Posts Tagged ‘Bible Study’

What is Animism?

Animism in the Bible? Part 1 of 2

There are a number of examples of animistic practice in the Old Testament, some of which are condemned. Philip Steyne refers to the idea of words having power in the stories of Balaam’s curse in Numbers 22-24 and the centurion who told Jesus to “just speak the word and my servant will be healed” in Matthew 8:8.[1] Isaiah condemns Israel’s practices of magic and witchcraft in Isaiah 47:9-15. The Israelites kept the bronze serpent on a pole from Numbers 21:1 and by the time Hezekiah cleaned out the temple in 2 Kings 18:4, it had become an object of worship, and the Jews burned incense to it. For many, the phylacteries from the Talmud, mentioned in Matthew 23:5, have become a ritual object of power that keep men from impure thoughts and give efficacy to their prayers ( – especially the blessings).

Two examples that look like animistic practices but aren’t necessarily are found in 1 Kings 5:10, when Naaman is told to dip in the Jordan seven times, and in Acts 19:12-16, when the handkerchiefs that Paul had touched are used to heal sick people. Animists would see Naaman’s ritual of cleansing as homeopathic magic that removed sickness, and Paul’s hankies as objects of power that removed magic by contagion.[2] The second example evokes images of modern television faith healers.

David seems to also view the ark of the covenant as an object of power, when he has it returned to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles 13. The entire story surrounding the ark, which defeats and embarrasses Dagon, god of the Philistines, and brings blessing to the town of Kiriath-Jearim is one that is difficult to understand, without falling into our own animistic ideas of objects of power. An animist would also interpret the death of Uzziah, when he touched the ark on its way to Jerusalem, through the lenses of taboo, meaning that the object itself was untouchable.[3] Of course, the ark must have been touched multiple times both before and after – and not necessarily by ritually clean or chosen individuals. Uzziah was not killed because he broke taboo, but because he knowingly broke God’s rules, and usurped God’s place.

Simon the Sorcerer, in Acts 8, saw the Holy Spirit as a new source of power, and the laying on of hands as the ritual that conveyed that power. He was functioning logically from his own worldview, but when Peter corrects him harshly, he seems to realize his error, although he still looks to Peter as the “prayer specialist” or power broker. Again, reflection of Simon’s thinking can be seen in some branches of modern Christianity, where certain individuals are considered to have a “special anointing” that allows them to pray more efficaciously or dispense healing.

Finally, Numbers 5:11-33 shows an interesting ritual for discovering infidelity. A woman suspected of infidelity was given water mixed with dirt from the temple floor. If she was guilty, the water would cause great suffering, including making her infertile. If she was innocent, she would be fine. Philip Steyne compares this to animistic rituals, and indicates that a true animist would have no problem accepting such a ritual, although he would interpret the reasoning behind the ritual from a completely different perspective.[4] The Law, with its foundational rituals, could have been attractive for an animist. However, “while the Lord ordained the use of ritual in worship, He abhorred ritual that aimed at divine manipulation. The only actions that pleased God were those that arose from the heart (Hos 6:4–6), and true worship was to be accompanied by joy in the Lord (Dt 12:12, 18).[5]

Although there certainly are animistic practices in the Old Testament, most are condemned by God. The way some practices are understood to a great degree depends on the religio-philosophical lens used to interpret them. An animist understandingly sees an echo of the rituals he knows so well. Modern liberal scholars see the Hebrew religion as an amalgam of other pre-existing religious ideas – including animism. However, in the Old Testament, God consistently transcends nature. And “it is increasingly understood to-day that the former identifications in early Israel of a Mountain-God, a Fertility-God and a War-God, from which the ‘ethical monotheism’ of the prophets gradually evolved, are figments of scholarly presupposition and imagination.”[6] In other words, God Jahwe was wholly other from the very beginning and remains so today.

Next: Animism in Christianity

[1] Philip Steyne, Gods of Power, Columbia, SC: Impact International Foundation, 2005, p. 101.

[2] Ibid., p. 111-112

[3] Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998, p. 139.

[4] Steyne, p. 133

[5] T. Cabal, C. O.  Brand, E. R. Clendenen, P. Copan, J. Moreland, & D. Powell, The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007, p. 126

[6] G. Ernest Wright, “The Old Testament and Paganism” International Review of Missions Volume 40, Issue 159,  July 1951, p. 270.

