How Essential is Doctrine to Christianity?
Historically speaking, doctrine has always, until recently, been an essential part of Christianity. “Doctrine” here refers to official or semi-official beliefs held and taught by churches, especially to their members and constituents. Historically speaking, Christians have been people who believed conceptually, cognitively, and not only emotionally or in terms of affections and actions.
What did we believe conceptually, cognitively? No matter what the denomination or tradition, even in the case of so-called “independent” churches, Christians believed in a personal God, creator of heaven and earth, in Jesus Christ, God incarnate, both human and divine, in inherited, universal sinfulness and need of salvation by grace, in the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ, etc. These beliefs existed, were taught and interpreted, in difference forms, using different words. One doctrine that has (almost) always been believed and taught by Christian churches is the Trinity, that God is eternally three distinct persons, perfectly united by one essence.
My point is that I can say with confidence, as a church historian and historical theologian, that the current decline of doctrine in American Christianity is not in keeping with historical Christianity.
Let us set aside the fact that, in the past, some Christian churches wrongly persecuted people who did not believe as they did and as they taught. Such persecution hardly existed in America. I have been an American Christian for 71 years, although I would say I became a Christian in the full sense of the word, about 62 or 63 years ago. I was raised in “the thick” of American Christianity. I had dozens of aunts and uncles who were committed Christians of different denominations who spoke openly about their beliefs and the doctrines of their churches, without rancor or anger toward those who disagreed. I have spent more than forty years of my life studying Christianity and I can say with absolute confidence that the current decline of doctrine among American Christians is totally inconsistent with their past.
I spend a great deal of my time studying churches. I have visited numerous churches of many kinds and interviewed their pastors and leaders. I wrote the 14th edition of The Handbook of Denominations in the United States, building on its former editions, all of which I read.
What is this new development of which I speak here, now? It is the rise of a basically, perhaps essentially, non-cognitive Christianity in America—across denominations. To be sure, there are still some holdouts, some denominations and churches that emphasize a cognitive Christianity with robust beliefs. Overall, however, I am certain that the vast majority of American Christian churches downplay doctrine. For them, doctrines exists as historical relics or as background beliefs occasionally brought forth for some reason, but rarely are they treated as essential to Christian identity, even for adults who have been Christians most of their lives.
Recently I have had opportunity to examine the web sites of a large number of churches. Two things jump out at me as exceptional, compared with the past. First, it is often, even usually, difficult to discern what denomination (whatever it is called such as “network”) the church belongs to. Second, there is often, even usually, no easy way to find the church’s statement of beliefs, of doctrines. If it appears anywhere on the web site, it’s down three layers from the first page. Then it is usually very minimal.
I have very good reason to believe, from first hand experience and research, that most lay people have never read their own church’s statement of doctrinal beliefs or, if they have, they don’t remember what it says when asked. Surprisingly, many American denominations have no formal, written statement of doctrinal beliefs, but also surprisingly, some of those are the most conservative in terms of beliefs. It’s all so ironic.
There was a time, believe it or not, when “Christianity” almost universally meant, among other things, beliefs, doctrines. I recall hearing the cliche “Jesus unites; doctrine divides” and wondering what that unity is without doctrines about Jesus.
Christianity was historically a religion about truth, not just experience or ethical living. The drift away from concern for truth among American Christians leaves me little choice but to feel somewhat attracted to fundamentalism even if I can never be a fundamentalist! At least they still care about doctrines, even if too much and with too much fervor for minor doctrines. The bland, insipid, shallow Christianity of most American Christians leaves me wondering if it really even is authentic Christianity.