I have been blessed that my research and networking has put me into contact with conversations and writings from a wide range of Christian thought, from Pentecostalism to Roman Catholicism to Calvinism to Wesleyan-Arminianism. What has struck me is the kaleidoscopic array of doctrine and the questions it poses about being right or wrong and what we do with such a spectrum of thought as a divided and, in many unfortunate ways, dysfunctional Church.
It fascinates me that so many highly intelligent people can reach such different conclusions from reading Scripture. There are surely cultural influences and assumptions gleaned from our formational church traditions and surrounding culture. I commend those who defend doctrines of their denomination or tradition but more for their zeal in the pursuit of truth than for their unflappability in adhering to what they hold true. The big divider there is “the pursuit of truth.”
I have come to think that the Church probably holds 95% or more of truly critical doctrinal beliefs in common–the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, the atonement for sin of the Cross, the Resurrection, and so on. We hold these things as truth and should. Sadly, the other 5% that divides us tends to be where our conversations break down and we go our separate ways in frustration or even in anger.
What is troublesome is that we hold so tightly to doctrine we are willing to sacrifice relationships for the sake of “knowing” that we are right. That flies in the face of the Bible’s consistent message of reconciliation. Of course it would be absurd to cling to doctrines we did not believe. So how do we handle these differences? How do we live with the tensions of not knowing which is right?
Much of the conundrum is created by our propensity toward stating our claims in either / or format. Two problems can arise from such an argument. One, it is possible that the two are not actually contradictory but only contrary. The either / or positions presents them, however, as contradictory and so we assume we must believe one or the other carte blanche. The second problem is that we end up with all or nothing propositions, that is, statements or stands that allow no shades of gray or nuances. Ultimately these propositions are the seeds of legalism.
The origins of holding too strongly to one’s positions are pride and fear. We want to trust in what is “seen,” that is, in propositions we can clearly define, or nailed down, if a very graphic reminder can be allowed. We like black and white because they give us a clear perception of reality. But let us consider what we are discussing here. To follow God we try to know God then formulate our opinions of how to act based on that knowledge. In many cases the appropriate actions are clear enough. But here again, a couple of problems arise.
The first problem is that we create rules. We often hear teachers and preachers talk about how Israel (and we) could not / cannot keep even the Ten Commandments…just ten little rules. The sad thing is, Adam and Eve could not keep even just one! What makes us think we can keep the rules we can state clearly, to live by standards we create from our limited understanding? Or, that we can state enough clearly to be righteous before God? The New Testament is clear…rules divide, the Law kills. In our failing to keep all the rules, we are separated from God. At stake here is living in vital relationship with God, just as we live daily in vital relationship with our sisters and brothers in Christ, with our children and parents and spouses and co-workers and church. Circumstances change and our reactions to these folk ebb and flow depending on how they are acting or responding or based on the circumstances of the situation itself.
Notice that Joshua says that he and his household will serve the Lord (24:15). He frames his religion in terms of availability and obedience based on historic interaction (vv. 2–13), not doctrine. He understands that God commands, leads, and intervenes situationally. Joshua will serve as a response to all that God has done for the patriarchs and the nation Israel. It is about a dynamic relationship. And Jesus lifted David up as a righteous rule breaker (Matthew 12:3–4) in denouncing the legalism of Israel’s religious leaders.
The second problem occurs in our relationship with God. In effect, when we carve our doctrines in stone, we are killing the relationship with God. Rules-making is, in effect, trying to keep God in a box. We reduce God to our control. However, if we were to quantify what we know specifically before the presence of God, it can be defined mathematically as 10-∞, that is, ten to the negative infinity. God is infinite and His knowledge is infinite. Ours can only be expressed in the negative by comparison. Science bears out that we have achieved virtually nothing in trying to understand all of physics and human physiology, let alone trying to comprehend the mysteries of God. We should take to heart 1 Corinthians 3:18-21:
Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become foolish that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.” So then let no one boast in men.
To me, “to become foolish” is to recognize my own limitations and, in so doing, to recognize the limitations of others. Andrew Murray makes the claim in his small book, Humility, that we will be humbled when we recognize God as God, for Who and What He is, and recognize ourselves in light of God. I am a fallen creature redeemed by the blood of Christ. But my flesh, that dwelling place of my pride and fear, would try to convince me that I have attained far more than I have. If I do not make myself aware of my lowly state, of body and mind, then I am truly a fool. If I choose to “become foolish,” I can more easily submit to God and be honest in saying “I don’t know” when it is appropriate, or listening intently for God’s voice when others present ideas or thoughts contrary to my own. That is iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17).
I like Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. This passage sets us up to see that we are faced throughout life with changing circumstances and possibilities of response.
1 There is an appointed time for everything.
And there is a time for every event under heaven–
2 A time to give birth, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted.
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to tear down, and a time to build up.
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance.
5 A time to throw stones, and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, and a time to shun embracing.
6 A time to search, and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away.
7 A time to tear apart, and a time to sew together;
A time to be silent, and a time to speak.
8 A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time for peace.
The whole point of this essay is that we should humble ourselves and, I think, most especially where it comes to points of doctrine. We are all operating with incomplete knowledge and our pride (thinking we know more than we do) and fear (not trusting those of other doctrine and traditions to the oversight of God) compel us to discount the opinions of others, and even to divide the Church over our opinions. Though we claim to know that we see as through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12), we are quick to offhandedly dismiss everything someone from an “opposing” camp has to say.
Who among us can say that our understanding of the Bible is the right one? The cartoon below has shown up on Facebook, posted a couple of times by my friends. The absurdity of the cartoon would be funny if it were not so sadly true. Paul wrote, in Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself.”
We must not place our trust in those doctrines that consistently divide. Satan knows the Scriptures better than any of us. He also knows us better than we know ourselves. We must be on constant guard to assess what is happening relationally when we find ourselves vexed by various opinions, or more importantly when those opinions start pushing our blood pressure toward the roof.
To justify our positions and our “righteous anger,” we even go so far as to convince ourselves that we have the discernment that Christ had when He became angry in the Temple or called out the Pharisees for their legalism. To appropriate (and adapt) a famous line once delivered during a political debate: “I know Jesus Christ…and I am no Jesus.”
Ultimately, holding our doctrines loosely honors God in the humble recognition that His ways are far above ours (Isaiah 55:8). Do we want to worship a God that we can understand to the nth degree? Our God is far more than we are, beyond our comprehension…able to save us from ourselves when we cannot. Allow God to be mysterious. Love people, even sinners, more than doctrine. Jesus did.
The life of the Church and of the world is at stake here. That is, our spiritual well-being hangs in the balance as we are the Church and the agency of Christ sharing life with the world. What witness is it to the world when within our own body we are afflicted, disjointed, and broken without healing? What value are we to the Kingdom when we stand on being right before we kneel in humility before God?