The Religious Nones, Another Look

Brad Wright, a professor of sociology at UMass, observes something that might be surprising about growth in the Nones — read the whole article:

Once again, the percentage of being unaffiliated increased in each group, but relatively speaking, it’s increased most among the middle-aged and the elderly. In both the percentage of the unaffiliated more than tripled, compared to the 2.5x increase in the young. There is some lagged effect, as the elderly are catching up the middle-aged in the past decade, but overall, the rise of the religious nones is something that spans all age groups. Thus it’s a societal-wide change more than just an age or generational change.

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  • Larry Barber

    50+ is not ‘elderly’.

  • RJS

    It is interesting that the religious revivals among the young in the 80’s did not do much of anything to stem the overall tide among society as a whole. You’ve copied Wright’s second graph but his first is even more telling.

    A substantial number of those who were in their 20’s during the 1980’2 (and I am of that generation) lost that religion in their thirties and forties – there is only a small following depression in the rate of change in the subsequent decades(ca. 2000). There is no depression at all in the trend as those of us in our twenties in the 80’s are now in our fifties.

    This is a sobering analysis and it reflects my experience.

  • RJS

    The size of the group changes for each line, this obscures by averaging the effect I am interested in. I would like to see this plotted for equal cohorts … approximated by 10 year spans – 18-29, 30-41, 42-53, 54-65. These four would make a good comparison. Does the 80’s influence persist with a decrease in the societal change as the group ages?

    It is a societal change with each succeeding cohort becoming less religious. So for the church: Is this a change that can be approached by targeting youth or will youth revert to near the line predicted by extrapolation as they age?

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, I agree with you on wanting to watch a cohort over time … that what you are asking?

    Last question is a big and good one.

  • RJS


    Kind of. One of the thing that impressed me in Brad’s top graph is the flat line for the youth of my generation. The percentage of “nones” is depressed for a time. Brad referred to this is as a revival.

    How did the influence of this revival propagate with time, and how much did it wash out as the cohort aged?

    My guess (which needs data to verify or refute) is that much of the revival washed out and that my generation is not now as religious as would be predicted by the revival when we were in our 20’s.

  • I read some about the “none’s” phenomenon, and have written a post about it as well. However, I don’t recall recent articles breaking down possible reasons, what may be “replacing” religious affiliation, etc., and would be interested in finding good material on this. Anyone know of a few or a bibliography? (I’m not including books, of which I am familiar with a few… the more popular ones by both Evangelicals, emergents and mainline people.)

    My hunch is that causes of the phenomenon are a mix of general technological/cultural factors and more specific trends in information availability, increased sophistication in evaluating and “questioning” authority (related to the prior), evolving views of “objective truth” (broader than the caricatures of postmodernism), and less tolerance for inconsistencies of theology and its outworkings.

  • Among the older groups, I suspect that the primary issue is not an actual change in belief but rather growing social acceptance of choosing not to profess faith. People who were nominal adherents of a faith are dropping a relatively meaningless appellation.

  • RJS’s question is an important one – how does the “none’s” change (increase) over the decades compare when plotted from those born 1950-60, 1960-70, 1970-80, etc. These data could address thinking that has consistently been faulty from the start.

    Most church programs, especially youth programs, nowadays are created in reaction to data that show what was done in years past “hasn’t worked.” “We used this approach back in the 1980-90’s and look at it now — it didn’t work then so it won’t work now.” So what do we need? A new program that is different because what we are doing now hasn’t worked. The problem is that each 10-20 year cycle is the same – (1) we used to do it this way (2) look at the data of retention of the youth of that time (3) what we did back then didn’t work (4) we must change to meet the challenge (5) here’s the change (attend this conference, buy this material, design this course at the university, read this guru blog, etc.). Even though the “new” approaches every 10-20 years are said to be “different,” they are all based on what didn’t work before and they all can be shown 10-20 years later that they didn’t work, either. So can we just go ahead and predict whatever church program that we design won’t work? But, still, the church comes up with some new buzzwords and uses some new technology as though that will reverse everything and the youth will be retained as they grow into the families of the future. But, then, that new program 20 years later becomes the program that didn’t work. Oh, but this time we have something that will work. Oh? Why should it? Apparently, there are factors that determine the retention of people’s “religious” affiliation that we are not accounting for in the design of our youth and other “church programs.” Our programs of today may be 20 years out of date when we start them. Perhaps our church programs are designed too much from an institutional perspective. Even if we use a new buzzword, like “organic.” that doesn’t mean that it is. It may be just inter-institutional advertizing.

    Are today’s divided institutions too busy separating themselves from one another over doctrine to get it together and approach a problem that they all have — their influence in people’s lives is becoming more and more irrelevant?

    We have become more like analyzers of the past instead of those who should be shaping the future. How many current decisions start off faulty because they are based primarily on a reaction to what didn’t work 20 years ago?

  • RJS


    Your comment strikes me as a bit too cynical, but perhaps I am not understanding you.

    But I also think the societal shift is real and a real challenge. What will make a difference in the long run? My guess is nothing that is being championed by the entrepreneurial evangelical hotshots right now. (Because, in my opinion, much of this is ruled by the values of the world not the kingdom of God.)