In a follow-up to the ethnographic study of Poland, where some animistic ideas were revealed, I wanted to look at animism in the Bible and Christianity.

Animistic practices occur frequently in the Bible. Some have seen a latent animism in Judaism and Christianity; however, “in Biblical teaching, nature is good, but it is not a god. It is merely a creature. The Bible stands firmly against any deification of the creation. The Biblical doctrine of creation rules out all this.”[1]

Andrew, a poster from Project Reason ( would argue that we can see animism promoted in the Bible in such passages as Genesis 12:6-8, where we find Abram traveling to Shechem to visit the “oak (or evergreen) of Mamre,” supposedly a tree already ancient and revered by the time that Abram arrived.

It was on this spot that Yahweh appeared to Abram, in consequence of which he built an altar. The connection between a specific and well-known sacred tree, and the appearance of Yahweh, can’t be missed. . . The same must be said about the terebinth (evergreen) of Mamre . . . in Hebron—where Yahweh again appeared to (newly renamed) Abraham, who built another altar (Exodus 13:18 and 18:1). . . In Genesis 35:4, Jacob buries the “strange gods” he has rejected in order to worship Yahweh under the tree in Shechem, mentioned above…thus assuring that the “strange gods”, now watched over by a more powerful deity, couldn’t harm him. . . In Judges 9:6, the Shechem tree is again mentioned as the location of Abimelech’s coronation—-presumably to have divine witness to the event. (

            Although the tree in Shechem (Mamre) may certainly have been worshipped by those who came before Abraham, there is no indication of God promoting a worship of the tree. And Andrew’s assumption that Jacob buried his idols below the tree because Yahweh, “the tree god,” was stronger, is reading something totally foreign back into the text. The burning bush from Exodus 3:2-5 and Deuteronomy 33:16 are mentioned as referring to an animistic fact that God dwelt in a bush. 2 Samuel 5:23-24 is also interpreted as God indwelling the trees as a sign for David to attack the Philistines. In both cases – if we understand God to have “indwelt” these inanimate objects, and not simply speaking poetically about making them burn or rustle – God’s indwelling is temporary, and neither the bush nor the trees are meant to be objects of worship or special power. God is the source of the power that temporarily “animates” the bush and the trees. “God does not inhabit the world the way a dryad inhabits a tree; He is not the personalization of natural forces. He is not the world’s “soul”; He is its Creator”[2]

Animism is probably seen in the story of the stone that Jacob slept on when he dreamed about a ladder leading to heaven in Genesis 28:11-22. Andrew claims that Jacob believed a spirit in the stone was the source of his dream, and thus he made a pillar out of the stone, anointed it with oil, and named it Beth-el (House of God). Although Andrew is repeating the debunked “Documentary Hypothesis” of comparative religion, “this stone was actually a cult object, somewhat like the sacred Black Stone of the Kaabah in Mecca. Stone worship must also lie behind the account of the cairn erected by Jacob and Laban in Gilead (Gen. 31:47).”[3]  Even the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church sees this as an echo of animism.[4] Although Jacob’s understanding and practice may have been flawed, he still saw God as the source of the dream, and God as the object of worship – a God who was not confined to the stone.

Some also see the “cloud by day, pillar of fire by night” as an evidence of an animistic God. Again, though, when God refers to Himself, He is not confined to a tree, stone, cloud or pillar, although He may temporarily animate them. Of course, many “lesser deities” are referred to, including Baal, Ashtarte, Moloch, Dagon and other gods. These are invariably mentioned as false gods, and their worship is condemned. One exception is a short, vague reference to Lilith in Isaiah 34:15. She was “a female goddess known as a night demon who haunts the desolate places of Edom.”[5] However, there is uncertainty as to the meaning of Lilith (could be some kind of an owl – which may also then have animistic ideas), and Isaiah could be using Edomite ideas to emphasize his message.

In part 2, we will look at some further examples of animistic practice in the Bible.
What is Animism? First part in this series

[1] N. Pearcey & C. B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Turning Point Christian Worldview Series, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994, p. 23.

[2] Ibid., p. 24

[3] G. Archer, Jr. A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed.), Chicago: Moody Press, 1994, p. 151.

[4] F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone, The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev.),  Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 71

[5] W. C. Kaiser, in R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, Jr. & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, p. 479.

While I was posting my series on Christian Nominalism in Europe, I ran across a post from Tim Keller about nominal Christians on his Redeemer City to City blog site. Dr. Keller founded and pastors Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and is especially noted for his skill in helping skeptics understand faith in Jesus Christ.

