Doctrine, Community, and the Individual

Can a faith group exist without doctrine?

Doctrine says something about us. In many ways, it defines who and what we are. It says more about us than it says about God. A shared religion or doctrine is a functional way for like-minded people to find one another and to work together for shared aims.

When this helps to achieve a desirable social outcome, religion or doctrine has a valuable purpose. Often, however, shared doctrine serves a dysfunctional outcome and can be detrimental to the individual as well as to the faith group.

Too often, doctrine is born out of fear. For the individual, it is fear of being so wrong in one’s personal picture of God that one’s salvation is at risk; or that one belongs to a faith group that itself has a faulty picture of God, with the same risk to salvation. Fear of aligning with the wrong God or the right God but in the wrong way, which may result in wrong thinking, beliefs, and actions, seems to be at the root of much of our doctrinal divisions. 

It is a deeply felt notion that we must hold or protect a certain doctrinal construction in order to be saved. The earnestness and vigor with which religions socialize young people and new converts into the doctrines they (the religions) hold dear is evidence of the seriousness with which we humans take our own stance. Moreover, the ways—sometimes even violent—in which we defend our doctrines speaks to our fear of having our doctrines being undermined and of being eternally lost. 

The psychology of doctrine and of religious ideology is rooted in our worldview; in held concepts that are not willingly subjected to ongoing scrutiny. It is ironic that while the opening gambit of evangelism is to encourage open-minded re-assessment of long-held beliefs and doctrine, its conclusion is the closure of the spiritual mind to new ideas and to the fresh assessment of novel insights into who and what God is.

Most churches share the notion of their certain, correct, and singular path to heaven. The Catholic catechism, for example, asks:

Which is the one true Church established by Christ?

and answers:

—The one true Church established by Christ is the Catholic Church.


What are the chief marks of the Church?

—The chief marks of the Church are four: It is one, holy, catholic or universal, and apostolic.


What Christ determined, the Church cannot change. Since Christ, however, did not determine many points of worship in non-essential matters, the Church has the authority to make those determinations.


Are all obliged to belong to the Catholic Church in order to be saved?

—All are obliged to belong to the Catholic Church in order to be saved.


The principle that it makes no difference what religion a person practices, so long as he leads a good life, is deceptive, because it attaches the same importance to the teaching and practice of false religion as it does to the teaching and practice of the one true religion revealed by Christ and taught by His church.

No-one can be saved without sanctifying grace, and the Catholic Church alone is the divinely established means by which grace is brought into the world and the full fruits of our Lord’s redemption are applied to men. 

Once established, these cherished doctrines—these divine insights—are clung to with tenacious vigor. A 2014 Pew poll asked people affiliated with religion to choose one of three statements that best reflected their view of how religion should engage with modernity; that is, how should religion be related to what was going on around them in the modern world. A plurality (43%) believed that their religion should preserve traditional beliefs and practices. A third (34%) said their denomination should adjust traditional beliefs and practice in light of new circumstances. Only 14% said their religion should adopt modern beliefs and practices. 

Among Mormons, the percentage who believed that their religion should preserve traditional beliefs and practices was 70%. Jehovah’s Witnesses: 60%; evangelical Protestants 61%; members of historically black Protestant churches 53%; and orthodox churches, 50%. Among Moslems, 90% said their religion should preserve traditional ways and only 10% said it should adjust beliefs and practices in light of new circumstances. Jews, mainline Protestants, and Catholics held the most common view that religion should adjust to modernity. 

The Book of Acts provides a case study in the effects of modernity and doctrinal change at work in a particular faith group—the early Christian church:  

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching [the root of doctrinal security] and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common;and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

This is a picture of stable doctrine and practice. With stability comes growth and great contentment among those of like mind. But we also see that the God of the New Testament—like the God of the Old Testament—is apparently not content with stability and like-mindedness:  

When they had arrived and gathered the church together, they began to report all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.And they spent a long time with the disciples. (Acts 14:27-28)

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. 

Next we see God interjecting instability into their thinking:

“And God, who knows the heart, testified to them [i.e., to uncircumcised men—non-Jews] giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us;and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”

All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

After some deliberation, James said: 

“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles,but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren,and they sent this letter by them,

“The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.

“Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls,it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.“Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth.“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials:that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”

So when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter.When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message.After they had spent time there, they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out. (Acts 15:1-2;8-12;19-33)

From this we may deduce that: 

(1) Although doctrine can unite a cause, it can divide one, too; 
(2) We should not assume that doctrinal unity is God’s plan or that doctrinal division is the devil’s; and
(3) That brotherly love trumps doctrine. 

We also see the four phases of community discussed by M. Scott Peck in his book A Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace:

1. Pseudo community—the community seen in Acts 2, in which members are extremely pleasant towards one another to avoid conflict, often hiding their true feelings. Individual differences are minimized, un-acknowledged, or ignored. The group may appear to be functioning smoothly but individual intimacy and honesty are crushed. Generalizations and platitudes are characteristics of this stage. But once individual differences start to surface, the group quickly moves into stage 2: 
2. Chaos—which centers around well-intentioned but misguided attempts to heal and to convert. Individual differences come out into the open, and groups attempt to obliterate them. It is a stage marked by lack of creativity, destructive fighting and struggle. It is no fun. It is common for members to attack not just one another but also the leadership, with one or more members invariably proposing an escape into organization to attempt to replace the leadership. However, as long as the goal is true community, organization is an unworkable solution to chaos.
3. Emptiness—the essential stage between chaos and true community. It is the hardest but most critical stage of community development. It necessitates that members empty themselves of barriers to communication. The most common barriers are expectations, preconceptions, prejudices, ideology, theology, and solutions; the need to heal, to fix, to convert, to resolve, to control. The stage of emptiness is ushered in when members begin to share their own brokenness, their own defeats, failures, and fears, rather than acting as though they had got it all together. Emptiness is also a period of quietness, of silence. The statement in Acts 15:12 that “All the people kept silent” shows the retreat into emptiness. 
4. True Community—is what emerges from the emptiness as the group chooses to embrace not only the light but also the darkness. It is joyful, yet realistic. The transformation from a collection of individuals to a true community requires not only little deaths of many of the individuals but also the death of the group. A soft quietness, a peace, descends, in which people are able to express their deepest, most vulnerable thoughts and ideas to which others will simply listen. There may be tears of sorrow and joy, as an extraordinary period of healing progresses. 

Do doctrine and community go together? Can a faith group exist on a platform of progressive doctrine? If so, how? 

Donald: It’s a beautiful Sabbath morning here on campus. Through the window I see well-dressed students walking past holding their Bibles on their timely way to church. Tradition is very much in evidence. It may be harder for those born into a faith group to relinquish tradition, compared to those who join later in life. If they do relinquish even a part of tradition, there is a danger that the whole structure of their faith collapses for them.

We often equate doctrine with truth. Can truth change? If truth is reflected in the number of people who believe it, do declining numbers mean that the truth, or the doctrine, is no longer true? Is this why we are so desperate to evangelize, to swell the numbers of our faith as an attestation to, or an endorsement of, its truth? It’s hard to imagine a faith group as a collection of individuals who do not share a doctrine. 

But it is critical to consider tradition in light of the times. It is a shock to elders, for whom time once seemed relatively stable—not much changed, compared to today. Christ said that His bride was the church, but I think he intended “church” to mean the collection of all believers in Him as their Savior, not a particular church group; but we make group distinctions based on our interpretation of Scripture. 

Mikiko: Doctrine can and should change. The Jehovah’s Witnesses used to celebrate Christmas but stopped when they worked out the real birthday of Jesus and realized that December 25th marked a pagan celebration of the unconquered Sun at the Winter solstice. 

David: The Catholic catechism says: 

36. Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.” Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God’s revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created “in the image of God”.

The Bible says that Man was created in the image of God, but do we really understand what that means? We tend to think, on the basis of that statement, that God must then look like us, with two arms and legs, eyes, ears, and a nose, and so on. But does the statement mean something quite different to what we have always thought? If it does, then catechism 36 is suspect. The immediately preceding declarations in the catechism address this:

31. Created in God’s image and called to know and love him, the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know him. These are also called proofs for the existence of God, not in the sense of proofs in the natural sciences, but rather in the sense of “converging and convincing arguments”, which allow us to attain certainty about the truth. These “ways” of approaching God from creation have a twofold point of departure: the physical world, and the human person.

