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ScriptureA new survey from the Pew Forum shows that many cultural Catholics want the Church to change its position on marriage and sexuality.

I’ve also seen polls indicating a growing number of self-identifying evangelicals support same-sex marriage. ”See? There is no one evangelical position on marriage anymore!” someone said.

That was right after I saw a poll where more than half of professing evangelicals claimed the Holy Spirit is a force and not a person. Does that mean there isn’t one position on the Spirit? Or that the personhood of the Spirit is up in the air now due to evangelical confusion?

Polling Your Faith

Polls are a powerful force in Western culture because they alert us to the court of public opinion — a judgment we take ever so seriously in a democratic society. Yet, Robert Wuthnow has documented the rise and fall of pollsters’ credibility (using polling to do so!), and he wonders if polling questions are the right way to understand religion in the first place.

I echo that concern. How can you poll test King Jesus?

It is an illegitimate use of polling when you use popular opinion to direct the Church’s future choices or to determine which beliefs to change and which ones to retain. If the crowds in Jerusalem had taken a poll the week before Passover, Jesus would have marched on Jerusalem, not been driven to the Place of the Skull. The public would have won their “Messiah,” but the world would have lost their Savior.

The Muddled Believer

So what do we make of these polls? And what do they tell us about the Church? Are the cultural Catholics authentically Catholic? Are revisionist evangelicals truly evangelical?

On the one hand, we must affirm that someone can be a Christian and be wrong doctrinally. Christians can be terribly muddled and still be Christians, just as muddy water doesn’t exclude the presence of water. Inconsistency with the faith does not mean there is no faith. But God forbid we develop a taste for the mud, especially when the water is evaporating due to the cultural heat.

On the other hand, we must also affirm that there is such a thing as right and wrong doctrine. Those who persist in believing innovative doctrines, or worse, begin to teach them, are not “reforming” the Church, but promoting schism. On this side, we must say, “You are not authentically evangelical.”

Gate-Keeping and Jesus

Now, I recognize that to say someone does not “truly” belong to the group they identify with immediately draws a number of protests. And those protests pack a punch. We live in an age of expressive individualism, where the sovereign self must have the right to “self-identify” and “self-define.” In an age where we find power and purpose in shaping the perceptions others have of us, we get offended when someone questions the legitimacy of our self-presentation.

At some point, however, the rights of individuals to self-define run up against the rights of groups to self-define in ways that may exclude. There are all sorts of skirmishes among people who police their group’s borders, make statements about the legitimacy of someone’s credentials, or maintain lines that determine “who’s in” and “who’s out.” It happens on the right and on the left. A commentator strays from the party line and suddenly “she’s not really a liberal!” or a candidate gets called out for being a RINO (Republican in name only).

I am most interested in how these determinations affect one’s view of the church. On the one hand, we ought to be ever aware of the ways in which gatekeeping can degenerate into a rigid application of legalistic demands. The Jesus of the New Testament broke down certain walls in order to open His kingdom to all who would repent and believe in Him. If you stand for those gates, you stand against Him.

On the other hand, if you stand against gate-keeping altogether, as if Christian identity is a free-for-all where we can agree to disagree on any number of foundational doctrines, you’ll also find yourself standing against Jesus. In the red letters and in virtually every New Testament letter, the apostles warn about false teaching and its destructiveness, how to tell truth from lies, and who’s in and who’s out. And much of that false teaching has to do with behavior, not just beliefs.

To argue for infinite diversity in belief is to argue for an infinite nothing in practice. “The triangle just needs to be expanded and rounded – enough with those sharp edges!” some say. Sounds great, but in the end, you have a circle, no matter how many times you call it a triangle.

Religion That Conforms

The question of our day concerns who identifies what. Is there a distinctively Christian sexual ethic? Or is that up in the air, unsettled now because of the “enlightened” age we live in?

Cultural Catholics think the Church needs to change. So do some who claim the evangelical label. But now, more than ever, we need to hear the Church through the ages, tethered to Scripture, rather than the Culture of our current moment, blown about by the wind.

