Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
-Philippians 4:4-7 (NIV)
I recently read a post by Felicity Dale that offered seven reasons why, in her experience, it is more effective to begin a church with “not-yet-believers” or new believers. Now, I'm very appreciative of Mrs. Dale's apparent track record in planting new churches and helping people come to Christ. She has created Bible study groups with businessmen, her kids' friends, retirement centers, at her workplace, and in housing projects. Clearly, she has a vision for bringing people to Christ that's been all but lost by many more traditional churches.
I'm also appreciative of her concern for starting churches with non-churched people. There are a lot of good reasons for that; the most compelling to me is Paul's distaste for “building on someone else's foundation.” (Some churches that seem to exist to attract members from other churches would do well to pay attention to that.)
Because I'm appreciative of Mrs. Dale's work for the kingdom, I'm reluctant to be critical of her. But one of the reasons she gave for preferring to start churches with non-believers or new believers bothered me a little. Mrs. Dale's reason #2 for preferring to start churches with non-churched and newly-churched people is: “Their questions concern lifestyle, not theology.”
I think I get the priority that Mrs. Dale is expressing. It's certainly more constructive for people to be questioning their habits, addictions, and sins in light of a new, budding, and vibrant faith than engaging in pointless debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and the like. Maybe the difference I have with her is just semantic, but even if it is, words mean something.
My problem is this: for a believer, lifestyle and theology cannot be separated.
I'm afraid that many Christians have gotten used to thinking that theology has to do with complicated doctrinal formulations – and the debates that seem to unavoidably follow them – that have nothing to do with “real life.” That is, nothing to do with being more patient with your spouse and kids, or cleaning up your language, or praying more regularly, or being more generous, or overcoming an addiction. Here's the thing, though: everything I listed at the end of that last sentence has to do with theology.
Micah says it this way: “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” God never wanted empty ritual, he reminds his people, but always expected their relationship with him to filter out into their lives in justice and mercy offered to others. Lifestyle, yes – but motivated by theology. Or how about what is probably the most basic theological statement in the Bible: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one?” Theology, no doubt. But it has everything to do with real life: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” In other words, the theological statement that God is one – or that there is only one God – leads to a lifestyle statement: you can't be divided or conflicted in your love for this God.
John 3:16, one of the most well-known statements of the gospel, links theology – “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” – with lifestyle – “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The Sermon on the Mount, one of the main sources of Jesus' ethical teaching, is profoundly theological. His teachings on anger, adultery, divorce, and so on in Matthew 5 come from the theological premise that those who are a part of the Kingdom of God are “blessed,” and that they should be salt and light in the world so that those who don't yet know the Kingdom can recognize God's goodness. His requirement that his followers love their enemies rests on the theological ideal that we are to be “children of [our] Father in heaven” and “perfect...as [our] heavenly Father is perfect.”
And all of the letters in the New Testament link theology with lifestyle. Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit lives in us, and then tells us that he helps us in our weakness and reminds us that it is in the strength of the Holy Spirit that we “put to death the misdeeds of the body.” In another place, he builds an ethical code for people of all walks of life on the theological statement that believers should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In still another place, he connects the theological statement “since you have been raised with Christ” to the lifestyle statement “set your hearts on things above.” (Colossians 3:1) A little later in the same letter, he tells us to “forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
You get the point. Lifestyle and theology are connected, and the question isn't whether you do one or the other, but whether the one matches and informs the other, or conflicts with it. Good theology always creates the lifestyle God wants. Bad theology never does. Vice versa too, I think. As people who believe in Jesus, we don't get to choose whether or not we'll be theologians. Only whether or not we'll be good theologians.
Theology divorced from lifestyle is empty, insipid, and hypocritical. It creates Sunday morning Christians whose lives don't match the things they sing, pray, and profess in church. Lifestyle cut off from theology, on the other hand, creates judgmental, sectarian Pharisees who elevate their own personal opinions about right and wrong, good and bad, spiritual and unspiritual over God's. It also creates people who feel cut off from the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
So here's what I think. I think every church should be a set of relationships in which people are together learning good theology, and its implications for their lives as witnesses to the power of the gospel. Those relationships shouldn't be wasted in pointless wrangling and bickering over doctrinal minutiae that have confounded Christians for centuries. Neither should they be wasted in the proclamation of “a form of godliness but denying its power.”
Lifestyle and theology have to go hand-in-hand. Otherwise, we come dangerously close to forfeiting our identity as the people of God.