In defense of the church, part III: Doctrine

There’s a strong anti-doctrinal spirit in parts of the church these days, as the impulse in this direction of oldline Protestant liberalism is being reinforced by Emergent types who are assiduously reinventing Walter Rauschenbusch; it’s a spirit that’s captured quite well in this video from Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis.

[10/23/15: The video is no longer available, as far as I can tell.]

I’m struck, in that video, by the blithe confidence with which people look into the camera and assert that their church has no doctrinal statement that anyone has to believe because everyone has their different opinions and they’re all valid, and that upholding anything as unchanging truth is a waste of time because Scripture is evolving, as if a) they’re obviously true, and b) doctrine is obviously a bad thing. The problem is, these statements don’t hold.

They don’t hold for three reasons. The first is that if you want Scripture to mean anything at all, it can’t mean that. You will not find “everyone has ideas and they’re all valid” in the Word of God. What you will find instead is Jesus declaring, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6); what you’ll find is Paul telling Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:14-17). What you’ll find, in other words, is a strong concern through all Scripture that the church know and believe and uphold the truth, which in fact does not change, because truth is of God and God doesn’t change. If we actually want to follow Christ, that necessarily means that we need to be concerned to know and believe and proclaim the truth—and that in turn means that we do need doctrine, and an understanding of at least the most basic beliefs that we need to hold if we’re to follow where he’s actually going (as opposed to where we want to believe he’s going).

The second reason is that, as John Hatton has noted in a brilliant post on Confessing Evangelical, doctrine is necessary as the “constitution for a community.” He pulls this phrase from Columbia law professor Eben Moglen, the lawyer for the Free Software Foundation who helped draft (and enforce) the GNU General Public License; according to Moglen, that’s the primary purpose of free software licenses, not that they provide a platform for enforcement, but that they constitute (which is to say, create and give form to) a community with a given identity and purpose. Without that constitution,

groups arise within the community who, being ignorant of the principles on which the community is constituted, start to reject and work against those principles. They do not mean to undermine the community—quite the opposite; they consider they are strengthening it—but by undermining that community’s constitution it is inevitable that they will end up damaging the community itself.

This is a phenomenon with which the church is all too familiar, and it shows why there is a need to teach people the faith. Not because people need to know doctrine inside-out in order to be good Christians; not because it is a useful technique that is effective in building up individuals and the church; but because poorly-taught Christians may find themselves inadvertently undermining the constitution on which the church is built, by coming to reject doctrines they have never even known or understood in the first place. . . .

In addition, the free software movement and the church are both faced by numerous external opponents (variously, the world, the flesh, the devil, and Microsoft 😉 ), and ignorance of the constitution on which each community is founded makes it easier for those external opponents to damage that community and the individuals within it.

The key here is that those who reject doctrine (or conceive themselves to be doing so, anyway) do so because they misconstrue it as primarily regulatory in purpose, as if the main reason we have doctrines is so we can punish those who disagree. As Hatton, applying Moglen, shows, that’s wrong: the primary purpose of doctrine is formative, creating us as the people of God, as the kind of community God wants us to be. Set it aside, and you may be fine for a while, but ultimately you’ll find “poorly-taught Christians . . . inadvertently undermining the constitution on which the church is built, by coming to reject doctrines they have never even known or understood in the first place.” Who we are and how we live begins with and flows out of what we believe; we cannot be a unified community in Christ, we cannot serve God together as his people, in any faithful way for any length of time without holding at least our most important beliefs in common (such as who this God is we’re worshiping, and who this Jesus is we’re following, and why we’re doing this at all). As Rich Mullins summed up the matter in his song “Creed,”

I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am;
I did not make it—no, it is making me;
It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.

