Unbelief: The 800-Pound Gorilla In
The Church That Everyone Ignores
Rock of Offence Special Commentary
Few of us ever consider the topic of unbelief. Jesus and the apostle Paul constantly gave warnings about this deceptive spiritual condition. It continues to be the most dangerous enemy of the Christian today. The reader already knows that whenever the prefix "un" is placed before a word, it puts a negative or reverse meaning on that word. The word "unfair" becomes a word that means "not fair" or "lacking fairness"--the word "unloving" means "not loving" or "deficient in love", and so on. The same rules apply when the Bible uses the term "unbelief". When the word "belief" or "believer" is used, the Bible is describing those who are building their faith on the Divine truth of Scripture, which carries a very specific "contextual" meaning. IF WE GET THE SCRIPTURE RIGHT AND THE CONTEXT WRONG, WE HAVE UNKNOWINGLY TAKEN A DETOUR ON THE TRAGIC PATH OF UNBELIEF.
We depart from truth by building our faith on what we think is God's Word, but is actually an incorrect understanding of Scripture. This common practice leads us to misapply the teachings of the Bible. The problem is not with the Scriptures. The problem occurs when we interpret the Scriptures in a way that God never intended. It is commonly caused by the wrong doctrine of a preacher, minister, movement or a denomination. This is also an area where religious cults operate. A Christian ensnared in unbelief is unaware of their true spiritual condition. Such a person is convinced they have the truth of God's Word and will fight to defend their beliefs. UNBELIEF ALWAYS MASQUERADES AS GENUINE BIBLE FAITH. However, it is not something found only in the Christian Church. Many people (regardless of their religion) are motivated to sacrifice their lives to gain eternal rewards. They are convinced their beliefs are based on some form of "divine truth". On September 11, 2001, we witnessed the tragic results of these kinds of misguided beliefs. Over 3000 people died as a result. The hijackers of those airliners sacrificed their lives thinking they were serving god. They were dead wrong.
Unbelief in the Christian Church almost never reaches these extremes. I say "almost" because our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified by the efforts of religious leaders, who were devoted to a theology riddled with unbelief. This same fate awaited many others down through history, who were killed for preaching truth that threatened the power and influence of the institutional church. When unbelief reaches extreme levels, horrific things can happen. The 800-pound gorilla can go on a rampage. Jesus warned His disciples that a time was coming when those motivated by this perverted theology would kill them, thinking they were serving God. Jesus went on to say that those who do such things, "do not know the Father or Me" (John 16:2-3). Yet, they still claim to be God's representatives. This is simply astonishing. While most cases of unbelief within Christianity today seem to be benign, the eternal consequences can still be catastrophic--yet are usually ignored during our time on earth.
In Matthew 16:8-12, Jesus warned His disciples about the "leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees". Later in this passage, we learn that Jesus was using the word "leaven" as a negative example to describe the doctrine and teaching of these influential spiritual leaders. Most Christians today gloss over Christ's warning. The Pharisees and Sadducees were some of the most highly respected, educated men of Israel. Some wrongly believe that these men were nothing more than a bunch of "religious buffoons". This perception is not correct. From early childhood they were trained in the Holy Scriptures. They qualified as the leading experts of Old Testament religion and Jewish Law. Yet, Jesus told his disciples to beware of their doctrine. Why? The doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees appeared to be based on the Holy Scriptures. However, their teachings included literally thousands of individual principles, rules and laws, many of which were built upon the misapplication of Scripture. In other words, the Pharisees and Sadducees practiced a form of theology that used Scripture in a way that God never intended. There was nothing wrong with the Scripture as long as it remained in the context where God placed it. But, these men removed Scripture from its context, like many Christians do today, and used it as the "Divine authority" to empower their teaching.
