Wired for Doctrine – why irreligious people get dogmatic about so many things

blog - wired for doctrine

Doing some research, I’m in the process of reading a book right now called Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass. In the book, Bass cites very interesting information about how Americans self-identify their relationship with the divine. For instance, in 1999, Gallup polled Americans asking whether they understood themselves to be spiritual or religious. At that time, people answered as follows:



However, only a decade later (2009), Newsweek, through Princeton Survey Research, asked the same question. But this time, Americans identified like this:


So here’s what’s interesting. When looking at religious changes in the twenty-first century, sociologists and journalists tend to talk about the growth of “spiritual but not religious” and the “new atheist” segments of society. But, the data doesn’t actually support that. The research suggests the needle has not moved in either respect. The interesting shift is from people who once called themselves “religious” to now referring to themselves as “spiritual and religious.”

Okay, what does this mean?

Clearly, people are trying to get away from the associations of religion. Butler Bass suggested that when she does her surveying, she asks people to give descriptions of religion. Words like “cold,” “outdated,” “rigid,” “narrow,” “controlling,” “embarrassment,” and “mean” are commonly used.

This distinction between spirituality and religion didn’t really exist in eras gone by, but it most certainly does in the minds of Americans today. Spirituality is understood as a transcendent, experiential, meditative, inner life search for God. Religion is understood as organized, defined, authoritative boundaries and institutions and dogma.

So what is this offensive dogma stuff that we’re all running away from?


Dogma is essentially absolute claims to certainty in the realms of belief and morality. That’s what we’re ashamed of….at least with organized religion. Consequently, we live in a world where if you say you’re spiritually searching, people will reply, “Oh. That’s nice!” But if you claim that you’ve found any spiritual truth, you’re considered something of an arrogant jerk….at least with organized religion.

Well, let’s step back and take a look at that. Anytime someone says that religions shouldn’t be so dogmatic, they’re doing the very thing they just said you shouldn’t do. To say, “don’t have such rigid beliefs” IS a rigid belief. So there’s the initial issue of a little ironic hypocrisy.

But here’s the most interesting thing. Americans have participated in a mass exodus from the dogma of religion, but have we actually left dogma behind? I’m unconvinced. I think we’ve merely become dogmatic about non-religious issues.

Here’s a little exercise. Try throwing an aluminum Diet Coke can in a regular waste receptacle in a public setting, particularly if there are any ecoriffic supermoms present. Yeah, I don’t have the guts either. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all against recycling. And I’ve read the reports that Diet Coke can shrink your brain. I’m actually okay with that, as I have a hard time finding size 7 3/4 hats anyways. It isn’t that people aren’t allowed to have opinions or preferences or make claims about what they feel is or is not wise. It’s that Americans are approaching these issues nowadays with all the moralistic vigor that previous generations approached…..you guessed it…religion.

Many Americans are passionate and adamant about parenting styles, diet preferences, gun regulations, and educational approaches. The religious fervor of PETA activists is obvious to most. College and professional sports? Skip Bayless and Stephen A Smith get religious about them every day on ESPN. Again, I’m not suggesting opinions are bad, or that even some of these issues probably deserve strong stances. What I’m suggesting is that for people who supposedly don’t like religion, many of us are awfully dogmatic and moralistic about some issues, including some non-inherently moral issues. I believe this is also why we currently have some of the most polarizing bipartisan politics that we’ve ever had as a nation. We’re not latching onto divine truth the way we once did, so instead we’re taking many neutral things and getting religious about them.

The attempt to flee religion hasn’t made us less religious. It’s made us more moralistic about nonreligious issues.

Why? It’s because humans are wired for absolute, divine truth…doctrine…dogma.

The Apostle Paul suggests at the beginning of the Book of Romans. He says,

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,(vs. 18)… Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (vss. 22-23)…They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (vs. 25) (Romans 1)

Hmmm. Paul says that when people turn away from the truth of God, even as they consider themselves less religious, they don’t really turn away from religion, they just get religious about created things rather than the Creator God. Is that what we’re looking at in post-Christian America?

Nonetheless, there’s probably a valuable point here, a humbling point for us who belong to religious organizations. We can learn from the early twenty-first century American religious exodus. Some people don’t like religion because they don’t want God to be their God. Not much we can do about that. However, others don’t like religion because even self-professing religious people sometimes get religious about nonreligious stuff. Worship style, church politics, national politics, the way people look, the way people talk, the way people dress. The “shoulds” and “oughtas” we espouse on nonreligious issues are rightly perceived by the those leaving religion as cold, controlling, unloving and unnecessary dogma. Interestingly, when Christians get religious about nonreligious issues, it’s not because they’re too closely linked to an authoritative gospel, it’s actually because they don’t understand that gospel well enough.

