Are you a jellyfish Christian?
By Matthew Barrett—
Jellyfish Christianity. It is Christianity with no theological backbone or nerve. It occurs when a Christian will not stand up for what he believes and knows to be true due to pressure from others. It is Christianity with no gusto, no courage, and no ability to tell it like it is.
It is not hard to spot a jellyfish Christian or theologian. They care more about what others think about their beliefs than the truth of their beliefs. To use contemporary language, a jellyfish Christian or theologian is one who just won’t “be a man” about his beliefs. Nor is he willing to pay the cost for them. He professes to follow Christ, but when he is called upon to pay the price, he compromises, either redefining the Christian faith or denying it altogether.
Sadly, there are many jellyfish Christians and theologians today. If we are not careful, we can subtly become one too. We begin to compromise, shift our positions, become ambiguous, or hide our beliefs in embarrassment. And lest we be recognized for what we are, we begin to pressure others to do the same.
Jesus, however, was no jellyfish nor did he produce jellyfish followers, but disciples who would pick up their cross and die, literally.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39 ESV)
As we look through the halls of church history, we discover those who were unwilling to be jellyfish theologians. No doubt Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Charles Spurgeon are but a few that come to mind. But one man we should not miss is J. C. Ryle (1816-1900). What I love about Ryle is how he stood strong and firm for his doctrinal beliefs in the midst of a church going liberal. As John Piper explains, “Ryle saw a failure of doctrinal nerve — an unmanly failure. Dislike of dogma, he wrote,
is an epidemic which is just now doing great harm, and especially among young people. . . . It produces what I must venture to call . . . a ‘jelly-fish’ Christianity . . . a Christianity without bone, or muscle, or power. . . . Alas! It is a type of much of the religion of this day, of which the leading principle is, ‘no dogma, no distinct tenets, no positive doctrine.’
We have hundreds of ‘jellyfish’ clergyman, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity. They have no definite opinions . . . they are so afraid of ‘extreme views’ that they have no views of all.
We have thousands of ‘jellyfish’ sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint. . . .
And worst of all, we have myriads of ‘jellyfish’ worshipers—respectable Church-gone people, who have no distinct and definite views about any point in theology. They cannot discern things that differ, any more than colorblind people can distinguish colors. . . . They are ‘tossed to and fro, like children, by every wind of doctrine’; . . . ever ready for new things, because they have no firm grasp on the old.”
These words by Ryle may be some of the most important, and sobering, words I have ever come across. What is so alarming is that he says this jellyfish mentality—an epidemic he calls it—has taken root among young people. The result? Christians who have no “bone, or muscle, or power.” Pastors who have no courage to take a stand on doctrine. Sermons where there is no gospel. Worshipers who know not what or whom they worship. Ryle’s last line is especially profound. Jellyfish Christians are “ever ready for new things, because they have no firm grasp on the old.” Doctrinal novelty has their attention because they either are clueless, indifferent, or antagonistic to the great truths defended in the past, tested by time.
Piper goes on to explain that this “aversion to doctrine was the root cause of the church’s maladies, and the remedy was a manly affirmation of what he called ‘sharply cut doctrines’ recovered from the Reformation and the Puritans and the giants of the eighteenth century in England.” Ryle, however, does not leave us without the remedy:
Mark what I say. If you want to do good in these times, you must throw aside indecision, and take up a distinct, sharply-cut, doctrinal religion. . . .
The victories of Christianity, wherever they have been won, have been won by distinct doctrinal theology; by telling men roundly of Christ’s vicarious death and sacrifice; by showing them Christ’s substitution on the cross, and His precious blood; by teaching them justification by faith, and bidding them believe on a crucified Saviour; by preaching ruin by sin, redemption by Christ, regeneration by the Spirit; by lifting up the brazen serpent; by telling men to look and live—to believe, repent, and be converted. . . .
Show us at this day any English village, or parish, or city, or town, or district, which has been evangelized without “dogma.” . . . Christianity without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing. . . . No dogma, no fruits!
Why is Ryle’s warning and admonishment so profound? It is profound because the jellyfish Christianity that described his own day characterizes our own as well. We have no doctrinal nerve, and so we compromise, shift our positions, become ambiguous, or hide our beliefs in embarrassment. The consequences are deadly. Ryle’s word of correction is that we return to “dogma.” “No dogma,” he says, “no fruits!” Plain and simple. Ryle’s encouragement to pastors in his own day is the same as mine today: Put aside indecision and take up a distinct, sharply-cut, doctrinal religion. Preach and teach the gospel, whatever be the consequences. Take up your cross and die.
Matthew Barrett (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of California Baptist University (OPS), as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of The Grace of Godliness: An Introduction to Doctrine and Piety in the Canons of Dort, Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration, as well as the coeditor of Four Views on the Historical Adam (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology), and Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy.