Conspiracy Theories and the Church
Conspiracy theories have become common in our culture. Sadly, they have captivated and been circulated by people in the church.
A recent article published by Lifeway reported that 49% of US Protestant pastors say they frequently hear members of their congregation repeating conspiracy theories.
Pastors of churches with more than 250 in attendance are most likely to agree, 61%.
I 100% agree.
On January 6, as I watched the live coverage of the storming of Capitol Hill as the events began to unfold, I also had my social media accounts pulled up. I was curious about how people might respond. I began to see 3 versions of the story start to circulate from people I currently serve or have served as pastor.
It wasn't really happening.
It was Antifa dressed up like Trump supporters.
It was staged. People who attended the Trump rally were on a tour of the Capitol when they were attacked by capitol police. The riot was the response they were hoping to incite.
All three of those ideas are rooted in people who readily propagate conspiracy theories on social media. And there we were, the brothers and sisters of Jesus, fanning those flames.
The church should have NOTHING to do with conspiracy theories.
1 Timothy is a letter inspired by the Holy Spirit of God that helps pastors understand how they are to care for themselves and their people to not fall into sin or doctrinal error. This letter, along with two others (2 Timothy and Titus), brings up various vital topics that call for our careful attention.
One of those topics is brought up in 1 Timothy 4:6.
"Put these things before the brothers." This is not a problem outside the church but within.
And here it comes, "Have nothing to do with .........."
And let's pause the sentence. We are not unfamiliar with language like this in Scripture. We know a lot of things that the church is to have nothing to do with. Things that if the church has something to do with them, it's a big problem in the faith family. Think about some things we could fill in the blank.
Have nothing to do with adultery. Sexual sin is definitely of the forbidden, "have nothing to do with" category.
We could say that the church should have nothing to do with embezzling money, mismanagement of resources, or greed. There is nothing about any of that that looks good for the church.
We could place any one of the Ten Commandments in the "have nothing to do with" category. But this "nothing" has nothing to do with any of them.
So what could it be?
"Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths."
Myths are fanciful, made-up stories. But what's dangerous about them is that they have elements of truth in them.
In Timothy's day, given the comments in Scripture (1 Tim. 4:1-5), it looks like the myths he is dealing with are some sort of revisions of Biblical history. They may have been odd interpretations of the law.
Whatever it was, it was part of a garden variety problem that Paul often addressed in the Pastoral Epistles. I would call it the problem of becoming pointless. (See Post: The Problem of Becoming Pointless)
We may not have a problem with mythical retellings of Old Testament stories or odd interpretations of the law. Still, we are living in a time in which fanciful stories and fables are being circulated heavily. And as they were in Timothy's time, once again, the people of God devote themselves to these fabricated lies (1 Timothy 4:1-5).
This is why the Holy Spirit moved upon Paul to pen this to his protegee pastor. Pastors need to talk about this stuff with their people and implore them to have nothing to do with myths, or in our case, conspiracy theories.
It is time for the church to end its involvement in propagating the political myths we call conspiracy theories. As Paul implores Timothy in 1 Timothy 4, we should focus on truth and channel our energy on becoming godly. We should Have nothing to do with conspiracy theories. Why? Because they are misleading truths, mismanaged time, and misplaced trust.
Conspiracy theories are misleading truths.
Why do these myths of conspiracy theories find such a foothold in the church?
One of the reasons conspiracy theories have found such traction in our culture of late is because we live in an age of division and distrust. The media bears some blame for this. We have exchanged journalism for agenda-driven propaganda. The media has become very selective in what they report and how it is reported.
If we want to kill conspiracy, people need reliable sources of information they can trust. Conspiracy theories arise when there is a vacuum of reliable sources.
Another reason that church people get swept up in conspiracy theories is that we are suspicious of the world. The Bible tells us of a time when world systems will conspire to deceive entire populations of people. They will believe a lie. We know there is a deception afoot, so conspiracy theories are like dangled bait that promises to uncover the coverup.
