Generational Theology: It’s What Jesus Invites Us To Let Go Of

MEME3Why, when talking about theology, is there the tendency to fire off criticism and denounce the speaker without actually taking the time to dissect the issue, wrestle with the information, and arrive at an informed conclusion?

Theology is one of the most difficult issues to talk about, because no matter what you say, someone’s going flip their lid and tell you how wrong you are, how “sad” they were to read your piece, or attempt to judge the heart and motive behind the piece.

The question I’ve been wrestling with is… why? If we wouldn’t blast our doctor for explaining diabetes to us, why do we blast theologians for explaining theology to us?

I used to be one of the people who did this, so I think I have a leg up in understanding the vitriol that folks spew at theologians who challenge their long-held beliefs. For me, I think it boils down to a key issue that I’ve never heard discussed before: generational theology.

For many Christians, the theology we believe isn’t theology that we actually arrived at via an intelligent process—its just theology we believe because it has become a generational theology in our circle. It’s what our grandma believed, it’s what our parents believed, and so it becomes what we believe. We never see any reason to question these theologies for the same reason we don’t question the existence of Santa until the third grade: if our parents, grandparents, and everyone around us is playing along, what reason is there to question or consider an alternative?

Theology often plays by the same rules—and before you know it, we believe a theological proposition not because it’s true, but simply because that’s what people in our circle have always believed. We’re not presented with reasons to doubt or explore outside of those lines, so we never do.

While any theology can become a “generational theology”, a good example in my own life was end-times/rapture type dispensational theology. Growing up, this was all I knew and I never once was invited to explore anything else; I was never told that an alternative even existed. In fact, I don’t think even my parents or grandparents knew anything else existed—dispensationalism had simply become generational to the point where everyone believed it– not because it was true– but because that’s what we had always believed. Even today when I explain to some relatives things like the “secret rapture” don’t appear in scripture, and are a 19th century invention, folks look at me like I have three heads.

The difficulty with generational theology is that we’re not even able to identify what may or may not be a generational theology until we poke our head outside of our own tribe—which if generational theology takes hold successfully, we never do. Thus, the cycle continues and a new generation of people believes the same thing as the last generation of people believed, not because it is true and right but simply because it became a generational belief.

In my life writing for public critique, I would say that probably 75% of the negative comments or hate mail I receive isn’t because someone with a comparable academic background in theology is challenging my stance, but because someone without a formal education in theology just discovered an alternative to their generational theology– which is a frightening door to crack open for people. Those of us who study and write about theology often become the child on the playground who happened to be the first person to invite you to consider that your parents might actually be “Santa”. Often, these folks might use big words, but what’s really underneath them is that schoolyard kid saying “mom and dad would never deceive me. You must be the liar in this equation.”

I have empathy for them, because when my generational theology was exposed, I was panicked and angry too.

However, if we’re going to follow Jesus into the life he invites us into, we’ve got to keep exposing these generational theologies and dissecting them for what they are—accepting or rejecting them based on truth, not based on “but we’ve always believed this”.

In my book, Undiluted (being released in just a little over a week! You can pre-order it here) I remind readers that Jesus actually invites us to set aside our generational theologies so that we can enter into a process of re-discovering God for who he truly is. Ironically, Jesus demonstrates this in a passage that is typically used to promote generational theology—when in reality; it is a passage that pushes back against it.

Perhaps you know the verse I’m talking about… “Unless you come like a little child you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3)

As a child, I was taught this verse means that we must blindly believe what we’re taught about God—and I was even given the reason of, “you should believe what we tell you about God the same way you believed what we told you about Santa.” The verse was used to reinforce the blind acceptance of generational theology instead of seeing the verse for what it is—a rejection of generational theology.

The invitation of Jesus is an invitation to re-think everything we’ve been told about what God is like.

Instead of blind belief, becoming like “little children” is an invitation to set aside what we’ve been taught and is an invitation to actually relearn what we’ve been told about God. You see, the people Jesus was speaking to thought they had it all figured out—but what they really believed was just a bunch of generational theology (something Jesus called “traditions of men”). Instead of holding to generational theology, Jesus invites them (well, he actually tells them they’ll miss out if they don’t do it) to set aside what their parents and grandparents taught them and to become willing to relearn everything they think about what God is like.

Want a more vibrant Christian life?

Jesus says the first step is to set aside what you’ve been taught, and then start rebuilding from there. Perhaps some of the generational theology you’ve been taught is true—great, you can reclaim it. On the flip side, much of it may also be completely untrue and actually harmful—that stuff, Jesus invites you to toss aside as you rediscover a God who looks exactly like Jesus, the nonviolent lover of enemies.

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Continuing the discussion: what generational theologies were the most difficult for you to expose and let go of? What ones are you still wrestling with?

Don’t forget: pre-order Undiluted today! Promotional pricing expires on 8/8 at midnight!

About Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey, is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Theology & Missiology), is currently a 3rd year Doctor of Missiology student (a subset of practical theology) at Fuller Seminary, and is a member of the Phi Alpha Chi Honors Society. His first book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, is available now at your local bookstore. He is also a contributor for Time, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, Evangelicals for Social Action, Mennonite World Review, has been a guest on Huffington Post Live, and is one of the CANA Initiators. Ben is also a syndicated author for MennoNerds, a collective of Mennonite and Anabaptist writers. Ben is also co-host of That God Show with Matthew Paul Turner. Ben lives in Auburn, Maine with his wife Tracy and his daughter Johanna.

You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


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