4 Ways Pastors can Shepherd their Congregation through Discussions on Faith and Science
Pastors have both a responsibility and privilege to guide their “flocks” through the science and faith discussion. Pastor Mario Russo shares four simple ways to do so.
There is a false notion that, by-and-large, has been adopted into popular American society: science and faith are contradictory and irreconcilable ways of looking at the world. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, nearly 60% of American adults think that science and religion are often in conflict. This percentage is up from 55% in 2009. If the current trend continues, over two-thirds of Americans by 2020 will be in this category.
As people are increasingly faced with the idea that science and religion are incompatible, there is a greater potential for unnecessary fear and misunderstanding among Christians. As pastors, we have both a responsibility and privilege to guide our “flocks” through this discussion. Here are four simple and practical ways pastors can shepherd their church through the discussion on science and faith.
1. Help Your Congregation to Read Their Bibles Properly
As I have previously shared here at BioLogos, my embrace of evolutionary creationism happened over a long journey. I was a young-earth apologist, and my transformation took place little by little. But it all began by learning how to read the Bible properly. Once I learned how to do that, I was far less antagonistic toward science.
As pastors, one of the greatest gifts we can give our congregation is to show them the importance of good exegesis. The Bible is, after all, a collection of ancient Near East (ANE) documents written to and by ANE people. It takes time and diligent study to faithfully interpret it. We need to understand what the original author/audience would have understood the Bible to mean, before we can know what the Bible means for us.
BioLogos has a huge library of resources on biblical interpretation. A good starting point is the “Guided Tour” on the important topic of how to understand the “cosmology” of the Bible—especially the creation accounts in Genesis.
The result of equipping your congregation in this way is manifold. Your congregation will be able to exercise better discernment in how to responsibly apply the Scriptures to today’s issues, such as the relationship between science and faith. Rather than reject the findings of science based on shallow and ill-informed interpretations of Scripture, your congregation will understand that science and the Bible have a conversational, rather than confrontational, relationship. Rather than see the Bible as a book at war with science, they can see that the Bible neither confirms nor opposes modern scientific theories. This leads us to a second practical way we can shepherd our congregation.
2. Help Your Congregation to Embrace all Truth as God’s Truth
As I mentioned above, there is a growing number of Americans who believe that science and faith are in conflict. This is where the Church can rise up and take the lead on this issue. As pastors, we must show our congregations that science, properly understood, is not a threat to our faith. One of the best ways we can do this is by showing how the Christian faith invites us to celebrate the discoveries and explorations of all humanity, since we are all—Christian and non-Christian—endowed with God’s holy image.
Reflecting on this, theologian John Calvin wrote,
If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver.
Therefore, since it is manifest that men whom the Scriptures term natural, are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good.
For Calvin, science would fall under the category of “inferior things,” which simply means that it can’t lead us to knowledge of ultimate truths. But in what scientists can discover about our world, Calvin urges that our rational capabilities are “acute and clear-sighted” enough to discover important truths that Christians should take seriously—at risk of “insulting” the Holy Spirit from whom all truth flows! He makes this point even more explicitly in a different place in the same treatise:
What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold… But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth.
As Brad Kramer and I have argued previously in a post entitled “According to John Calvin, Ignoring Science is an Act of Sloth,” John Calvin argued that ignoring or dismissing solid scientific research was to be guilty of the sin of “sloth.” Most importantly, science to Calvin is first and foremost a “gift” and not a threat nor a rival to biblical truth.
Your congregation, which is likely exposed to many polarizing voices, needs to hear you say this. They need to hear you say that there is no reason to fear what science has to say, because scientists are investigating God’s world using their God-given capacities. They need to hear you encourage them to investigate the world of God for the glory of God.
