Monday, March 13, 2006

What's Wrong With Church - Doctrine

Let's start our look at the church with a problem which Scripture warns us about repeatedly -- the importance of doctrine. Already I realize that there are people hurriedly moving their mouse, trying to close this window, disgusted and disappointed that a discussion of a practical subject like improving the church is beginning with such a theoretical and theological approach. But I ask that you bear with me, because there is little to be discussed which is not practical, and little to be done which does not deal with the issue of basic Christian doctrine. Peter and Paul each warned the early Church to guard their doctrine closely. So did John and James. Why? Because doctrine is the foundation for the way the Christian as an individual and the church as a whole do things.

I see churches going both ways. There are some who guard doctrine very closely, but the list of which doctrines should be guarded gets extremely long. Finally some of the most trivial decisions a local church can make are considered a strict matter of determining God's will. Denominations divide over secondary issues which are not expressly spoken of in Scripture. People are cast out of the fellowship for offering a different perspective on being saved without baptism or which Bible translation is allowed in the sanctuary. Doctrine gives way to legalism. Strict codes of behavior must be adhered to or else face an official or unofficial boot from the congregation, and perhaps from heaven itself. Usually these churches are giving Christ a black eye by their disparaging remarks toward "sinners", all the while acting as if their own sins are easy for God to overlook. I'll address these hypocrites later in the series, but those whose doctrine about debateable issues is inflexible make many people consider the church to be impractical and foolish.

However, lately the trend has been going the other way. Doctrine is taking a back seat in many church circles. Some have tossed it out of the back seat altogether, leaving it lying there on the side of the road. Doctrine, after all, scares people. It is a series of claims about what is true in a culture where truth's absolute nature is discounted. Where the legalists want to make most everything essential Christian doctrine, the other side wants to erase the lines altogether. The Trinity, the reliability of Scripture, man's depravity, salvation without Jesus, the physical resurrection of Christ -- the doctrines which many Christians have shed their blood to preserve are being swept away in a spirit of unity at any cost. If we stand for nothing, we fall for anything. The fact that unbiblical practices are commonplace at some churches which call themselves Christian are proof that removing a strong stand for the essentials of the faith will lead to most any practice entering the church. Discernment is unnecessary if anything is possible. An honest look at the "anything goes" stance on church doctrine will lead a person away from the church. After all, if any interpretation is acceptable, then why would a believer have any need of a group of fellow believers or a shepherd to protect and guide them through uncertain teachings and uncertain times?

We need a clear teaching as a church. Don't misunderstand. I'm not saying that everyone who walks in the doors of a church must sign some sort of creedal statement or risk being ushered back to the parking lot. But I am saying that the stated goal of a church should be to teach, promote and adhere to the core doctrines of the Christian faith. Anyone in a pastoral position should agree and teach these doctrines. Anyone who wants to take a leadership role within a local church should agree with these essentials. And anyone, regardless of belief system, should be not only allowed in the doors, but be encouraged to attend to hear the Word of God, especially as it pertains to those doctrines.

If the question you're asking is, "Is this guy a Fundamentalist?" my answer to you is to stop trying to label me and deal with the facts. There are basic tenants of the Gospel which are to be held to. Let's deal with that instead of trying to attach a label to people.

The problem of a lack of church doctrine is expressed in any number of ways within the local congregation. Discipleship is not encouraged. Spiritual disciplines are not taught, recommended or practiced. The Bible is mentioned in passing, but messages are preached from a self-help perspective. A Christian worldview is unheard of, let alone taught. Without a clear teaching of doctrine, there is no foundation to build upon.

Unless a church stands for the historic doctrines of the faith, experience becomes more important than truth. The excesses of certain Charismatic movements have illustrated a person's willingness to accept anything which "seems right" to them. And a lack of grounding in Christian doctrine prevents any kind of spiritual discernment. Any emphasis leading one to neglect or abandon the study and meditation upon God's Word is wrong. It doesn't matter if the experience feels good or if it takes place at the front of the church, if it contradicts Scripture it is wrong. And if a church belittles the Bible in favor of experience, that church is in grave error. I am not arguing against anyone's experiences. Each of those experiences are separate issues. What I am saying is that without a solid stated belief in the essential doctrines of Scripture, a church is not making disciples of Christ, but disciples of a church or of a preacher or of a self-help philosophy.