Here’s the link to his blog post – it would be great to read the whole post: Questions for Sleepy and Nominal Christians. I’d like to share the end of his article here:

So how do you wake up sleepy Christians and convert nominal Christians? Let me give you what I would call my modernized American versions of the kinds of questions I would ask people if I was trying to get them to really think about whether or not they know Christ. These questions are adapted from The Experience Meeting by William Williams, based on the Welsh revivals during the Great Awakening. He would ask people to share about these types of questions in small group settings each week:

How real has God been to your heart this week? How clear and vivid is your assurance and certainty of God’s forgiveness and fatherly love? To what degree is that real to you right now?

Are you having any particular seasons of delight in God? Do you really sense his presence in your life, sense him giving you his love?

Have you been finding Scripture to be alive and active? Instead of just being a book, do you feel like Scripture is coming after you?

Are you finding certain biblical promises extremely precious and encouraging? Which ones?

Are you finding God’s challenging you or calling you to something through the Word? In what ways?

Are you finding God’s grace more glorious and moving now than you have in the past? Are you conscious of a growing sense of the evil of your heart, and in response, a growing dependence on and grasp of the preciousness of the mercy of God?

Put together, that is a growing understanding of grace.


I think these questions fit well with the strategy I outlined in my posts. They also fit with the idea that “God is carrying on a conversation with every person on the planet” – paradigm shifting words for me from one of my professors, Dr. Reggie McNeal.

What do you think? Do the questions fit with a strategy that revolves around the Word, life-on-life witness, obedience-based discipleship, relationship and community, in the power of the Holy Spirit? Do they speak to your heart?

Berlin Cathedralfrom wikipedia

Berlin Cathedral
from wikipedia

In part 1, I introduced a five-part strategy for reaching “secular” Christians:

The Word

Life-on-life witness

Obedience-based discipleship

Relationship and community

The power of the Holy Spirit.

This post will focus on the last two elements of that strategy.

Relationship and Community.

Relationship has two aspects – relationship with God, and with others, or community. In the Matthew passage, Jesus shows that people can do mighty works in His name, yet never have a relationship with Him. They say, “Lord, Lord,” and He says “I never knew you.”  We all have a desperate, created need for personal relationship with God. It is this intimate knowledge of Christ that allows us to take our focus away from the amazing works done in His name, and onto the hearing His words and doing what He says.

Jesus also proclaims His presence with us when we are together. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” [1] This communion of at least two or three is an irreplaceable part of our relationship with Christ. We sometimes take Mt. 18:20 to mean “at least two or three”, and Jesus may have had that in mind, but perhaps He meant exactly what He said – two or three – the basic building block of community.

In that small, basic community unit we have a real chance to see life-on-life witness and obedience-based discipleship with a true opportunity for application and accountability. As two or three people interact with one another, in real life situations, they can quickly see action and reaction, speak into one another’s lives, and experience true transparency.

When we read Christ’s words from Mt. 7:16 about fruit inspection, we see how much more workable this becomes in an intimate group setting. In addition, as we understand what a contemporary European, a “secular Christian,” thinks about church, we can see that the small, core unit may be the only way to woo him to Christ. He thinks that church is a big, old, empty building; or a political system that is hopelessly out of touch; or a gang of mutually enabling pedophiles; or – at best – a group of well-meaning, but naïve individuals. The idea of the Church being family, or a squad of fellow warriors, or a trio of bff’s (best friends forever) has never occurred to him.

Relationship with Christ and one another, in community, relies on the indwelling, transforming work of the Holy Spirit. A strategy for winning “lay liberals,” though, is also dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit, the final component of our strategy.

Power of the Holy Spirit

When we include the power of the Holy Spirit as a key element of our evangelism strategy, we give more than lip-service to Him, and He becomes more than just a spiritual magic wand to make sure we include God in the midst of our hard work to win the world for Him. We actually may need to re-learn the reliance on the Holy Spirit that our grandfathers possessed, but mothers and fathers lost through a poisonous mix of reason and science, charismatic frauds, and unbiblical reactions.

