The State of Theology study for 2016, undertaken by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research, looked at 47 statements of religious belief. Among those statements are four that directly examine beliefs regarding church. Take a moment to give yourself this brief church survey. Do you agree or disagree with these following four statements?
On the first one, regarding worshiping alone, 58% agree, 12% are unsure, and 30% agree. On the second one, regarding the identity of a Christian church, the agree column racked up less than a simple majority at 46%, 17% were not sure, and 37% disagreed. On the third statement regarding the historical church, a strong 57% disagree, 16% are not sure, and only 27% agree.
Now let’s consider the results regarding the fourth statement on the authority of the local church to withhold communion. The responses to this statement are one of the most visually striking of all responses to the 47 statements of the survey. Many of the responses revealed polarized results, with only slight majorities and large numbers on either the disagree or agree side. A few of the questions elicited a visceral response of either disagreement or agreement. This question garnered the most responses in the unsure column of all the 47 statements. The middle of the spectrum, with not sure being lodged between agreeing and disagreeing, was a big bubble of a response regarding this statement. 61% are not sure. Another 26% disagree, while only 13% agree.
One of the most crucial conversations during the Reformation concerned the marks of the true church. This is understandable. Prior to the Reformation the only church was the Roman Catholic Church. (In the West, of course, as the Orthodox Church dominated the East.) Then along came the Reformers, who raised the question: What is the true church?
Two marks consistently popped up in the discussion: the preaching of the Word and the right ordering of the sacraments. John Knox learned these two marks from Calvin and from his time in Geneva. When he returned to Scotland and served in a significant role in establishing the Church of Scotland, Knox made explicit a third mark, that of church discipline. For Calvin, and the other Reformers, church discipline was implicit in the right understanding of the church’s faithful administration of the sacraments. The Lord’s Supper, practiced aright, necessitated the practice of church discipline, they would argue. Knox made what was implicit explicit when he named church discipline a third mark of the true church.
This look back at the Reformers’ discussion of the marks of the true church raises a fascinating question: What would the Reformers think of the response to this statement regarding the local church’s right to exercise church discipline? They would likely be both confounded and dismayed. How can anyone be unsure on something so crucial? Further, how can only 13% get this statement right? We, too, should be confounded and dismayed.
Remember, this is an American survey of American beliefs. That’s an important detail that raises another historical question. The New England Puritans followed the lead of John Knox, stressing the three marks of the true church. So how did that third mark fall out of favor in the American church? On the one hand, the answer is simple. The third mark is an easy target. Consider that one of the main ways later audiences have come to know the New England Puritans is through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter. Among other things the book paints the church discipline-loving Puritans as self-righteous, domineering hypocrites. And don’t forget Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, with its gripping story of the runaway fanaticism of the Salem witch trials. In Miller’s play, as in Hawthorne’s novel, these discipline-loving ministers wreaked havoc and even death in their wake. Yes, the third mark of the true church is an easy target.
These two literary texts, which have left a less than savory view of the Puritans in the American psyche, are not the only culprits. Americans in general have an issue with the notion of authority. We are suspicious of authority, especially when it comes to the “private matters” of our own heart and our own spiritual condition.
The results of The State of Theology regarding beliefs on the church might give the Reformers a little consternation. But there are also results that they would find encouraging. The website, TheStateOfTheology.com, has a built-in tool to explore the demographic breakdowns of the survey responses, labeled the “Data Explorer.” One of the demographic profiles is church attendance. Survey participants reported on church attendance from categories labeled “rarely” to “several times a week.” That latter category, those who attend church several times a week, tended to answer correctly more than any other demographic on the 47 statements of the survey. This group, at times, significantly spiked over the general audience on the right answer to a number of crucial theological beliefs.
Sometimes surveys reveal what is obvious. Such is the case here. Attending church and sitting under the ordinary means of grace will lead to a better understanding of crucial beliefs than not going to church. On that much, the Reformers would not only agree, they would strongly agree.
This article is part of the State of Theology collection.