Doctrine: Christendom’s fixed ideas. (Mostly.)
And whether it’s safe to question them.
- Doctrine /'dɑk.trən/ n. Official belief, or group of teachings, held by an organization.
- 2. Decree: A decision by officials as to how they choose to interpret an idea, or handle a controversy.
- [Doctrinal /'dɑk.trən.əl/ adj.]
Doctrine is a formal word. A lot of Christians don’t realize this, and fling it around anyway. I know of one pastor who used to title his podcast, “Doctrines for Today.” Even though a lot of what he taught was more his interpretations of the scriptures; it wasn’t actually his church’s official stance.
Well… was and wasn’t. Y’see, he pastored one of those churches where the pastor runs the whole show. Nobody oversees him, nobody vetoes him. It’s a dictatorship. Hopefully benevolent, and I’m sure he’d like to think of himself that way, but he was super sexist, so I’m sure the women of his church didn’t consider him benevolent. But I digress; my point is his stances functionally were his church’s official stance. So they were kinda doctrines.
Historically, doctrine is one of those words we reserve for the core beliefs of Christianity. You know, the creedal stuff. Believe them, or at least uphold them, and you’re orthodox; reject ’em and you’re heretic. Ain’t no gray area.
- Trinity (or “doctrine of the trinity,” if you wanna be all formal about it, but I’m not gonna do that here): God’s a trinity. One God; three persons.
- Jesus is Lord: Jesus is God. He became human, lived on earth, literally died, literally rose from the dead, and is literally coming back. He’s our master and teacher; we can’t know God without him; we follow him.
- Kingdom: God’s intent is to establish his kingdom on earth, a kingdom Jesus is king (or Christ) over. Our job is to pitch in.
- Grace: We’re not getting into this kingdom (i.e. “getting saved”) through our good works, but only by God, who graciously forgives us, and adopts us as his kids.
There are others, but you get the idea. They’re Christian essentials.
Trouble is, a number of Christians (not to pick on them in particular, but Fundamentalists tend to be known for this very thing) consider a whole lot of things doctrinal, whereas the rest of us limit them to the stuff in the creeds.
Doctrines of the bible, fr’instance. Much as we trust it, the ancient Christians never bothered to include the bible in the creeds. But Fundamentalists have made the bible, and what we believe about the bible, into dealbreakers. Their doctrines. And because they became dealbreakers, sometimes Fundies won’t play nice with other churches because they first demand everybody sign off on their doctrine. I watched this very issue break apart my town’s ministerial meeting. Watched it nearly break apart a Christian college. After all, doctrine means we’re no longer free to disagree.
And not always for the right reasons. Some of us use the word doctrine for darn near everything. Often it’s not even to say, “This is a settled issue”: It’s to say, “Don’t argue with me on this. My mind’s made up. Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Don’t push me.” Which is actually not what doctrine means. For such people, it’s about stubbornness… and it’s why we Christians too often get a reputation for being closed-minded.
So you’ll find whenever we call something a doctrine, we consider it settled. We can discuss what it means, but we’re not free to redefine, reject, or skip it. That part isn’t open for debate. Minds were made up; sometimes centuries ago. There’s an electrified fence around this belief. No touchy.
Reopening these matters.
Thing is, people are gonna touch upon these beliefs. Gonna ask questions. Gonna want answers. Pagans and Christians alike, skeptics and believers alike. Because part of the greatest command is to love God with all our mind,
So yes, doctrines are settled beliefs. But people are regularly gonna open ’em up and unsettle them a little. Shake the foundation to see if it holds. And we, as Christians, need to not be afraid of this. The irrational fear that if we do analyze our beliefs all that closely, it’ll all fall apart? That doesn’t come from God. He has no problem with us asking questions. He only has a problem when we embrace our doubts and fears, and won’t move past ’em.
It’s why I discuss theology. We Christians need to know there’s something substantive to our doctrines.