Today’s European continues to search for manifestations of power. Beliefs in myriad superstitions; visits to witches, miracle healers, and New Age practitioners and reliance on astrology and horoscopes cause some to claim that animism is far from dead in Europe. “Opinion polls in Europe show high levels of belief in quasi-religious ideas such as reincarnation, but also in folk superstition: horoscopes, clairvoyance, ghosts, and so on.”[2]

Of course, the Holy Spirit is far more than just another alternative ghost. He is far more than a cosmic Force that enables His Jedi to manipulate reality. Reliance on His leading in our lives, and on His power to change others’ lives, gives us boldness, though, to proclaim His existence and demonstrate His powers of healing and transformation.

In conclusion, although Europe is faced with a rising tide of secularism, it still hangs on to the vestiges of Christianity. But it’s not enough to be a “Golden Rule Christian.” We must enter in at the narrow gate, and we are called to be faithful teachers, who call others to squeeze through that tight passage onto the unpopular trail toward life.

In total reliance on the Holy Spirit, operating in transparent community, we live and proclaim an obedience-based discipleship that can be freely examined through our life-on-life witness. Instead of relegating the Bible to a book on the shelf, between Voltaire and Nietzsche, we boldly acknowledge it as our life authority. Hearing and doing Jesus’ words, we become wise builders, not only of our own lives, but of a new form of radical Christ-following that can be both attractive and challenging for nominal Christianity.


[1] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Mt 18:20). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] Voas, David and Abby Day. 2010. Recognizing secular Christians: Toward an unexcluded middle in the study of religion (ARDA Guiding Paper Series). State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, from (15)

Frauenkirche, Munichfrom wikipedia

Frauenkirche, Munich
from wikipedia

This and the next post are the conclusion of a 7 part series on Christian nominalism in Europe

Taking Jesus’ words into consideration (parts 1 and 2), leaning on an understanding of what we know about “secular Christians” (3 and 4), and even using the Lausanne occasional paper as a starting grid (part 5), an effective strategy for seeing nominal Christians transformed by Christ must include the following elements:

The Word

Life-on-life witness

Obedience-based discipleship

Relationship and community

The power of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, these elements are present in any good strategy of Christian witness – and have been ever since Pentecost.  However, the application of such elements may be significantly different among “cultural Christians” from what it would be among tribal animists.

The Word.

It may be very tempting at times to avoid this point of our strategy. The average European practical atheist does not see the Bible as authoritative. So an attempt to bring the Bible into everyday conversation may be seen as fanatical, or at least weird. However, many Europeans think they know quite a bit about the Bible (even if they’ve never read any of it), and are more than willing to share their opinions. When we honestly and consistently refer to the Bible as our authority, we can work in an almost subversive way to change the way our nominal friends consider the Scriptures.

Of course, a one size-fits-all approach, which ignores the vast differences between various countries, will be inadequate. Whereas in France or the Czech Republic it may be rare to find someone who has heard the Bible read – let alone read it for herself – the average Pole, Greek or Croat has probably heard the Bible read many times in church, and likely has read a portion on his own, as well.

Of course, in humility and love, we need to recognize that the Bible is our authority – but it isn’t yet perceived as such by our neighbor. Demanding that our nominal friend submit to the Bible’s teaching is likely to produce a quite opposite effect than what we would hope for. Consistent submission to the Bible, and practicing what we read and hear, however, serves as a life-changing instrument, first in our life, and then by extension in the life of our friend – and such a witness leads us to our next strategic component:

Life-on-life witness.

The Lausanne authors referred to this as consistent life-style, presenting a lifestyle of growth, witness and caring. The key idea is that we would demonstrate Christian living in front of a watching world. We need to allow our neighbor

“to peer into our lives in order to see exactly how we are in the process of growth. We do not clearly model for others the process of change that is taking place in our lives as we apply the Word of God and learn obedience and submission to him in daily practice. This growth is demonstrated naturally if we are in the Word of God together and sharing our actions and reactions to it. This will allow those we are seeking to lead to look into our lives. It will help them to see how the hand of God is at work conforming us from faith to faith into his perfect image. It will reveal to them how we correct sin in our lives and repent from it.”[1]

We also need to model witness and caring. As we allow others to see us “in action,” we are able to live out a witness in front of them that is irrefutable. Who can argue with a life lived in obedience to Christ? However, such a life requires consistency, and especially transparency and openness. In this way, we allow others to be “fruit inspectors” in our life, following in the spirit of Jesus’ words from Matthew 7:16-20. Such a life-on-life witness demands that we take seriously the third component of our strategy:

Obedience-based discipleship.

