My Top 10 Theology Stories of 2011

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.

  • Al Shaw

    Although you state that the list is writen from “the vantage point of an American”, the mix of domestic and international stories makes me wonder quite where the focus of the list is.

    If domestic, then items 3 and 6 appear out of place.

    If a global summary, then items 5 and 8 seem irrelevent in international terms.

    May I suggest that a global summary could include theological responses to the near-collapse of global capitalism, the rise of an indigenous Chinese theological network, and scholarly/apologetic responses to the emergence of fundamentalist atheism.

    • Collin Hansen

      Thanks for your response, Al. I’m not trying to limit my perspective to only stories that affect Americans. I simply admit that my vantage point limits me from observing certain stories. The same would be true for someone writing from the British or Chinese vantage point. I’d love to hear more about the rise of the indigenous Chinese theological network.

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  • Neil

    A response to “My Top 10 Theology Stories of 2011”
    10. Marriage is defined by God as a sacred covenant that no man can break. Any Christian that marries someone is in it for life no matter what the circumstance. Divorce is not an option. Therefore, no one should be married that was previously divorced and no one should ever get divorced that is married. (Matthew 19: 3-12)
    9. Celebrity pastors, radio pastors, and local pastors are the problem. God’s word calls for a plurality of spiritually gifted elders (1 Timothy 4:14; 5:17; 5:20; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1; 5:5) within a local church to lead the spiritually gifted body. (1 Corinthians 12:12)
    8. The Gospel preached and lived out in the lives of Christians is how we need to respond to any atheist or religious person.(Matthew 28:19,20; Romans 12:1,2)
    7. False prophets and teachers are everywhere therefore God’s children need to respond to these antichrists with the truth of God’s word. (1 John 2:18; 1 John 4:1)
    6. John 11:26; Romans 14:8
    5. Romans 1:16
    4. Have we considered what someone will write about us when we leave this world or are we more concerned about what God thinks of us now?
    3. We need to pray for the body of believers in these Islamic countries.
    2. The loss of life for those who were unbelievers should be a constant reminder that there are people we know and love who will one day step into eternity without ever knowing our Lord Jesus Christ.
    1. The time has come when men will teach false doctrine and many will follow the blind leader into the ditch. There is hope if we turn from a man-made legalistic Christianity and embrace the word of God. The time is now to reject the false ideas of the clergy/ laity systems and return to the 1st century church that is fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit. We must do away with the one-pastor system that has caused most of these problems and has deceived the family over the last 1800 years. This way no false teachers can creep into the pulpit, the radio and the television because the local body will be under the direction of the Holy Spirit, protected by a plurality of elders, and living in a Christ centered family.

    • Bob Lemon


      You’re over the line on #10, there are biblical grounds for divorce. You should not bind the consciences of divorcees with your imbalanced assertions. God may hate divorce, but he also hates murder and stealing. God forgives divorce. Hopefully you’re not a pastor giving such counsel…

      • Neil

        God hates divorce and will only forgive a repentant sinner. Anyone who commits adultery in a marriage has no right to remarry anyone because it is impossible according to God’s definition of marriage. In God’s eyes they are still married to their spouse and if the faithful spouse chooses to divorce them because of their immorality, they must remain single and divorced and thus remain unmarried the rest of their lives. They have sinned against God, His covenant of marriage and their spouse. They are to repent of their sins and go back to their spouse. The faithful spouse is to forgive them if they repent of their sins and take them back. The reason why God hates divorce is because it basically says that the faithful spouse is incapable of forgiving the unfaithful spouse and the unfaithful spouse is incapable of repenting of their sin of adultery. Adultery is a sin like every other sin, and to not call it sin is a tragedy.

        • Susanne Schuberth (Germany)

          Hi Neil,

          considering your knowledge in biblical teaching I cannot keep up with you. Your comprehension of connecting biblical ideas commands my respect.

          But I hope you don’t mind my asking: “What about God’s love and grace?” This is something so important for me to be happy and grateful day after day. Actually, I don’t know a God who wants to smash and crush me by Bible verses showing up all my failures. I deeply know that I’m a sinner and I’m sinning daily, often unwillingly, sometimes however even being aware of what I’m doing.