The third reason the statements I referenced above don’t hold is that they fail the Francis Schaeffer test: “Can you live them out?” You can’t; Solomon’s Porch can’t, and their video shows it. In the snippets from Doug Pagitt’s sermon (at least, I assume it’s Doug Pagitt preaching), he makes such statements as, “Ultimately, community that’s Christian means to be a community of love.” That’s a doctrinal statement. It makes no sense whatsoever without a complete doctrinal context that provides definitions (so that we know what words like “community,” “Christian,” and “love” mean; they aren’t self-evident) and goals (so that we know, for instance, why we value community, and why we want a community that’s Christian as opposed to some other kind), and it asserts something that we must believe: a Christian community is a community of love. On the basis of what they say, the folks at Solomon’s Porch ought to be completely happy if someone stood up at that point and said, “You’re wrong; that might have been true once, but it isn’t now”—but they wouldn’t. They might say, “all those ideas are important and valued,” but if someone tried to interrupt the message to insist that a Christian community is not a community of love, they would find out exactly how important and valued that idea isn’t.

And that is necessarily so. It has to be; because if they really believed their own sweeping statements and tried to live accordingly, they would find that the rejection of doctrine is a universal acid that dissolves community. And so, even as the folks in that video insist that all beliefs are welcome, they also say, “If Jesus were alive today, what would he be concerned about? Well, he’d be concerned about what I’m concerned about” (and therefore, by clear implication, you ought to be concerned about that, too). They’re not rejecting doctrine as such; they can’t, because they wouldn’t have a coherent community if they did. What they’re rejecting is any doctrinal authority except themselves—which ultimately ends in rejecting the authority and primacy of Jesus, and building a church that’s all about us and how wonderful we are.

This is, I believe, where the attack on doctrine comes from. People may say they’re attacking the church because it insists on believing specific things, but their overt complaint is in fact incoherent, and merely a mask for the real complaint: that the church is telling them things they don’t want to hear. That’s not all bad, nor is it necessarily unreasonable, since no church has all its doctrines right, and too many churches teach things which are harmful, or proclaim things in harmful ways; but the problem comes when we start to think that the church should only tell us what we want to hear, and only ask us to believe what we want to believe. That’s not the model we have from Jesus. Jesus spent a lot of time telling people things they didn’t want to hear, because it was what they needed to hear; if we as the church are to be faithful to his call, we must go and do likewise.

(NB: the last paragraph has been edited to more clearly and accurately express my point.)


Posted in Church and ministry, Scripture.


  1. “The key here is that those who reject doctrine (or conceive themselves to be doing so, anyway) do so because they misconstrue it as primarily regulatory in purpose, as if the main reason we have doctrines is so we can punish those who disagree. As Hatton, applying Moglen, shows, that’s wrong: the primary purpose of doctrine is formative, creating us as the people of God, as the kind of community God wants us to be.”

    I think a problem you’ll encounter as you deal with these issues you bring up is that I (and many like me) have almost never experienced doctrine in the way you’ve described. I have almost exclusively seen doctrines used as reasons to punish and exclude people, and almost never as life-giving.

    I honestly believe that the main reason we have doctrines is so we can punish those who disagree. Historically, conflicts over doctrine aren’t based on a desire to build more life-giving community, but over a desire to punish and to consolidate power with a particular doctrinal group. I think that’s still the case today.

    Now, I think you’re right to point out that doctrine-less-ness is probably impossible for a religious community, but caught up in Solomon’s Porch’s idea of “doctrine” (I guess – I don’t know) is someone wanting to punish them because they don’t believe in X, Y or Z. What they’re trying to do is to build life-giving community – the thing that you think doctrine is for – without overt doctrines, which they’ve experienced to be life-denying and community-breaking.

    Doctrine can appear to be building community, I suppose, as long as you are firmly part of the entrenched status quo. For the rest of us, doctrine just feels like another weapon.