We must first model such a discipleship in our own walk with Christ. We should not expect others to follow Christ whole-heartedly, when we ourselves do not make Him Lord of our lives. When we work as a wise builder, though, we build a life that can weather storms, and we show to others a storm-proof life.

Obedience, doing that which we hear from Jesus (Mt. 7:24), is a vital component of discipleship. In fact, it may be the one totally necessary ingredient in making disciples. After all, Jesus tells us in Mt. 28:20 that we are to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” James 1:22 reminds us that a true disciple of Christ is a doer of the word, not only a hearer. Unfortunately, we have usually placed a far greater emphasis on hearing the Word. We have frequently unwittingly re-written the Great Commission to read “teaching them everything I have commanded you,” and left out the emphasis on behavior and practice. Especially in the West, we could probably scale back on the knowledge in exchange for a greater emphasis on application, action and accountability.

A couple of years ago, I was in a conference with others involved in theological training from around Europe. The presenter showed Mt. 28:20 on the screen, but left out the words “to obey.” He then asked us what was missing. No one caught the omission! We all thought, at first glance, “teaching them everything I have commanded you” was correct. Oops! Obedience, life application and accountability must be part of our discipleship.

Obedience-based discipleship, especially in the confrontation of accountability, is most effective in relationship and community – the fourth element of our strategy, coming up in part 7.

St. Paul's Cathedral, Londonfrom wikipedia

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London
from wikipedia

As we begin to consider a strategy for reaching nominal Christians in Europe, we should first return to the Lausanne Committee’s work from 1980. Although this occasional paper is over 30 years old, it still gives us a good starting point. The paper focuses on nominal Christians among Roman Catholics, and as a result some changes would need to be made in light of the fact that 1.) a large number of Europeans identify with some other church and 2.) for all Europeans, identification with a specific church is less important than it was even just 30 years ago.

“Formulation of effective strategies for reaching nominal Christians among Roman Catholics involves at least five basic components: correct attitudes, correct doctrine, consistent lifestyles, community and interaction, and practical application and solutions.”[1]

“Correct attitudes” primarily refers to an attitude of love and humility toward Roman Catholics. Both are certainly needed, but of course, not exclusively toward Roman Catholics. Since church affiliation is increasingly less important, as is identification with a particular set of beliefs, perhaps a better, more contemporary strategy would be to search for, recognize and affirm ways in which God is speaking into the life of every individual, whether a nominal Catholic, Evangelical, or Anglican, or a secular, materialistic atheist who is still searching for meaning in life.

Within the strategy component of “sound doctrine”, the Lausanne paper contributors emphasize Bible study as the key to conversion to Jesus Christ. This certainly is key, but Jesus would remind us that simply hearing His words and assenting to them are not enough for a true disciple. Bible study and daily practice are key – not of course for a salvation based on our own works, but as evidence of a radically transformed life. Thankfully, the authors continue with several areas of doctrinal emphasis, including the lordship of Christ, that emphasize both a personal relationship with a Christ, and “that the new birth results in a progressive change of attitude and behaviour. Submission of the will and learning of daily obedience should be taught as basic to true discipleship.”[2]

Further components of the strategy outlined in the Thailand paper are: consistent life-style, one that demonstrates growth, witness and caring; community and interaction, emphasizing the Body of Christ and Family of God; and practical applications and solutions, where once again being a doer of the Word, and not simply a hearer is highlighted.

The Lausanne strategy presents some excellent guiding values for all who live in cultures dominated by nominal Christians. In fact, the paper could be redacted, removing references to Roman Catholicism, and serve as a valid starting point for evangelists in all parts of the “Christian” world. Probably all committed followers of Christ, living radically transformed lives, even those who still retain an affiliation with a church populated by nominal Christians, could then boldly agree with such a strategy to evangelize their fellow “non-practicing believers.”

Taking Jesus’ words into consideration, leaning on an understanding of what we know about “secular Christians,” and even using the Lausanne occasional paper as a starting grid, an effective strategy for seeing nominal Christians transformed by Christ must include the following elements: the Word; life-on-life witness; obedience-based discipleship; relationship and community; and the power of the Holy Spirit. Of course, these elements are present in any good strategy of Christian witness – and have been ever since Pentecost.    However, the application of such elements may be significantly different among “cultural Christians” from what it would be among tribal animists.

[1] Lausanne Occasional Paper  10: Christian Witness to Nominal Christians Among Roman Catholics, Thailand 1980 from

[2] Ibid.

