I’ve never seen anyone else attempt to count down the top theology stories from the last calendar year. After doing this several years now, I know why. It’s subjective, presumptuous, and guaranteed to infuriate roughly half my readers. So why do I continue this dubious tradition? Before we flip the calendar to the new year, it’s sometimes encouraging and always telling to take stock of the last 12 months. We can see God at work. We can see our sins on full display. And when we look back in the archives of human history (see my lists from 2008, 2009, and 2010), we’re sobered to realize that our priorities and concerns often diverge from God’s. The internet tempts us to live in the moment, but “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).
So consider my list an admittedly foolhardy attempt—written from the vantage point of an American who subscribes to The Gospel Coalition’s confessional statement—to discern the most important theology stories 0f 2011. Consider it a challenge for you to generate your own list and pray that God might bless his church with the faith and vision to see the world as he does.
10.) Marriages need help.
This story could have appeared in my 2010 list, and it might warrant an encore in 2012. Same-sex “marriage,” legalized by New York state in 2011, continues to grab the headlines. But here’s the bigger story: a growing number of Westerners have abandoned the institution altogether. The Pew Research Center recently revealed that a record low number of Americans—51 percent—are married. The rate dropped 5 percent in just one year, between 2009 and 2010. Christian appeals to the beauty of covenant faithfulness appear laughable when high-profile spokesmen approve gospel-emptying cruelty.
Probably no one sees this deteriorating situation more clearly than pastors. It’s no coincidence, then, that ministers such as Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll have devoted theological attention to marriage. Reader statistics reveal that you are looking for this help, and The Gospel Coalition sought to provide it in 2011 by hosting video discussions and addressing a generation of young men who display little motivation to marry.
9.) ‘Celebrity’ pastors face backlash.
Our friends from around the world often observe that American Christians demonstrate a peculiar affinity for celebrities. Global demand to hear from well-known American pastors and professors suggests this is not a uniquely Yankee phenomenon. Sinful people everywhere elevate men to a place of privilege that belongs only to God.
Several events in 2011 contributed to a backlash against the so-called celebrity pastors. Multisite churches, already the subject of great ecclesiological debate, now cross state and even regional boundaries. Should teaching ability trump local context? The Elephant Room raised questions about accountability: Do we the people bear responsibility to correct if a pastor outside our local church associates with a teacher whose orthodoxy we suspect?
Publishing, social media, megachurches, and many other factors continue to raise the issue of high-profile ministry, which requires sustained theological reflection and critique. Expect this story to move up the charts in 2012.
8.) Presbyterian Church in America warns against Muslim-idiom translations.
The PCA took action not long after Christianity Today published a cover story that assessed the recent history of exegetical and missiological debates over Bible translations published for Muslims. But the PCA response—which calls on churches to investigate missionaries and agencies they support—had been in the works for months before the controversy involving Wycliffe/SIL and many others expanded. The antagonists have yet to resolve their disagreement over whether Muslim objections obligate Christians to alter familial terms such as “Son of God.”
While pastors and translators seek clarity and charity, Christians struggle with the overarching issue of how best to reach and relate to the Muslim world. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf suggested in a new book that we can blaze a trail forward by confessing that we worship the same God as Muslims. But the response to his response suggests this prospect does not excite conservative evangelicals who believe we can trust God to reveal the gospel to Muslims as we love earnestly and testify faithfully to his revealed Word.
7.) Harold Camping fails, again and again.
Christians would prefer to forget that Camping deceived so many and raised so much money to promote a prophecy that Jesus explicitly condemned (Mark 13:32). No, Jesus did not return on May 21. Nor did he return on October 21. Camping embarrassed Christians with his false teaching and wasted millions of dollars. But we can at least share Camping’s evident (and biblical) desire that Jesus would return (Rev. 22:20). He certainly could at any time (Mark 13:35-36).
If church history teaches us anything, another Camping will emerge soon enough. We can’t resist the temptation. But don’t let the charlatans discourage you from teaching eschatology. Ignorance about the end times creates a vacuum filled by deceivers. Come, Lord Jesus!
6.) Christians in Afghanistan and Iran stare down death sentences for apostasy.
Thanks to new media, Afghanistan and Iran might as well be our backyard. When Christians face hanging, we often hear about it in the West. And our connected planet makes it easier to bring popular and political pressure to bear on authorities. Neither widely discussed case in 2011—Sayed Musa in Afghanistan and Yousef Nadarkhani in Iran—has thus far ended in execution.
Theologically, this story appears straightforward: Jesus warned us to anticipate persecution (John 15:20). And we can give thanks to God that communication technology provides us a voice we can raise in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need around the world. But we must not expect American economic, military, and economic might to always ensure deliverance. As we pity fellow Christians besieged for their devotion to God, let us examine our own faith to see if we live in such a way that could ever invite or sustain persecution.
5.) Tim Tebow comes back.