    OK, maybe I am a bit cynical too.

  • RJS, I accept that my comment might be too cynical. Unfortunately, too much of that tends to camouflage value behind a negative reaction, which I admit is a valid criticism of too much of what I write. Sometimes there is a titration between discernment and cynicism like there is between what is humorous and what becomes offensive to some. It is difficult for me to compare the problems and questions asked by Christians in rural India and China with the institutional church questions we ask in the US without feeling that we have diverted ourselves to become attracted to the glitter of marketing and sensory overload. But, perhaps that’s being inappropriately unfair, also. The risk of cynicism is that it can promote a “what’s the use” attitude instead of “we can change this” attitude. So, you’ve made a good call. Thank you. My wife would totally agree with you.

  • Dana

    If you look at the chart with Fowler’s stages of faith in mind, it looks like people stay in church until it doesn’t “work” for them anymore. I’m at that stage myself and although my faith in God remains strong, I have difficulties in finding reasons to stay in church. I don’t really agree with all of the theology. I’ve already participated in most of the programs and don’t find much enrichment there. I’ve already gone down the “leader” track and participated from that end. I’ve volunteered and spent time with people and helped out. I’m not mad at anyone and believe the people who say that church is an important part of their lives. I’m glad for them.

    It feels like being in sixth grade without any junior high schools to graduate into. Just sticking around and helping out with the younger kids. Forever.

  • docdek

    Thanks for the comment Theophilus. Regarding cynicism, it maybe a legit critique but cynicism is a disposition one chooses to have in light of what you’re saying. I don’t think you have to be cynical and agree with it. I think it opens up a desire to see something different. I would like to have a conversation with you about this further if you are willing (

  • I would like to see this study extended farther back in time. I suspect the churches are looking back to some golden age that never really existed. It might also be noted that revivals often are followed by declining church participation, unless there is a concentrated focus on discipling as a follow up. Sorry I don’t recall where I read that, but it does ring true to me. If you bring a bunch of people to Jesus and don’t help them learn how to walk with Him, instead implying that salvation is the goal, instead of the starting point of a relationship with God, one would expect many to look elsewhere when it turns out that life actually gets harder instead of easier.

  • Tm

    It could be that people are waking up the the fact that Christianity and religion in general are bankrupt and that science and humanism offer more empirically verifiable and just ways of understanding reality. The extreme diversity of comments arguing for or against every imaginable stripe of theological minutiae exhibited on this blog alone almost daily reminds me why I no longer call myself a Christian or attend any church. I am a seminary graduate, former pastor, evangelist, and missionary, and now I am a “None.” Oh, and I’m in the “30-49” age bracket.

  • scotmcknight

    And “Tm” is that why you are also so anonymous in your comment? Harsh comments strike thin to me when they are not backed up by candid identification.

  • Tim Sexton

    I haven’t commented on this blog before and any supposed attempt at anonymity was unintentional and was, in fact, a typo. I didn’t realize last names were a requirement for the dialogue. But here I am. My name is Tim Sexton. I didn’t mean to sound harsh; I honestly mean that when I see the theological debates in the comments of this blog it reminds me of Christian Smith’s argument against inerrantism based on pervasive interpretive pluralism (from The Bible Made Impossible), which was one of the main reasons I abandoned the brand of Christianity that I had been taught and had accepted. But what brand should I choose now? It seems to me that even the more honest (more liberal?) theologians are plagued by the same problem of interpretive pluralism that is evidenced on this blog regularly. I appreciate that some folks are willing to let the Bible be what it is instead of forcing it into an anachronistic, inerrantist mold, but even with this more progressive way of looking at the Bible, am I to accept N.T. Wright’s narrative in several acts approach to interpretation, Christian Smith’s Christocentric hermeneutic, your King Jesus approach, or someone else’s? With such diversity on almost every interpretive issue, I don’t know how it is that anyone could actually say, “Thus saith the Lord” on any given issue.

  • scotmcknight

    Thanks for this, and I notice a different tone in this comment.
    I think the question I’d like to hear you answer is What would you like to see?

  • Tim Sexton

    Maybe some proof that all our theological rambling matters? I feel like I wasted half my life trying to figure out how many angels dance on the head of a pin, only to find out that there are no angels and there is no pen, or if there is, I’ll never know it for sure…and neither will anyone else. Yet we keep on pontificating endlessly. Agnosticism seems to be the only option available when it comes to metaphysical issues like theology.

  • Tim Sexton

    More specifically, can anyone answer the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism? Given that pervasive interpretive pluralism is a fact, how can anyone say “Thus saith the Lord” and have any proof that God actually meant what they think he means?

  • Sean

    Correction – he’s a professor at UCONN!!

  • tim,

    one of the things i find really helpful is to pray and ask God to clearly lead me theologically. it is difficult, with the church being so fragmented, to know what to believe on various issues and points of scripture. i have found God to lead me occasionally to views i would not have held on my own. really, it is exciting when i know the holy spirit is leading me in this area as well.

    peace to you on your journey.

