The Christian “D-Word”

May 17, 2010

Well, Friday’s post was really productive…

And by “really productive,” I mean a lot of us didn’t agree on anything.  But that’s what made it so much fun!

It’s often times the comments on one post that prompt me to write another post.  Wednesday’s comments prompted Friday’s post.  Friday’s comments led to this post. 

Anyway, does anyone else remember that song “Blessed be the tie that binds?”

I wonder what the “tie” is that’s supposed to be binding us…whatever it is, it doesn’t always work.  Christians figure out how to disagree on worship, prayer, music, evangelism, social justice, sanctuary carpeting, and the proper way to make potluck baked beans, just to name a few things.  Obviously, none of those things can be the tie that binds.

I guess what the song is saying is that whatever we disagree on, we at least agree on what we believe about God.  That’s what makes us Christians.  We can identify our own kind because we believe the same things.  Case closed…

…If only that were the case.

I think there’s a new Christian swear word.  It’s very versatile, and can be thrown back and forth between oppnents like any good swear word.

The word is…doctrine…pardon my French.

Christians either live and die by doctrine, or accuse those that do of being narrow-minded, argumentative and judgmental.

So it got me wondering…is doctrine the tie that binds Christians together, or the new Christian “D” word.

Point: Doctrine is what unites Christians.

Okay, you and I know that this blog isn’t really the high water mark of debating the finer points of Christian doctrine.  But there’s a lot of people who love doctrine.  I actually really like listening to The Bible Answer Man with Hank Hanegraaff, and all he talks about is what I should belief.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about his voice that I find comforting.

No doubt, Paul doctrined like a sailor.  He was always “God-doctrine” this and “Jesus-Christ-on-a-cross-doctrine” that.  Pretty much everywhere he went, he offended people with his off-color and explicit doctrine talk.  He even offended Peter, who actually was a sailor.

John Piper comes to mind.  Man, that guy is really sure of what he believes.  And he believes something about…well, everything.  It seems everything is a point of doctrine for that guy!  I’m not criticizing.  I admire his assurance that he’s right about everything.  Reminds me of someone I know…hmmm.

Mark Driscoll just wrote a book, simply called Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe.  The title of that book says it all.  It seems like it would be simple enough.  Everyone who believes certain things about the Bible, God, and Jesus are Christians.  Those who don’t are unsaved, and ripe for evangelism.  And then there’s Brian McLaren, who just confuses everyone about what he believes.

Let’s face it.  Christians don’t have a lot in common.  Actually, we have practically nothing in common.  Look at some of the people in your church?  Would you hang out with them if it weren’t for Jesus?  Have you ever had an epiphany at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner about the thin bonds of DNA and marriage that link you to these people you have nothing else in common with?  If you take away doctrine, what do you have left, besides a country club for a lot of people who disagree with each other, or Thanksgiving dinner?

Counter-Point: Doctrine is devisive.

Sure, doctrine identifies who is “in” and who is “out.”  That came in really handy during the Spanish Inquisition.  It was really easy to tell who a heretic was.  They were the ones sitting in the “comfy chair.”

Okay, so that’s Monty Python.  But still, when Christians get caught up in trying to define each other by our beliefs, that’s how Crusades, Inquisitions, Jihads, and John Calvins get started.

You can’t say that Jesus gave the crippled guy a quiz on doctrine before he healed him.  Or that Roman soldier who Jesus helped?  Probably needed to bone up on his Jewish doctrine a bit. 

It feels a bit discouraging to see all the branches, traditions and ideas that have sprung out of Christianity.  They pretty much all happened because Christians couldn’t agree on something, and rather than live with each other, they parted ways.  As pointed out by my church history professor, this is pretty much the reason the Baptist church in America is so huge.  A church splits over a disagreement, and now you have two churches.  That is the secret to one of the most prolific American denominations.  Great strategy.

I know I don’t like it when people tell me what I believe.  I think I know what I believe, thank you.  Doctrine seems to just give Christians something to argue about, rather than doing some good for people.

Seems fair to say that none of us can know what’s in another person’s heart, if they love Jesus or not.  Besides that, how can we ever know if our doctrine is the best to judge others by?  I’ve heard it said a lot.  People aren’t afraid of God judging them.  They’re afraid of Christians judging them.  Everyone’s always wondering why the church in America is shrinking.  Is is because we’ve set the bar too high for uniform belief?