And then there is the natural human curiosity to want to be "in the know." We see this with the apostles when Jesus prophecies of a time in which the Temple will be destroyed. And immediately, the apostles ask the question, "When will these things be and how will they take place." And Jesus gives them the answer that no one who wants to be "in the know" wants to hear. "It is not for you to know (Matthew 24)."
Now, the proper faith response to Jesus' statement is to admit, I can be aware of the times and seasons of the end, but I will never have it figured out. I will never have all of the information I need to predict anything with certainty in the end.
But human curiosity overrides. We want to fill in the blanks in our minds about things we don't know - and so we do. And I think all of this makes people of faith extremely susceptible to conspiracy theories' misleading truths. We want to be in the know.
That's why I found myself on the phone with people in our church who were symptomatic for Covid but afraid to go get tested. Why? Because they believe that the government was inserting computer chips into people's brains.
Human curiosity is why church people share videos of a preacher who claims to share insider information. Or perhaps the preacher shares a revelation God gave him in a dream. The preacher predicts martial law and the overthrow of our country. And none of it happens.
That's why people believe that the Oval Office we see is a Hollywood movie set; Biden is not really the President, and why they say that Trump's inauguration day keeps getting delayed but is coming soon. That's why people believe the power grid is going to fail, the President of Italy is under arrest, the Pope is a hologram, and that a pizza place without a basement, is where Hillary Clinton runs a child sex ring in the basement.
Conspiracy theories are enticing because they fill in the blanks of missing information. They promise to connect the dots and explain the world. And they take advantage of our inherent distrust as they promise to uncover the coverup.
And there will be people who read this article or watch my message on this topic which will dismiss it because they believe that I'm "in on the conspiracy."
But notice, the Word of God, we say that we believe, instructs a pastor to address the danger of myths with his congregation. It is the Holy Spirit who has inspired the command for us to "have nothing to do with silly myths." If I'm "in on" the conspiracy, it's because our Lord was in on it long before me.
The silliness of conspiracy theories.
Notice that Paul calls them "irreverent, silly myths." Those are interesting words.
The word silly refers to stories grandma tells. In the Greek lexicons, the definition of the word translated silly is "of old women." We call these "old wives tales." It was an ancient term derogatory to women as most of them were uneducated, uninformed. So they were prone to spin crazy stories. Our interest in the word is not in trying to demean elderly women, but in how it speaks of the uninformed and uneducated nature of conspiracy theories. Stories such as the Pope is a hologram, Nancy Pelosi is in prison, the Oval Office is a movie set, there is a sex trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton in the basement of a pizza place - that has no basement.
And then there is the word irreverent. That word can also be translated "profane." This word refers to the quality of something. It's like being in a butcher market where you would have the finest cuts of meat prominently displayed. You buy it, cook it, eat it, and enjoy it. But what you don't see is the meat in the dumpster. It's profane, no good. It's not fit for consumption. Irreverent means that conspiracy theories are suitable only for the intellectual garbage can. Throw them away. They are unfit for your mind.
Let's evaluate the worth of all of the conspiracy theories you have heard over the past 18 months. What is any of it worth today? NOTHING! And by the way, Trump was supposed to be inaugurated again on March 20, but he wasn't. It's time we toss this myth into the garbage can and deal with reality.
These are misleading truths. The Word of God is truth. We need to reject what is silly and profane and give ourselves to that which is inspired by the Holy Spirit of God.
Conspiracy should be rejected because they lead to mismanaged time.
As Paul instructs Timothy to get rid of myth-making in the church, he calls for them to be "trained in truth for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim 4:7-10)." The myths are worthless, but godliness is of value in every way. And he compares it to an athlete training in the gym.
It takes time. Train means that it is a disciplined approach. In verse 10 he speaks of the rigor of it. To this end, we "toil and strive."
Conspiracy theories are a waste of time. The time that we should give to the eternal truths of the Word of God for the purpose of godliness.
