THEOLOGICAL INTEGRITY FROM A STUDENT'S* PERSPECTIVE
by Israel J. Contreras
I have been asked to write an article on theological integrity within the church from a theological student's perspective. The perspective I see is for the future. What will the church be like in the future after our current trends have paved the way for the church of the future?
What is theological integrity? What do these two words together mean? Billy Joel, although not known for his pursuits in theology, emphasizes the importance of honesty in a song of his that was popular in the early 80's. Furthermore his words reveal the condition honesty finds itself in our culture. The chorus goes something like this:
Honesty is such a lonely word
Everyone is so untrue
Honesty is hardly ever heard
and mostly what I need from you.
Christians and non-Christians alike can all relate to this song. We all cry out with the same pleas. We cry with Billy Joel: Where is honesty in our world? Why is honesty such a lonely word? Why does it stand alone? Furthermore, Why is it hardly ever heard? Why is it so rare? In these statements we find the condition of honesty not just in our society, but in the church. Although Billy Joel uses the word honesty, the word honesty in our society is used as a synonym for integrity. Integrity and honesty, these are words of which many of us are very fond. Many of us are very fond of the idea that we have integrity or that we seek to practice integrity. The question we need to ask ourselves is do we practice integrity. Perhaps we are not practicing integrity or honesty as much as we might think. If we were, perhaps the secular world wouldn't make such cries.
In the summer of 1991, one week after I graduated from high school, I found myself smack dab in the middle of the last place most young men who have just graduated from high school want to be. I found myself right in the middle the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California. In San Diego we were given a crash course in what the Marine Corps called the intangibles. These were an unwritten list of traits such as: loyalty, honesty, discipline, hard work etc. One of the intangible benefits we were supposed to learn from our experience in the Marines was integrity or honesty. Many times our platoon was subjected to an "integrity check". This was a small test to determine the level of honesty our platoon was committed to practicing. We were punished accordingly if our platoon was found to be lacking. Many times we were punished in excess to emphasize the importance of integrity. In boot camp, we were taught how to begin the trek down the long road of emulating these ideals, these "intangibles".
However, like many seminary students who are simply trying to get through their Greek and Hebrew classes in seminary so they may forget it all once they get a church, many recruits failed to remember these lessons in integrity and the intangibles once we had graduated from boot camp. Although I still very much agree with the Marine Corps' official position on integrity and what it calls the "intangibles", I soon discovered these intangibles to be lacking for the most part in real life. Many men in my Marine Corps experience seemed to do away with these intangibles when it was convenient, useful or beneficial to them. Furthermore, they would reclaim these intangibles when it suited their particular situation.
Unfortunately the church has decided to play a similar game. The church today uses very attractive terminology such as "Yeh we're reformed and we believe in the sovereignty of God and the regulative principle", but then they shy away from the preaching of the sovereignty of God and man's sinfulness in order to keep the woman who gives the most money to the church "happy". Though, this is not done without some form of thinking things through. They say things such as: "if this woman leaves we won't have a church so we've got to make her happy". The church, like some men in the Marine Corps, has adopted a pragmatic world and life view, and thus become full-fledged pragmatists. Truth is abandoned in favor of numbers and money or what works. What works is then sprinkled with a little reformed doctrine around the edges to make it look pretty. They abandon truth when it is convenient, apparently useful or beneficial. The church, like those men in the Marine Corps, needs an "integrity check". Furthermore, in the same way our Drill Instructors administered this "integrity check", we must administer this "integrity check" with a legitimate source of authority, the Scriptures.
Peter, in Acts Chapter 2, gave a sermon which should serve as a sufficient model for our purpose. In Acts 2, we find Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost. In it Peter preaches the law and the gospel. He points the Jews to their sin and the fact they can't keep the law. Then, he points them to Christ. Essentially he tells them "OH BY THE WAY THIS MESSIAH YOU'VE BEEN WAITING FOR ALL THIS TIME, GUESS WHAT? YOU KILLED HIM." Sermons throughout the Bible are essentially the same. These sermons do what sermons are supposed to do, they point sinners to their sin. Although these sermons have their share of the law, these sermons also have their share of grace. In Acts 2, Peter drops his bomb. Then he points his listeners to the grace and forgiveness that is found in Christ.
