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.)