St. Mary's Basilica, Krakowfrom wikipedia

St. Mary’s Basilica, Krakow
from wikipedia

In Part I and II I looked at Matthew 7:13-27 as a beginning point for looking at “nominal” Christians, or (borrowing D.A. Carson’s term) “small-dose” Christianity.

Three Dollars Worth of God

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

— Wilbur Rees

Three dollars’ worth of God is a pretty small dose. Yet, such a picture appropriately describes the nominal Christian. The nominal Christian identifies himself as a Christian, but this identification does not have a great deal of impact on daily life.

The phrase “secular Christians” can be applied to the most important component of the broad intermediate group. These are people who call themselves Christian, but who for all practical purposes are secular. They live in a world centered on their social relationships, in which God has no everyday role. They do not expect God’s help, fear God’s judgment, or believe that things will happen God willing. They are indifferent to religion for the good reason that it gives them nothing of practical importance.[1]

            In their article regarding the “unexcluded middle,” David Voas and Abby Day contrast such secular Christians with “religiously committed Christians who identify with a church or denomination, believe in God, and attend services with some frequency.”[2] In the light of Jesus’ final words from the Sermon on the Mount, however, such a definition of a committed Christian is much too anemic. The Lausanne Occasional Paper 10, Christian Witness to Nominal Christians Among Roman Catholics (1980) says, “The heart of true Christianity is being a disciple of Jesus Christ in the terms of faith, love, and obedience.” Such a definition is much closer to the picture of the wise builder who has entered through the narrow gate.

Several terms are used to describe nominal Christianity: “Cultural Christianity”, “fuzzy fidelity”, “believing without belonging”, or in Poland, “believing, not practicing.” Such people are sometimes termed “lay liberals” or “Golden Rule Christians.” The last term seems somewhat ironic, when one realizes that the Golden Rule, from Matthew 7:12, is immediately followed by Jesus’ words, “Enter by the narrow gate.” In addition, religious researchers see many degrees of commitment along a continuum that includes three dimensions: belief, practice and affiliation. Belief is usually measured through surveys that ask respondents whether they agree with certain doctrinal points or articles of faith. Affiliation has traditionally referred to belonging to a particular Christian denomination, although more recently focused simply on whether one identifies oneself as Christian. Most researchers measure practice based on attendance at services. “For reasons of practicality it makes sense to work with three standard measures of religiosity: self-identification with a religion, frequency of attendance at religious services, and belief in God.”[3]

However, a definition of practice that focuses primarily on attendance at church services doesn’t fit with Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, especially not with 7:21-23. Of course, such an attendance-based definition is much easier to measure. But a more biblical definition of a nominal Christian is the one used by the Lausanne Committee in the aforementioned working paper:

A nominal Christian is a person who has not responded in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour and Lord. He is a Christian in name only. He may be very religious. He may be a practising or non-practising church member. He may give intellectual assent to basic Christian doctrines and claim to be a Christian. He may be faithful in attending liturgical rites and worship services, and be an active member involved in church affairs. But in spite of all this, he is still destined for eternal judgment (cf. Matt. 7:21-23, Jas. 2:19) because he has not committed his life to Jesus Christ (Romans 10:9-10).[4]

            Of course, this type of definition is difficult to measure through surveys. In the end, only God knows the truth of a person’s heart, and only God knows the depth of His relationship with any human being. Only Jesus can say, “Enter into My presence” or “Depart from Me, I never knew you.” We can, of course, examine the fruit of a person’s life:

“What fruits does Christ seek? He seeks:

(1) the fruit of the Spirit, or Christian character as described in the Beatitudes and Gal. 5:22–23;

(2) the fruit of the lips, testimony and praise to God (Heb. 13:15);

(3) holy living (Rom. 6:22);

(4) good works (Col. 1:10);

(5) lost souls won to Christ (Rom. 1:13).

Professing Christians may be involved in religious activities and pretend to be saved, but if they are honestly born again, they will reveal these fruits in daily life.”[5]

In the next post, I will try to describe “nominal” Christianity in Europe in more detail, and summarize the Lausanne plan for reaching nominal Christians. In the final 2 parts, I will attempt to bring together the Matthew passage, what we will see about secular Christians in Europe, and the Lausanne plan as the basis for a strategy for reaching our “Christian-in-name-only” friends and neighbors. As always, questions, comments, or corrections are welcome!!