It’s why most of the better discussions on theology begin—taking our cue from Socrates and St. Thomas Aquinas—with “Is that really true?” instead of just presuming it’s true, declaring it true… and anyone who suggests otherwise, we jab at ’em with pointed sticks. Let’s not do that. Taste the spiritual food. Don’t just swallow it whole.
Those Christians who don’t wanna go there—who figure doctrine is too holy to question, or who won’t dig into it any—avoid analyzing their doctrines for these typical reasons.
Tired of naysayers. This one, I understand. They’ve had it up to here with skeptics who wanna debate them. Not to learn, like honest skepticism; just for the sheer fun of being contradictory, and taking you apart. Dishonest skepticism. Way too many skeptics lean this way.
Like I said, I get it. The instant I realize I’m dealing with a dishonest skeptic, I regularly tell them—to the horror of fellow evangelists—I’m done. They’re not listening, so I’ll stop talking now. I’m just throwing pearls to the pigs.
After all, this is stuff we personally care about. (Or should.) It’s not fun listening to people mock it, or treat it as a fun intellectual exercise. Means more than that to us.
But the mistake is in assuming every doubter, everybody who has a question or wants to understand us better, is one of these dishonest skeptics. That’s a form of prejudice, and preemptively treating questioners like they’re hostile, invariably makes us Christians look like jerks. “I don’t wanna discuss this with you” is not what we tell someone with honest questions: It’ll make them go elsewhere, and “elsewhere” isn’t always a safe place. Suss out whether these questioners have real questions. Stop talking to ’em when they stop listening. Practice some of that patience the Holy Spirit is trying to give you.
Fear of fragility. This isn’t so valid a reason, but it’s mighty common: These Christians don’t wanna touch a doctrine, ’cause they’re afraid looking at it in great detail might shake it apart, and wreck their faith.
Anybody who’s been to seminary has known people who went into the school hoping to learn about God… and left with all sorts of freaky heretic ideas. It’s why so many Christians make that silly pun, “Oh, I understand you’re going to cemetery!”—they’re convinced serious study means Christians are trained to doubt everything, reject everything, and instead of absolute truths they’re gonna believe in moral relativism and that the bible’s all myth. ’Cause they’ve seen it happen when young know-it-all seminarians come to their churches and start telling them, “Well actually…”
Knowledge isn’t the problem, folks. Knowledge without love is the problem.
1Co 13.2I’ve been to seminary; the reason those kids go wrong has nothing to do with the stuff they were taught, ’cause plenty of good Christians learned (and know) the same things. It’s because their relationship with Jesus sucked in the first place. They didn’t go to seminary to get to know him better, nor learn to build his church better. They went there for their own profit. They wanted to become pastors or professors, and build up their own little kingdoms, not God’s. They don’t think of doctrine as a tool to help create steady Christians. It’s a tool to help them shake people up… then rebuild those shaky people to follow them, not him.
It’s why certain pastors—well-intentioned and not—create seminaries, bible colleges, and training schools which are exactly this kind of afraid: They don’t analyze doctrines. Not to any degree. They just hand ’em down, expect us to unthinkingly embrace them, and wanna make us ministers in their church. For them, we aren’t to love God with all our minds: Love him with our memory, but never our intellect. Wisdom means walling off our doubts, and resisting when the Holy Spirit is trying to use them to detect error.
Look, either we trust the Spirit to guide us into all truth
Jn 16.13or we don’t. The only thing we really have to fear about doctrine… is that we’ll discover we’ve understood it wrong for years, and led ourselves—and others!—astray with our flawed knowledge. That’s embarrassing. I speak from plenty of personal experience.
But my personal embarrassment and pride is a far distant second to a better knowledge of God, and leading people in the correct direction. If questioning a doctrine means my faith gets shaken, it’s because it needs shaking. The Holy Spirit is the one who’s shaking it.
Defense of authority. Probably the least valid reason Christians don’t wanna study doctrine is the fear it undermines the authority structure of the church. Who are we to question, to second-guess, to raise doubts, about doctrine? Stop shaking people’s confidence in our beliefs. Stop acting like it’s okay to question authority. Shut up and follow.