As usual lately, I’m leaving this one open ended.  Sure, Paul pronounced eternal condemnation on anyone who would not follow his doctrine.  Sure, he gave all kinds of instructions on dealing with miscreants who were messing up the church with their crazy beliefs.  But then there’s Jesus who said “whoever is not against us is for us.”  So can I judge whether anyone else is a Christian, or is this a “live and let live” situation? 

Is doctrine the problem?  Or is it the only glue that’s holding this rickety ship together?  Is doctrine the one thing Christians should be arguing about?

21 responses to The Christian “D-Word”

  1. I find it interesting that once you get across the Catholic-Protestant divide, the various creeds and statements of belief/truths are in agreement to a remarkable degree. When you really think about it, Calvinists and Arminianists disagree on the amount of say we have in the act of becoming a Christian, and Pentecostals differ from the rest because they want to talk funny like they did in Acts. Apart from those two issues, most people would feel right at home pretty much anywhere. I’ve always likened it to contract negotiations in that doctrinal differences are what’s being haggled over. If you and I agree on 98% of what’s on paper, I’m more than willing to look over our differences.

    I know it’s hip to either (A) completely toss out doctrine like the emerging folks and say it’s our high calling to not know what to believe or (B) become a militant neo-Reformist and essentially act like an angry Baptist who loves MMA and Guinness when it comes to doctrine, but I find neither to work for me, probably because I’m not very cool.

    Doctrine is what holds our worldview together, and to throw it out because you’re upset over how your parents raised you is a pretty poor reason to do so. I believe that there are certain things that you believe in based on the Bible if you’re a Christian, and as long as you believe in those you’re good to go in my book. As it happens, those things are the things I mentioned above that everyone has in common.

  2. Some doctrine is important and some is less important. Working out the difference between the two is important. However, what is possibly, just a little bit more important is where someone is saved or not. That is secondary to exactly what they believe.

    How do you know who is saved? You really don’t, only God does. So if you are treating people differently based on whether you think you are saved or not I suggest you rethink how you deal with people.

  3. When you say that doctrine isn’t important, you begin to drift. That’s where heresies creep into the church, and the gospel truth gets blurred. Doctrine is important to be able to stand firm on God’s word and on common belief in the gospel.

  4. I have been in a few debates over these types of things recently – I prefer the Peace of the Lord. What I find interesting is that when you really read the Bible, you can see some of the doctrinal errors very easily – well if you have the Spirit of God and are not David Koresh.

    Other things that can’t be proven such as when is the tribulation, before or after the rapture? Was the earth really created as in described in Genesis? Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons? I prefer to let those slide. I base my personal theology regarding those events on what I know to be true here in my walk – IE: salvation, love, forgiveness, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, signs and wonders etc. Without the love and power of God active in my walk, it would just be a theory or a philosophy.

    When you see God undeniably at work answering prayer, and learn to hear His voice – your faith becomes unshakable and then your doctrine gets as simple as the Nicene Creed. You could care less what Hank has conjured up in his mind or how many sound bites he plays of Kenneth Hagin speaking in tongues.

    What is meant to unify us is a Biblical leadership model submitted to Christ (Ephesians 4). It should be impossible for born again Christians to deny this passage as truth – but worse to avoid it all together – and yet, many read it as though it is insignificant.

    We need to become intimate with Jesus so that we know His voice. It saves a lot of silliness and allows us to beomce more like Christ.

    As always – thanks for the MMA approach to Christianity. I am thinking about getting some TCnoP tattoos!

  5. I wonder if we study the scriptures too much. *Gasp* Am I going to hell for suggesting such a thing? Seriously though, in John 5:39-40 Jesus says, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

    We may be worshiping the scriptures more than we are Jesus Christ and we get caught up in all that drama. When I was in LA for my best friend’s wedding, I know it was the south and all, but there were churches galore on every street corner. Why? And you’re right Matt, the disciples went tattle tailing on the guy who was healing in Jesus name and Jesus said, “Look, he’s not against me, let him be.”