  • Tim Sexton

    You have just illustrated the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism beautifully. Calvinists and Arminians believe they are being led by the Holy Spirit, too. So do Covenant theologians and Dispensationalists. So do charismatics and cessationists, free grace and lordship salvationists, young earth and old earth creationists, once-saved-always-saved Baptists and you-can-lose-your-salvation Pentecostals, a-mil and post-mil and pre-mil and preterist and…need I go on? Is the Holy Spirit leading all of these God-loving, Jesus-believing, Scripture-studying people to COMPLETELY OPPOSITE or at least, very different perspectives on the book that the most intelligent Communicator that has ever existed wrote?

    Every Christian has a personal canon within the Canon which reflects their personal belief system, books they’ve read, things they were taught as children, etc., and they believe that God “led them” to these conclusions. But that’s all it is: a personal, subjectively induced canon. And it’s perfect! No one can refute what “God led me” to believe or see in the Bible or do!

    That is one of the primary reasons I am not a Christian anymore. That’s why I said that at it’s core, Christianity is bankrupt. I don’t trust my personal canon because I’ve realized it was just me all along, trying to figure out something that no one has ever figured out and no one ever will.

    I’d love for you to igive me real reasons to go back to believing in Jesus and trusting in the Bible, but your personal, subjective experience simply proves that you have a personal, subjective experience. If you can give me more, I’d love to hear it. Who wants to leave a faith that has meant so much to them? Who wants to give up years of education, relationships, and life development based on that worldview? But I have to because the evidence just isn’t there.

    I hope this isn’t the end of our conversation. Thank you so much for engaging with me so far.

  • John M.

    I am a committed follower of Jesus, a full time pastor for many years and now a teacher in a Christian School. But when I filled out the last census I marked “none” for religious preference because I didn’t feel that I fit into any of the other religious categories that were listed. If there had been a category that listed, simply, “follower of Jesus,” I would have marked that. Btw I’m in the 50+ category. I have a friend in that category who did the same as me, for similar reasons. I don’t think either of us intended our choice to imply that we were non-believes, but that seems to be how the “nones” are being painted by a host of statisticians. I wish there was a way to breakdown the meaning of the “none” choice.

  • Tim Sexton

    Sorry, Linda and Scot, should’ve addressed my prior comment to Linda.

  • Tim Sexton — I think the discussion concerning the points and questions you have raised could, and should, be collected and published together in (a) book(s). The direction of discussion points to very fundamental and pivotal decisions people make about their observations that set the future direction of their expression of faith. I generally agree with the points and observations you have made. Different ideas about what the scripture means and how it reveals the nature of God are good, necessary, and intended by God to occur. That is how we work together to become like God (Eph. 4:24). When we let human nature prevail and argue about who is right or better, or when one lets their pride of position or education cloud their view of truth, we lose the perspective of “eyes on Jesus.” Getting rid of those fallacies is part of the “take off and put on” growing process. So I don’t have a problem with different views; I do have a problem with people’s reaction to different views. And I am a person who grew up thinking that I had the truth and anyone who didn’t agree was duped by Satan and headed for Hell. So, there is a God. I agree that Christianity is bankrupt, but it is not God’s revelation through Christ that is bankrupt; it is man’s evolved human organizations around fragments of that revelation that they have perceived and now protect with clannish fervor. I believe if the institutionalized construct of Christianity in America does not repent for its pride, God will allow it to be dismantled. Then people will look back and say, “How could a good God do that?” I am chagrined to admit that I have so much difficulty in expressing my opinion about the state of today’s church without showing my humanism — but organized religion seems to want to climb into a handbasket and race the devil to see who can get to the target destination first. So, you and I sound fairly similar to this point, if I understand you correctly. But I have made a fundamental direction decision that may be different from yours. I have decided that my confusion and my questioning of God must be because I had not sought the answers, I had only recycled and complained about the questions. I have been called “cynical” in more arenas than the comments on this post. Depending on one’s definition, that may be true, and I have to watch out for that because that can take over and become an idol like anything else. Since I renewed my search for answers, God has revealed to me some incredible things — at least for me. Some of them I have great difficulty communicating, as you would undoubtedly see if you looked at my two web sites ( and Do not read while operating heavy equipment or driving. If I could only write like Scot or RJS! I believe that being like God is thinking like God with an eternal perspective, or at least a perspective longer than the immediate measurable feedback we want to see. I think the institutionalized church is headed for the toaster, and most of the time I feel like Jeremiah with a communication impediment. But I appreciate your comments and (in my opinion) the accuracy of your observations. It would be interesting to discuss where one goes from here.
    David Ross

  • Tim Sexton

    Dr. Theophilus,
    Thank you for your comment and the link to your blogs. I’ve taken some time to read a little on both the blogs, but I don’t see how these materials help with my issue: Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism (PIP). That you are studying the Bible in a way that is fresh for you, hermeneutically sound (in your opinion), and focused on unity, simply reveals that you are rediscovering your own personal “canon within the canon” that you want to emphasize.

    You said the following on your blog
    Any apparent inconsistencies in the revelation of God in the Word, by the Holy Spirit, or in the physical universe come from man’s inadequate understanding and knowledge of God.