First of all, we’re not gonna get new believers with that attitude. And if, despite it, we do, they’re gonna grow really slowly. Because we’ve made them utterly dependent on other people to hand them their beliefs. They can’t interact with the Holy Spirit on their own; we’ve subtly taught them they can never be trusted to do that. They can’t study the bible on their own; we’ve subtly taught them they can only read it along with a pre-approved study bible, only read it following our leader’s pre-approved doctrines. Every Christian book they read must have our church’s stamp of approval, or imprimatur. (And unlike the Catholics, they rarely give it out.)
That being the case, they’re not following God. We’ve set ourselves up as a filter between them and him. Sometimes a barrier. They’re following us, or the leaders we point to, instead.
Secondly, they’re still gonna have doubts. Like I said, the Holy Spirit’s gonna seed those doubts so we rightly question the things we oughta question—namely the “doctrines” which aren’t based on anything more than one pastor’s personal preferences. And either people are gonna lobotomize their faith and never grow; or they’re gonna leave. As they should, but where are they gonna go from there? Usually they go nowhere. Sometimes they go to good churches. And a lot of times they find a church just as dysfunctional as the one they left… but the people seem nicer, so they’re not aware they’re out of the frying pan, and into a different frying pan.
“Who are you to judge?”
While your average Protestant should have no trouble with the idea of testing everything, and holding onto what’s good (a statement Paul made about prophecy,
See, the doctrines every Christian (or most Christians) holds to, were put together by years of serious discussion between doctors of theology. Whereas the newbie is usually making a knee-jerk statement based on inadequate personal experience, or prejudice. “Hm, says here you believe in total depravity. Well I don’t. I believe people are good in their hearts, deep down. I think your depravity idea is pessimistic and cynical, and doing real harm to people by calling ’em sinners. So I’m gonna pass on that one.”
You see the problem: If every Christian gets to pick and choose which doctrines are valid, and which aren’t, there’d be chaos.
Well, look around at the church today: We got chaos.
People are already doing this. Have been since the circumcision/anti-circumcision debates in Acts.
Humans have variant opinions on just about every issue. But the solution is to discuss, and deal with, these opinions. Not suppress them. When you tell ’em, “It doesn’t matter what you personally think, deep down: Believe this. it’s not optional. Suppress your doubts and conform”—you wind up with hypocrites. They pretend to believe, but don’t really. Or, which is more common, they juggle: Sunday mornings they believe; weekdays they don’t.
But since a lot of people would really rather not be hypocrites, they often decide, “Y’know, doctrine probably isn’t for me,” and choose to be ignorant of their church’s doctrines. That way, they never have to resist ’em. Or pretend to follow ’em. They can just say, “That’s above my pay grade. I leave it in the hands of far more capable people than me. All I know is I’m saved by grace.” (Assuming they do know that.)
That’s what largely plagues our churches: The liars and the lazy. Christianists.
“Who are we to judge doctrine?” is the wrong question. People are already judging it. Since that’s the reality, let’s deal with reality. Help ’em judge it properly. Take a good hard look at the doctrines, and truthfully accept or reject them.
Yes, we run the risk of people rejecting them. Or making bad judgments based on error, ignorance, stupidity, or selfishness. Or pridefully inventing an entirely new way of looking at things, just so they can get a little notoriety, and maybe a book deal. Or running off to join (or start) a heretic church. Or quitting Jesus.
Or let’s be optimistic: The Holy Spirit uses their thought processes to teach them something profound about himself. Big ideas they can meditate on. Growth which doesn’t depend on church leaders spoon-feeding them. Solid, growing Christians, in a church with fewer weeds among the wheat. Clearly those benefits far outweigh the negatives.
…Well, unless you’re the sort of church leader who’d rather micromanage the flock yourself, instead of trusting the Spirit to do it. But that’s another article.