduce to a bare minimum.
But as we lament, we need to pray for something better. It’s no good just identifying the wrongness and calling it out. We must cry out to God that Christian pastors would teach and live the truth.
We do this knowing that it matters deeply - because the more you abandon Christian teaching, the more likely people will not experience saving faith. They will not see that they need Jesus - not only to teach them but to rescue them and give them the certainty of eternal life.
A call to repentance
While we’re on our knees, we would do well to repent of our own inconsistency and complacency.
For those of us who call ourselves evangelical – who say we believe what the Bible says about sin and salvation – do we actually practice what we preach? Do we harbour another form of heresy or ugly hypocrisy?
When the worldview of church leaders is indistinguishable from that of non-believers, there is no incentive to persuade other people of the truth
We might sneer at those who no longer want to tick the boxes of orthodoxy, but do we tick the boxes of sacrificial love, compassion, welcoming the stranger, and considering others better than ourselves? Are we genuinely seeking to make disciples and teach them to obey Jesus, or are we trying to make a name for ourselves? Are we leading people to right beliefs, right practices, a rich personal relationship with Christ and into lives of love and service?
Perhaps, within our lifetime, being biblically faithful will become a minority view across the Western Church - and may even lead to persecution or vilification – but, in the end, we must hold onto what is good and call others to do the same. Because God calls us to be faithful, not popular.