Since we now have a suitable model for our "integrity check", let's look at what is happening in today's churches. In his book Selling Jesus Douglas D. Webster critiques today's churches and today's preaching. In referring to the "market driven church philosophy" adopted by George Barna and others, Webster reveals today's philosophy on sermon preparation. He says "The church must speak to felt needs. . .Sermons need to portray the Christian life as an attractive, relevant, compelling lifestyle"(Selling Jesus p.14). With this presupposition in mind, modern preachers find it virtually impossible to deliver the biblical message because being told about your sin is not comfortable, attractive, or relevant to today's market driven congregation. People don't want to hear about their sin. They want to be patted on the back and reminded of the glory of man.
To illustrate further, a recent article in "The Atlanta-Journal Constitution" depicting the market driven church says "It is no coincidence that scholars use commercial analogies when describing today's churches. America's consumer culture is a major factor feeding the demand for the full-service church." Like the way Sears stops selling a product when people stop buying it, the church on a large scale has stopped preaching the gospel. To replace the old product, a new product has been manufactured and provided. However, this marketing scheme has a bit of a spiritual flair to it.
In an attempt to meet a felt need in our culture, churches have stopped preaching the law and the gospel and have replaced it with pep talks which do wonders for our "self-esteem" but many times have little resemblance to the gospel, not to mention the law. In quoting one pastor's methodology in preaching Webster quotes "Limit your preaching to roughly 20 minutes, because boomers don't have much time to spare. And don't forget to keep your messages light and informal, liberally sprinkling them with humor and personal anecdotes" (Selling Jesus p.83). Thus, the pastors bow out to the laziness and schedule of the congregation. After all, the congregation has the money and let's not make them mad. That wouldn't work or produce positive results.
Incidentally, these positive results are often equated with massive numbers. Moreover, these massive numbers are achieved through a variety of services from a ballet performance in the middle of the worship service, to changing people's oil while they attend church. All of these activities are done as if the sanctuary where the presence of God would descend were a Wal-Mart or a place to be entertained. All of this is done so unchurched Harry will feel compelled to come back next week.
So, What is theological integrity? Well, we know what integrity is. It's, in essence, being honest. So, I guess theological integrity is being honest about God. In being honest about God, we get a truer, more honest look at ourselves. We get a real good look at how sinful we are. However, people today do not want to know about God or their sin. They want to know what God can do for them, how he can provide a service for them or how he can cause some "positive" effect in their life. They don't want to know about their condition before this perfect being. So, on an ever increasing scale, they don't go to churches that preach the law, and the gospel. As a result, pastors and church leaders have acquiesced in preaching the whole counsel of God (the gospel and the law) and now provide religious shows filled with glamour and glitz so the market driven public will come.
Where does theological integrity fit in to all of the glamour? It doesn't. In fact, it is put on the clearance shelf at the back of the store or thrown out altogether because people aren't interested in "buying" theological integrity. Let us not bow down to the consumer and cease to "manufacture or produce" theological integrity. As Christians and especially as Christian leaders in the pulpit and in the session, this is our responsibility. God is responsible for producing the consumers of theological integrity. Let us as Christians never fail to "produce" theological integrity. Let us never fail to teach and preach theological integrity. That is, let us never fail to be honest with those who come to us seeking freedom in Christ about their standing before a holy God. For faith only comes from hearing the word, (the law and the gospel) not pep talks. If this is true and we bow down and give pep talks now, the question that should be on everyone's mind is: what will the church be like in the future? what will the church be like for your children and grandchildren?
In His Name and for His Glory
Israel Contreras is a student at The Academy for Reformed Theological Studies in York, Alabama. For more information about The Academy for Reformed Theological Studies