SBC Life Articles

Baptists Adrift In Doctrinal Confusion

Only 43 percent of Baptists believe that works don't earn salvation and 66 percent believe Satan isn't a real being, according to a new study released by the Barna Research Group and reported by the Florida Baptist Witness.

The study explored the religious beliefs of the nation's twelve largest denominations and determined that only 41 percent of adults in those denominations could be classified as "born again."

"The Barna report is a credible perspective on the state of Christian conviction in America today," R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told the Witness. "The report is a striking indictment of the loss of doctrinal confidence and the erosion of biblical beliefs that marks American Christianity."

George Barna, president of the California firm that conducted the research, said the study was not intended to report the official teachings of any denomination. "The data reflect what the people within those churches believe," Barna said. "If nothing else, this outcome highlights the substantial theological shift that has been altering the nature of the Episcopal church, in particular, as well as other Christian churches, in recent years."

The study's findings identify an alarmingly high number of church members whose beliefs fall far short of orthodox Christianity. For example, 41 percent of all adults surveyed believed in the total accuracy of the Bible. Catholics had the lowest percentage (23 percent) who believed the Bible to be accurate, while 81 percent of those attending Pentecostal churches held to the same belief. Only 40 percent of those surveyed believed Christ was sinless, while 27 percent believed Satan to be real.

"The trends Barna traces have been progressing for several years," Mohler said. "Americans have been negotiating away the core doctrines of the Christian faith – all the while claiming to remain Christians. But Christianity is defined by certain definite and non-negotiable doctrines. Without these, there is no Christianity at all — just the emptying sanctuaries of declining churches and denominations."

The numbers were better for Baptists than for the whole sample, but not by much. Of the Baptists surveyed, 57 percent believed works play a part in salvation, and 45 percent believed Jesus was not sinless. Only 34 percent of Baptists thought Satan was a real being, while 51 percent believed Christians have the responsibility to witness to others. Sixty-six percent of Baptists considered the Bible to be totally accurate, 81 percent considered their religious faith to be important and 85 percent believed God is the all-powerful creator of the universe.

The Barna study didn't break down the Baptist category into specific denominations like Southern Baptists or General Baptists, so the results may not be typical of Southern Baptists as a whole.

"What we've found is that when you interview people about what kind of Baptist church they attend, a large proportion of them either don't know or they will give you information that's inaccurate," Barna told the Florida Baptist Witness. "So, we typically don't break that out."

But even if the results would be even marginally better for Southern Baptists, they're still disappointing, said Phil Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

"This should not be too surprising," Roberts said. "We have 16 million members [in the Southern Baptist Convention] and I think it's a fair estimate that less than half actually attend church on Sunday. It's pretty hard to believe that Christ was not sinless and call yourself a Christian."

The two denominations with the highest number of members who hold to orthodox Christian beliefs were Pentecostals and Assemblies of God. Catholics and Episcopalians had the lowest percentage of members reporting a belief in traditional Christian teachings. Just 20 percent of Episcopalians and 17 percent of Catholics believed Satan was real; 33 percent of Catholics and Episcopalians believed Jesus was sinless; and 26 percent of Episcopalians and 9 percent of Catholics believed works don't earn salvation.

"The Christian body in America is immersed in a crisis of biblical illiteracy," Barna said. "How else can you describe matters when most churchgoing adults reject the accuracy of the Bible, reject the existence of Satan, claim that Jesus sinned, see no need to evangelize, believe that good works are one of the keys to persuading God to forgive their sins, and describe their commitment to Christianity as moderate or even less firm?"

The study determined that evangelicals are scarce. Barna defines "evangelicals" as a subset of "born again" believers — those who say their faith is very important in their lives, believe they have a responsibility to witness to non-Christians, acknowledge the existence of Satan, contend that eternal salvation is possible only through God's grace and not good deeds, believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth, and describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.

Those who fit in such a category include only 8 percent of adults.

Fourteen percent of Baptists qualified as evangelicals, compared to 33 percent from Assemblies of God churches, 29 percent from nondenominational churches and 27 percent from Pentecostal churches. Only 1 percent of Catholics and 1 percent of Episcopalians could be classified as evangelicals.

"The most disappointing finding of the report is the loss of doctrinal clarity among evangelicals," Mohler told the Witness. "We have come to expect doctrinal compromise in the liberal denominations, but we now see the same process at work among those who call themselves evangelicals. The Barna report helpfully defines evangelicals by beliefs — not by denominational membership, etc. For too many 'evangelicals,' all that remains is emotional fervor and religious participation — not the living faith founded upon the truth of the Gospel."

Roberts said one solution to such biblical illiteracy lies in pastors' diligence in preaching truth and in their willingness to go house to house, if necessary, to inquire about each person's spiritual condition.

"The church needs to take seriously its shepherding role," he said.

Mohler added that all Baptists should be alarmed at what the study reveals.

"The Barna report is a warning of what is to come, if these trends are not reversed," Mohler said.

The study's results came from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 6,038 adults.

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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