As Christians, each day we want to grow more dogmatic about the fact that Jesus is “the way and THE TRUTH and the life.” (John 14:6) Additionally, we’ll also want to grow increasingly less dogmatic about things not directly connected to the truth about our Savior. In fact, we want to regularly repent of the religious “truths” we believe that aren’t actually biblical.

I don’t think religion rebounds until Christians start getting dogmatic only about Jesus – about what he’s clearly done for us and what he’s clearly revealed to us.

5 Signs You’re An Immature Christian

blog - immature christian Yeah, that title maybe sounds a little harsh. But, for this post at least, I’m less concerned with what someone might think is “harsh” and more concerned with what is true. After all, the Apostle Peter said, “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Pet. 2:1-3) He literally encouraged people to “grow up.”  Sometimes the biggest seasons of growth in my Christian faith have come after an acute revelation of something in my life that was simply incompatible with the truth I’d learned from the gospel.

So, I jotted down a bunch of thoughts and narrowed the list to the five that I think are the biggest signs that someone is in need of upshifting gears in their Christian maturity.

By the way, if you think I’m under the delusion that I haven’t struggled with these myself or have somehow reached the pinnacle of Christian maturity, rest assured, I’ve struggled with each of these at various points. But I can confidently say that such struggles were the product of me not believing certain aspects of the promises & will of God, i.e. immaturity.

1) You think the Bible and Church are boring

The Bible is many things. Boring is not one of them. If that’s your assessment of the best-selling, most printed, most quoted, most mimicked, most died-for modern or ancient book in history, step back and perhaps allow for the fact that you’ve maybe missed something.

Similarly, “church” or “worship” is many things. Inherently boring is not one. Anytime humans are blatantly, voluntarily, publicly bowing down to something in acknowledgment that it is more important to them than they are, this is pretty fascinating. Granted, the music of worship can be drab or sluggish or difficult to understand. Granted, the minister could be a not particularly skilled communicator, we all have different gifts – by the way, while communication is a variable, Spirit-given gift, if ANY minister gives the insinuation that the message of Scripture is something less than enormously life-changing, this would be one of the bigger mistakes he can make in his ministry. Granted, it’s possible that the people whom you worship with could be stuffy, self-righteous, non risk-taking, boring people. But PLEASE don’t make the mistake of assuming this all means that the Bible or Church are necessarily boring themselves. That’s like seeing a divorce and saying something is wrong with God’s design for marriage. The problem is NOT the design, but in the failed execution on behalf of imperfect humans.

There was a time when I thought the Bible was sort of boring. Attending a private Christian school, I deduced that Bible Study was the least interesting, least life applicable class that I took. I drew that profound conclusion when I was 12 years old.

Two decades later, Bible Study is not only what I do for a living, it’s also the most interesting, relevant, eminent thing going on in my life. I grew up spiritually. It wasn’t just a “getting older” thing. Technically, how it happened was a combination of humbling life experience and increased biblical familiarity.

Imagine an archaeological dig where you carefully shovel and dust for hours with little satisfaction. Eventually you uncover a minuscule bone. It’s enough to keep you pressing on. In time, you discover that this little bone is connected to a fully intact tyrannosaurus rex. The first couple hours you felt like an idiot standing in the blazing sun in cargo pants with a tiny brush. Now you’ve encountered the most exciting discovery of your life. It took….time, patience. There’s no shortcut with studying the Word of God. Stick with it, I promise you’ll find something better than a dead dinosaur.

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Rom. 11:33)

2) You don’t understand the depravity of mankind

One of the biggest lies that Americans believe is that humans are basically good. Again, maybe that sounds depressing to you, but a positive reality is more important to me than a pleasant, misinformed dream.

Now, don’t mistake what I’m saying. Humanity was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27; 9:6; Jam. 3:9), imprinted with the ethical will of God (Rom. 2:14-15). Consequently, every one of us has the blueprint for a moral life printed on our hearts. This explains how we see so much good in the world coming from those who don’t know the very God who created them.

Nonetheless, humans are capable of homicide, genocide, suicide, rape, torture, theft, slander, selfishness, arrogance, condescension, lies, disrespect, annoyance, selfies and hashtags…i.e. criminal behavior of varying degrees. Furthermore, according to the Bible, we were ALL responsible for the single greatest travesty in history – the murder of the one fully innocent human, Jesus Christ.

Consequently, one of the most difficult things for me to hear as a pastor is when a fellow Christian says, “____________ would never do ________________.” Nonsense. Do you think Hitler’s mom thought he’d be pushing millions into a furnace?