    So, if you want to reach the people who attend Solomon’s Porch, or people like myself who experience what it is to be outside the status-quo almost all the time, you’ll have to find some other way to live out commitment to doctrine. I actually think that is exactly what Solomon’s Porch is doing, but you have to say you reject doctrines, because to a lot of people outside the church’s status-quo, that is like saying “we aren’t armed, its ok, its safe to come in.” Saying that you have a commitment to doctrine says, to many of us, “we’re armed to the teeth, so watch yourself and keep quiet if you disagree.”

    That’s just how we’ve experienced doctrine, more often than not.

  2. I’m tempted to say, “For neither statements of faith nor explicit avoidance of statements of faith are anything . . .” but that would, obviously, be unhelpfully flip of me, since the whole of doctrine is rather more significant in itself than circumcision. And yet, there is something to it. I’ve been connected, in one way or another, to churches everywhere on the spectrum, and I have found both gracious acceptance and savage intolerance from churches everywhere on the spectrum, be they evangelical, fundamentalist, Catholic, or liberal mainline. I have found churches with statements of faith that held them in humble gratitude, and churches that proudly avowed that you could believe anything you wanted which turned viciously hysterical when the dogmas they actually did care about were challenged. Indeed, at least among the dogma-waving intolerants of the Right, they know they’re being intolerant and they say so; the peculiarly tooth-grinding feature of the intolerance of the Left is that even as they stone you, they make a self-righteous parade of their tolerance.

    Which is not, of course, to say that every church on the liberal end is intolerant–far from it; but in my experience, they really don’t do much better on that score than folks on the conservative end. Liberal churches just tend to be intolerant in different ways, on different issues.

    I have to disagree, then, with your statement that “the main reason we have doctrines is so we can punish those who disagree”–because it is impossible to believe nothing. Doctrine is inevitable. To me, the issue is what is your doctrine, and specifically, is it all about grace?–and, a corollary, do you hold your beliefs humbly? If not, then even if you hide it in the back corner of the basement, you will punish those who disagree; and if so, then it doesn’t matter if you paint it on the sign out front, you will welcome those who disagree. Certainly, people need to see and feel that welcome, and to know that questions (and specifically, their questions) will be entertained gladly, freely, and openhandedly; but I don’t think it’s necessary to disavow offering answers to those questions in order to do that, so long as we offer them in humility and the desire to serve.

    Ultimately, it seems to me, doctrine is not only necessary but inevitable–all that disavowing statements of faith, etc., will do in the long run is obscure the issue and make it harder for people to see where the landmines are. Better, I think, to be out front with it and hold ourselves to these three standards: are our doctrines good news? Do we live them as good news? Do the people around us experience them as good news? Because really, if we tell people we have good news for them–that’s doctrine; and if it really is good news, then things are working the way they’re supposed to work. And if we don’t have good news for people, then what’s the point of us, anyway?

    My heart aches for all those who have been hurt by churches that don’t offer good news; I know a lot of people who’ve been run over by churches, and it grieves me. (For that matter, I’m one of them.) As a pastor, I try to do all things in gentleness, grace, and humility, in a spirit of peace, so as to give people space for whatever they need; I’m a sinful human being, so I fall short, but I try. I make no bones about what I believe, and I preach the gospel as clearly and powerfully and with as much grace as I can manage (and certainly I manage less some weeks than others), and I invite people who disagree with me to do so, as long as they too will strive to do so in grace and humility. In such discussions, I’ve received more than a few blows, but I think I can honestly say that I’ve managed to avoid dealing them, at least mostly. That’s simply how I’ve been taught, because it’s a matter of doctrine–it’s what I’ve been taught that the doctrines that I uphold require of me. I know too many people use doctrine far differently; that, too, I think is a reflection of the doctrines which they hold. All of which is to say that I don’t think the problem is doctrine as such; I think it’s false doctrine.