[1] Voas, David and Abby Day. 2010. Recognizing secular Christians: Toward an unexcluded middle in the study of religion (ARDA Guiding Paper Series). State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, from (3)

[2] Ibid. (2)

[3] Ibid. 6

[4] Lausanne Occasional Paper  10: Christian Witness to Nominal Christians Among Roman Catholics, Thailand 1980 from

[5] Wiersbe, W. W. (1997). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (36). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

St. Stephen's

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna
from wikipedia

In part 1, I began to look at Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, as a preface to developing a strategy for making disciples of nominal Christians, especially in Europe. Now, I will finish the passage study with a look at the metaphors used by Jesus:

Our first metaphor is that of the two ways, or gates. One is narrow, the other broad. The gateway to life is narrow and difficult – the word used means tribulation, or persecution. The highway to hell, however, is broad, with overtones of prosperous,[1]and by implication, easy. With their relative size and ease, it makes perfect sense that many find the broad road, while few find – or choose – the narrow, difficult path.

“Wide gate, easy way, many travelers” – these words describe the path to destruction. Except for the destination, the road sounds like the perfect choice. There is an “abundance of liberty, no check to your temptations, nothing to hedge in those who walk in it, an abundance of company,” a walk downstream.[2] The destination, however, is destruction, everlasting separation from God, the same fate promised later in verse 23.

The trail to life has a narrow gate, a confined, difficult path with not many friends along with whom to share the journey. Of course, such an idea is not exclusively Christian. According to the Pinax or Tablet of Cebes, a contemporary of Socrates: “Seest thou not, then, a little door, and a way before the door, which is not much crowded, but very few travel it? This is the way that leadeth unto true culture.”[3] Most of the world recognizes the potential benefits of self-denial (Buddhist and Jain ascetics, Catholic and Orthodox hermits come to mind, among many others), but most of us still struggle to make such an unpopular, demanding choice. Jesus, of course, is referring to something more than simple asceticism, and the following verses expand on the choice facing every human.

Through the entire passage, there is also a series of contrasts related to religious people:

(1) the two ways of performing religious duties (13–14);

(2) the two types of religious leaders (15–23); and

(3) the two foundations of a religious life (24–27).[4]

The two types of religious leaders are contrasted by their fruit and their focus. In verse 15, false teachers are referred to as wolves in sheep’s clothing. However, we are encouraged that we can know them by their fruit. All false prophets will transgress the standards of the true believer in one or more of the following three respects:

a)   Their work will seek to glorify themselves, and not God (5:16)

b)   They will be materialistic (6:19)

c)   Their moral lives will not be pure (5:27–32).[5]

False fruits go along with a false focus. In 21-23, the focus is on the amazing works done in Jesus’ name, but the miracle-workers have forgotten to focus on a relationship with Christ. In fact, He says “I never knew you.” Although the possibility of hearing these words may puzzle – or even frighten – those who minister in Jesus’ name, concentrating on a living relationship with the living Christ, putting into practice His word, as a wise builder, removes any fear of hearing those damning words, “Depart from me!”

Jesus finishes with that picture of the wise builder, the man who doesn’t only hear His words, but applies them to life as well. “It is not enough simply to hear Jesus’ call or even to respond with some temporary flurry of good deeds. Rather, we must build a solid foundation that combines authentic commitment to Christ with persevering obedience.” [6] Crisis comes, the flood waters rise, and the wise builder is secure. The foolish builder, however, has no safety, because he has built an infirm foundation. D.A. Carson puts it this way: “Those who pretend to have faith, who have a merely intellectual commitment, or who enjoy Jesus in small doses are foolish builders.”[7]

In the next part, we will take a closer look at “small-dose” (nominal) Christians in Europe.

[1] A. H. M’Neile, The Gospel according to St. Matthew (London: Macmillan, 1915), 94.

[2] Henry, M. (1996). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible : Complete and unabridged in one volume (Mt 7:12–14). Peabody: Hendrickson.

[3] Robertson, A. (1997). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Mt 7:13). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

[4] Utley, R. J. D. (2000). Vol. Volume 9: The First Christian Primer: Matthew. Study Guide Commentary Series (65). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.

[5] Mills, M. (1999). The Life of Christ: A Study Guide to the Gospel Record (Mt 7:15–23). Dallas, TX: 3E Ministries.

[6] Blomberg, C. (2001). Vol. 22: Matthew (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (134). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[7] Carson, D.A. (1984) Volume 8: Matthew The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (194). Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Zondervan Corporation.