    Christians are so fearful of blaming God for his incoherent revelation. Isnt’ that where the real problem lies? Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism is NOT a problem because humans haven’t tried hard enough to understand the Bible (tome after tome has been written ad nauseum!); pluralism is a problem because the SOURCE of our investigation is, at it’s core, unclear. I am charging that the Bible has the problem, and that the god who supposedly inspired the Bible is a terrible, confusing communicator, especially if he wanted anything close to unity. I will state it again: the Bible IS the problem! The BIBLE itself what produces all these warring factions, denominations, schisms, interpretive schemes, etc.

    Simply calling the church to a Christocentric hermeneutic doesn’t help the problem, either, because our understanding of Christ is tied to the same book that has produced PIP in the first place! And if we say we’ll all just depend on the Holy Spirit, we’ll get even more diverse opinions and “The Holy Spirit told me to’s” from the “Spirit of unity” than we got from the full-time exegetes in the first place!

    I am not mad at the church, per se (though I’ve spent much of my adult life very frustrated with its failures). I’ve finally realized that the church is bankrupt because the book upon which it stands is, at its core, UNCLEAR. The church can’t help but be a mess because its founding document is a mess.

    I would love to continue to discuss where one goes from here. I welcome this dialogue and thank you for your investment in it.

    Tim Sexton

  • Thank you, Tim. I am totally on the same shelf with you in the statement “though I’ve spent much of my adult life very frustrated with its failures.” Perhaps that’s why I sound cynical at times to some. I agree that there is not too much on my web sites that would address your concerns, although I hope to get into that area sometime. The material on my sites is written after one decides that God and the Bible have the answers. Otherwise, why waste time writing >250K words about it?
    Where one ends up on communication depends on from where one chooses to start and one’s view of themselves. A husband or wife may say something that the other doesn’t understand. Two major categories of response [1] “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you. Could you explain that again?, [2] “Can you every say anything that makes any sense?” (In other words, poor communication has to always be your fault, because it certainly couldn’t be me.)
    It is unproductive for me to assess blame because I don’t understand all the revelation of God. Sure, I can say it’s the Bible’s problem, God is a bad communicator, and the Bible is the source of confusion; and the result is that I keep my frustration problem, I am a poor listener, and I stay confused. If I am created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24), by focusing on whom to blame I am going in circles instead working on the linear journey toward God. Which path to follow is a matter of choice.
    Students often do not want to think. “Just tell me what’s on the test.” “Do I have to know this?” “Why do they give me all these problems to work; just give me the answers.” “Why do I have to go dig it out of these books? “Why don’t you just explain it better?” “The teacher must not understand it, either.” “I didn’t do well, and it’s all the teacher’s fault.” The goal of the class isn’t to spoon feed all the answers (milk of the word?); the goal is to get the student to know how to think by making them take some of the journey, themselves. Otherwise they do not know the subject, they only know about the subject. If I just know about God, then I will not get far on the journey to God.
    Example of preconception. There is a big discussion today about design vs. randomness. The naturalist says everything is random without design or order or predictability. It all just “happened.” A believer says there is design, even though we haven’t discovered it, yet with limited human methods. One has faith that it will be discovered; one has faith that it will never be discovered (although the proponents want to call it “no faith”). I maintain that what appears random to us was designed by God. Shall we assume we can see both sides, our side and God’s side? Or shall we assert that there is no side but the human side because that’s what we see? God has given Christians more bandwidth than that, although we don’t use it very well. Again, the choice one has already made predetermines what they can accept about design or randomness.
    I also used to get upset by all the different views and claims that people would make about what God said or didn’t say. I would be upset at all these different interpretations, each one claiming to be the right one. (I used to know that couldn’t be true, because there was only one right interpretation and that one was the one I had). But, upon more reflection, I had difficulty in saying God was the creator of this confusion when I clearly saw pride and competition and selfishness at work among the people who were in conflict (including myself). It is a constant challenge for me to keep eyes on Jesus and not a reaction to someone else. As a result, I can’t get too excited about PIP. I need to search for truth whether or not anyone else is interested. Everyone searching for the same truth and working together to find it is unity. Everybody believing the same thing whether it is right or wrong is uniformity. So, PIP and uniformity are both expressions of human error, at least to me.
    So, you see, I have sorted through some of these same things that you mention, and I have made a past decision about God and the Bible upon which the material in my web sites is predicated. It is interesting that we share similar observations and frustrations with the church, which, in my opinion, and been inundated with humanism. Your and my choices after that would seem to be different.
    Thank you for this discussion; it is very helpful to me. It causes me to rethink my own decisions and either reevaluate them or reinforce them. Either way, for me, it is a healthy process, and when I write things down, it helps me to better organize my own beliefs.

    Praying the best for you.


  • Tim Sexton

    Dr. Theophilus,
    I have an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies and a graduate degree in Biblical Studies. I was on the pastoral staff at a large church near my home. I left my job in order to move into a low income neighborhood and minister the gospel among the poor because I thought that was a way to follow in the example of Jesus I saw in the Bible. I started a non-profit in order to devote my attention to that ministry full-time because I thought God would take care of me and my family. I have adopted 5 children across racial and national lines in response to what I believed the Bible was teaching.

    Every decision we’ve made has been in response to an honest attempt to fairly and properly exegete the Bible, which we took to be the infallible Word of God. We loved Jesus with our whole hearts. I cannot tell you how much he meant to us. He was literally EVERYTHING to my family.