The problem with “cultural Catholicism” just like “cultural Christianity” of the Bible Belt is that once a religion becomes so easily molded according to one’s preferences, it no longer can make many demands on you. A faith you can alter to fit your mood is not a faith that stands the test of time.

G. K. Chesterton thought it foolish to want your religion to conform to your own understanding. What’s the point of having a religion if it can’t actually conform you? He wrote:

“We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”

In other words, we ought to want our religion to constrain us at precisely those points we are most likely to be led astray by cultural pressures.

Ah, but in order for this to be the case, we would have to admit that maybe the historic faith passed down to us by our fathers is wiser than we are. And, “chronological snobs” that we are, this would mean polling those who have gone before us, not just the people with whom we share this current sliver of time: “The democracy of the dead” — in Chesterton’s marvelous phrase.

So, instead of saying, as one columnist recently did, that we now know better than Jesus on issues of marriage and family, we might have to say, “Jesus is Lord, now, and next century, when the issues have changed and the cultural pressures are different.” For, in an age of self-definition, it takes a bit of courage to say, “There’s something out there wiser than me.”

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6 thoughts on “Why You Cannot Poll Test Christianity”

  1. Curt Day says:

    I want to make two poiints on the article. In terms of Christians’ attitudes toward homosexuality, there needs to be a distinction made between those Christians who favor practices like same-sex marriage in society only from those who believe that the Church should sanction same-sex marriage as being Biblical.

    Second, we can poll test the Church in terms of looking at the current trends of what people believe. We can’t poll test the Church in terms of what people should believe. And in the former, we should note that evangelicals are losing in terms of percentages of American adherents. It';s a slight drop off but it is still there. And here we should note that while mainline churches are losing more people than we are, those leaving are not opting for evangelical churches as much as they are opting for unbelief.. That should be an evangelical concern of ours.

    1. George Sidor says:

      I think you are splitting hairs on the homosexuality issue. The differences between the two positions are little to none (favoring same-sex marriage in society versus sanctioning same-sex marriage as Biblical). If you are a Christian, then the Bible teaches that God ordained marriage between one man and one woman. Man did not think up the concept. So, ultimately, marriage is a God-given spiritual command, that applies to both Christian and non-Christian. Any Christian who supportssame-sex marriage in either society or the Church is a heretic, whether they know it or not. The truth is, many Christians don’t really know what the Bible says about same-sex relationships. They consider it being loving, or tolerant to “approve” of those relationships. The reality is, they are putting their salvation and other people’s eternal souls at risk. If a sinner doesn’t know what they do is sin, or is convinced they aren’t sinning, then how will they know to repent. A Christian who encourages sin like this is actually worse than a pagan, and will stand before the Lord one day for an account of why they told people a different gospel than what Jesus preached about.

  2. The idea that beliefs can be poll-tested ultimately derives from the idea that all religious thought is subjective, which is a backdoor way of saying that none of it is ultimately true. As in Lewis’s The Last Battle, trying to equate Aslan and Tash is just another way of saying that neither Aslan nor Tash really exist. If religious ideas are something that we make up to fill a psychological need, then they can mutate and evolve with the populace. But if there is something real and objective there, then it is up to us to conform to that.

  3. Trond Hildhal says:

    “It is an illegitimate use of polling when you use popular opinion to direct the Church’s future choices or to determine which beliefs to change and which ones to retain.”
    So why is slavery not correct anymore? That is still a biblical punishment. You seem to be cherry-picking which things can change with the times and which cannot.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Slavery is a great example of exactly what I’m talking about. I’m glad you brought it up.

      My own denomination, for example, was birthed out of the desire to agree with the popular opinion of the culture of the time — which was pro-slavery. The “poll test” in the South led to the Church’s horrifying compromise during the slavery era. (This is one reason why Baptists like Spurgeon were not popular among Southern Baptists at the time. He was abolitionist, due to his convictions from the New Testament precedent. He called them on their compromise, and they wanted him to stay out of this fight.)

      The Church has had a spotted witness on slavery, depending on the type, the era, etc. But it was not “popular opinion” that led the Church to the right position. In the U.S., it was often very costly to argue from Scripture for the abolitionist position. Many of the abolitionists were the ones ahead of the culture, calling for liberation.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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