Posted by: Billy Marsh | February 18, 2009

The Common Man: Defender of the Faith?

Currently, I’m reading through a book on the history of Christianity and the Reformation called The Division of Christendom by Hans J. Hillerbrand. Well, actually, I’ve pretty much finished it, but I’m going back through it since I’ll be submitting a review of it for the SWBTS journal. Near the end of this massive volume, Hillerbrand discusses some of his conclusions and some of his observed consequences of the Reformation. Although these types of reflective moments are few and far between in his retelling of the religious events of the 16th century, he takes time at the end of his “Conclusions” to compare one particular aspect of the 16th century with the 21st century.

According to Hillerbrand, although one result of the Reformation was a regained respect for the common man, both in society and religion, for the most part, the everyday man remained theologically dispassionate. This is not to say that the normal citizen wasn’t engaged in the monumental events of the sixteenth century; instead, the point that Hillerbrand is making is that the common man longed to be a part of a movement, but didn’t want to get involved with the heavy-lifting when it came to the intellect.

In looking at the 21st century, Hillerbrand remarks that not much has changed. As a test case, he reflects upon the Joint Declaration on Justification, which was signed in 1999, marking a theological compromise between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Prompting Christian Unity. Hillerbrand notes that when this radical statement was made public, it received almost unanimous disapproval from the foremost German theologians and historians. Ultimately, somewhere around 250 of them (approximately 98% of all German Lutheran theologians), agreed to sign a letter stating their rejection of the proposed, unified Lutheran-Catholic position on the doctrine of justification.

From this information, Hillerbrand observes, “In other words, the experts dissented (404).” The Lutheran synods, full of everyday laymen, had no problem in ratifying a historic document that seemingly was full of good intentions inasmuch as it was an attempt at bringing about healing from wounds inflicted in the 16th century between these two groups; however, “the common man” “showed no discernible interest either in the joint declaration or, for that matter, in dissenting theologians (404).” Again, Hillerbrand remarks, “[I]t is surely safe to say that even today most church members, whatever their denomination, have little interest and even less competence in any serious engagement in current theological feuds and disagreements (404).”

After reading this passage, I couldn’t help but nod along as I processed his conclusions. I know there is always a danger in giving one big broad generalization, and I’m not delusional to think that no “common man” exists who is theologically-interested and competent. Nevertheless, it appears that the majority of the everyday man is not so inclined. On a popular level, I can think of two recent issues that have arisen which have exposed the state of Christianity today in the world outside of the seminaries and institutions: The DaVinci Code and The Shack.

Here we have two fiction books, each contributing in its own unique way to unveiling the Christian state of mind. For instance, on the one hand, The DaVinci Code, which promoted itself as historical fact, turned the layman’s world upside down as he found himself engulfed in a story which sought to unmask the supposed lies of traditional Christianity by purporting that Jesus wasn’t God, that he married Mary Magdalene, and that the Bible couldn’t be trusted. I remember when the book was selling like hotcakes and the controversy was at its peak, having “the common man” come up to me with a look of utter distraught and desperation in light of the claims that Dan Brown had made, begging for me to give him something to hold on to as he felt like his faith was like oil steadily slipping through the cracks of his fingers.

On the other hand, on a more recent note, William P. Young’s The Shack, whether consciously or sub-consciously, undermines the basic tenets of orthodox Christianity, and it does not require a seminary-trained eye to catch the blatant heretical claims plastered across its pages. But it never fails, that almost one or twice every few weeks, I stumble upon a believer who is reading it or has read it, and is shocked to find out that I’m not as in love with it as they are. Needless to say, I remain dumbfounded when as I attempt to explain why they shouldn’t fall head-over-heels in love with Young’s theological liberty in his fictitious story, they respond with something to the effect: “Ya know, I never even picked up on that,” or “Wow, that never crossed my mind.”

The problem, at least in my view, and with reference to what Hillerbrand is trying to point out in his illustration from the Lutheran-Catholic treaty on justification, is that the major theological controversies of the day are not the complex, technical mumbo-jumbo that only people with PhDs can understand. Rather, these issues are dealing with the most basic fundamentals of the gospel, and “the common man,” in large part, is both unable to articulate the rudimentary principles of the Christian faith and to recognize when deception and false doctrine call themselves truth.

Must “the experts” always be the only ones, or perhaps even the first, to sound the gong when false prophets and teachers are on the rise? As someone who isn’t necessarily an “expert,” but who is, although, working on his third theological degree, I can say that it would be encouraging to see more of the everyday man in the body of Christ more alert and armed, equipped and watchful, so that we might all together “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saint (Jude 3b).” When I chime in on my blog warning Christians everywhere to beware the latest fad that is lurking around as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the standard response is, “Oh, here is another one of the talking-heads, who has to have everything just right.” Or, I’m written off as a compulsive “Mr. Know-it-all.” This experience was shared by the Apostle Paul even in the 1st century. He tells the Galatians (exactly the way I feel at times), “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth (Gal 4:16)?

Alas, it shouldn’t be that way, and it wouldn’t if more within the Christian community were willing as well as able to stand up and to defend the integrity of the gospel, both in its simplicity and its complexity besides those who pay tuition for formal training. My quarrel isn’t that the layman should be just as theologically-educated and keen as the person who serves as a “theologian” in terms of his profession or career. But, as I stated above, the problem is that it seems that “the common man” is becoming more and more unfamiliar and uninterested with the fundamentals of Christian truth, not the scholarly jargon and higher-academic discussions, to the point that the “voices crying in the wilderness” are for the most part, “the experts,” while the everyday man passively and actively embraces the world’s twisted and deceptive spin on the gospel of God.