    When we joined this new church, they handed me this 70 page document that was their church’s constitution. I know that’s normal but is it biblical?

    nicodemusatnite.blogspot.com

  6. The problem is that, too often, we elevate positions and doctrine to the level of dogma. Dogma are those few essential truths of Christianity that are shared among all Christian groups (Nicene creed?). Doctrine is the first level of division between believers (eternal security vs. relational salvation, etc.). Positions are those things that most denominations won’t even attempt to codify (hair length, jewelry, post or pretrib, etc). The farther away from dogma we go, the more human imperfection affects our interpretations.

  7. Thought-provoking post and comments. I don’t really have anything to add to what has already been said, but thanks for the discussion, Matt.

  8. True, doctrine is less important than other issues when dealing with reaching the world and introducing them to Jesus. However, once we are disciples of Jesus, doctrine is supposed to aid us in becoming more like Him. It can be abused and used to trash certain churches or people, but proper application of doctrine is an incredibly important part of progressive sanctification. Without doctrine, we are trying to do this all on our own without guidance from the Bible. Saying that doctrine is not important is dangerous, as it will often allow people to remain the same day after day with little change in how they look in relation to Jesus.

  9. I believe what is professed in the Nicene & Apostles’ Creeds. But that alone, however, doesn’t make me a Christian (“even the demons believe.” I don’t think that parroting “I believe in God the Father . . . ” statements makes me a Christian. For me, it is being willing to act on those beliefs. I do think that holding these beliefs are necessary to be a Christian, but being a Christian is so much more that quoted beliefs.

    I was at a professional conference this past weekend. For other reasons i mentioned to someone that i’m a Christian. Usually, i don’t even like using the word “Christian.” Not because i am ashamed of being aligned with Jesus Christ, but because the word is not well understood in our society. I read recently that something like 80% of Americans believe in some form of God/god. And something like 65% call themselves Christian. But only about 15% believe the basics, such as Jesus’ virgin birth, his death, burial, & resurrection. I think i AM ashamed of what our culture perceives as Christian.

    Anyway, for a reason not worth going into, i mentioned being a Christian to this lady. Her response was “I’m a Christian who doesn’t believe that Jesus is the only path to God.” We discussed this & why she thought so. I hope i planted some seeds, but i never was as blunt as to say, “By default, not believing Jesus is the only path to God makes you NOT a Christian.”

    By most conservative Christians i’m considered rather liberal. But i’m not so liberal as to negate what Jesus did for us by saying there are many paths to God. For me, the churches who believe the general statements of the above-mentioned creeds, then they are Christian no matter what twists their doctrine takes. Having grown up Baptist & become Anglican/Episcopal in college, i think that debates about a literal 7/24 creation, or “pre- post- or mid- trib” are a waste of our time & energy.

    God doesn’t need us to defend him & argue/fight with our brothers & sisters over precise doctrines. He needs us to be obedient.

    • I think Kathryn made a really good point. I also sometimes find myself hesitant to admit to being a Christian (especially a Catholic-esque-ish one…) because of how much bad (or very incorrect) press those words themselves get. The power of buzz words in our general culture AND in Christian culture is immense, and they probably play a large part in the whole doctrine debate. Often you’ll find 15 different active definitions or applications for certain words in our society and in Christianity. That’s part of what makes communication between “sides” so aggravating.

      (examples: “liberal” “conservative” “orthodox” “evangelical” “fundamentalist” “revelation” “social justice” “end-times” and occasionally even “saved” and “grace” can be difficult to negotiate in different circles)

      That may have been slightly off topic, but I think it’s a relevant issue.

      I’d like to give Mark Driscoll’s book a read. Personally I think it’s useful to have books like this published, even though you know everyone won’t agree on what’s in it. I’m not as Catholic as I used to be, but I still refer to the Catechism (the Vatican’s version of Driscoll’s book) for answers to a lot of questions concerning morality, social justice, and some aspects of theology.

  10. An interesting discussion. Of course – if we don’t define doctrine, how do we know if we are arguing with our brothers and sisters?

    Are Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses Christians? What about David Koresh (sp?) Or the Jim Jones group from years ago that drank all that koolaid?

    We don’t need to draw the lines too close – but without any lines, you have to call everyone your Christian brother or sister – even if they don’t want to be called a Christian.

  11. I’m not much of a commenter, so please forgive the short reply. One thing came to mind as I read through this –

    John 13:34-35 “A new commandment I give to you that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you may also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”

    They will know you by your love..