Matthias Church Budapest, Hungary from Wikipedia

Matthias Church Budapest, Hungary from Wikipedia

An observant traveler in Europe will quickly notice the abundance of large, old, beautiful churches, but also realize that these churches are usually empty, or nearly so, even Sunday morning, during traditional “church time.” Much has been written about the growth of secularism, the death of Christianity or the rise of Islam in Europe. Most articles focus on Western Europe, where these particular trends are most evident, even conveniently ignoring much of Eastern and Central Europe. However, as we shall see, the existing Church, whether in more secularized Western Europe, or more traditional Eastern Europe, is frequently characterized by a “Christian in name only”, a Christmas-and-Easter, wedding-baptism-funeral form of Christian nominalism.

We will look at Jesus’ teaching from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, where He demands a radical choice, and use His words to examine nominal Christianity in Europe, and propose some strategies for evangelizing Europeans. Probably, some issues will be similar for nominal Christians in America, as well.

Matthew 7:13-27

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18         A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23        And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

 24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” [1]

            At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents a series of metaphors that illustrate the truth that there are only two choices for people in the world, no matter how much of a middle ground we would like to see. “He utilizes a “two-ways” genre well-known from other Jewish literature (e.g., Deut 30:15–20; 2 Esdr 7:1–16; cf. also Did. 1:1–6:7).”[2] We see two ways (13-14), two fruits (15-20), two professions (21-23) and two foundations (24-27).

Warren Wiersbe suggests that Christ proposes three tests that prove our Christianity: the test of self-denial (13–14), the test of spiritual fruit (15–23), and the test of permanence or obedience (24–27).[3] A false, counterfeit Christianity will fail these tests. Or, put in the form of three questions:

Did my profession of faith in Christ cost me anything?

Did my decision for Christ change my life?  

In the end, what will God say?[4]

In the next post, we will look more closely at the metaphors in this passage, and begin to apply Christ’s teaching to the case of the nominal Christian.
I’d love your comments as we go through this!

[1] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Mt 7:13–27). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] Blomberg, C. (2001). Vol. 22: Matthew (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (131). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[3] Wiersbe, W. W. (1997). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (35–36). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

[4] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Mt 7:6–21). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

Friends have asked me several times what I do when I lead a Bible study. If they are American, I usually cringe when I hear the question. (I don’t do much of anything . . .). If they aren’t, I tell them. In most of the world, there isn’t such great access to Bible study curriculum, inductive training manuals, commentaries, Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, so we have to let the Bible speak. In all honesty, having used lots of curricula over the years, I love the simple 6 questions that we use now.

Two things I have noticed with these questions: 1. People discuss more. I’m not the expert, and they realize they can answer most of these questions just as well as anyone can. 2. Two of the questions engage an emotional response. I know it sounds stereotypical, but the women in our groups respond more to these questions than they ever did in a prepared curriculum.

These questions have been around forever – supposedly they come from a missionary in Asia – I wish I could find the source. (Edit – John DeVries, founder of Mission21 India, came up with these questions prior to 1989) Also, they exist in different orders and wordings, and lately have become popular again with “Discovery Bible Study”. I first got them verbally, from a buddy, which seems so appropriate. He didn’t have them written out. I wrote them on a napkin a couple of times, but they are easy to remember:

Read a passage from the Bible out loud. We usually read a chapter, and usually everyone reads a few verses.

1. What don’t you understand from the passage? This is really the only question where the “expert” gets to shine.

2. What do you like from this passage?

3. What don’t you like, or what do you disagree with?

4. What do you see about God in this passage?

5. What do you want to remember this week from this passage?

6. What do you need to apply in your life from this passage?

6 questions bookmark

Here are the questions in a bookmark, with a link to a ministry that will send you more.

As you can see, my order is a little different. Other than keeping the first 3 questions before the last 3, I don’t think it really matters. And we don’t always do all 6.

I have the questions in Polish, but if you’re Polish and you’ve read this far, you can probably translate them better than I can!

Of course, this is similar to the other old standby:

What? (What does the passage say or mean?)

So what? (What does it mean in my life?)

Now what? (What do I need to do?)

The point is, you absolutely don’t need a Bible study curriculum to start reading with your friends. You don’t need a seminary degree, or years of Christian experience.

What you need to do is: Read. Discuss. Do. Every portion is equally important, and we all know that it’s the last one, DO, that usually gets neglected.

So. What are you waiting for?