Decluttering Our Theology

“How did we get here?” I ask, overwhelmed and shaking my head, as I look around my kids’ room. Why is this room so difficult to keep clean?  I gather some dirty clothes from one corner of the room, then place some crumpled paper in the waste basket. I spot random toys defying categorization across the landscape of the room, and it hits me. While my children are not naturally clean and organized, one thing makes their task much more difficult. Clutter.

Perhaps this is a familiar scene for my fellow parents. Too often the clutter even extends to my spaces: that spot on the kitchen counter, the dining room bookshelves and the dresser in my bedroom. It is a constant battle in the home.

However, I find a more serious battle overwhelming me as I survey the spiritual landscape around me. “How did we get here?” resounds in my mind as I see the messy theology our Christian culture embraces. Again, it hits me. Clutter surrounds us.

Everyone has a theology, a belief about God. Even atheists have a belief that He does not exist. Other religions replace God with something or someone else. So, how are my children’s room and the theological state of the culture alike? Move aside that pile of unfolded laundry from that chair and have a seat while I explain. This may take a while.

What do I mean by theological clutter?

Dictionary.com has several intriguing definitions of clutter. The one that most readily comes to mind is a collection of things lying about in an untidy mass”. And, perhaps even more relevant to the metaphor is this one: “a state or condition of confusion”.

When I look around my children’s room in its cluttered state, I see an untidy mass of things that cannot be categorized. There are a number of reasons for this, which I’ll get to in a moment, but this is one of the biggest reasons I believe our theology is cluttered today. Many Christians fear being placed in a category.

Let me hasten to say I detest being labeled by man’s labels as much as anyone does. Fundamental. Seeker-Friendly. Conservative. Liberal. Progressive. Emergent. Independent. Non-denominational. However, in this list of labels man puts on people, there is no standard. What fundamentals does a fundamentalist believe? To what is a  person labeled conservative or liberal compared? As for seeker-friendly and emergent, what are the seekers seeking and from what is the church emerging?

 Theology used to be more easily categorized. There was a clear definition of what stood outside the boundaries of Christendom entirely and was known as a cult or heresy. Protestant vs. Catholic. Within the Protestant movement, there were decided differences between Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and whatever other religion you may remember. Within those broader categories, there was a clear mark of what was different between these types of Baptist or those types of Methodists.

Now? It is as if our churches are a giant toy box with a bit of everything mixed in. 

Why is clutter a big deal?

I must admit that there are times I look at my children’s room and just want to shut the door. It’s just so much to deal with. It’s a lot of work. We need to make a lot of decisions. And working with my children towards the common goal of eliminating clutter is messy in a whole other way.

It feels like that sometimes when figuring out our theology, too. Does it really matter if we don’t have every doctrine in its proper place? Sure, there are extra ideas floating around, but if they bother you, can’t you just step over them?

I find that if my children’s room is left in a cluttered state, a few things happen. Clutter threatens peace. They don’t really want to be there because it’s too difficult to find something they want to play with. Clarity during cleanup time is gone because, after all, how do you put a toy in its proper place when toys cover the floor? The corollary to the modern church is much the same.

Most important, while my standard of neatness is relative and may look different from yours, theology is not that way. There is one true God and He has a standard of “neatness” that is never-changing and applies to everyone: His Holy Word. 

Where does our theological clutter come from?

Clutter in a room comes from many sources. Here are a few that I have experienced:

Items with no value. These are the dreaded fast food meal toys or the cheap plastic toy your child had to have that is so flimsy it isn’t fun to play with. What ideas in our churches have no eternal value? Should they be a part of our theological decor?

Items we hold on to for sentimental value. I am not one to throw out traditions just because they are traditions. Many times, wise people put those traditions in place and they have Biblical value. However, the faith of our fathers has to become our own. We cannot get to Heaven by being born into a Christian family. We can only get to Heaven by the Blood of Jesus applied to our own sin. 

Items that are attractive but not practical. I love wooden toys. My children would have given up their wooden alphabet abacus long ago, but I held on to it because it just looked so cute and Pottery Barn-like on the shelf. Beautiful buildings and the latest technology are fine in their places, but if they do not communicate the Gospel, they only create an entertaining show.

One more definition of the word clutter refers to a scientific phenomenon. It also gives a clue to what causes the theological clutter.

“an echo or echoes on a radar screen that do not come from the target and can be caused by such factors as atmospheric conditions, objects other than the target, chaff, and jamming of the radar signal.”

So much of worship in our churches is really just echoes of something, but that something is not the Word of God (our target). The atmospheric conditions are sometimes more conducive to a concert than to a worship service. We are often not focused on the Word of God at all, only sprinkling in Bible verses to make things sound like truth, when they are actually opposed to the message of the Bible. Sometimes I wonder if chaff we allow into our lives jams the radar signal. The chaff is that part that blows away in the wind once the real Truth is gone. 

How is Clutter Removed?

The process is slow, depending on how badly cluttered the room is. But, as we clear out the broken items and those which are not useful and not played with; we see the floor emerge. Those that are left are easily categorized. We know we want that collection of Nerf guns, so we reserve a box for them. The Legos go in bins where the kids can easily pull them out when the building urge strikes. There’s a spot for toy cars and a shelf reserved for those special treasures boys must keep. 

You see, theology, our belief about God, is not a mystery. He’s revealed Himself in His Word. It’s all there, and it’s clearly seen. We just have to remove the clutter first.

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