    My apologies for rambling; I’m woefully short on sleep, and I know I’m mentally wobbly. Feel free to take issue as necessary. 🙂

  3. maybe it is the language. or perhaps they really believe they believe what they’re saying. i’m not sure. i didn’t see anything in this video that was extremely alarming, but perhaps that is because it so closely parallels the path god has set me on. i do know that i had never heard of the emergent church before a couple of years ago, and was surprised to find others who had been called out in much the same way as myself, and learning many of the same things i was, simultaniously, all across the globe without any contact with one another. at the very least, i think that is something worth investigating.

    for me, the problem with “doctrines”, as i have come to know them in my own 33 years involved in church culture, is that from my understanding, many of the truths “we hold to be self-evident” as doctrines are issues that were never really settled. one side, the one with the “authority”, usually won out and then banished or killed the dissenters, burned their writings, and then wrote the history. we could go round and round about the semantics of this, which would be a waste of time, but we know that it did indeed happen in instances.

    i cannot speak for those in the video but the problem i have with “doctrines” persay, is that they are inflexible. they do not allow for growth or change. they are statements that say god is always this, and never that. which in some instances is fine, but in other instances can actually hold a person back from discovering more about god and his character. not to mention holding a person back from following god deeper. i know this was the case in my life. when you read scripture with doctrines firmly in place, too often you don’t see anything new. you only see the doctrine that was formed from whatever passage of scripture you are reading, and the bible is not allowed to speak anything new to you.

    i find that having a community where adherance to a certain statement of beliefs allows a person to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. because what god may be asking of me may not be what he is asking of you. and i think that’s what they are going for whether they recognize it conciously or not.

    i could say more, but child-duty calls. interested in hearing your thoughts to these preliminary things if you have any.

    thanks for your time.

  4. I should probably start off by saying that I’m not attacking Solomon’s Porch, by any means, just in case that isn’t clear; it’s merely my concern that they’ve bought into something that isn’t actually helpful, which is that doctrine qua doctrine is harmful. One of the things God’s been teaching me over years in ministry (as a recovering know-it-all) is that the problem is spiritual pride. Yes, that often comes with having fixed doctrines, when that’s accompanied by the sense of absolute certainty that we’re right and everyone else is wrong; but (as I learned the hard way in my last congregation) it can just as easily come with the rejection of fixed doctrines, as people come to think of themselves as superior Christians because they’ve “got beyond that.”

    “adherance to a certain statement of beliefs allows a person to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling”

    I’m not quite sure of your grammar there; but abstracting this clause, anyway, I do believe this is true, if those beliefs are Christ-centered and held with humility and grace, and if we also hold on to the second half of that sentence, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13).

    The key it seems to me w/r/t doctrine is twofold. One, don’t overdo it. Jason Byassee has a long review essay in the latest Books & Culture which includes a work by Yale historian Rowan Greer; he cites Greer as saying that the only two dogmas he finds in the ancient church are Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity, and adds that “standing firm on a few points of truth allows us flexibility to explore widely without floating off.” That sounds about right to me. We’re going to land on conclusions (with varying degrees of certainty) on most other issues, and we should be honest about that, but we need to not make everything essential or critical.

    Along with that, we need to hold what we believe with humility and a sense of our own contingency. I wrote on this a couple weeks ago, as well as on Jemila Kwon’s blog a while back, that we need to hold along with our beliefs an awareness both of our own sinfulness (which means we cannot assume the correctness of either our perceptions or our reasoning) and of our own limitations (which means there’s a lot beyond our ability to know). Put another way, we have to remember that only Jesus could say, “I am the truth”; the rest of us aren’t. We may believe X with all that is in us, but we always have to remember that we could always be wrong. Individually, I’m pretty sure about each particular thing I believe (and rock-solid sure about some of them); taken all in all, though, I’m at least as sure that I have to be wrong about some of it. Therefore, if anyone challenges me about something, I have to listen respectfully and take them seriously, because they may have identified something I’ve gotten wrong; and (as I know I’ve said before, in a few places), we should always read the Bible looking and listening for God to upsettle us in some way, because if he isn’t, we’re probably missing something. It’s all about humility.

