Do we want tight doctrinal standards or do we want to follow Jesus?

Only the select or elect may enter a church with tight doctrinal standardsAfter spending much of 2014 and 2015 visiting churches, I have become increasingly aware that people flock to church groups with tight doctrinal standards.

As many note, these still show growth both in the US and overseas. The more theologically progressive mainline denominations with looser doctrinal boundaries show declining numbers.

The more rapidly growing churches rarely ordain women and, as a rule, exclude females from top-level decision-making bodies. Many are almost viciously anti-gay; others offer a limited welcome to the gay/lesbian population, making it clear that the so-called “homosexual lifestyle” will not be tolerated. No tolerance for same-sex marriages will take place on their premises.

Even though there are major differences in theology, almost all tight-doctrine churches declare that they are truly “biblical” in belief and world-view.

Life is easier in a tight doctrinal standard church

What draws people to these places?

I think such churches make life much, much easier for their adherents. Here’s why:

  • Many decisions are already pre-made for them.
  • They don’t have to wrestle with complex questions of sexuality or biology.
  • People know their places (i.e., men in leadership/women in the homes).
  • More constricted boundaries paradoxically give more freedom within because no energy is wasted on trying to change things.
  • Those who don’t agree either leave or are kicked out.
  • Many can find biblical justification for what look like hateful actions and prejudicial decisions.
  • They can point to their growth as a sign of God’s blessing without having to ask if that is actually true or not.
  • Humans have always formed in-group/out-group bonds as they offer both safety and a sense of identity.

Is This Biblical?

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Jesus didn’t seem to mind getting dirty © Tatip999 |

With that, I now ask the question: is this truly a “biblical” way to live? I know as I read the Gospels, I see Jesus routinely breaking the rules that the first-century Rabbi-informed Jewish community used to keep their group and religious identities intact.

  • Jesus touched the worst of unclean (bleeding women, lepers and tax collectors) and mingled with sinners.
  • He asked people to follow the Law in a far deeper sense by reminding those around him that lust (experienced by everyone) equals adultery and anger (experienced by everyone) equals murder.
  • It was to those without voice (women) that the message of the Resurrection was initially entrusted.
  • It was to the outsider (the Samaritan woman) that the role of first evangelist was given.
  • It was to the despised (Peter, the betrayer) that the commission of feeding the sheep was handed.

Such actions are seriously counter-cultural. And they do not draw crowds or enhance popularity.

Like it or not, that gospel is not popular and never will be. That gospel calls us to lay down our lives for our enemies, to put vengeance aside, to relinquish power, not gain it.

So I do wonder if the measurement of “Look at all the people there–God must be blessing them!” is itself actually “biblical.”

The Problem With the Established Church

I do strongly believe that it is within the gathering, the “ecclesia,” the church, that we will find our strength to live out such a complex call. We need one another for strength, for guidance, for correction, for collective power to stand for good and against evil and injustice in whatever forms we find them. We need places where our children will be instructed, our teens shaped, our adults molded into Christian perfection.

We need one another for strength, for guidance, for correction, for collective power to stand for good and against evil and injustice in whatever forms we find them.

We need places where our children will find top class instruction; our teens challenged to own their faith lives; our adults molded into Christian perfection.

We must be connected to one another in basic unity in order to have what it takes to keep going.

When a church becomes a business . . .

But when the church becomes a business, when labors under burdensome bureaucratic layers and indecipherable procedural manuals, when it needs a high court to interpret the rules, when its purpose is to bring in enough money to pay everyone and only survive, then we no longer have freedom to live in any kind of biblical manner.

I believe this is what John Wesley saw from his inside perch as a Church of England priest. He developed and honed methods so that people might find ways to live as Jesus commanded.

United Methodists, and many other established denominations with way too many bosses and lowering numbers of overworked laborers, have become the very thing that Wesley (and Luther and so many others) sought to address and reform.

We cannot replicate the methods Wesley developed and used in the 18th century. That was a different time, a different world.

What we can do is replicate the aroma of grace that informed the methods. Therein is our hope.

If we chose not to replicate that aroma of grace, then have we reached the time to disband? Can we still be known as those who honor their call to follow Jesus and lay down their lives for their enemies?

Living in grace and love of our enemy insists on the far more challenging path. Moreover, this path doesn’t build big churches and moneyed institutions.

I used to think it was easy to follow Jesus. Then I grew up. It’s hard. It always has been. But that’s our call. I wish I could say I am succeeding.

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  • See Noevo

    “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

    But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every
    word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

    If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to
    listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

    Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and
    whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

    • Raymond

      Didnt Jesus reach out to tax collectors with mercy and forgiveness?

  • Iralyn Jequinto

    Just 1.5 months ago I finally proclaimed God as my personal Lord and savior, I’m 29 years old, late and not late but basically I realized I need my faith to get a lot stronger, I grew up a loosely faith based Catholic, prayed now and then but a Christian friend helped me find Him. I’ve tried different churches but had an apparition of the Virgin Mary; technically I guess that makes me Catholic, my Grandma and aunt see her often, I wonder if it’s possible to pray for her but not be a devoted Catholic.. I’ve been to other churches and did appreciate the others, except the Cult one I went to LOL! I pray God gives me an answer, but for now I’m mainly reading the bible and going to a Christian Church

    • Monty

      Hello Iralyn, I’m glad that you see your need of a Saviour. I sure did and that was 45 years ago! (I’m 66). It is the best decision anyone can make ever. I’d just like to mention that God has saved us through the death of His Son, our Lord Jesus. Jesus rose from the dead so that we could be born again and have the new, abundant life that He came to give us! I suggest that you ask God to give you understanding of the bible. It is a spiritual journey of discovery. God will show you great things if you will ask Him. God is not interested in labels. Either we are born again or not. God welcomes all who are born again regardless of background, even if their doctrines are not exactly according to the Southern Baptist tradition (JK). God will bless you abundantly as you put your trust in Him. Oh, and “blessings” can be real difficulties and challenges that are no fun at all. No athlete got to win by just watching others race. No one hands out prizes to spectators. Sometimes we need a bit of spiritual exercise. It is when things aren’t going to plan that we find out how strong our faith is! If I can help in any way, let me know. I’m in Australia btw so lunch is probably out of the question.

  • Linda Coleman Allen

    Grace and mercy; two of God’s greatest gifts.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Why is it necessarily an either/or question? For the sake of being rhetorical? Or in order to provide a foil for sounding opinionated?

  • Jonah Barnes

    Hello Christy! (full disclosure: I’m a Mormon). Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. My question: Do you really think it’s easier being part of a conservative faith? Honestly? I believe it is far harder. Strict doctrine and policy isn’t easier, it’s harder. It’s culturally acceptable to be egalitarian and liberal in your thinking, so everyday I have to defend my church to people who view it as stodgy and sexist. This isn’t easy. Members of my conservative faith commit excruciating amounts of time, money and emotional energy to their faith. When I go to my conservative church, I know that I’m contradicting the popular wisdom of the day. I’m uncomfortable in many places because my faith prohibits drinking, lewdness and many kinds of culturally acceptable socialization. These aren’t easy things to commit to. In the end, of course, my faith excommunicates apostates, whereas other church are far more inclusive. I suppose I would contend that the opposite is true: rigid conservative religions are far, far harder to live by than more progressive faiths.