As I reflect on these concerns, I would like to leave with a few questions:

  1. Do you agree with this assessment? If not, why?
  2. If so, why do you think that this is the case both in the 16th century and the 21st century on a majority level?
  3. What is the place of the layman in this regard, and what is the expectation of Scripture on his or her aptitude towards theological knowledge and competence?
  4. How can we fix it? What are some steps we can take to better equip “the common man” with the tools necessary to be bold and efficient, defenders of the faith?


  1. Billy,
    Outstanding Post, and, Yes, I absolutely agree with you here even tho it opens us up to charges of elitism perhaps.
    Why is this the case? Whether it is the 16th or 21st centuries it is the result of poor preaching and discipleship and to many cares of this world. From my experience as a pastor I can tell you that most church members don’t want to learn doctrine let alone doctrine that confronts the false ideas of our society. After years of expository and doctrinal preaching, I was in a group of folks at my former church who were discussing their favorite preachers- Joel Osteen won hands down!

    Too many generations of revivalistic pastors who only preached a diluted gospel. Too many generations of a failed public education system that doesn’t teach people to think. Too many generations of watching TV and playing video games.

    What is the place of the layman? Every Christian is called to be a Theologian, not a practicing professional Theologian, but we must all think and talk about God. We are all called to think rightly about God, to know the Word and obey Him. We are all called to discern the truth. But without Pastors and Teachers who will teach the Truth the laymen are like sheep without a shepherd.

    How can we fix it? I am now absolutely convinced that True Believers who long for the Word must separate themselves from the countless weak churches and covenant together in new churches that will be biblical. I think the biblical churches need to provide a myriad of learning opportunities other than SS and Sun morn. worship. We need some kind of Lay Institute at the church level that takes things up a notch to almost a college level…hmmm..sounds like Redeemer’s Foundations Class!

    I well remember, painfully so, how you and I studied the DaVinci Code material at our former church…and how that was used against me at the end. Go figure! But God used that to bring me to Redeemer and we have never been happier or more fulfilled!

  2. Bryan, thanks for your comments.

    For me, this is a difficult situation to assess in order to give a proper prescription. For example, I want to place all the blame on “the experts,” so to speak, (e.g. pastors, theologians, professors) who have failed in training and educating the laymen who are unable to devote all of their time to theological study and issues. But then what do we do with your personal experience, which is I’m sure shared by many others?

    Someone who has faithfully preached and taught serious theology as a pastor for 14 years (I think), but the people never do acquire an appetite for it. In fact, as you said, they go backwards and towards the end, request that you preach the “simple gospel,” and fail to comprehend that we were training students to be apologetic towards The DaVinci Code. So at this point, it’s the laymen’s fault, not just “the expert’s”.

    I agree that something akin to a Lay Institute is needed instead of the typical Sunday School programs that we have become accoustomed to in church. However, even though Redeemer is trying to implement this, in all honesty, our attendance for it is unstable. But, I also have a hard time gauging Redeemer’s success on this type of thing since we are full of seminary students and professors. What would this look like 300 miles from a theological seminary? Would it work? I don’t know. I hope so.

  3. You are correct that our attendance at SS at Redeemer is unstable so it is hard to gauge what we are doing with the Foundations Class and in Genesis. I think the attendance problem is related to 2 things about Redeemer: 1) We are a seminary church so there is the “I get this at school why do I need to get up early on Sunday for the same thing” perhaps; 2) We emphasize Care Groups over SS. I think that the attitude towards SS here is much like the attitude in other churches towards Sunday evening church or Church Training programs.

    When I read through some of Marty Lloyd-Jones’ works they always tell you when the sermons were preached. It is fascinating that many were part of a regular midweek service on differing days at different times, some even in the midst of the War.

    I know why we only have one service, and I enjoy the break, but a big part of me really misses the Body coming together on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. Maybe here we don’t need more, but in most churches I think more is required.

  4. Sorry, but I’m a little late getting to read this post but I think it is a very important one. Bryan, I think your comments were right on and I know it must have been disheartening to see Osteen win the vote. I have never been a pastor but much of my adult life was spent in church leadership and teaching SS and etc. While my theological depth I’m sure is way short of you guys, as a layman, I studied quite hard in the past and diligently sought the Lord. So much so that at times I think I was probably thought of by some as a fanatic but usually by most pastors a friend. I heard the comment many times usually posed as a joke ” are you going to become a preacher?”. Well I kind of always thought the scripture says that we are all made able ministers of the gospel. So how do we mininster the gospel if we don’t even know what it is about? Sad to say, but it seems, many who profess to be Christians know more about the stars on tv and in sports or music than than they do about the Star of our salvation. Whatever is on tv or the movies is gospel anymore or for that matter, in a book also. Hey, if it’s published and everybody is buying it and Tom Hanks made a movie about it, it must be true. It has always blown me away how little people know or even care to know the truth and will follow any wind of doctrine and seek to hear anything that scratches their itching ears. Possibly finding and standing up for the truth takes a little more effort than they want to put forth. It’s much easier to let the distractions of this world keep them from it. Perhaps if the truth could be presented in some glossy, exciting way that could be accessed by use of a clicker then it might work. As far as why is it the same now as it was in the 16th century, people are still people and satan is satan and there is still a battle going on that most are unaware of even though the scripture tells them to put on the whole armor of God.

    As for your last question, I think it should begin in the pulpit with preaching/teaching that would entice the listener to want to know more about what they believe. I still believe the simple gospel needs to be preached to reach the lost along with messages to meet the various needs found in congregations but there should be time made to bring out messages with more meat that needs to be chewed on. Then offer classes to meet that further need. I guess it would depend on the locale. Down here the classes most likely would not be packed but there would be people whose appetite for more would be whetted. This is not just an idea though, I have actually seen this scenario work.

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