          Repentance is an important component of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ. It is a gift from God we cannot unleash by ourselves. Only the Holy Spirit leads us to repentance and to obedience to God’s Law written in our human hearts.

          I mustn’t commit a blunder by applying Bible verses to put pressure on people (even inside the church) who, maybe, don’t know God’s grace at all.
          Jesus has come to call sinners, not the righteous. I hope I’ll never forget that I’m a sinner utterly dependent on Him and I guess that my main task being a Christian is to understand and love everyone, not to judge others.

          God bless you, Neil!

          • Neil

            I do not know your situation Susanne, but I do know that God wants us to obey His word in order that He gets the glory. His love and grace are His greatest attributes that we as believers need to extend to those around us. One thing that needs to be made clear is that marriage is a sacred covenant that was instituted by God before the fall. Marriage must be taken seriously. God takes marriage very seriously and this sacred union mirrors the relationship Christ has with His church. Anyone who breaks the marriage covenant because of any sin needs to repent of that sin and seek forgiveness. Where is our love and grace if we cannot forgive and repent? What about waiting for the unfaithful spouse to repent? If the unfaithful spouse refuses to repent why are they free to remarry? Who is remarrying someone who was unfaithful to their first spouse? This is not about what we “feel” should be done. This is about what God’s word says about marriage. This is what God’s word says about divorce. There is an awful lot of sadness with the way clergy handle marriage, divorce and remarriages today and the results of 2nd, 3rd and 4th marriages have left a trail of broken families, fractured relationships and unrepentant people. God’s love is this. Not that we loved God, but He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Grace defined and love procured. God bless you, Susanne!

            • Susanne Schuberth (Germany)

              I’m with you, Neil.
              What I wanted to point out is that I do believe in God’s written Word and that only He made it possible for me wanting to obey Him.

              I never forget the situation between Jesus, the woman being caught in the act of adultery and the scribes and Pharisees. The latter were right referring to the Law that commanded to stone her. But Jesus made very clear that we all need His mercy by writing (probably their names) with His finger on the ground.
              Certainly Jesus said to her in the end that she shouldn’t sin anymore. But – and this is my personal experience – now she is able to obey God because she knows Him face to face. She doesn’t need another one to make her happy (adultery) because she came to know the true Lover of her soul.

              Moreover Jesus “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” But there are still a lot of people inside the church who don’t believe. How could we impose law conditions they cannot fulfill because they are still “in the flesh”?
              Law didn’t help the sinful woman to repent but grace did.

              On the other hand I deeply understand what you are saying about marriage and divorce(s). I know several cases and I always weep seeing that another marriage has broken. The children suffer most because they feel guilty for something which is not on their own responsibility. But man and woman suffer, too. When the first amourousness has disappeared, the one who left the other often realizes what he/she did. This is my hope and I pray for it that anybody will come to repentance.

              Best wishes and God bless you, Neil!

          • Steve Cornell

            Perhaps this link will assist you. It appeared on thegospelcoalition web site once.

        • C. M. Granger


          The apostle Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:15 that if an unbelieving spouse leaves a believing spouse, the brother or sister (i.e. believing spouse) is not under bondage in such cases. That is, they are no longer bound to their marriage vows because of the actions of their unbelieving spouse (abandonment). The clear implication is that he or she is free to remarry (in the Lord). What is your counter exegesis and how do you justify consigning such a divorcee to life-long celibacy and loneliness, essentially a monastic life? Furthermore, have you read some of the standard works on the subject, such as John Murray’s book or the work by Jay Adams?

          Brother, I think you should be biblically sensitive and careful before you come down this strongly on the subject. Remember, there are most likely some sheep reading your comments who may be hurt and unduly burdened by what you are saying here…

          • Neil

            First of all C.M., it is not my intention to hurt or burden anyone. What has saddened me and should be the churches focus is the flippancy in which people use God’s word for their own justification when it comes to marriage and divorce. If anything I pray it helps to open people’s eyes to the truth of God’s mercy and grace in these situations.

            As for 1 Corinthians 7:15, we really need to take into consideration the whole scripture here. 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband:
            But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.
            But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away.
            And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.
            For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.
            But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.
            For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?

            With this scripture we can turn to 1 Peter 3 and read what it says.
            1 Peter 3:1-4 Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.
            It is the same with a believing husband who has a wife that is an unbeliever. 1 Peter 3:7Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.

