The danger of folk theology – Ezekiel 13, Part 1

In a Peanuts comic strip, Linus is standing next to his bed, wearing his pajamas, hands with palms together like they would be for some about to say their bedtime prayers.  But instead of kneeling at his bed and praying, Linus is standing there, looking curiously at his hands.  As his sister Lucy walks into the room, Linus kneels down at his bedside, and with his hands still palm to palm, he says to her, “I think I’ve made a theological discovery.” 

She asks, “What it is it?” as Linus continues looking down at his hands.  He turns to her, palms still together, and now he points his hands to the floor, saying, “If you hold your hands upside-down, you get the opposite of what you pray for!”  Lucy rolls her eyes.[1]

Do you know what just happened there?  Linus did theology.  He reflected on life and God and prayer, and he attempted to answer the question: what is God like?  The answer he came up with was, “God is the kind of God that has given us a method for prayer.”  Hold your hands up when you pray, and you get what you ask for.  Hold your hands down, and you get the opposite!   But is Linus right? 

Yes, he did theology, but we would call it Folk Theology, and that’s not the same as biblical theology.  Does the Bible say anything about how you hold your hands during prayer will affect the outcome of your prayer?  No.  It says nothing like what Linus said.  Instead, what Linus is doing is practicing folk theology.  Folk Theology is when we come up with ideas to help us understand God and faith and the world, but we don’t submit those ideas to biblical examination.  Often Folk Theology sounds kind of like biblical theology, but it veers away from the truth.  Linus has some ideas, and yet he is not evaluating his ideas according to the Bible.  The result is that he is in danger of believing something false.  Depending on his personality, he could try to convince other people to also believe in his false idea.

As we continue to study Ezekiel, we meet some people who are doing Folk Theology, and they, too, are trying to impact people, deceiving them. As you might imagine, God has a pretty strong reaction against them.  Why? Because it matters what we believe!  Turn to Ezekiel 13, and read verses 1-7.

The normal pattern appears here, as Ezekiel says that the word of the Lord came to him. That means God is speaking to him, giving him a prophetic message.  In verse 2, the message from God is against the prophets of Israel who were prophesying.  So Ezekiel wasn’t the only prophet in the land.  There were other good prophets, like Jeremiah and Isaiah.  But the Lord tells Ezekiel that there are other kinds of prophets, who, he says, “prophesy out of their own imagination.” 

In other words, they’re making stuff up and calling it the word of God.  They aren’t hearing from God like Ezekiel does.  It’s all in their head.  It’s folk theology because it is from the “folks” and not from God.

God says Ezekiel is to prophesy against these so-called prophets, and Ezekiel is to say to them, “Hear the word of the Lord!”  That is the central concern for a prophet.  Do they hear the word of the Lord, or do they hear something else that is not the word of the Lord?  Is their theology, their ideas about God and his interaction in the world, based on the truth, which is from God, or are they just making it up?

Do you remember the very first skit that God told Ezekiel to perform?  It was in chapter 3, and God told Ezekiel that his first prophetic act was to go back to his house, where he would be tied up in ropes, and God would make his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth.  In other words, Ezekiel was unable to say anything.  The prophet was being forced by God to be trapped in his house, totally silent.  At first, that seems to make no sense.  A prophet who can’t speak?  But God explains, “I will allow you to speak only the words I give you.”  God wanted Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry to be totally in line with God’s word.  In other words, God wanted Ezekiel to be a successful true prophet. 

These other prophets in Ezekiel 13, however, were apparently not concerned about God’s word. Instead they said whatever they wanted to say.  What about you? Are you concerned about knowing and doing and proclaiming God’s word? Or have you ever been known to come up with the your own ideas? We want to be thought of as people who are smart and wise, and thus we often boldly proclaim our own ideas. Is it wrong to have your own ideas? Doesn’t someone at some point need to come up with new ideas? What is the balance between being inquisitive, exploratory, and experimental, while still maintaining God as our authority? In the next four posts in this five-part series, we’ll look at what happened in Israel when prophets said they were speaking for the Lord, but they had become their own authority and were leading people astray. We’ll discover how we can be people focused on God’s truth and avoid folk theology.

[1] Schulz, Charles. 1968. Peanuts. April 3, 1968.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Published by joelkime

I love my wife, Michelle, and our four kids and two daughters-in-law. I serve at Faith Church and love our church family. I teach a course online from time to time, and in my free time I love to read and exercise, especially running,

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