    We certainly weren’t perfect; we were just sinners saved by God’s grace. But we weren’t humanistic. I wasn’t looking for the next “big thing.” I was trying to be more biblical. I thought power would lie in getting as close to the biblical pattern as possible, leaving the trappings of the Western church and its “humanism.” We even had church under the tree in the front yard, inviting drunk men to join us for this simple, Spirit-led, Bible-based, church.

    We were begging God to show up, to demonstrate the power he seems to want to display in the Bible, to save souls like he seems to want to do the Bible, to do something. We were completely dependent on him. We had no institutional trappings put in his way. Yet he did nothing.

    Through a series of events that needn’t be discussed here, Jesus dissipated. Literally. He became nothing, and I realized that the Book I trusted and worked so hard to understand and teach is so full of contradictions and exegetical puzzles that I don’t see any way that I could ever actually tell anyone anything in the Bible is “true.” Given the reality of PIP, how can you say that any of your opinions are right? At best all we can really say is, “I think this is what this passage might be trying to say, and I think this might be a proper way to apply it.” (Yet there are a thousand more competent Biblical scholars who would disagree with me and in fact, teach an opposite viewpoint!)

    Christians love to blame the seeker for the fact that he hasn’t found. I’m tired of that. If God wanted unity, couldn’t he pull that off by writing a book that people who love him and have given their lives to him could actually agree on what it means? Yet we have all manner of diversity on even the most fundamental issues like the atonement and the gospel and the nature of God’s providence.

    You are encouraging me to give him another try, to try to understand his book again. To give him another chance. To exegete more deeply, to seek harder, to trust more. Then…THEN…I’ll FINALLY know the answers I’m looking for! I think that is simply not true. I would just waste more of my life trying to understand that which no one has yet understood…even you (though it seems you have determined that the finding is in the seeking and unity is in the diversity – sounds nice but what does that mean, really?). This is not about my need to change my presuppositions. It is about the fact that for half my life I lived with the presupposition you suggest I try, but I found that presupposition to hold no water, have no power, and be completely lacking the funds to cash the truth claims it makes. I really believe that all the “transformation” and the times that “God was near” or “spoke to me” were just my own psychological yearnings…just me all along. Just me.

    How am I supposed to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you. Can you explain that again?” when a million others have taken that same angle and have come up with such divergent views? At what point do we blame the divine, infallible Communicator for the garbled message? Why do we keep blaming the poor humans instead of the source of the problem: the Bible itself?


  • Tim, you have a moving testimony, and, I must admit, a disquieting one because it would certainly seem to go “against the grain” of the “ask and you shall receive,” “seek and you will find,” “all things work together for those who love the Lord….,” etc, at least as we usually interpret them in our free capitalistic society. I thank you for sharing that background; it gives a lot to ponder about. I don’t want to get into more personal areas than you may wish. But your story is so real-to-life (because it is) that it raises a lot of questions that I think many people grapple with, at least to some extent. I cannot say that if I had experienced what you described that I would feel any differently than you. We are all products of our background. I would like to ask a question, and if this gets too involved or personal we can discontinue (hope not) or move to a private exchange. Looking back on these circumstances, if God had shown up, if your efforts had been blessed as you believed they would, if circumstances had confirmed your faith in God and the word instead of convincing you it was all false, what form would these circumstances have taken? What could have happened different that would have confirmed your faith instead of canceling it out? Write me at if you prefer. I would like to hear more…there is something really foundational about this.

  • Crickets

    TimSexton, I don’t quite follow you.

    Just because Christians disagree over modes of baptism or prophecy views and such, in your opinion, this means absolutely nada, nothing, zippo can be known about God or what the Bible says on any topic at all?

    The author of the book you referred folks to (I skimmed over the available free excerpts of it online) is using an old saw from the roman catholic arsenal,which goes like this:
    “Look at all those Protestants, they can’t agree on anything/ everything, always bickering, splintering into difference factions. Solution: toss out “sola scriptura” and go with Church Tradition, formal Papal decrees, and Magisterium.”

    Those arguments have been responded to by Protestant authors and apologists.

    Anyhoo. It seems that at a bare minimum, most Christians agree that Jesus Christ is God and died on the cross for humanity’s sins and was raised from the dead.

    I know some bicker over aspects of even that or some of it outcomes or how it was achieved exactly, but- I can’t buy into this super -skeptical, ‘we can never, ever know any thing at all ever about God/ Bible / Jesus.’

    And you are talking here to a long time Christian who has been having doubts about the Christian faith lately too, but this hyper-skeptical / agnosticism stuff is absurd. :o)

    Even the book you cited, that “Bible Made Impossible” from what I saw of it online in a free preview, the author does not deny that Christ is God and accepting Christ is necessary for salvation.

    The author seemed to be arguing that Christians focus on the Bible’s main point – which is Jesus Christ. Who is Christ, who are you in relation to Christ, etc, rather than get caught up in secondary doctrinal squabbles as Christians are wont do do, such as, should babies be sprinkled or adults immersed etc?

  • Crickets

    Tim Sexton said, “To exegete more deeply, to seek harder, to trust more. Then…THEN…I’ll FINALLY know the answers I’m looking for! I think that is simply not true.”