            The point is that if we truly love a spouse who is an unbeliever and they choose to leave the marriage, are we willing to stay single and in God’s will so that God can work through the power of the Holy Spirit in this situation? These verses are concerned with someone’s eternity. Is not God able to work through us to show His glory? Is God aloof and unconcerned with what is going on in our lives? Let us not believe that we are alone in this. Let us know that God loves His children and He wants us to live a fulfilling and abundant life now. Let us also set our eyes upon His return and know that this life is but a vapor and that one day will be with Him in eternity.

            • C. M. Granger

              Hi Neil,

              I appreciate the importance you place upon marriage. I do not minimize that importance as it is biblical. However, the broader context of 1 Cor. 7 does not change the meaning of what is said at verse 15 and you offer no counter exegesis to make your case that it does. The 1 Peter passages have believing couples in view, so quoting them doesn’t establish your position either. I would encourage you to carefully reconsider the biblical teaching on the subject, the books by Murray and Adams will be helpful in this regard.

              I have no doubt that you did not intend to harm or burden anyone. As a Christian, I would not expect you to have such motives. However, what you did not intend may be the case regardless, if you are unaware of your dogmatism on a complex and difficult subject.



            • Neil

              There really is no complexity to this subject. If we look at 1 Cor 7:15 there is no reason to believe if the unbelieving spouse leaves, the believer is not bound to live with someone who wants nothing to do with the marriage. There is nothing in that scripture that says the believer may remarry someone else. The key part of the verse is that God has called us to live in peace. Is this definition of peace referring to marrying someone else or is it referring to having peace resulting from the absence of an unbelieving spouse who was in a spiritual bondage with an unbeliever? Does separation always have to end with divorce or can a separated person be at peace and wait on the Lord?
              What of the unbeliever? This scripture says nothing of the unbelieving spouse who leaves. Are they free to remarry anyone they choose? No, because anyone who leaves a marriage has no right to remarry someone else because of Matthew 19. If this was considered is it possible the unbelieving spouse could repent become a believer and be reconciled to their spouse? Could not peace be restored to a marriage that seemed to have no hope? Most importantly, could a life be saved for eternity by a spouse who waited on the Lord?

              Please consider these questions and apply them with the patience, love, grace and mercy God has for us. God will be glorified and this happens when His people trust in the power of the Holy Spirit and continue to be obedient to His word

              In Christ’s love,


  • ChuckM

    Thans for such a thoughtful recap. It’s amazing how even through the muck one can see God working. I’d add one more, the 180 movie phenomenon. This film has reopened the abortion debate and given Christians a strong weapon against abortion and for the Gospel message.

  • http://AWell-WateredGarden Annette

    It is disheartening and sobering when Christians read “other” books such as Bell’s instead of the book that should be foremost, God’s Word–the Bible. My first response is I just don’t get it. But they would rather read what their tickling ears want to hear.
    Rob Bell may have seemed to have won this round, but I’m reminded of a verse I memorized this year.
    “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 NIV.

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  • Mahlon Smith

    I found your article insightful and very helpful in summarizing the incredible amount of cultural and theological trends that are occuring in our church and cultural worlds. As a pastor and newbie to twitter, your article alone made me see the value of tweeting. May God richly bless you in the up coming new year.

  • Steve Martin

    Interesting list.

    I never quite looked at all those stories from a theological standpoint, but I guess you can do it with just about anything that happens.


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  • James

    Hi. Great idea to have a theological top 10. I enjoyed it. I think Tebow is a fascinating case of how faith and pro sports mesh. Will be interesting to watch how his career goes.
    I also wonder if the Rob Bell phenomenon is actually a good thing for everyone. If Bell gets lots of people in and outside of churches talking about important theological issues is this not a win-win?

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  • Joey

    Delightful read! What an interesting idea, I’ve never heard it before and I find it really interesting and refreshing. It’s helpful to remember and reflect. It shows insight and critical thinking, with humility as it’s your thoughts shared from your standpoint. Still, easy to identify and connect with most of these points despite not being American.
    Sad to see people even on this forum responding immediately with self-importance about their opinions and exegesis.
    Thanks! :D

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