Serving Two Masters: Christians and Conspiracy Theories

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Compelling motivations exist for Christians not to promote conspiracy theories. Even the ones that they are certain are true. The problem is that there are motivations pushing the other way too: when the evidence seems compelling, why shouldn’t people point out secretive plots which threaten our health or our way of life?

The aim of this essay is to present reasons for Christians to prefer not to promote conspiracy theories. Even while granting they may hypothetically be true.

The substance of my argument is this: the seriousness of the conspiracy theory [CT] needs to be viewed in light of the value they put on their faith. Their prior commitment made by baptism, by taking the Lord’s Supper, and by taking the name of ‘Christian’ obligates them to assess the cost of taking on new commitments – namely promoting the said conspiracy theory. Doing this puts things in proper Christian perspective. The loyalty we profess to Christ obliges us to do this.

This question might put it more simply: does it hinder our mission? I am thinking here of the Great Commission text of Matthew 28:18-20. Does your promotion of your picked CT make the good news you ought to be sharing seem less credible to those who hear you? Does it divert your energies from promoting the gospel? These are important, and I hope sobering questions.

What are Conspiracy Theories?

A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that appeals to a belief that secretive groups are working towards illegal or harmful purposes. The evidence for this explanatory belief is regarded as doubtful by relevant experts, rendering the theory itself improbable or at best conjectural, perhaps displaying the prejudices of the advocates better than any actual reality. For some further info, see this helpful article on Seven Traits of Conspiratorial Thinking, and for a list of  examples please see this Wikipedia page (it is a very interesting list. The world would be a very dark place indeed if they were all true!).

Now, the above definition does not make any given theory of a conspiracy untrue. It just makes it highly dubious in the eyes of everyday people. For my purposes here the truth or falsity of any CT that Christians promote is unimportant.[1]

My aim simply relates to priorities. As Jesus said, no one can serve two masters (Matt. 6:24). Serving a master is to further their goals and ambitions. You cannot faithfully serve two different masters – their ambitions undermine each other. Christians cannot promote CT’s and Jesus at the same time. Zeal for one will diminish the success of the other. That is my argument here. I have selected two biblical illustrations to highlight this – one is from the Old Testament, the other from the New.

Isaiah 8:11-13.

The first passage is a word from God to Isaiah the prophet (and possibly a group of faithful Israelites with him). This message was given at a time of national crisis (cf. Isaiah 7-8), and instructed Isaiah and co how they would conduct themselves in this time. Isaiah lived in the kingdom of Judah, which at that time was at war with the kingdoms of Israel and Syria. These kingdoms had put Judah’s capital city Jerusalem under siege and conspired together to depose its king and replace him with their own puppet ruler. It was a time of great national anxiety and fear.

Here is the message the Lord spoke to Isaiah:

11 This is what the Lord says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people:

12 “Do not call conspiracy
    everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
    and do not dread it.
13 The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
    he is the one you are to fear,
    he is the one you are to dread.”

Isaiah 8:11-13

The plans of their enemies threatened the people of Jerusalem. This was their fear, and their dread. It was the center of their thoughts and occupied the preeminent space in their minds. This was their ‘conspiracy’. This fear and dread was continually on their lips and was the talk of everyone in the city. The peril the people of Jerusalem feared was no conjecture. Recent political events were plain for all to see. This was no conspiracy theory; rather it was conspiracy fact.

But the Lord required his faithful people to be different (cf. Isaiah 8:11-12). For them the Lord must occupy center-stage in their minds, fearing him and dreading him. ‘Fearing’ and ‘dreading’ are heavy words. But they are words with a particular relevance in their context. These words show that there is a certain demeanor that should characterize the people of the Lord. The people of the city were panicked, but they instead were to be calm and restrained because they feared the Lord with that confident reverence that knows that he is bigger than anything that threatened them. These people were set apart as the Lord’s people because they had set apart him as the only thing worth being afraid of or troubling others about.

The problem with CT’s and Christians in terms of Isaiah 8:11-13 should be clear. When we broadcast our anxieties about conspiracy theories, we display the wrong kind and object of fear. The wrong thing is set apart as having a special place in our attention. Christian lives are signs pointing to Christ, and so we hereby present the wrong message: A conspiracy theory affects our confidence in the world more than our God does.

Does that mean bad things don’t go on in the world? Of course not. What it does mean is the way we face these things will be different from those who do not know and fear God. If you suspect you are a struggler in this, the popular text of Psalm 46:10 will be worth remembering: “Be still (tongue included), and know that I am God.” We can’t fear and serve two masters. There is a choice we must make here – and we know the right choice.

