Did Jesus mean it to come to this?
For some people it is a delicious word, their bread and butter. For others it is a word they wish to avoid because they think it is responsible for many an unnecessary argument. I think I’ve changed position on it during my life.
So I think it is worth exploring.
What does God want from us?
It’s always good to start with aims. What God wants from us will help us understand what is good about doctrine and what is not so good.
Here’s a number of things God might want from us.
- Right knowledge and belief.
- Moral behaviour according to the guidelines he has given us.
- Telling as many people as possible the good news about Jesus.
- Loving and serving other people.
- Living in a relationship of trust and love in him.
You might like to think which order you would place these, but I think I’d place them in reverse order to how I have shown them. Here’s my thoughts ….
Right knowledge and belief
Obviously right belief is important, but I placed this lowest because the New Testament is very ambivalent about knowledge. On the one hand, we are encouraged to hold hold firmly to the word preached to us (1 Corinthians 15:2), the faith originally entrusted to God’s people (Jude 3). Knowledge can be a gift from the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:6).
On the other hand, knowledge can lead to arrogance, and is useless without accompanying love (1 Corinthians 8:1, 13:2).
So it seems that knowledge is good if it leads to the right result, but otherwise it isn’t so useful. It seems it is a means to a good end – the other items on this list. We’ll come back to this point.
Moral behaviour according to the guidelines he has given us
There is no doubt that God wants us to live rightly, following the guidelines he has given us, and so growing in character. But stories like the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) show us that personal moral purity which doesn’t lead to loving actions is not pleasing to God.
Important, but not our highest goal in life.
Telling as many people as possible the good news about Jesus
Jesus told his disciples to go out into the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), so telling the good news is very important, some would say of supreme importance. But Jesus didn’t specify the method of making disciples, and he was clear that his mission was both spiritual and practical (Luke 4:18-19).
I believe in today’s world, words are not enough – loving actions and service are required (Matthew 5:16). For this reason, I place this aim just slightly below loving and serving other people. Placing it above loving service, I believe, misunderstands Jesus’ mission and misreads modern culture.
Loving and serving other people
Jesus said loving our neighbour was the second greatest commandment (Mark 12:31). So important did he see practical love and service that he suggested our entry into life in the age to come was somehow dependent on such actions (Matthew 25:31-46).
As we have seen (Luke 4:18-19, 7:21-23), Jesus saw his ministry as one of serving (John 13:12-17), leading to people’s restoration and wellbeing, which was both spiritual (forgiveness and right relationship with God) and practical (healing, freedom from oppression and peace). He clearly called us to the same holistic ministry.
Living in a relationship of trust and love in him
Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God whole-heartedly (Mark 12:29-30). That will require forgiveness from God, faith and obedience. A life lived in that way now will surely lead into life in the age to come. That must be seen as our highest good and what will most please God.
Every other item on the list flows from this. If we love him, we will keep his commands (John 13:17, 14:15).
The New Testament on doctrine
The New Testament Greek word didache is sometimes translated “doctrine”, but more often translated “teaching” or “instruction”. It is used in many different contexts.
- Sometimes, though not commonly, it refers to what we would commonly call “doctrine” today – orthodox christian belief (e.g. Colossians 1:27-28, Hebrews 6:1-2).
- Jesus’ teaching was about the kingdom of God and the way his disciples should live (e.g. Matthew 5:1-2).
- Sometimes the teaching was in evangelism – explaining Jesus and the resurrection to those who had never heard of the message before (e.g. Acts 4:1-2).
- Other times Paul and the other apostles use it to refer to behaviour (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:10, 6:1-3).
- And most often it isn’t completely clear, and we can assume it covers several or all of these.
The results of good doctrine
So in the New Testament, “good doctrine” involves right belief and right behaviour. Good doctrine and right knowledge will ….
- conform to the teachings of the apostles (Jude 3);
- be centred on the life, death, resurrection and teachings of Jesus (Colossians 1:27-28);
- lead to unity (Ephesians 4:11-13);
- help us live a life worthy of the Lord (Colossians 1:9-12, 1 Timothy 1:9-11);
- avoid controversial speculations (1 Timothy 1:3-7);
- lead to people putting their faith in Jesus (Acts 4:1-2);
Good doctrine and bad doctrine
Drawing all this together, I think we can now say something about good and bad doctrine, and in particular doctrine that divides.
In the New Testament, good doctrine is at least as much about behaviour as it is about belief. No matter how “doctrinally correct” our teaching is, if it involves or leads to bad behaviour, it isn’t “good doctrine” according to the New Testament. Some examples ….
I have seen impeccably evangelical christians arguing with atheists on the internet, and resorting to scorn, insult and rudeness. When I have (on several occasions) pointed out the New Testament command to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15), I have been told their rudeness is loving because it is aimed at repentance.
Arguing and disunity
Christians of different doctrinal beliefs can be seen arguing with each other on internet forums and in churches, despite the New Testament’s strong teaching on the importance of unity – from Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-21 through to Paul’s please for unity in 1 Corinthians 1:10 and Philippians 2:1-7.
We may feel strongly about some doctrine, rightly or wrongly, but anger isn’t God’s way to resolve the matter (James 1:20). And anger hinders our prayer (1 Timothy 2:8).
In several places Paul and the other apostles urge the christians to avoid speculative teachings that are not really important, are legalistic and/or not coming from the Holy Spirit (see, for example, Colossians 2:16-23, 1 Timothy 1:3-7).
