As a pastor that has interacted with a lot of people on the topic of science and faith, I’ve picked up on a theme: fear. Some people fear being open about their views on evolution in their church because they are unsure how their pastor(s) or fellow Christians will respond. Will their views be met with acceptance? Indifference? Rejection? Discipline? The uncertainty is what is driving the fear.
Christians respond to that fear in several ways. Some can be indifferent towards the whole issue. They can be content to hold to their view, and leave others to hold to theirs. Others can be concerned about wanting evolutionary creation (EC) to be viewed as a more acceptable position in their church, but never say anything about it. Others respond by holding their views more tightly, and closing themselves off to new beliefs. Still others respond by promoting their view with grace and humility. Regardless of their response, people want to trust that their pastor(s) are considering these issues and will guide the church in a healthy direction concerning them.
Pastors have a lot going on (I know, I am one). With preaching preparation, counseling, administration, discipleship, and many other pastoral duties, it can be a challenge for pastors to take the time to think about the doctrine of creation and its pastoral implications. However, the more I talk to evolutionary creationists, the more I become convinced that pastors need to be more aware of what people in their church with various views on creation could be thinking and feeling. It is a pastoral concern that needs to be addressed. Here are 5 ways we as pastors can help shepherd our people in this area.
1. Educate People on the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Theological Issues
I remember talking to one of my biology professors (a believer) when I was in college. We were sitting in a lab waiting for the results for some tests we were running. I decided to ask her about her views on Genesis (I thought it was a good way to kill time). She didn't understand why there was a controversy about Genesis and science. She was content to believe what she believed about Genesis, and let others believe in an alternate view. “It’s not central to the Christian faith,” she said to me, “So why do people make a big deal out of it?”
The conversation on the interaction between science and faith is an important, albeit secondary, one. What we believe about the process of how God created does not affect our status or standing as a follower of Jesus. The main issue here is accepting that God created all things, not insisting on how he might have done it. A quick examination of church history proves insightful here. When we read the creeds of the early Church we note that God is described as Creator, but the specifics of how he created are not mentioned. We can hold to different views on how God created while all agreeing that God is the Creator. In other words, what you believe about how (or how long) God created is not central to Christianity. This does not mean that discussions about creation are unimportant, or that they should be avoided from the sake of unity. Rather, it means that one’s views about the timeline of natural history, or the nature of God’s creative actions, or the validity of mainstream science, are not good reasons to judge the quality of someone else’s faith.
As I interact with people from various denominational backgrounds, what I’ve found is that a lot of people know the difference between primary and secondary issues. Yet, they still act as if secondary issues are of primary concern. This, too, is a pastoral issue. First, we must make sure that people understand that, theologically speaking, there are primary and secondary issues. Next, we must help build a culture of liberty regarding secondary issues.
2. Encourage Liberty in Secondary Theological Beliefs
Mike was in the audience at a creation and evolution seminar where I was speaking. After I finished he came up to talk to me. "I'm scared to be an evolutionary creationist," he told me. "The thought of backlash from my pastor or other church members makes me want to never speak of it. I’d rather keep a young earth position than face rejection from my church."
People ought to feel free to hold to their own view on secondary issues without fear of rejection or repercussion from their pastor or fellow church members. We ought to have all orthodox positions on creation appreciated and discussed. We don’t want any person feel like they are not welcome in a church simply because of a legitimate difference of opinion, or have to hide their beliefs for fear of rejection or ridicule.
When it comes to secondary beliefs in our congregations, we need to go back to the basics of, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.” As pastors, we need to recognize that unless we build a culture of liberty in non-essentials, there won’t be one. Fostering a culture in the church of “liberty in non-essentials” promotes a posture of openness and humility regarding the views of others. Doing that, helps reduce fear that so often accompanies holding to an alternative, albeit orthodox, position.