3. Help Your Congregation to Celebrate Scientists and the Sciences
While we should certainly encourage our congregations to embrace good science, no matter where it comes from, we should also praise and encourage Christians to pursue careers in the sciences. Science is a Christian calling, in line with God’s purpose, expressed in Genesis 1, for humans to “subdue the earth” and “exercise dominion” over it. This makes our celebration of scientists and the sciences all the more important. Publicly recognizing and celebrating scientists who are also Christians will help put a human face on the sciences, rather than seeing them as the dangerous “other.”
There are currently an estimated two million scientists in the USA who identify as evangelical Christians. And Christians have played a significant role in the sciences for centuries. Whether we point to the contributions of scientists like Nicole Oresme (1323-1382 C.E.) who discovered the curvature of light through atmospheric refraction; Blaise Pascal (1623-1662 C.E.), who made contributions in the fields of physics, math, and theology; Jennifer Wiseman, former Chief of the Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics at NASA; or Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project (and BioLogos founder), we have a plethora of faith-filled scientists to celebrate and hold up as examples of how men and women of faith can contribute to our understanding of the natural world and fulfill our purpose to “subdue the earth.” As the shepherds of our flocks, we would do well to publicly celebrate such people and present them to our congregations as noteworthy examples to emulate.
4. Help Your Congregation to be Gracious in their Discussions
I personally believe that the “evolutionary creation” view held by BioLogos is the best perspective on science and faith. But, given that this is an issue where faithful Christians can legitimately disagree, one of the biggest things I and other pastors can do is encourage patient and gracious dialogue in all discussions. The apostle Paul encourages us to “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). One thing that was a hindrance to me understanding and embracing evolutionary creationism was the lack of grace displayed by some evolutionary creationists. To be fair, I wasn’t the picture of patience and grace either as I interacted with them, but the negative attitude and harsh tone of some of the people I conversed with turned me off to the truth that they were trying to share. As a seminary professor of mine would tell me, “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
No matter what, we should avoid judgments on other people’s faith or intelligence. On non-essential issues of the Christian faith, there’s no position that makes someone an “apostate.” Many Evangelicals think that those who embrace the theory of evolution are in danger of abandoning the Christian faith. This was an argument I heard and used a lot when I was a young-earth apologist: believing in evolution is a “slippery slope” to losing trust in the Bible and ultimately losing your faith. This is simply not true. Many people (myself included), have found a deeper faith and love for God as a result of studying evolutionary creationism. Recognizing that mature Christians can hold to scientific theories without abandoning their faith is a good beginning to gracious dialogue and mutual respect.
Moreover, it is important not to criticize a person’s intelligence simply because they hold a different view from you. If someone holds to a literal, twenty-four-hour days view of creation where the earth is only six thousands years old, it doesn’t mean that they are not well read or that they have a low IQ. As a young-earth apologist I met and interacted with people who held a young-earth view and had PhDs in engineering and physics. Often, what is motivating the rejection of modern science is not ignorance, per se, but a belief that Scripture demands it.
Let’s be honest: shepherding our flock when it comes to science and faith issues is a huge task, alongside a thousand other issues and pressures and obligations that come with pastoral ministry. It can be overwhelming. I personally have had the privilege of studying science on a college level, but I’m aware that most pastors are not scientifically trained. But this is an issue that we must address, to properly equip our congregations to live faithfully in our times. Thankfully, we’ve got fantastic resources from experts to help us out. In particular, I want to highlight the Pastor’s Resource Page at BioLogos. It’s a hand-picked list of articles and videos from the massive BioLogos library on topics like biblical interpretation and scientific evidence, assembled with us in mind. And you can always ask a question on the Forum. This is how I first connected with BioLogos.
Pastors, we have been given a great privilege and a great responsibility to shepherd our congregation. Now more than ever our people need to hear from us about how science and faith can be reconciled. Let us be found worthy of “double honor” by leading our congregation to faithfully engage God’s Word and God’s world.
About the author
Mario A. Russo
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources:
Jessica Moerman | No Act Too Small
Mónica Guzmán | The Gift of Curiosity