    Which for me is a powerful concept.

  12. This reminds me of something that the Lord has been teaching me lately: Nobody has their doctrine 100% correct all the time, thank you Jesus that you choose to use us despite our incorrectness.

    I’ve visited an Apostolic house church recently… Do I agree with their doctrine? absolutely not. but… these seem to be the sweetest people I’ve ever known, and I stand to learn something from them, so I’m letting doctrine-harping nature take a back seat.

  13. When I taught preschool worship, there was a unit about the Bible. There was one lesson where I followed the plan from the leader’s book and I had textbooks, and I had cookbooks, and I had how-to books, all to demonstrate that the Bible was written to teach us how to live. So after I showed all those books and asked, “Why did God write the Bible?” one of the boys replied, “To tell us how much He loves us.” Kind of threw a wrench in my lesson, but he was right.

    From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is the story of God’s love for us. When we argue over doctrine, we fail to show people just how wide and long and high and deep is His love – a love so great that He sent His son to die for us.

    As Kathryn pointed out, the Nicene/Apostle’s Creed (which was the basis for most of what I wrote in response to the Friday post) covers the basics of what we can agree on, but believing isn’t enough, because as she pointed out, “even the demons believe.” We must show we are followers of Christ through our actions.

    Hope hit the nail on the head – they will know us by our love.

  14. Ok, i realize that most folks are probably beyond reading this now, as it was a couple of days ago, but in thinking it over i do have more to say.

    My husband & i have been “church hopping” as i’ve become uncomfortable with some of what has been preached at our church. I had a list of 9 other churches in the area where we might be comfortable. There are more, but neither my husband or i are comfortable with Pentecostal type churches.

    What we have found is that doctrine is important. I wish i could say that it is all about love & living for Jesus. But we have not found it to be so. A couple of the churches have thrown darts at the others for “not doing it right.” I guess i could go on & on.

    But, it is largely doctrine & the personal beliefs of our Pastor that have me visiting elsewhere. Let me just say that my belief is that Jesus came to give us much freedom, to release us from living under law & rules. I don’t mean that he came to give us license or to allow us to sin freely without consequence. But i do believe that he came so that we wouldn’t have to live in fear & that we can come “boldly before the throne of Christ.”

    Frankly, i see a lot of doctrine steal this from the children of God. Much of the power & freedom Jesus came to provide is stripped from us by those in “authority” who want the power for themselves. Or some other reason.

    I don’t think our Pastor is trying to usurp God’s power. He really does love Jesus. However, i see bondage in much of what he preaches where as i believe that the message of the cross is one of freedom & power. It makes my heart ache.

    Doctrine can be powerful – and caustic. I wish we could do without it, but i’m not sure how. I wish it were as easy as just sticking to the creeds.

  15. You’re right, Kathryn. Doctrine is important to us individually. The reason there are so many denominations is because there are differences in interpretation of doctrine. As followers of Christ, we still have to get along in the broader sense of the universal church.

    I’m a member of a Southern Baptist church. There are differences of opinion over doctrine even within my denomination, and we have proved to be poor witnesses to the world because we have argued over doctrine, instead of staying focused on Jesus and spreading the Gospel. There has even been a dispute over allowing missionaries to have a private prayer language. If anyone would have a private prayer language, I’m thinking it would be missionaries, but the mission board begged to differ. There are lots of Baptist churches I could not be a part of because of difference in doctrine – but that doesn’t make either of us (me or those individual churches) right or wrong. It just makes our interpretations of scripture different.

    I work in a Catholic setting. There is plenty of room for differences in doctrine here and yet, in the things that matter most – who Christ is, and why He came – I haven’t found a difference.

    I am firmly convinced that arguments over doctrine are satan’s way of keeping us from being effective witnesses for Christ.

  16. I’m with those who spoke on Creeds. And I mean all three ecumenical creeds: Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian. Whether your church is creedal or not, all this points are affirmed by churches across history, geography, and culture. Those who teach contrary to any of these points are right out. This casts the net wide toward magisterial Protestants, most holiness protestants, Romans Catholics, and Orthodox. The exclude sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, and as a less popular move, oneness Pentecostals.

    What hinges on these creeds is the worship of the Triune God. If you’re not worshiping/serving the Trinity, you’re not worshiping/serving God.

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