Conspiracy theories take an extreme amount of time. People who spread conspiracy theories spend inordinate amounts of time discussing them and sharing them on social media.
Outside of the time you spend uncovering the conspiracy, it consumes your thoughts for the rest of the day. It shapes your response to the news. You consume hours of content, watching and listening, so wanting what you believe to become true. And when it doesn't, you have to go back to the conspiracy theory to find out why what you're watching is a lie and what's about to happen next.
The Bible tells us that God didn't intend for His people to spend their time like that. Our thoughts should not be consumed with myths but with the meditations on the Word of God. Our attention should not be given to politics as much as it is to godliness.
Christianity Today released an article in July of last year that revealed that Bible reading dropped during the first 5 months of the pandemic.
That's astounding, given that we had more time to read the Bible than we have ever had in our lifetimes.
But it's not surprising given how much time and attention we were giving to proving the pandemic was a hoax.
That time would have been much better spent working in the Word on our godliness.
We should have nothing to do with myths because they are an eternal waste of our time.
We should have nothing to do with conspiracy theories because they are a matter of misplaced trust.
Conspiracy theories capture people because it makes them feel heroic. It makes them feel like they are doing their fellow countrymen a service by informing them on what's really happening. It makes people feel like they can do something that makes a difference, as if they are part of another tremendous historical revolution.
But let's think this through.
Let's imagine that this afternoon we find out that Italy really did rig our election, that the oval office really is a Hollywood movie set, that Biden is in jail, that the one you see on TV is an actor, that the Pope is a hologram - and somehow all of the sudden it is proven that the earth is flat . . . let's say it all comes true this afternoon JUST LIKE THEY SAID IT WOULD!
And the revolution begins, and a lot of people die without ever hearing the gospel . . . what happens to them?
Do they go to Hell satisfied that they were right? Or do they go to Hell eternally heartbroken that none of it mattered?
No doubt, the latter is true.
Notice the choice of words in 1 Timothy 4:9-10. This saying is deserving of FULL ACCEPTANCE. Not undermined by myth. Not distracted by myth.
Our hope is to be set on the living God, not Q, not Trump, not Biden, not Republicans, not Democrats. We trust the Lord and His Word. He is the one who is in control. He gave us all the information we needed for the end, and He left us with a mission for the end. Spread the gospel. Make disciples. Have nothing to do with myths.
And notice that we are to point people to Christ, "who is the Savior of all people, "especially of those who believe (1 Tim. 4:10).
Jesus is the only Savior for all! But notice, the transaction of salvation is contingent on what one "believes."
Think about the implications of what one "believes" if you and I are about the business of conspiracy theories while we are to be about the business of making disciples. If we keep telling people that Trump is about to get inaugurated on X date. No, wait, now on it's X date . . . and then we need to move it further down the road to X date for various reasons.
Suppose you keep missing it on Trump's mysterious re-inauguration. How do you think they will respond when you tell them that they need to turn from their sin and be saved because Jesus is coming again?
Suppose we tell people that we are about to go under martial law. Yet, there are still no tanks positioned at the local grocery store. How do you think they will receive the news that Jesus is the virgin-born Son of God who resurrected from the dead? If you sound ridiculous, you are ridiculous.
The ultimate danger of conspiracy theory is that people become so broken by deception that they believe nothing. Coming out of QAnon will be, for most people, like an addict in recovery. For so long, they thought this information was something they had to have. But in the end it led them astray. It destroyed their lives. It ripped apart their reality. It affected their family. So let's handle this with grace. No one feels good admitting that they've been duped. They feel ashamed. We should handle the exodus from conspiracy with care.
Jesus is the Savior for all people, including those who placed their trust in conspiracy theories. But that transaction of redemption is contingent on what they believe. So you and I should be faithful to proclaim the gospel. And you and I should be careful to be "believable." We should stop fanning the flames of myths and get back to the business of pointing people to the saving truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.