Many churches attempt to portray Jesus as some kind of "peace and love activist". Jesus certainly preached peace and love during His earthly ministry. Yet, He never took a "peace at any cost" position when His Father's truth was being distorted. If you carefully read the New Testament, you'll notice that Jesus was always confrontational when it came to truth--and He didn't care if you were offended. When the Pharisees and Sadducees started teaching and quoting Scripture in a way that violated the intentions of His Heavenly Father, He called them out for a verbal fight. Often, this was done publicly. Many times, Jesus said things that deliberately offended these men in order to expose their false teaching. In other words, He went out of His way to pick a fight with them. During one confrontation, the Sadducees were speaking to Him about the resurrection in order to "trap him" with His own words. At the end, Jesus responded by saying,
"Are you not therefore mistaken, because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God?" (Mark 12:24)
If you want to make friends, this is probably not the way to do it! You never tell highly trained religious leaders who have studied the Bible all their lives, "You do not know the Scriptures". Since it is obvious that they did have an intellectual knowledge of the Scriptures--what was Jesus referring to? He was talking about their ignorance of how God intended for the Scriptures to be understood and applied. He was referring to "context". Jesus equated this failure to "not knowing the Scriptures". It was their abuse of context that caused Jesus to warn His disciples about their teaching. This example gives us the exact same warning today. Teaching the Bible by using Scripture out of context is a hidden source of dangerous unbelief. This is why you can hold a Doctorate of Divinity, be trained in ancient Greek and Hebrew, commit the whole Bible to memory, and still teach wrong doctrine. Think about that!
This "vicious" kind of religious unbelief commonly masquerades as "God's authority". The Bible suggests that no other sin that humans commit is worse. Why? It has the power to eternally destroy lives. This problem is impossible to correct because those involved are convinced they are "preaching God's Word". It was this form of religious unbelief, which originated from within Jewish religion that plagued the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was the "spiritual force" behind the effort to crucify Him. Jesus condemned this practice in Mark 7:7 by saying, ".... in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." In other places, Jesus called those who practiced this theology, "snakes and vipers". If you ever walked in the woods and suddenly stumbled across a poisonous snake (as I have), you can understand why Jesus used these descriptive words. You cannot reason with a snake, especially religious ones who think they have a mandate from God. Most of us fail to realize that removing Scripture from its Divine context--and inserting it into a context of our own design, changes Scripture from "God's Word" to a "commandment or teaching of men".
The same practice is rampant in the church today. It didn't only exist in the first century during the time of Christ. This destructive kind of theology ensnares many professing Christians today. It is not limited to religious leaders. Recently, I was listening to an argument between four believers. One dear lady was quoting Scripture after Scripture to defend her beliefs about salvation, which were clearly "very bizarre" and legalistic. The other three believers were warning her that she was failing to "rightly divide God's Word", as the apostle Paul commanded. In other words, they were lovingly trying to get her to see that her deeply held beliefs violated the context of the Bible. As the evidence mounted against her, she suddenly turned and attacked, accusing the other three of being arrogant and unloving, which was not true. She insisted that she had God's truth on the matter. Without going into detail, this lady was clearly walking in some very bad doctrine. She thought her beliefs were correct because the Scriptures she quoted "appeared" to give them God's authority. More likely, she was taught to believe this way at her church. The religious unbelief that Jesus warned about will probably keep this woman from the liberating truth of Christ for the rest of her life. This is tragic. I've seen this same situation repeated over and over for the last 40 years. I continue to be amazed at some of the spiritually harmful things Christians believe, simply because they ignore the rules of context in God's Word. Whenever you're dealing with this kind of unbelief, you can either confront it, like Jesus continually did, or you can walk away. If you decide to be confrontational--get ready for the fight of your life. However, make sure that you have examined yourself, to determine if you actually have the truth in this situation. When in doubt, walk away. Otherwise, your "confrontation" will become another senseless argument over whose opinion is more correct.