    You do remember that the Bible says we see now through a glass darkly, that the secret things belong to God right now, etc?

    We are to walk by faith not be sight, because not every thing in life or in the Bible will be crystal clear to all of us at all times?

    Job in the Old Testament had even less to go on than we do now (Job did not have a written Bible, or years of church history / tradition), and he still went by faith. It was not easy, but he did it.

    The way I see the Bible, we’re told we’re not going to be able to know and understand every last little thing in it (Peter said some of the stuff Paul wrote was hard to understand), or life itself.

    Bad stuff will happen to you in life, and to other people. Bad stuff will happen to “good” people. God knows we find this confusing, scary, and hurtful, but He asks us to still keep on trusting Him in spite of it.

    I’m not Reformed, so I’m not an expert on all things sola scriptura, but it’s my understanding sola scriptura itself does not declare that 100% of the Bible is 100% clear all the time on all issues, only that it is clear enough on stuff that really, really, really matters, like how to be saved (which = trust in Christ)?

    If the Bible was totally clear on all points and so simplistic that every one agreed on all levels at all times on every thing it says, I actually think that might detract from it.

    I would expect a God, if he existed, to write a book that is going to come across as complex at times.

    On a similar note: It is like, if all four Gospel books agreed 100% of the time on all points, your skeptics would scream, “Collusion! Book can’t be trusted, as all 4 gospels are in total agreement, it is obviously a fraud, a conspiracy.”

    But, if the Gospel accounts appear to diverge even on minor details (as they do), then atheists scream, “Contradiction! Contradiction! Error! Can’t be trusted! A god, if he were real, would write all 4 books to agree 100% on every point”

    -ergo, the Bible cannot win either scenario.

    Seems to me you may be doing same with this multiple interpretation stuff. If Bible is 100% clear as you want it to be, so that all doctrines there-in leave no room for dispute by anyone at all at any time for any reason, you’d likely find THAT suspicious.

    Also…it’s my view that some teachings are clear, but due to man’s sin nature, man willfully chooses to twist what Bible says, or to ignore it.

    For example, seems to me that Bible teaches that homosexual behavior is sinful (in both the New and Old Testaments), yet many today who want to indulge in homosexual behavior, or Christians who have become super bleeding hearts over homosexuals, are trying to find loop holes for homosexuality, so they now teach stuff such as,
    “Oh no, see, the Bible is fine with two men having sex! Those verses in the Old Testament aren’t talking about consensual sex, but of men raping men.”

    Take women in leadership roles as another example.

    I am a Biblical Egalitarian. I think the Bible is fine with women teaching and leading any one, including men, but due to man’s sin nature and lust for control and power (even among Christian men), they don’t want to cede power or control to women, they want to lord authority over females.

    So Bible verses about “let not a woman teach in church” (etc) are quoted out of context, mis applied, weighed too heavily, and verses about women teaching and being equal are ignored.

    The Bible is clear about God gifting and allowing women to lead men and preach, etc, but sinful desires and selfishness lead some Christian men to deny what the Bible says about women leading, and that as another result of the fall, that some women would desire for a man (husband) to rule over them (that is, God predicted in Genesis that women would often look to a husband as Savior figure, rather than to God).

    So the Bible says “X” about some issue, but some people choose to distort it because they cannot or do not want to accept what it says about X, like in the 1800s with slavery.

    Some Christians in the 1800s were using the bible to defend the slavery of black Americans. They were letting their greed influence their take on the bible’s views on the issue.

    It does look to me, therefore, like some disagreement among Christians on some topics is due to them (their sin natures), and not the Bible itself. That’s at least one possibility.

  • Crickets

    Above, I said,
    “Also…it’s my view that some teachings are clear, but due to man’s sin nature, man willfully chooses to twist what Bible says, or to ignore it.”

    And probably the best example of that was the Pharisees, and what Jesus said to them.

    The Pharisees were educated men, knew a lot about the Old Testament. When Jesus debated the Pharisees, He commended them on their book-learning, their studies. Jesus Christ told them it was great they studied the Bible, but the problem was in their zeal for studying the minutia of the Law that:
    1. They neglected the spirit of the Law (which was to show grace and mercy to other people)
    2. that despite all their Bible studying, they did not recognize Him (Jesus) as their Messiah, even though, He said, the entire point of the Old Testament wast to point them to him!

    Also… The Apostle Paul commended the Bereans for verifying what he taught them by reading the Scriptures, they did not just take Paul’s word for everything.

    If it were true like the author of your book (“Bible Impossible”) says, that Christians can’t hardly know anything at all about any thing, since they don’t always arrive at perfect agreement on all topics they read of in the Bible, how is it that Paul congratulated the Bereans for comparing Paul’s oral teachings to them to the written Old Testament?

    If your author was correct, would Paul not have said to them instead,
    “Don’t waste time reading the Old Testament to verify my teachings to you, since you all are likely to arrive at ten different interpretations of what I said and/or of what the OT said, so it is all pointless, and you can never ever know what the OT really teaches about anything, so just don’t study the OT. Just take my word for every thing I’m telling you today.”

  • Tim Sexton

    Christian Smith does allow for a “Christocentric Hermeneutic” in his book. He still maintains a Christocentric core to his faith. But I don’t understand how that helps or works in the real world. It seems to me that he is simply revealing his “canon within a canon,” as does every Christian I talk to. Does it really boil down to John 3:16 or “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” but it’s okay to disagree on virtually every other point of doctrine? Is it true that all that matters is that I believe in Jesus (in some way, shape, or form) but virtually everything else is up for debate? What if we have overwhelming diversity, even in within a Christocentric framework?

    You said in your comment: “The author seemed to be arguing that Christians focus on the Bible’s main point – which is Jesus Christ. Who is Christ, who are you in relation to Christ, etc, rather than get caught up in secondary doctrinal squabbles as Christians are wont do do, such as, should babies be sprinkled or adults immersed etc?”

    Not all the debates are “secondary doctrinal squabbles.” How about the Free Grace/Lordship debate between John MacArthur and his camp and Robert Wilkin and the Grace Theological Society? At the core of their heated disagreement is exactly what it means to be in right relationship with Jesus: the gospel itself! And they are all exegeting the same Bible but coming up with different opinions on what it takes to be saved. Is salvation itself a secondary squabble?

    Another debate that doesn’t seem to be secondary is the question of Jesus’ atonement: penal substitution, example, Christus Victor, something else or all of them? That doesn’t seem to be peripheral.

    Scholars are still debating the nature of the Kingdom of God. Was THAT peripheral to Jesus’ teaching?

    What about the question about whether someone can lose their salvation? To the struggling believer that is ANYTHING but a “secondary squabble.” Yet theologians still debate this point after 2000 years of trying to figure it out.

    Baptizing infants may be a secondary debate, but they reflect positions with much greater import; in fact, they represent entire hermeneutical schemes: dispensational and covenant theologies (and I’m just staying in the Protestant camp with these). Which is right? Why can’t we even agree on a foundational matter like how to interpret the Bible itself?

    It’s because the Bible doesn’t tell us how to interpret it, and it interprets itself and a variety of ways.

    I am NOT advocating a return to Roman Catholocism – good grief, that could be a worse scenario! I am saying that the doctrinal issues Christians debate are NOT all peripheral and secondary. Some of them are foundational, and the groups that disagree are all “evangelical,” God-loving, Jesus-fearing, scholarly, Holy-Spirit led believers honestly seeking the truth with a humble heart.

    I think the problem is that the data source is garbled and too complex, and the history of Christian interpretation bears that out. Far from being “absurd,” I think agnosticism is the only theologically and psychologically honest position to take in these matters.

    Thanks for the dialogue!


  • Tim

    Your interpretation of what I was saying (“finding is in the seeking and unity is in the diversity”) isn’t quite correct. Better might be, we discover more of God’s revelation the more we seek Him, and unity is in the focus or direction of the diversity.” All the construction trades can work together and build a house that none could have built by themselves, but if they use their diversity to argue about who is the best or who interprets the blueprints correctly while everyone else is wrong, the house will never be build. Does that mean the blueprints are wrong or that the people just need to get their acts together? Is it the owner’s fault; does the owner not exist? This is a human example and sometimes the blueprints are wrong, but if the trades argue instead of work the blueprints are a moot point, because people think they are building when they stand around and argue. That doesn’t invalidate the owner or the blueprints. But the owner may come and fire everybody and get some people who will work productively instead of argue with each other. Any parables of Jesus come to mind?

    Eph 4 says the same thing. The gifts (offices) are diverse, but they combine and work together and the church builds itself up in love because unity is the focus on the Lord Jesus Christ and the end point is full knowledge in Him. If the members with different gifts argue over who is the best, nothing gets built because there is pride and selfishness in place of love.

    Christians can get together in camps (tribes) under a known name (MacArthur, Apollos, Paul) and argue with each other until they bite and devour each other. Their opinions bind them together more than Christ, and this can become an idol. Does that disprove God or His revelation, or does that prove that Christians can act out of fleshly pride and arrogance the same as anybody else? Over the years I have told three pulpit ministers who I could foresee were headed for trouble that most preachers are prideful, arrogant, and in denial about it. These were all good men and some excellent teachers. None listened and they all soon left their pulpit and two left “the ministry.” I am very frustrated with that, because it didn’t have to happen. That doesn’t invalidate God or the Bible.

    Different interpretations are fine; it is what the people do with their interpretation that makes the difference. If someone has a better interpretation or way of looking at the revelation of God, let them show it in their lives of love and service. Anyone who actually sees the light shining on the hill will go and find it. If tribes of people who should have the light are arguing over who has the best bulb while all of their batteries have lost their charge, I say “Why should I listen to you?” And the world says that, too. It’s who serves the most, not who talks the loudest, that is greatest in the kingdom of God. Loud prideful talk works in politics.

