Answering a Question: Can There Be a Church without Doctrines?
This question (Can there be a church without doctrines?) interests me a great deal. I have been asked it in various ways many times over the years. In fact, I have twice been a member of churches that claimed to have no doctrines other than “the Bible” – which I took to mean whatever the Bible says. Both churches flatly rejected attempts to establish even minimal statements of faith to show to potential members and others—even when they insistently ask for such.
So, yes, I know of churches that claim to have no doctrines, just the Bible. In some cases such churches are extremely conservative doctrinally, excluding anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe. I have known people who were expelled from such churches for not agreeing with the implicit doctrines of the church even though the church had no written doctrinal statement.
And I have known people who were embraced by churches with no doctrinal statement but claimed to believe and teach “only the Bible” who were rank heretics—denying the deity of Christ, the Trinity, etc.
O, what to do? What to do?
My first answer to the question is that there are no churches that last very long without having some doctrines—whether written or assumed. Several denominations claim to have no doctrines other than what the Bible says. Here’s one example. One of the largest groups of churches in the U.S. (with congregations around the world) has as its motto “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” Really? Sorry, I don’t believe it. Of course they have doctrines—common beliefs that are highly dubious with regard to what the Bible teaches. For example, they reject musical instruments in worship. Where does the Bible say musical instruments should not be used in worship? O, the New Testament doesn’t mention musical instruments in worship so “silent.” But they aren’t silent. They make it a doctrine not to have musical instruments in worship.
I could identify and describe numerous such examples of groups that claim to have no doctrines (often “outside of the Bible”) but actually do—in practice.
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To those who say there can be churches without doctrines I say nonsense. I am confident that if I could examine those churches’ web sites deeply enough and their publications and attend long enough I could identify their doctrines. Those manifest when someone teaches the wrong thing, what contradicts the leaders’ views or the views of the group’s founders, or whatever.
I believe it is better to write down your doctrines than leave them unwritten and for visitors and potential members to guess at.
A church might begin with “no doctrines,” but given time it will develop them. They will become boundary markers—in practice.
I once talked with a Unitarian theologian (he taught at a Unitarian seminary) and he insisted that all are welcome at a Unitarian church and they have no doctrines. I asked him if he/they would welcome a White Supremacist among themselves. Absolutely not, he responded. Then, I asked,” don’t you have a doctrine of racial equality? Yes. “But we don’t make it an authoritative doctrine.” I left that conversation confused about his confusion. Of course that’s a doctrine.
So much of this has to do with the meaning of “doctrine.” I suspect when many people ask if there can be a church without doctrines they are thinking of certain doctrines they are familiar with and not all beliefs. Every church will have some beliefs—even if they allow diversity and even disagreement about some doctrines. A church might, for example, decline to make the Trinity a formal, written, authoritative doctrine. But it will have some authoritative beliefs.
I once invited the pastor of a “liberal Baptist church” (that’s how they advertised it) too speak to my class. The class asked him if the church had any doctrines and he said no. One perceptive student asked what is required for membership and the pastor fell right into the trap. He said “believer baptism by immersion.” The student asked why and if that is not then a doctrine. The pastor appealed to the “Baptist” label and the history of the church and insisted it’s a practice not a doctrine. But anyone can see that there is a doctrine embedded in the practice.
I asked the liberal Baptist minister (who spoke to my classes several times) what he would do if a real, true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist Baptist wanted to join the church. He said he would help the person find a more suitable church to join. Uh huh.
I guarantee you that every church that has existed for a year or more has doctrines whatever they may call them. They are not necessary but they are inevitable (to borrow a phrase from Reinhold Niebuhr).
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