1 Timothy 1:3-7 & 3:7.

The second illustration comes from one of the NT ‘Pastoral letters’. These were written by Paul the Apostle to instruct in church leadership. The opening section of 1 Timothy highlights a problem he sees in some would-be Christian leaders. These would-be teachers were devoted to ‘myths and endless genealogies’ (v. 4).

We can leave the particular possibilities of what Paul meant by these terms to biblical commentaries, but what is important here is what they produce: speculation. Paul does not insist that these things are necessarily wrong, but points out that they are a distraction from what actually matters. The people who focused on these things wanted to teach, but their conversation with others was empty and vain – it did not help nurture Christian faith and living, despite the religious subject matter.  

Paul would have Christian leaders avoid speculation and instead focus on stewardship – diligent and proper use of the things they have been entrusted with. Christians have been entrusted with the gospel (v. 11), and leaders must carry out their duties of instruction, nurture, and care in accordance with this message. This principle positively defines the focus of their practice as Christian leaders, and also calls into question the value of other agendas – they distract from their key message and do not promote ‘love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a pure faith’ (v. 5).

Thus, with respect to Christian leadership, things like the ‘myths and endless genealogies’ of verse 4 cause them to fail at the task they have been given.

This has relevance for Christians with CT’s today. Christians – leaders or otherwise – have a program to follow. However small or large our sphere of influence, our Master has not called us to promote conspiracy theories. Even if people listen to us. These don’t help us. Instead he has entrusted us with the gospel, and in our life of service to him we are expected to be found good and faithful stewards of that message. We cannot serve two masters, and our choice of conversation will reveal our choice of master.

Another important factor is found in 1 Timothy 3:7, which is the conclusion of a list of qualities that must be present in a Christian leader (‘overseer’). It says that he ‘must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil’. The public face of the church is normally defined by its most prominent members, who are typically leaders of one sort or another. They must have a good ‘reputation’ or ‘witness’ from outsiders. If their neighbours or work colleague were asked about this person, what would they say? Would we find they give him a good reference and say he has integrity and respect? Someone with a level head and a kind heart? We should be able to expect that non-Christians who know him would do so. A quote from a commentary highlights the importance of this well:

“Paul indicates the necessity for the overseer to have a good reputation with non-Christians, so as not to fall into public disgrace, thereby disgracing the church in the eyes of potential converts, and thus fall into a snare of the devil, who is constantly trying to make the church look bad in the world’s eyes… It is clear that the pastoral [letters] show concern for the public face of Christianity, especially as it would be reflected in its most visible and well known members – usually high status Christians.”  

Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies to Hellenized Christians, 239-40.

No one must mistakenly presume that holding no official leadership role gives license to indulge in spreading CT’s. All Christians should aspire to possess character that is worthy of Christian leadership, even if they lack the skill or calling to lead. In their own sphere of influence every follower of Jesus has the responsibility to uphold the respect of the faith they represent. This means keeping quiet about CT’s. No one can serve two masters.

Think about how it looks to society at large (yes, the sheeple). There is a very real risk that in trying to be Ezekiel 33’s watchman on the wall, you instead just look like the Pied Piper has you played and you just get ignored. People who might otherwise have thought you had something to say worth listening to instead just keep down-scrolling. That isn’t the way to be the kind of leader Paul is calling for in 1 Timothy 3:7, nor the kind of Christian that our faith needs today. Remember, our mission is to win fair hearings for the gospel message. Warning about CT’s undermines that by making you look foolish in the public eye. Even if it looks plausible to you. It isn’t you mission. You cannot serve two masters. Put your effort into making the message of God and the gospel plausible, not a conspiracy theory.

Finishing thoughts.

Zeal for exposing dangerous conspiracies is not a bad motivation. The problem is that for Christians it obscures what we really are about. Would you rather convince people that God and his gospel are important, or persuade people to believe that your chosen CT is true? Which is more important to you? If you can agree that these are alternative choices, which would you choose? Or rather, what have you already chosen? What you are more known for displays who your master really is.

Your anger may be righteous, and your fears may be genuine. Your conspiracy theory could be correct, but never publically provable. What you do with these will be measured up against the commitment of loyalty you have made to Jesus. If he is your master, it is him that your words must serve.

If he is your master, spiritual growth for you will look like learning to trust him with your fears and indignations. ‘Keeping watch’ will be more about remaining steadfast and aware in prayer and less about uncovering secret plots at large in the world. Growth in grace will mean delighting more in the spread of the knowledge and love of the Lord than in the spreading acceptance and agitation of a conspiracy theory. For you – Christian – there is a message you are already committed to publicize, and since no one can serve two masters, that is good reason to let your conspiracy theory be put to rest.

[1] *My friend Joel Miles has written an excellent blog post on the hazard that Christians put their faith’s credibility to when they treat conspiracy theories as certain and incontestable.