Unbelief exists in many different forms. A popular evangelist commented that much of our Christian praise and worship music, which is designed to glorify Christ (and it does), is subtly laced with unbelief hidden beneath the surface. These things weaken our faith like a slow poison and without our knowledge. I happen to agree with this observation. Another subtle form of unbelief is found in a teaching commonly called "the sovereignty of God". We agree that God is "sovereign". Yet, His sovereignty, as defined by the New Testament, carries a totally different meaning than the way most churches teach it. Today, churches proclaim that "God is sovereign", meaning that He does whatever He wants, whenever He wants. The teaching suggests that we have very little say in how God deals with us. If God wants us healed, He will heal us. But, if He wants us sick, we will never be healed no matter how hard we pray. This is a doctrine of unbelief that is used to divert our attention away from the reason our spiritual leaders have no power. I discovered that our Lord does not agree with this very popular belief.
At one point during His ministry, Jesus returned to His own country where he grew up as a child and began to teach in the Synagogue. The people in this area knew Him and said, "Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?" The Bible says that the people, who knew Jesus and his family, were offended when He taught in the Synagogue. They probably thought that He didn't have the credentials to teach religion. Their "human knowledge" of Jesus and his earthly family prevented them from receiving Him as the Son of God. As a result, their misguided belief almost completely shut down Jesus' ability to do "mighty works". The Gospel of Mark reports this amazing occurrence by saying:
"Now He (Jesus) could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He marveled because of their unbelief. Then He went about the villages in a circuit, teaching." (Mark 6:5-6)
There is an important lesson to be learned here. The New Testament does not teach that God always "does whatever he wants". It certainly wasn't true in this case, was it? Many times, God's ability to bless us is either blocked or limited by unbelief. It's the 800-pound gorilla in the church that everyone ignores. Some preach that God does not perform certain miracles anymore, such as healing us when we're sick. Common teachings like these are a potent source of unbelief that subtly undermines our faith. The roadblock to God's blessing usually results from choosing to believe a popular Christian theology that appears to be based on the Bible, yet is applied in ways that violate context. If Jesus, as God's Son, couldn't do the mighty works (that He clearly wanted to do) in His own hometown--then the way most churches teach "the sovereignty of God" is incorrect and misleading. Many people ask, "Why isn't the power of God around today?" Once again, the root problem is the kind of "theology" we choose to believe. If we choose one of the many good-sounding false theologies that appear to be "Bible-based" on the surface, unbelief is always the result. The Bible warns us that God's power will not operate in this environment. Most of the time we do not know that the problem is in us. Our churches wrongly tell us that God doesn't heal and do miracles anymore to avoid the real problem. The real problem, many times, is their wrong doctrine.
We should also look in the New Testament at the healing of the woman with the issue of blood in Mark 5:25-32. This story teaches the same lesson as Mark 6:5-6. A great crowd of people surrounded Jesus and a woman with a serious life-threatening illness came up from behind, to touch Him.
"Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years, and had suffered many things from many physicians. She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd and touched His garment. For she said, "If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well." Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction." (Mark 5:25-29)
How did Jesus respond? He asked, "Who touched my clothes?" Even His disciples were perplexed by His question because everyone in the crowd was touching Him. Eventually, the woman came forward and told Him everything. It is clear that Jesus did not "will" this woman to be healed. When the healing power went out of Him--He didn't know where it went! He had to ask, "Who touched Me?" Later, Jesus told the woman that, "Her faith had made her well". This means that Jesus was not in control of this healing miracle. He said that the woman's faith was in control of His power. In this story, the Bible suggests that no one in that crowd got healed, even though they were all touching Him at some point. Since Jesus knew immediately that healing power went out of him when the woman touched him, it seems she was the only one to get a miracle in that place. Once again, this means that churches are teaching people wrong on the subject of faith and God's sovereignty. We have a responsibility to examine ourselves to see if our faith is aligned with the truth of Scripture. When this alignment occurs, miracles can and do happen. Unbelief is one of our biggest enemies in "The Stealth War Against The Truth Of The Gospel".