  5. i apologize for my grammar. “i find that having a community where there is no adherance to a certain statement of beliefs allows a person to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling” is how it should have read. i was only looking for spelling errors when i proofread. i don’t write according to grammar anyway. i hope that doesn’t bother you. i tend to write more as i would talk.
    i don’t really capitalize either. (can you tell?)
    if you don’t mind, for purposes of controlling the discussion so that it doesn’t spiral off into one of many tangents, i am studying the specific instance of Arius as an example of my confusions and thoughts regarding doctrine. if you are familiar, great. if not, see what you can find.

    i am also curious to hear more of your firsthand experience where things went wrong by letting go too much doctrine.

    i have to work, but i’ll be thinking all day and be back this evening. just thought i would give you a little food for thought before then. thanks for your kindness and ability to discuss opposing viewpoints in a spirit of love. it’s so hard to find these days. (from conservatives OR liberals.)

  6. I’ve tried a couple times to get down a longer response, but my computer’s giving me odd problems, so . . . just a couple quick thoughts.

    First, while as I say I don’t think doctrine should be overdone–we’re supposed to believe in Jesus, not in our statement of beliefs–I do think we need to hold fast to at least a few key truths; otherwise, while we may well be working out our salvation, it may only be ours, not God working in us–and only God’s salvation actually saves. Ours doesn’t accomplish much. (The same is true of ministry, which is a humbling thing for pastors, though also a freeing one.) True, doctrine defines, and true, definitions confine; but without definitions, we aren’t all talking the same language, in the same direction. They shouldn’t be so rigid as to obstruct the flow, but without them, there is no coherent flow.

    It’s rather like, to throw in a different metaphor, traffic laws; in places where those doctrines or definitions aren’t followed, you end up with chaos, and a very dangerous situation. (One of our college students here told us about driving in Mexico City, where that’s very much the case; he did it once, considers himself fortunate to have survived, and swears he’ll never do it again.)

    Second, yes, I’ve seen this in a couple of churches. In one case, it was an elder who was convinced of her own spiritual superiority for having gotten beyond mere doctrine to live by love; she was blind to her own spiritual pride, and not at all loving to anyone who disagreed with her, and did a fair bit of damage in consequence. The other was a church where doctrinal teaching had been soft-pedaled in favor of how-to-type teaching; there, we had some folks begin to take that in a direction which caused significant divisions. Their efforts ultimately split off a pretty good chunk of the church. The pastor left shortly thereafter, having been badly hurt by a few of the departing folks.

    As Hatton says, it’s not that we need to insist on full agreement with some sort of doctrinal statement–heck, we don’t even do that here, and we’re Presbyterian; one church I was a part of, we had a former Unitarian and a former Mormon among our members. It made for some interesting conversations. But we do need to be moving more or less together, in pretty much the same direction, in order to be a coherent community; and in order to do that, we have to have at least core agreement on where we’re going and whom we’re following (Jesus) to get there. That’s doctrine, and the reason for it. As Richard Baxter said (unless someone else said it first), “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

    The thing is, the very nature of a community makes doctrine not only essential but inevitable; there will be some things that are agreed on as the common purpose. Again, you can see it in the video. On the one hand, “no doctrinal statement”–but on the other, “Christian community is a community of love,” which means what? “You’d better believe Jesus would be concerned about racism, and globalism, and the environment.” And if you don’t believe that? Then what? That’s their doctrinal foundation, or part of it; that’s one of the articles of the constitution of their community; and if you don’t agree, chances are, you aren’t going to feel all that valued and welcomed.