3. Create Spaces for Discussion on Secondary Issues
I mentioned in my previous post for pastors that we need to help people be gracious in their dialogue about science and faith. But that assumes a rather important point, that people have space to discuss important secondary issues like science and faith. People learn and grow when they have the opportunity to interact with issues in a designated space.
I’ve offered this suggestion before and I think it is worth repeating here. One way to create space for discussion is through adult Sunday school classes or Bible Studies. Having a couple of mature teachers with opposing creation views can be helpful for guiding discussion and maintaining balance. Such a class could be designed as an “Introduction to Creation” where a couple of different viewpoints are introduced, overviewed, and discussed. Each class participant is assigned a topic or aspect of the doctrine of creation to research, and then they present their findings to the rest of the class. Their presentation is then followed by an open discussion. Such activities help people to work through the material themselves. It also corrects some misperceptions about EC position specifically and the Doctrine of Creation in general.
Some good resources I would recommend for such classes would be Science and Religion, A New Introduction by Alister McGrath, this book provides a solid introduction to the key history, debates, and figures in the Science and Religion field. For a helpful overview of the different views on creationism, Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design is excellent. Lastly, I recommend Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters. These resources are a good starting point for helping people in your church get started discussing origins issues in a space you helped to create for them.
4. Emphasize the Harmony Between Science and Christianity
As I was growing up in churches that saw science and Christianity in conflict, there was very much an "either or" mentality. I heard things like, "believe God's infallible word, or man's fallible opinion." The assumption here is that both could not be believed at the same time. But of course, they can. God's infallible word and "man's fallible opinion" (science?) can both simultaneously be true. The truth of God’s word is not always and necessarily in conflict with man’s scientific theories. Those holding to such an “either or” position are inconsistent every time they visit a doctor or utilize modern medicine. For the Christian, Scripture is still the final word on matters of faith and doctrine. Scripture is not (and was never meant to be) the final word on the operation of nature.
Once I joined churches with more moderate theological views, I was surprised to find an opposite problem. I didn't find that those churches were actively pursuing a more positive relationship between science and Christianity. What I found was mostly silence. In my experience, churches who do not see a conflict between science and Christianity, also don’t seem motivated to talk about the topic at all. This problem needs correcting.
A helpful and effective way of combating bad ideas, is by replacing them with good ones. If we are going to help people understand and appreciate the positive interaction between science and faith, we need to affirm that positive relationship. We need to talk about and promote that positive relationship. One way to do this is to celebrate scientists in our congregation and their work. Give them a voice to share their perspective and provide guidance to the church on this issue. Acknowledge their achievements, and celebrate their accomplishments. Does your church involve members of the scientific community (both believers and non-believers) to provide input about creation from a scientific perspective? Activities like these show the church and the world the harmony between science and faith, as well as the unity that can exist among differing views.
5. Promote the Care of Creation
“The thing that makes the least sense to me about Christianity,” he said in a slightly perturbed tone of voice, “is how Christians believe God created the world, but don’t seem to want to care for the creation he made.” Joey is a German exchange student and self-described nihilist articulating an “obstacle” for him becoming a Christian. What he was describing to me was an often-cited discrepancy seen between Christians and their views of the environment. Joey is right. God commanded man to look after creation and work to make it flourish. Yet, so many in today’s Evangelical church neglect this.
Perhaps some Christians are hesitant to accept scientific data on the environment because it has become so politicized. Perhaps it is just a general skepticism of science. Whatever the reason, if we believe that science and Christianity can work together, what reason could there be for not actually working together? If “all truth is God’s truth,” then we have little to fear regarding what science can contribute to the Creation Care conversation. As mentioned above, one way a scientific perspective can be helpful for the church—even if the scientist does not share all of our beliefs—is by showing us what is going wrong in the environment so the church can take action to care for it.
If science and Christianity are in harmony, then churches ought to work together in harmony with the scientific community, especially the environmental sciences. Christians working in the natural sciences would certainly appreciate such a partnership. Partnering with the scientific community helps the church promote the flourishing of human beings and the creation they live in, thereby accomplishing part of its mission in the world.
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