Monday, January 7, 2008

Church Reform - Doctrine

When writing a series of posts like this, it is difficult to determine what the correct order of topics should be. I’ll take my best shot at it, but I’m sure others would do it differently. Also, as we discuss these issues, I’m sure that we will find much overlap between topics.

In this post I’d like to address the issue of doctrine within the church. In the modern, American church, doctrine varies tremendously between different denominations and local bodies of believers. Therefore, I will have to deal with generalizations rather than specific instances.

For the most part, when Christians today hear the word "doctrine," they think that it refers to what they believe on subjects such as the trinity, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the atonement, the Holy Spirit, the church, etc. We face at least two problems with this. First, many Christians actually know very little doctrine beyond the bare basics of the gospel. Second, for those who do know quite a bit, their views often lead to arguments and division over minute doctrinal points. This is why we have multitudes of denominations in America.

When we look at the early church, what do we see? We know that doctrine was important, especially as it related to the purity of the gospel. Paul, in Galatians 1:8-9, wrote, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”

In I Timothy 1:3, Paul wrote, “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.” Along those same lines, Paul told Titus (2:1), “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.”

It is clear that doctrine was important. While it seems reasonable to assume that not everyone was an expert in biblical knowledge, we do know that the church in Acts 2 devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching (see Acts 2:42). Because of this devotion, the people seem to have been well-versed in doctrine.

Despite their knowledge of doctrine, this does not seem to have led to disunity in the church (as we often see today). Acts 4:32 tells us that they were “of one heart and soul.” The unity appears to have been very strong. I don’t see any denominations in scripture.

Why was this? Why did their knowledge of doctrine not lead to disunity as we often see it do today? I believe the reason is that while we think of doctrine as a group of beliefs, the early church thought of doctrine as something to be both believed and acted upon. A quick glance at the church in Acts shows us people who lived out their faith in how they cared for one another.

In Acts 4:32-35, Luke tells us, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

Those four verses are amazing to me. I’ve certainly seen isolated acts of charity within the church, but I’ve never seen anything like what we see described by Luke. My guess is that when people live out their doctrine, this causes unity to thrive. This will, in turn, cause less division over doctrinal issues.

I’m not suggesting that what we believe is unimportant. I do believe, however, that based upon what we see in the bible, the line for division should be the gospel (click here for more on this). It should not be the ordinances, music style, eschatology, Calvinism, etc. that cause us to separate.

Regarding doctrine, three problems today stand out to me: First, many Christians do not know doctrine. Second, for those who do know doctrine, it often ends up being a point of division. Third, many Christians view doctrine as simply a set of beliefs rather than something to be actively lived out.

So what can we do about these problems? I have a few suggestions, but I would also like to hear from you. Here is what I propose:

1) Doctrine must be intentionally taught in the church.
-Teach through books of the bible.
-Teaching must be based on the bible, not tradition.
-Along with scripture, teach through a confession of faith (I like this one).
-Encourage personal bible study.
-Work through a basic catechism with children (encourage fathers to take the
initiative in this) and new believers.

2) Doctrine should not be divisive after the gospel.
-Teach from John 17 and I Cor. 1 about the importance of unity.

3) Doctrine must be lived out.
-Teach from James 2 about faith and works.

Any ideas?

14 comments:

Rhea said...

"I’m not suggesting that what we believe is unimportant. I do believe, however, that based upon what we see in the bible, the line for division should be the gospel (click here for more on this). It should not be the ordinances, music style, eschatology, Calvinism, etc. that cause us to separate."

I couldn't agree with you more on this. Far too often it seems that we let "non-salvation" issues break us apart...we let what are really "minor differences" become the focus of our Christianity, instead of Christ. Don't get me wrong, I think that many things of these things that are used to divide us ARE important, but are they more important than the Lord and Savior that we all (Christians, that is) share?

Eric said...

Rhea,

It sounds like we agree. Thanks for your comment.

Eric

Rhea said...

"Third, many Christians view doctrine as simply a set of beliefs rather than something to be actively lived out."

I think that part of the problem is that we (protestant Christians) are so afraid that someone might misunderstand us and somehow think that we "work" our way to heaven that we stray away from preaching from the book of James. I think that we must get over our fear and preach the Word of God. The truth is, if we have faith, then naturally there should be works that are a fruit of that faith. We shouldn't be afraid to say that.