If I’ve learned anything from working at my desk while my wife was watching seven seasons of House M.D. on Netflix in the background, it’s that you can only treat a sickness successfully once you’ve properly diagnosed it. The biblical diagnosis is that “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” (Gen. 8:21)

3) You misuse/abuse the grace of Christ

Martin Luther once said that we’re saved by faith alone, but not by faith that remains alone. It’s a great summary of what living, active, healthy faith looks like. In other words, he’s suggesting that our salvation only comes through the merits of Christ. And we receive the blessing of Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross through faith. But, if we sincerely have faith that trusts in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, the best indicator of that is what the Bible calls “fruit of faith.” (Gal. 5:22-23) These are the natural responses to understanding God’s goodness to us.

If fruit of faith is nonexistent in our lives, while we may have a knowledge of who Jesus is and what he did for us, we have legitimate cause to question whether or not we possess saving faith in him. Lots of characters in the Bible understood the objective truth of who Jesus was, but nonetheless lacked faith in him as their Lord and Savior.

One of the evidences that you have knowledge of Jesus, but lack faith in Jesus (at least to some extent), is that you’re using the forgiveness Jesus won for the world on the cross as a “get out of hell free” card to excuse your sin.

For instance, I’ve known a number of weak-faithed Christians who will acknowledge that their sexual relationship with their boyfriend/girlfriend clearly violates God’s design for sex – i.e. that it is exclusively designed for marriage. And yet they justify their behavior by saying, “Well, thank goodness Jesus died for all of my sins.” I’m sorry, that’s not the response of healthy faith. Repentance is a turning away from sin and embracing the mercy of Christ’s forgiveness. If you don’t have desire to turn from the sin, that’s called impenitence. Impenitence is a fruit of unbelief, not belief. The writer to the Hebrews put it like this: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Heb. 10:26-27)

4) You think you’re right with God on the basis of your “better” lifestyle

There was a time in my life when I was very bitter with God because I felt the level of blessings he’d been giving me weren’t compatible with the amount of faithfulness I was showing him. Yes, that’s twisted, I know.

Let me give you just one example. I remember a day in my teen years where I gave an offering in church that was significantly more than I normally gave. Realistically, the offering was more the process of poor planning than anything. Nonetheless, I felt pretty good about it. Doing okay so far. Later that day I’d go on to play my best game of basketball that year. I drew a line from point A to point B, and the following week, when it was once again a chance for me to give an offering in worship, I gave the same “higher” amount that I’d given the previous week. Well, guess what? I actually played quite poorly in my basketball game that evening. I was so disenchanted. Here I had once again gone above and beyond to show God I was thinking about him, even dropping A. Jackson’s in the plate, and yet God had forgotten me. Furthermore, not only was I behaving so well and not being rewarded, but there were others I played with who, in my own perception, were significantly less godly in their lifestyle, and they were doing better than I was.

I was ticked. And it was because I had no concept of grace.

Many Christians, when pressed on issues of the afterlife, will say something along the lines that they’re confident they’re going to heaven “because I’m Christian, or at least I’m trying to be.” But either we’re saved by grace, or we’re not. Saying you’re “trying to be a Christian” is categorically moving your salvation into the arena of personal performance and merit, i.e. not grace.

If you believe you’re saved by grace, you never logically have the right to look down on anyone else as inferior or assume that you deserve better than what God is giving you. If you’re leveraging your “good lifestyle” to earn favor from God, not simply to thank God, then you are pursuing God not for him, but for his blessings. That’s like a woman marrying a dude for his millions of dollars, not for who he is. In other words, that’s not love.

“If by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (Rom. 11:6)

5) You’re afraid that Jesus can’t forgive you for your sins

Perhaps the most dangerous immaturity for a Christian, the one that is closest to pushing us outside the kingdom of God, is the failure to trust that Jesus’ atonement on the cross was powerful enough to cover even the biggest and ugliest of your sins.

We might call this the Judas Sin. Now there is a difference between being convinced that the grace of Jesus cannot pay for your sin (as Judas felt) and the fear that God might not still love you when you’ve committed a terrible mistake, or perhaps made the same mistake more than once. We all struggle with this to some degree. But underestimating Jesus is the biggest mistake any human can make.

Underestimating the depth of Jesus’ loving forgiveness is probably the most immature thing a Christian can do. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the most powerful force behind our sinfulness is our failure to comprehend the depth of God’s love for us. For instance, as you analyze the first sin – that of Adam and Eve – you notice that while their action was disobediently eating the fruit, the motive, the attitude, the thought that led to the action was their failure to believe that the command God had given to them actually sprang forth out of his love for them. They underestimated God’s love.

If we dare suggest that Jesus did not completely pay for our sins on the cross, it’s a naïve, immature, blatant underestimation of Jesus as God. His cross proves he loves us enough to remove our sins. His resurrection proves his power to remove our sins.

“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)


Think these 5 points are fair? Others? Would love to hear your comments below.