Is there a widespread misunderstanding of Christian faith among U.S. adults?

This question arose as I read a recent Barna Group report about the results of a survey focused on parenting and sharing faith with children.

When prompted with the question, “How important is it to you that your teen … ?”

Eighty-two percent said it was very important that their teen “develops a faith that lasts into adulthood,” while 63 percent felt it was very important for their child to be “equipped to explain the Christian faith.”

By comparison, 57 percent affirmed that their child engaging in service was very important, and 43 percent said integrating faith into a vocation or career was very important.

The survey seems to reveal a false dichotomy that I fear is widespread among significant portions of U.S. Christians – one that sees “faith” as distinct from service, action and vocation.

Put another way, the survey results appear to demonstrate that many equate Christian faith with intellectual concepts, doctrines, creedal statements and so forth that must be understood and assented to with one’s mind.

This faith might (should?) lead to tangible acts of service and the pursuit of justice in society, but such endeavors and applications remain a distinct and separate (optional?) component.

The well-known question from James 2:14 came to mind as I considered the survey results: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?”

I explored this disconnect in one of my earliest columns. The excellent title, written by our copy editor Michael Leathers, summarized the issue well: “Ideas vs. Ethics: What’s Your Faith’s Foundation?”

“A latent Gnosticism exists in this model because thoughts bring salvation,” I wrote. “Lifestyle and ethics are obscured because one’s eternal destiny is decided by reciting a ‘prayer of salvation’ that focuses on the moment of repentance, but not the life toward which one is repenting.”

It seems this topic needs to be revisited given how many parents hope their child’s “faith” will endure into adulthood but seem to interpret faith as disconnected (or, at least, distinct) from engagement in service to others and other tangible applications of beliefs.

Can it rightly be called faith when it is separated from ethics – integrating and applying the example and teachings of Jesus into day-to-day acts? Does such faith have much hope of enduring?

Beliefs matter. They shape how we understand God, ourselves and the world in which we live. But Christian faith cannot be reduced to a set of ideas to which one gives intellectual assent.

In other words, Christian faith is an inseparable union of beliefs (ideas and concepts) and ethics (application and action). It is both orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right action).

Jesus came to offer much more than ideas – he came proclaiming a present, yet coming, order in which God’s will and ways (“heaven”) were carried out on earth. This involved ideas and concepts, but they were always tied to actions, to a way of life.

Consider a sampling of Jesus from Matthew 5-7, noting how tangible and practical the sayings and teachings of Jesus are (compared to more ethereal and conceptual ideas about Jesus that are so often equated with Christian faith):

  • “Be reconciled to your brother or sister” (Matthew 5:24).
  • “Let your word be, ‘Yes, Yes,’ and ‘No, no” (Matthew 5:37).
  • “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Matthew 5:42).
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43).
  • “Beware of practicing your piety before others” (Matthew 6:1).
  • “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

Writing in his 1907 book, “A Theology for the Social Gospel,” Baptist historian and social reformer Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), observed, “Every forward step in the historical evolution of religion has been marked by a closer union of religion and ethics … [which] reached its highest perfection in the life and mind of Jesus. … It is clear that our Christianity is most Christian when religion and ethics are viewed as inseparable elements.”

This reflects the sentiment of James 1:27 and 2:17: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God … is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress … Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead [lifeless, useless, ineffective].”

Rauschenbusch’s comments about the younger generations a few pages earlier seem as relevant and prescient now as 100 years ago.

“Those who are in touch with the student population know what the impulse to social service means to college men and women. It is the most religious element in the life of many of them,” he stated. “Among ministerial students, there is an almost impatient demand for a proper social outlet. Some hesitate to enter the regular ministry at all because they doubt whether it will offer them sufficient opportunity and freedom to utter and apply their social convictions.”

We would be wise to be more intentional about correcting a widespread misunderstanding of Christian faith; otherwise, what 82 percent of U.S. Christian parents hope to happen – childhood “faith” enduring into adulthood – seems unlikely.

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