Eric said...

Rhea,

Thanks again. I agree with you completely.

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

As you know, "doctrine" is usually defined as "whatever I or my group believes". This is where we run into problem. I agree that we must focus on the gospel. Yes, we need to consider and discuss other aspects of theology, but when we allow those aspects of theology - that is, those aspects which are not the gospel - then we are being divisivie, which is the biblical definition of heresy.

Of course, this means that we have to recognize, accept, love, and consider family those believers who do not agree with us in areas outside the gospel. This is not always easy to do, at least, not for us as humans. However, when we deny ourselves and consider others as more important, we can learn to be united with those who disagree with us.

Thanks again for continuing this discussion.

-Alan

CrazyCalvinist said...

Good points; and your third point is something I am planning to address too in blogsphere, very shortly. John Calvin said thus: "Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart"

But unfortunately the two are often separeate distinct things and not co-existing. Understanding gets lost in knowledge. And so Calvinism looks like an icy intellectualism.

Eric said...

Alan,

I wonder why Christians have such a tendency to separate when there is disagreement. That is a sad thing. I suppose the reason is, at a most basic level, carnality.

It is refreshing to see Christians who do not agree on everything remain together and work things out. This does not mean that they will agree on everything, but will remain together nonetheless. I hope this is happening at Messiah Baptist.

Eric said...

Crazy Calvinist,

Thank you for commenting. BTW - I really like your name.

Your quote from Calvin is right on. It is interesting that Calvinists are many times described as unfeeling intellectuals who don't care for others. Right or wrong, that is the perception of many. Maybe we Calvinists need to work even harder at serving others in order to change some of these misconceptions.

Rhea said...

Eric,
I have to say that I was one of those people who thought that Calvinists were unfeeling intellectuals who didn't care for others, and have no interest in evangelism. That said, your blog (along with a few others) has really opened up my eyes. I now realize that I was simply stereotyping all Calvinists from a bad experience that I had with one or two people. I just wanted to say thanks for showing me the "caring side" of Calvinism. I honestly didn't think that it existed.

Jeff said...

Eric,

Gal 1:6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel;
Gal 1:7 which is {really} not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.

Do you think including these two verses previous to the ones you quoted(Gal 1:8-9)could change the context from an obviously contrary/different gospel, to "the true gospel" with a little added twist here or an extra burden there?

It seems Paul and Peter (2 Peter 3:16) both warn not only of contrary gospels but also of merely adding doctrines to the one true gospel they were teaching. Using weighty words such as "accursed" and "destruction" to those who distort/pervert.

I'm not suggesting that you are doing this, but a lot of people I encounter(all denominations) seem to think there are additional necessary and beneficial instructions than simply what the apostles were teaching. What do you think?

-Jeff

Eric said...

Rhea,

I'm glad to hear that I have helped. There are certainly Calvinists out there who don't seem to care too much about the lost. That is very unfortunate. I'm happy to say that the vast majority of Calvinists that I have met have also been excited about sharing their faith.

Thanks for reading!

Eric said...

Jeff,

Thanks for bringing up those two verses. My understanding of what was going on with the Galatians was that false teachers had come in and told them that they had to follow the Jewish law in order to be saved. It appears, based on Paul's writing, that at least some of the Galatians were giving in to these demands. This would take the gospel of grace and add works to it. Therefore, it is no longer the true gospel. I think Paul's emphasis is that the false teachers are not providing a new gospel, but are perverting the real gospel so much that it no longer has saving power.

The point I am making in this post is that we should not divide over what we might refer to as secondary doctrines. Unity is too important for that. However, if anyone teaches a false gospel or distorts the true gospel, that is a real reason to divide. The heart of the gospel is the key.

I do believe there are some groups today who add to the requirements for salvation. For example, any group that says you have to speak in tongues to be saved is adding to the purity of the gospel. Any group that says you have to be baptized to be saved is adding to the gospel. We must reject these teachings outright.

I hope that answers your question. Thanks for responding.

Alan said...

Eric,
There is a new blog, not mine no shameless plug involved, that is discussing uniting reformed denominations. I think you could add to the conversation if you have time and are interested. The URL is:
http://ebenezererskine.blogspot.com/

In Christ
Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

Thanks for the link. I'll check it out.