Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Demotion of Doctrine?

Bill Pyle ministers in Los Angeles working in the inner city. I’ve met Bill and found him to be astute and interesting. Each month he publishes “Heartbeat,” a four-page newsletter filled with insights and newsy topics. I’ve found his perspective on today’s church and the trends affecting it to be most enlightening. I haven’t asked Bill for permission, but I want to share an essay from his most recent issue, Issue 208, January 2007.


If its dead, we know what killed it: the old cliché, “Doctrine divides, love unites.” Hat supposed verity surfaces every time people of god will disagree on some biblical doctrine. It is axiomatic for those willing to unite on the least common denominators, but not for truth seekers. Truth seekers believe love of truth can also unite. They believe unity that discounts or disregards truth is no unity at all. Union perhaps, but not unity.

Biblical doctrine is harsh, and if the goal of today’s church is to remove all the biblical barbs that might impede church growth, then biblical doctrine is a problem. And if you’ve noticed on church websites, many churches’ doctrinal statements are either

· Brief
· Vague
· Slippery, or
· Non-existent.

One has to be a detective to find out what the church believes about original sin, predestination, repentance, the Lord’s Supper, or baptism.

Once we discovered grace, the question arose: Is perfect behavior necessary for salvation? The answer is obvious, since we never reach perfect behavior. But that doesn’t mean Christian behavior, godly obedience, is unnecessary. Unless we believe “once saved always saved,” we understand that our ungodly living or willful disobedience puts our salvation in jeopardy. Many passages make this clear, as we shall see.

But then, another question arose: To be saved must our doctrinal understanding be perfect? Of course, the answer again is no. But this doesn’t mean doctrine is unimportant, nor that incorrect doctrine is inconsequential, as we shall see in the passages cited later in this place.

We seem to have given up large pieces of ground with regard to acceptable behavior for Christians; so much so that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish a Christian from a non-Christian. Now what will we do with the demotion of biblical doctrine to a place of relative unimportance in the modern church culture?

How bad is it, really? If one is scrupulous about doctrine, he is seen as picky at best or prickly at worst. Picture this. A seeker attends a seeker-sensitive church, and at the door afterwards engages the pastor with questions about free will. Many pastors give a brief answer, some will give a vague or slippery answer, and some will say we don’t hold a position on that doctrine. It is just not pastorally correct today to discourage a seeker with an answer that would sound dogmatic.

Let us say it unequivocally: the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace in no way conflicts with other Bible doctrines, nor does it depreciate them. There is no “hierarchy of doctrines” in Scripture. Either we submit to all Bible doctrines, or we reject them all, and opt for a feelings-based faith. We need not even refer to Scripture for guidance in understanding and living out the doctrine of love. (Yes, there is a biblical doctrine of love.)
What did the Bible writers say about the importance of their teachings? Did they consider them opinions? Points for debate? Relatively unimportant? Hear from them:
  • “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9, KJV).
  • “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 29:29, 30).
  • “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them” (Romans 16:17).
  • “We are not as many, which corrupt the word of God” (2 Corinthians 2:17, KJV).
  • “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned” (Galatians 1:6-8).
  • “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 1:3).
  • “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves… Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (2 Peter 2:1, 3b).

Correct understanding and teaching of God’s commands has always been required of God’s leaders. The purveyors of false doctrine in the Old Testament, the prophets and priests, the very teachers God had set among his people, were excoriated in many passages like this one: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, no from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’ And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, ‘No harm will come to you’” (Jeremiah 23:16, 17).
What will we do with those passages (and a dozen more we might have cited)? First, they make us realize that doctrine matters. Second, they drive us to admit that there is false doctrine among us, and it must be confronted and condemned. To do any less is to make a mockery of the 19 New Testament books that are primarily doctrine (teaching).

If doctrine is being demoted in the interests of church growth, unity, peace, or any other seemingly worthwhile reason, we need to commit ourselves to preaching all the gospel and teaching all the Word.

So writes Bill Pyle. He is right! I’ve seen it firsthand and know that those who “demote” doctrine do so thinking they are practicing the principles of the Restoration Movement summed up in the adage, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things love.” I believe that adage is an excellent guiding principle, but I do not believe it limits the search for truth. Besides, every one of us has our own list of essentials. It used to be that the essentials could be summed up as belief in Jesus and whatever it takes to unite an individual to him. Alexander Campbell said it this way, “The belief of one essential fact – that Jesus is Lord – and obedience to one essential act – baptism resulting from trust in Jesus. For many, the essential element is “belief in Jesus.” Obedience to Christ in all things is relegated to the non-essential. But can belief without obedience to biblical commands save you? James tells us demons believe! Jesus linked love for him with obedience to him. If that is so—and it is—we neglect a search for truth at our own risk. For, you see, truth not apprehended and lived out is not truth.