    You said you had adopted 5 children of very different backgrounds. You, as their father, are training them up to obey and to observe certain behavior standards because you know that these will serve them well in society as they mature. Let’s say they are all about 5-6 years old. Someone ask them what their father said about some subject of behavior. “What does your father say you should do about this?” Let’s say that they give 5 answers that differ from a little to a lot. They have different gifts, backgrounds, genes, through which they filter their understanding of what you have taught them. They are growing in their understanding of the will of their father. They are immature, even if they think they are not. Some will have a better idea of the will of their father than others. But you are patient with them, because they are growing and learning. It would be nice if they would talk about their different perceptions of your word and each improve their understanding in different areas. But, they might also exercise their immaturity and choose to argue and fight over who is right, which would be silly because none of them is completely right. Should someone come along and say, these kids have different opinions of what you said. What you said must be garbled and confusing and complex. You’re not a real father, else you would communicate more clearly! You don’t even exist. You didn’t even say these words; these kids are reading fables and stories. Sound silly? Can you see yourself?

    “Well, you’re saying John MacArthur is a 5 year old.” No, anyone can act like a spiritual 5 year old no matter what their name is. But I am saying it doesn’t matter. It’s not my job to judge John MacArthur or anyone else. I don’t care if John MacArthur or anyone else is a 5 year old or a 100 year old – none of them have arrived at the full measure of the Lord Jesus Christ, but every one should be on the journey in humility and love. Immaturity is as immaturity does. A life of love speaks more than rhetoric about opinion. If Christians argue until the body of Christ is divided, they are operating out of the flesh, no matter who they are, and they may as well go and peel their tribal bananas for lunch! I could say it more plainly, but that might be cynical.

    Tim, what is really behind this excuse for looking at the inadequacies of other people and blaming God for it? Agnosticism is often another way of saying “I can’t handle it.”

    And as far as my suggesting that you “give God another chance,” that is rather anthropocentric. God is the one who has given us another chance.

    Thank you for hanging in there with this dialogue.


  • Tim Sexton

    I am not looking at the inadequacies of other people and blaming God for it. These men and women are amazingly skillful exegetes who, I’m sure, love God with all their hearts and want to serve Him with every fiber of their being. It is specifically NOT John MacArthur’s fault that he disagrees with Bob Wilkin on the issue of free grace/lordship. They both honestly believe they are contending for the true gospel, and they are doing their best at it. They are both certainly more qualified, more loving, more gifted, and even better looking than me.

    Yet they disagree because the data set they are trying to interpret is not clear on this issue (along with many, many others). That’s all. I’m not mad at God or trying to hide behind agnosticism. It’s just true that good, skilled, God-honoring men and women come to the same book and come to different and sometimes opposite conclusions about what it means. Who am I to try to figure it out if history’s great divines have failed to do so?

    So sure, I give up. Not on love, not on people, not on doing good, not on science…but I give up on trying to understand the Bible.

    Go to and look up “five views” or “four views” or “three views” and look at the dozens and dozens of books that demonstrate how fractured Christians are on the most basic issues. Let me make this clear: THEY ARE NOT FRACTURED BECAUSE THEY ARE BAD PEOPLE. THEY ARE FRACTURED BECAUSE THEIR DATA SET IS:
    1. More than 2,000 years old.
    2. Written to other cultures at other times.
    3. Written in other languages.
    4. Diverse in genre.
    5. Gives no internal interpretive scheme.
    6. Huge – more than a thousand pages in our English translations.
    7. Full of some history, some allegory, some symbolism, some typology, etc, etc.
    8. Doesn’t always seem to agree with itself.
    9. Disagrees with our scientific observations at several points.
    10. All we have because the Author doesn’t seem to be clarifying things.

    It just is what it is. I think the true God of the universe (if there is one) could communicate more clearly. That’s all. I choose agnosticism because I believe I’ve wasted much of my life trying to figure out that which no one ever figures out.

    I have other reasons for rejecting the Bible as the authority over my life (along with the God and Jesus it portrays), but PIP is the main one. I’d love to talk with you via email or phone sometime. Perhaps I’ll contact you soon.

    Again, thanks for the dialogue. I’m enjoying the chance to be this honest. I’m surrounded by evangelical biblicists here where I live, so it’s good to get these things off my chest.


  • Tim,

    I would enjoy communicating with you more. I feel there is some as yet undiscovered element of our conversation that might bridge some thinking. We largely look at the same data. Each of us offers some analogies and explanations that make great sense to oneself, but don’t fall in sync with the other person’s thinking. This is interesting. Hopefully each of would not conclude that the other is a bad communicator, our message is totally faulty, and any lack of agreement or understanding must be the other person’s fault. (If you do think that, don’t tell me yet; I am still basking in the profundity of some of my analogies.) 🙂

    Why should we as humans expect that we will understand all of the mind of God and agree on it? It is more reasonable to me to see that people are constantly struggling to grub it out than to see that everybody has it all figured out. Paul hadn’t made it (Phil. 3:12-17) but he said that he kept going toward the high calling and those who were mature would do the same. In John 12:27-30, God spoke in an audible voice for the benefit of those who could hear it. Some people just went “duh,” some heard it as thunder or background noise, some heard enough to think it was unusual and tagged it as an angel speaking, but some heard the actual words (else how would it have been recorded). Was the message garbled because everyone didn’t hear the same thing? Was God a bad communicator? Is it God’s fault that some people thought His word was noise? Was it an unclear message or were the listeners’ hearing garbled? Considering the people in the crowd and their preconceptions about Jesus, it seems a little presumptuous to say that it was God’s faulty message and not their faulty filters.

    Thanks for continuing with this.