Why Doctrine Matters
This is Part Three of a series that began with Why Theology Matters. The second installment was about “systematic theology” and whether it matters. I don’t know how many installments this series has or where it is going, exactly. It doesn’t even have a title! So stay tuned…
How many times have I heard “Doctrine divides; Jesus unites!?” The sentiment is not always expressed in those words, but it remains the same, even in other words. But which “Jesus” unites?
An anecdote to illustrate: Years ago I served as director of a Christian coffee house during the so-called Jesus People Movement. A cult attempted to infiltrate the coffee house. The cultists came in the evenings and invited people to their house which served as their local cult headquarters. There they attempted to indoctrinate people into belief in reincarnation among other things. They claimed to be Christian, but their belief system was really what later came to be called “New Age” or “esoteric Christianity.” Their Christianity, as it was, was Gnosticism with reincarnation added on.
One Saturday evening I gave a talk to the coffee house denizens about that cult’s beliefs and why they were not truly Christian. I did my research first and quoted from the writings of the cult’s founder and leader. Two of the cult members, dressed in clerical garb, sat right in front of me. Afterwards they wanted to argue and I invited them outside the coffee house to the downtown sidewalk where we kept it calm and civil but the conversation became heated. Suddenly a pickup truck screeched to a halt beside the sidewalk and a man I knew to my regret jumped out, listened for a minute, grabbed one of the cultist around the neck and me by the other arm and asked loudly “Do you love Jesus?” Of course the cultist declared “Yes!” So did I but knowing this was to his advantage. The man, a Christian, then declared “That’s all that matters” much to the delight of at least some of the coffeehouse crowd who were listening to our debate. Then the man jumped in his pickup truck and rushed off to who knows where.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Over the years I have encountered numerous Christians, even evangelical Christians, who are anti-doctrine and thereby leave the door of Christianity, even some churches, wide open to the infiltration of cultists and heretics.
“Doctrine” is just a word for “collective belief.” A doctrine is something believed in and usually taught—however subtly and informally—among a community of religious people. (Sometimes the word “doctrine” is used outside of religion. For example, “The Monroe Doctrine” in American history. Here I am using it in its religious meaning.) My claim is that every religious community has doctrines, whatever they are called and whether they are formally written down or not.
When I moved to Texas to teach theology I found, much to my surprise, that many “moderate Baptist churches” there and throughout the South eschew formal, written doctrinal statements. I heard members say “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” (That’s actually something they borrowed unknowingly from the Churches of Christ! And it’s a doctrine!) Some of them told me they would gladly sign every page of a Bible but not allow a doctrinal statement into their church. “No doctrine but the Bible!” Of course, what they were ignoring was that the Bible is always interpreted and most cults that call themselves Christian claim to go strictly by the Bible. I am not saying that all interpretations of the Bible are equally true or equally valid; I’m just saying that the Bible alone is not enough to maintain a healthy Christian community immune to heresies and cultic infiltrations.
The second and third century church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian knew this and wrote down “Rules of Faith” briefly summarizing the essential beliefs of Christianity—to counter Gnostics and other heretics who claimed they had the true interpretation of revelation.
One moderate church of which I was a member did not even have a new members’ class or catechism for young people and new converts or would-be members. When a person wanted to join the church he, she or they simply walked the aisle to the front at the end of a Sunday morning worship service and was greeted by the pastor who then introduced them to the congregation. The only question she asked was “What makes your heart sing?” Then the pastor asked the congregation to welcome the new members! Of course, to become full, voting members they had to be baptized as believers, not necessarily by immersion. And the congregation eventually voted them into membership at a quarterly business meeting. But, try as I did, I could not find out whether the newcomers were ever asked what they believed. And the church had no statement of beliefs. Some members insisted the church should remain “noncreedal”—ignoring the difference between a creed and a statement of faith.
I left that church soon after a brief, concise confessional statement was written by me and the pastor and presented to the congregation for adoption by vote. The congregation rejected it. Not because the majority disagreed with what it said but because they wanted to remain “noncreedal” with “no creed but the Bible.” A problem was that I knew of one leading member, a deacon, who did not believe in the incarnation, that Jesus Christ was God the Son as well as the Son of God.
I thought I perceived the church drifting doctrinally toward inclusion of anyone who “loved Jesus” regardless of his or her beliefs. I could not in good conscience be part of a church with no doctrinal standards other than “no creed but the Bible!”
Even “We are inclusive of all people” is a doctrine. Or it reflects one, that it is good and right to include everyone.
Of course, I don’t really take such claims seriously. I want to ask churches that claim to be all-inclusive whether they would accept into membership or leadership a white supremacist or neo-Nazi or member of the KKK or … I can think of a hundred other examples of exceptions to the “all including” claim of any church. There are always boundaries, however hidden.
Of course doctrines can be used to abuse people; every good thing is open to misuse. But, as the old saying goes, the right response to misuse is not disuse but proper use.
So, what is “proper use” of doctrines? I prefer doctrines to be consensus statements that reflect the common beliefs of a religious (in this case Christian) community. When asked by the dean, I wrote such a doctrinal statement for the seminary where I taught. The faculty voted on it and approved it. It became the statement of faith, of common belief, of that seminary, but nobody has ever been asked to sign it. What does happen, though, is it is shown to prospective faculty members and adjunct teachers and they are asked if it generally reflects their beliefs and if they can teach in accordance with it even if they have certain reservations about some parts of it.
To me, anyway, this is better than the Statement of Faith of a Christian college where I taught. That doctrinal statement was used rigidly. All faculty had to sign it. There were certain portions of it, especially ecclesiology (church, sacraments), that were open to disagreement. Faculty who disagreed with those portions were invited to write down their disagreements. Some were hired in spite of disagreement with the portion dealing with the church and sacraments.
However, even such a minor point as “the eternal suffering of the wicked” was interpreted and applied rigidly by the president. I remember when one department of the college, I think the mathematics department, found a wonderful potential colleague who happened to belong to the Christian Advent Church, a small, evangelical denomination, member of the National Association of Evangelicals, that believes in annihilationism. The president vetoed the department’s hiring of that individual even though they could demonstrate that he was evangelical and extremely well qualified to teach the subject. The only reason the president gave for vetoing his hiring was his denial of “the eternal suffering of the wicked.” (Ironically, I knew that one or two faculty, even at least one theologian, believed in annihilationism but he or they kept it quiet. He or they would argue that annihilationism is consistent with “the eternal suffering of the wicked!” But they suspected the president would disagree.)
Enough said about doctrine for now. What do you think?
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