It seems silly to concern ourselves with American football scores in a list of theology stories that includes the risk of martyrdom. But you can’t argue with the interest generated by the outspoken Denver Broncos quarterback Christians love to cheer. Tebow’s failure in training camp to earn the starting job provoked reflection about blasphemy and faith when success seems elusive. But his eventual on-field success, marked by shocking come-from-behind victories, led to a torrent of questions about public prayer, Sabbath keeping, gospel witness, vocation, and the sovereignty of God. Even sportscaster Bob Costas talked about theology during the halftime of Sunday Night Football. Pray for Tebow, possibly the most closely scrutinized athlete today, that he might maintain his remarkably consistent testimony to our savior Jesus Christ in word and deed.
4.) John Stott dies.
Eulogies sometimes tell us more about the author than the subject. Following Stott’s death we learned that evangelicals appreciate leaders of conviction, charity, and global ambition. Stott stood in for the attributes we wished other evangelicals embodied. Some wished other evangelicals could be so convicted about expositional preaching and the importance of theology, particularly substitutionary atonement. Others wished evangelicals could be so kind, open to changing with the times, and committed to social justice. Stott domesticated the dichotomies we find so difficult to tame. We dearly miss this pivotal leader in the post-war growth of global evangelicalism.
We should not despair, though, that God hasn’t yet raised up another Stott. Contemporaries probably lamented that God hadn’t raised up another Charles Simeon, one of Stott’s heroes. Stott’s tenure included vigorous theological disputes with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J. I. Packer, Billy Graham, and others. They debated when to abandon liberalizing denominations, what to teach about the fate of unbelievers, and how to balance social justice and evangelism. In other words, the debates that occupied Stott continue today.
3.) Arab Spring leads to winter of reckoning for Christians in the Middle East.
No one knows how this story will turn out. Political upheaval that began with such hopeful promise has already devolved into power struggles between popular movements and military authority in Egypt. Historic Christian communities in this ancient land rightly worry what a government dominated by Islamists might mean for their future. And that’s where this story becomes a theological one. Practically speaking the decision to leave might appear obvious, when the alternative means risking your family’s safety. Tens of thousands of Christians have already fled the Middle East during the violence of the last decade, and who can blame them?
But what could make you stay? Hope in the power of the gospel might compel Egyptians and other Christians still living in this troubled region to endure any hardship. So might commitment to the land of their forerunners in the faith and ours. Can a place bear theological significance? This is no merely academic debate for vulnerable Christians treated like dangerous foreigners in their homeland. They’ve survived Islamic encroachment for more than a millennium but need renewed courage and hope to persevere.
2.) Osama bin Laden killed by U.S. military.
After President Obama delivered the stunning news on a Sunday evening, college campuses and Times Square filled with jubilant Americans. The terrorist behind 9/11 had met his just demise!
Only there seemed to be something disconcerting about these spontaneous celebrations. As far as we know Osama bin Laden resides in hell where he suffers righteous judgment for rejecting Christ and doing evil. Is this cause for rejoicing? There might be grave, public sinners and ordinary, private sinners, but we’re sinners all the same. Some have been saved but not by their own doing—only the sovereign intervention of God spares us a fiery fate. Verses mount to support different views: some caution us against rejoicing it the death of the wicked (Prov. 24:17-18), while others remind us God is righteous in all his ways (Psalm 145:17), including judgment. Though we may weep for bin Laden and especially his many victims, we find ample theological grounds for thanking God this murderer can no longer carry out his evil designs.
1.) Rob Bell wins.
By nearly every publishing standard Rob Bell’s Love Wins has succeeded beyond the wildest hopes. Controversy sells, and controversy abounded, aided in no small part by this website. Neither Bell nor his publisher, HarperOne, could have reasonably hoped for anything better. CNN, The New York Times, USA Today, and many other outlets looked in on the largely blog-based debate. Bell parlayed this phenomenal response into a television series. Probably only Rick Warren can now match Bell’s star power among Protestant teachers. So according to this standard, Love Wins has been grave disappointment to anyone who holds a traditional evangelical view on conscious, eternal punishment. Bell won. No amount of blogging, speaking, reviewing, and refuting can change that now.
Yet this is not the only standard for evaluating these remarkable events. The breadth and volume of critical responses to Bell reveal surprisingly powerful resilience in the evangelical coalition, facing the powerful headwinds of pluralism. And it’s about time we confronted our problem with hell and universalism. Surveys reveal that whatever their teachers might say, many evangelicals believe salvation can be found outside Jesus Christ. Last decade we saw during The Da Vinci Code kerfuffle that few Christians knew the history of the early church and formation of the canon. Pastors and scholars responded by shoring up this weakness. We’ve already seen the same this year in response to Bell, a more worrisome example than Dan Brown because of his evangelical pedigree.
Looking back on this distressing debate, we find both comfort and also concern in God’s promise to hold teachers to a higher standard (James 3:1). If we really worry that Bell has betrayed Jesus and the revealed Word, then we can be sure God will hold him accountable. Indeed, none of us will be exempted from this all-knowing evaluation.