    I guess what I would say here is that if we have a community that foregrounds its doctrinal commitments, that says right out front, “This is what we as a group generally (though not uniformly) agree on,” that has two advantages. One, it helps us to be consciously humble about those commitments, because we know what they are and we have them right out there to be examined, explored, and questioned as necessary (because none of us understand everything, so errors are inevitable); they stand as visible markers of where we’ve gotten so far, and thus as launching points for our continuing learning. This sort of attitude is of course far from inevitable, but it’s a lot easier to hold if we’re clear on what our doctrines really are.

    And two, if that’s right out there, then we’re being as honest as we possibly can with anyone who might come along; if they’re not comfortable with who we are, if they don’t feel we fit what they believe and what they’re looking for, they can more easily say, “Thanks, but this isn’t where God is leading me,” and move on to another community that does. Any other approach, it seems to me, makes it harder for people to figure that out (though of course, they might determine the absence of fit for other reasons, like music style or demographics). I’m not really a fan of a consumer approach to choosing churches, but realistically, people will choose to attend or not attend based on what they know, and it seems only fair to be as open as we possibly can so that they know as much as they possibly can about us.

    In all this, of course, I’m only dealing with “doctrine” as an abstraction, which was after all the defense of the post; I could just as easily be speaking as a Hindu in this regard, rather than as a Christian. Getting in to comparisons of specific doctrines and the question of what is true would be a whole different conversation.

  7. Ehh, quick . . . right. Disorganized and rambling, anyway. Sorry for the state of my sleep-deprived fumble-fingered brain . . . hope that’s somewhat clearer than Mississippi mud, at least. Also, thanks for the good words; I agree that gracious discussion across points of disagreement is all too rare these days (but then, that’s probably mostly been true in human history . . .), and I thank you (and Doug, as always) for the same.

  8. I just re-read this since you linked to it, and I remembered leaving a long response, and I just wanted to say that I really appreciate your approach to conversations like this.

    I think you’re right, upon reflection – it is probably best to be clear about the doctrines we hold and also to be clear as to how we seek to hold them. I also think of some of my beliefs as harder or softer than others – hard beliefs I’m not willing to compromise very much on; soft beliefs I’m much more willing to move out from under in order to connect to other people. But that seems to fall into the “how we hold the doctrine” category.

    And I’ll also own up to the kind of tooth-grinding liberal intolerance you bring up. The problem is that it isn’t *clear*, sometimes, what exactly is off the table, and it does leave the door open for the very holier-than-thou behavior that drives some of us into the arms of liberalism/progressivism/whatever.

    We just forget we’re human, I think; meaning eternally falling into the same traps regardless of where we try to stand.

  9. This is a very interesting subject. Maybe am a bit simple minded in this respect but I have always thought of doctrine as simply an expression of truth. A statement primarily of law in the sense that there is a "law" of gravity. It is very helpful to have a correct understanding of doctrine in order to function properly in the world that is.

    It has been said that doctrine is inflexible but certainly the law of gravity is rather inflexible also since it is merely an expression of reality. To ignore reality is perilous.

    All analogies are of course limited, however if I could continue with this one, it could be argued that gravity is too constraining for our tastes but never the less it is what it is. If one accepts the doctrine of gravity, however, one can go about using the principle of bernoulli to soar within the confines of the doctrine of gravity.

    As to doctrine being used as a weapon, this very real problem is surely a result of the behavior of the person wielding it rather than a problem with doctrine itself.

    In the same way a physical weapon such as a pistol or spear can be used for good or ill. In the churches that I have attended I would not feel the slightest discomfort were I to find everyone fully armed (which I have no doubt some were), yet I have been in other situations where I have been quite concerned when the only weapons in sight where human hands. The difference lies in the hearts and character of the people involved.

    Surely it is incumbent on each of us to handle everything, including doctrine, in Godly love and humility.

    In such cases doctrine is a useful tool for clarifying our understanding of life, the universe and everything (tips the hat to Douglas Adams).

    If we have no core, no anchor as it were, then we are bound to be buffeted and blown about by the winds of contemporary fads and end up battered on the rocks.


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