By Donald R. Ramsey
The past several years have given rise to an amazing phenomenon which is, in many respects, quite disturbing. We have seen a number of Christians who proudly announce that they attend a church which is "doctrine-free." These individuals are no doubt quite happy with the "let's all just get-along" philosophy which has become so popular. People have grown weary of the arguing and bickering which pervades so much of society and the presence of these churches which gladly forego doctrine in the interest of other more popular activities proves quite appealing to these individuals.
It is easy to see why people get confused and try to bypass doctrinal issues. There are now several thousand protestant denominations and other church groups. So the adage that "they are all pretty much alike" is not altogether incorrect even though such a statement leads to the belief that the differences do not matter. We will examine how these differences matter and how we should respond to them.
Purpose of Doctrine
Many people, perhaps even most, do not understand the basic notion of what doctrine is nor do they seem to have an understanding of why it is important.
Doctrine is that which is taught, an instruction. Why then should we receive instruction? The reason we are instructed in any activity is to enable us to perform given tasks properly. We have to have a grasp of certain basic principles in order to understand more complex and difficult issues. In every field of study, we find this to be true. Yet somehow, when it comes to religion, people act as though it does not matter if there are any principles and even when principles are acknowledged, many doubt their necessity.
This is somewhat understandable. In an age when there are thousands of different church groups, many who differ only in very slight ways, people are left with the impression that since there are so many who more or less believe the same thing, the differences must make no difference.
Nearly all churches believe in the love of God and in doing good. For many today this appears to be sufficient. The following quote from a textbook on Christian doctrine states the issue quite well:
"To some readers, the word doctrine may prove somewhat frightening. It conjures up visions of very technical, difficult, abstract beliefs, perhaps propounded dogmatically. Christian doctrine is simply a statement of the most fundamental beliefs that the Christian has.
"Is there really a need to study doctrine? Isn't it sufficient if I simply love Jesus? In the view of some people, doctrine is not only unnecessary, it is undesirable, and may be divisive. There are, however, several reasons why such study is not optional:
"Correct doctrinal beliefs are essential to the relationship between the believer and God. (Hebrews 11:6; 1 John 4:2; Romans 10:9-10)
"Doctrine is important because of the connection between truth and experience.
"Correct understanding of doctrine is important because there are so many secular and religious systems of thought that compete for our devotion these days.
"The greatest challenge facing us today.
Problems Caused by Doctrine
There are several issues raised by the existence of doctrine that tend to be misunderstood by many people. When properly understood, these issues permit doctrine to be utilized correctly. However, when they are misunderstood or misused, these issues are the source of many problems with respect to doctrine and its proper place.
The first of these issues is rigidity. Everyone can be expected to firmly believe the things they are taught which their churches believe to be the truth. A problem can arise when doctrinal beliefs are held so rigidly that proper Christian behavior suffers to the point of excluding all others who sincerely hold differing opinions as to the truth.
The second of these issues is dogma. Actually, there is nothing especially wrong with dogma. It represents an official explanation or decree of church belief. Over the centuries, dogma has acquired a negative reputation. Some elements of this reputation are richly deserved. Dogma has been a significant element in many religious wars and disputes throughout history. It is an extension of the concept of rigidity mentioned above.
The next issue where one must be careful is arrogance. It is often the case that their particular beliefs cause people to believe they are in someway superior to others because the particular belief is presented as a higher truth than the one held by others. Arrogance has also been at the root of much undesirable behavior over the centuries. It has caused whole nations to believe that they are entitled to special status or even existence as a result of some perceived higher truth. Arrogance has also caused its share of conflict and wars. While it often takes on a very subtle approach, it is just as likely to be very blunt and to the point. It causes many to sin before God when they do not heed the word of God regarding humility and how Christians are to live with others.
Lack of understanding is the last of the specific problems dealt with here. However, this short list is far from being exhaustive. There are many issues which are just as likely as to be the cause of doctrinal problems. However, there are a great many instances where problems arise between people of different beliefs, even within any given denomination as a result of a misunderstanding of doctrine or a complete lack thereof. Many are the times when one encounters individuals who espouse a doctrine with great zeal, but with a faulty understanding of what is actually taught by their church. This has a tendency to magnify many disputes. Correctly understanding what the church teaches regarding specific doctrines is often difficult for many especially those who are new to a particular church or group. It takes time to correctly receive a proper foundation in the gospel and many believers fail to remember that anyone they may encounter unlikely not be at the same level of understanding or experience.
Constructive Doctrinal Differences
There can and should be constructive doctrinal differences. Christians are admonished that everyone is to be fully persuaded. That can be difficult and it may take a great deal of time to convince another of your belief. It must be done with sincerity and patience. And it must be remembered that it may not be possible to change a person's belief to match your own. There are bonds in the gospel that are, or at least should be, greater than doctrine. It is an established quirk of history that many issues have been clouded and obscured over the centuries. This fact alone should make us cautious in our approach when discussing doctrine, especially for those doctrines where there are a wide variety of beliefs or for doctrines which have been known during history to be particularly divisive.
Everyone should approach doctrinal discussions with the proper reflection on the Christian experience. In addition to the sincerity and patience mentioned earlier, it must be done with gentleness, kindness, joy, love, goodness, and self-control. Constantly calling to mind the admonitions in the fourth chapter of Ephesians would be worthwhile.
Another manner of action that is frequently lacking in discussions about doctrine is courtesy. We should never forget to be courteous in all that we do and this also should include doctrinal discussions.
In order for everyone to be fully persuaded concerning a matter, it would be helpful to utilize the Spirit of God through prayer regarding the truth. If there is a truth to be had in the discussion, then through proper consideration and prayer, God is able to confirm his word through the Holy Spirit. We should seek and achieve a greater level of unity through the Holy Spirit.
Finally, as as stated by the Apostle Paul, "So let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another." Our differences should not lead us to estrangement or to violence, but, rather, our differences should remind us of the great task we face. This can and should be peaceful. Any other course of action is a great distortion of the gospel message and does not provide for a good report among nonbelievers.
The notion that churches can or should be doctrine-free is absurd. That doctrine is very difficult cannot be denied. However, difficulty alone is no excuse. The rise of such churches is a testimony only to the glaring failure of Christians to be transformed by the gospel into disciples of Christ. The possibility of having constructive doctrinal differences remains and we should not forget that a different doctrinal opinion will transform us. The question is, however, in what way? Will it result in our manifesting the mind of Christ or will it serve to further manifest our own carnal minds?