Is there still room for denominational differences? Of course. There may even be some wiggle room on exactly which doctrines are essential. But churches who are afraid to offend by standing for Christianity and churches who needlessly take extreme positions on debateable points of theology are part of what's wrong with church today.

Up next: Club Mentality.

18 comments:

julie said...

Doctrine, while not glitzy, is essential for growth in any direction. I think people get queasy about doctrine because it can be devisive, but it really shouldn't be. It should be knowledge by which we know Him better!

John Wilks said...

Good work as usual, Ed! While legalism is a trap we must avoid, sound doctrine is our foundation.

A Human Bean said...

Anyone who is really seeking to follow Christ is going to have to wrestle with doctrine. I hold less doctrinal affirmations than many, but I still hold that there are essentials. The real issue comes when you try to define the essentials. While I don't believe everyone is allowed to have their own set of essentials, I do have a problem when someone decides their set is so definitive that anyone who disagrees with simply wrong. Here is the question. Who gets to decide what is in the tent and what is out of the tent? I say God, but others think they can set the rules.

Jennifer said...

Each church has the right to define it’s own creeds and even “rules of membership” any way they want to.
If a church believes so strongly that the KJV is the only right Bible to use, is it wrong to dismiss that as undoctrinal? If a woman attending a Baptist church accepts the Lord and finds herself speaking in tongues, is that undoctrinal? It is in the Baptist church, but not others. So how do you define what is essential doctrine? I agree with you that the Trinity, the reliability of Scripture, man's depravity, salvation without Jesus, and the physical resurrection of Christ are imperative. But how do you actually definte doctrine? How do you tell someone their doctrine is undoctrinal?

rev-ed said...

Jennifer, I don't know what you mean by "undoctrinal". By definition, doctrine is doctrinal. So I'm not sure what you're asking. So I'll answer Doug's point and see if that answers yours also. OK?

Who determines what the essentials are? I think it's obvious that God determines that, but it's up to man to discover it. There are historic essentials of the faith which are basic and for the most part have been universally orthodox. The list which I mention and Jennifer repeats are essentials. These must be defended and taught.

Beyond that point, we as Christians must be able to truly debate the differences, but not to assert that people with an opposing view are "out of the Kingdom" or any such nonsense. The church claiming that NIV-toters aren't reading the "real Bible" is part of what is wrong with the church. Charismatics who claim that I'm not saved because I don't speak in tongues is part of what is wrong with the church. Since that is my focus with this series, that is my context. If we want to "fix" the church, we have to be more accepting of those who differ from us on "non-essential" matters. The historic essentials are the place to draw the line. Denominational distinctions are not. We're all working on the same team, but too many people are hit by "friendly fire."

Jennifer said...

Amen, Rev. Doug's question summed up part of mine. I will try to re-word the other part: You and I agree that the issue of tongues is debateable. There are many people, though, who believe it is essential doctrine. We can't convince them otherwise. So how do we get churches to stop majoring in the minors, so to speak? Maybe you just haven't got that far yet.

rev-ed said...

How do we get people to change? You're asking a preacher how to get people to change??? If I only knew... :D

I'll touch on that again later.

Catharine said...

How do you teach a "Christian worldview" when there is no one Christian worldview. While many Christians try and lead Christ-like lives, many more have no interest in that, but merely use their "Christianity" as a ticket to the circus. Nowadays, its not cool to question the Church or anyone in it.

Even rational, decent christians are almost afraid to speak up and tell radical evangelicals who spout a philosophy of hate and intolerance to sit down and be quiet, lest their membership be revoked or disparaged.

How do you teach a doctrine when the one person on whose doctrine the Church should have been founded (Christ) is largely ignored in favor of the teachings of Paul or John? It can be confusing for a layperson -- particularly a female layperson who had to leave a "doctrine" that told her basically that her place in the Church (and the church) was to sit down and shut up and do what the men around her said do.

So not the woman for that... so not...