Since that time, christians and churches have built up entire theological systems, sometimes on very flimsy foundations. And then too often used those doctrines to discriminate and separate. Often these systems appear to be arising out of greater confidence in our ability to understand God than we can rightly claim.
Know what’s important, and what’s not
There will be occasions where christians may have to disagree (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:18-19) but we should value unity and be careful not to argue over matters that are not essential (Romans 14:1). In Paul’s day, the eating of meat offered to idols was a serious issue, but even on this issue, Paul urges liberty and sensitivity to others rather than argument (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 10:14-39). We need to ask ourselves whether some of our “pet doctrines” are in the same category.
Both Jesus (Matthew 7:1-5) and Paul (Romans 14:10-13) are severe on the perils of being judgmental. If we have to disagree, we would do well to avoid making judgments about another person’s motives or spiritual state.
More positively, love must be the basic motivation of all we do (1 John 4:19-21), including matters of doctrinal disagreement. Love will avoid anger and show kindness (even towards doctrinal “enemies” – Matthew 5:43-48), try to make the best of every situation and avoid proud or boastful behaviour (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
If a hard truth needs to be spoken, let it be spoken with very clear love (Ephesians 4:15).
Building up and encouraging
Paul gives us this principle too. What we do when we are together with other believers must aim to build up and encourage (1 Corinthians 14:12). Our motives matter, and self-focused motives will tend to lead to unhelpful behaviour.
“Just because you know something, doesn’t mean you have to say it”
I have found this to be a very helpful principle. Sometimes it is better to be quiet.
Important and less important doctrines
So which doctrines should we be willing to sit easy on, and which ones are essential?
I think we mostly all know the answer to this. Some teachings are so clear in the New Testament that they can only be denied if we ignore Jesus and the apostles. Others are not clear in the New Testament and require some nifty theological footwork to put them together.
Here’s my suggestions.
The essentials of belief are pretty much those in the Apostles Creed. This creed would be accepted by most churches, whether Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant. It is hard to see how anyone can call themselves a christian and not believe in God as creator, Jesus as the incarnate son of God who lived, taught, healed, died and was resurrected to establish the kingdom of God on earth, and the Holy Spirit as guide and encourager.
But even here we need to be careful. Some people may love Jesus and follow his teachings, but be unable to subscribe to some aspect of these essentials. As Jesus said, a person who is not against us is for us (Luke 9:50). Let’s be slow to judge and exclude, and give the Holy Spirit time to teach.
And of course even if someone is opposed to these essential doctrines, we still must treat them with love, and avoid judgmentalism.
This will be a more contentious list, but is based on a doctrine not being clearly taught in the Bible and not being universally accepted among christians.
- End times: this one has become less important these days, but there are still christians who feel sure they know the sequence of events when Jesus returns, perhaps even the timing. But the Bible isn’t at all clear, and Jesus said clearly even he didn’t know the timing. Why argue over this?
- Biblical inerrancy: this is almost the most important doctrine for some christians, but it isn’t taught in scripture and it can be very divisive, with adherents often accusing non-adherents of being unfaithful to God. What surely matters is obeying the scripture as the Holy Spirit guides us, not arguing over the exact doctrine of scripture.
- Calvinism vs Arminianism: if ever there was a matter not worth making a stand on, surely this is it. The scriptures seem to teach a bit of each, and most christians tend to hold a little of each. Thinking we can understand the workings of God so well that we can define his actions this tightly is surely hubris.
- Atonement theory has become a matter of greater contention in recent years, with more conservative christians arguing that Penal Substitution is the essential core of christian belief while more progressive christians argue that it is demeaning to God. I’m with CS Lewis, who said that atonement is essential christian belief, but theories about the atonement are not. I think the atonement remains a mystery which we can probably only know partially and by analogy, and so several of the many theories tell us something helpful. Let’s believe in the atonement without arguing or dividing over the exact way we prefer to explain it.
- The Trinity is not explicitly taught in scripture either. It is a reasonable deduction from the New Testament doctrines about the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and I accept it, but we would do well to hold strongly to those core doctrines while being less dogmatic about the trinitarian formulation.
- Attitudes to abortion and gay marriage: Strictly speaking, neither of these two moral questions are addressed in the New Testament. Most christians deduce from scripture that God is opposed to them, but some christians are not so sure. Feelings run high, understandably, but if we find ourselves disagreeing, we should avoid making these contentious issues the centre of the good news.
- Religious ritual: arguments about the right ways to remember Jesus’ last supper, to baptise, to worship or to pray are surely better put behind us.
Doctrinal statements and church membership
Some churches make adherence to their doctrinal statement a condition of membership, or of being allowed to do ministry. I can’t help feeling that is contrary to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, and unwise.
People with God-given gifts can be prevented from using them in ministry in the church if they disagree over one or more of these non-essentials – I have experienced it myself.
I would prefer that we revised statements that insist on narrow views on non-essentials, but while we have them, surely they should be interpreted to define the shared belief of that church without insisting that everyone agree with every non-essential detail?
Did Jesus mean it to come to this?
Everything I have considered here, all the scriptures, suggest to me that Jesus would prefer us to get on with loving our neighbour and spending less time defining finer points of doctrine and then arguing over them and excluding people because of them.
After all, his teachings were that we receive God’s favour if we serve “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46), not get some obscure doctrine “right” in our own eyes. That the finer points of religious teaching and observance were not as important as justice, mercy and faithfulness (Luke 10:25-37, Matthew 23:23).
I fear we have turned Jesus’ priorities upside down. I don’t think he meant it to come to this.
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