~C~

Shelly said...

I've been anxiously awaiting this series, Ed. Doctrine is definately a sticky point in today's church - feast or famine more or less.

Can't wait for the next post!

Richard H said...

Thanks for arguing for doctrine in the church! My argument in my book The Recovery of Doctrine in the Contemporary Church was that our starting point was in figuring out what doctrine is. Many of the folks who argue against the centrality of doctrine think it's only a list of arbitrary and outdated beliefs, with no relevance for Christian life, either individually or corporately. If that's all it is, then we might as well chunk it. My argument is that doctrine enables the church to participate in the ongiong work of God in history. Thus where there is no doctrine, or distorted, messed up doctrine, there will be spotty participation in the work of God.Read the book for the whole argument.

rev-ed said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks.

Catharine, I've taken a post to reflect on the things you said in your previous comment. I hope you read it, as I mean every word of it.

As to this comment, you are right that there are many who claim their Christianity only when it benefits them. If that were me, I'd be more careful considering myself an actual Christian.

However your experience seems to have tainted your view of what evangelical Christianity is all about. We bear no resemblance to Freddie Phelps and the hate squad from Kansas. Hate and true intolerance are not the norm and it is hardly true that "its not cool to question the Church or anyone in it," as that seems to be the expected standard these days. It sounds like you spent some time with some extreme fundamentalists who tend to give Christ a bad name. All over the country, denominations are awash in argument over social issues rather than spiritual issues. Perhaps it's tough for you to know that outside of the Christian church. I really didn't think we did such a great job of covering that up though...

And the problem is not an exaltation of John or Paul as opposed to Jesus. There is no disagreement between John, Paul and Jesus. There are simply people who twist the Bible into saying what they want it to say. Christians, deists, hedonists and atheists are all guilty of that.

I'm glad you stopped by, and I hope you get a chance to read the whole series.

A Human Bean said...

rev-ed,

I think my problem comes in the discovery process of doctrine. Essentially, I agree with you that there are essentials and we need to discover them. We also need to get over issues like tongues etc. I left the pentecostal church over this issues because I simply don't think it is an essential. Yet, I still believe the gifts are for today.

From my post of Evangelical Update a few months ago you already know my feeling on one of the supposed essentials - the trinity. I am trinitiarian, but I don't consider it an essential. That is why I have a problem with the "who gets to decide issue." I believe in a fairly generous orthodoxy that includes ones people, pentecostals, cessationsist, preterists and many others. If I had to create a list of essentials, It would include everything that Jennifer listed except the trinity issue.

curlygirl said...

I can sympathize with those frustrated by unyielding "doctrinal" positions espoused by some churches. I grew up in a militantly fundamental church; which while instilling us with excellent Bible knowledge and truth, also left me with a very narrow acceptance or tolerance for others. It has been a struggle, to brave the harsh disapproval of the church members and even family, in order to branch out and actually live life according to the Bible as I read it, and as the Holy Spirit guides me. The pressure to conform TO the church rules etc is greater than any outside "worldly" peer pressure I ever encountered. In a small cocoon of acceptance within these churches, it's hard to take a step away and find a bit of freedom in Christ...

Jennifer said...

Doug - you know, after I wrote that the Spirit really convicted me. Because the issue of the Trinity being essential is one that I have been wrestling with, as well. Not sure it's essential, not sure it isn't. Still wrestling.

rev-ed said...

I think the Trinity is essential because it is the nature of God. I've often heard that cults and heresies begin with the confusion of the nature of God, and I believe that is true. Besides the fact that these issues were settled hundreds and hundreds of years ago at the expense of many lives. If you want to develop a new appreciation for the doctrine of the Trinity, go back and see the mess of heresy which arose because the doctrine of the Trinity had not yet been worked out.

Maybe I ought to blog something on the six major heresies. Maybe I'd better finish up what's on my plate now... ;)

julie said...

I'd be interested in the six major heresies. (but I won't nag)

rev-ed said...

julie, for you I'll put it on the agenda. I'm just not promising a publication date! :)

julie said...

Are you done yet?!? Oh yea, I said I wouldn't nag....