The catechism first looks at approaching God—seeking a true image of God—through the physical world:  

32. The world: starting from movement, becoming, contingency, and the world’s order and beauty, one can come to a knowledge of God as the origin and the end of the universe.

As St. Paul says of the Gentiles: For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

However, the catechism then seems (if I am interpreting it correctly) to acknowledge that the worldly approach is challenging because the world is subject to change: 

And St. Augustine issues this challenge: Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky. . . question all these realities. All respond: “See, we are beautiful.” Their beauty is a profession [confessio]. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One [Pulcher] who is not subject to change?8

The second approach is through our innate sense of moral goodness, our conscience, the inner voice/inner light in all of us: 

33. The human person: with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the “seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material”, can have its origin only in God.

34. The world, and man, attest that they contain within themselves neither their first principle nor their final end, but rather that they participate in Being itself, which alone is without origin or end. Thus, in different ways, man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality “that everyone calls God”.

35. Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. The proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason. (Source: p1s1c1.htm)

So it seems to me everything hinges on whether the image of God is a worldly—physical—image, or a spiritual image. Are we made in the conceptual image of Goodness (I think we are) or in the literal image of a Being with two arms and legs, etc.? It is a vital question, because doctrine—like the Catholic catechism—is built around it; and because we should be prepared to change our doctrines if the answer we believe today is different from the answer we believed yesterday. So to Don’s question: “How?” I think the prerequisite step is to keep doing what we are doing: Keep asking the question, examining it in the light of new knowledge about the world. 

Anonymous: We believe that our doctrines are the truth. 

Donald: Yet the words “doctrine” and “truth” are distinct. Doctrines are generally well defined and documented, yet they may not include what are considered essential elements of the truth to which we subscribe. Sometimes, the leaders of a faith may not agree on those essentials. But to think that our doctrines are the truth could be wrong. Doctrines hold a group together, but the Golden Rule—which trumps any doctrine—is aimed at the individual. 

Robin: Scripture is contradictory on doctrine. On the positive side:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching [doctrine, in some translations], for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;… (2 Timothy 3:16 )

Hear, O sons, the instruction of a father,
And give attention that you may gain understanding,
For I give you sound teaching [doctrine];… (Proverbs 4) 

“My teaching [doctrine] is not Mine, but His who sent Me. If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching [doctrine], whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself. (John 7:16-17)

On the negative side:

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming;… (Ephesians 4:14)

Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching [doctrine] of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching [doctrine], he has both the Father and the Son.If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [doctrine], do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting;for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. (2 John 9-11)

We need to commit a lot of prayer to a doctrine, and rely on the influence of the holy spirit, before accepting it. 

Anonymous: Doctrines then may not always be true, unless they are the teachings of Jesus. Doctrines of a faith group may be right or wrong, but the teaching of Jesus is infallible and non-denominational. 

Don: Jesus Himself seems to make the distinction:

‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matthew 15:9)

Mikiko: Sometimes, doctrine departs from the Bible, for example: 

“However, the inspired word clearly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to misleading inspired statements and teachings of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of men who speak lies, whose conscience is seared as with a branding iron.” 

David: The passage goes on:

They forbid marriage and command people to abstain from foods that God created to be partaken of with thanksgiving by those who have faith and accurately know the truth. For every creation of God is fine, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is sanctified through God’s word and prayer over it.” (1 Timothy 4:1-5 (New World Translation)

I give thanks for the porker! And a nice glass of wine to go with it! If we believe in Christ, and therefore that He is the truth, then which of the conflicting Biblical doctrines or teachings do we follow? Those of Jesus, or those of the rest? I cannot understand why this is an issue for Christians! I cannot understand why they place the Old Testament on the same level as the Gospels. 

Donald: Where are churches in the stages of community? Were they at a higher stage before they became organized? Does organization set them back? 

Don: Today they are probably somewhere between pseudo community and chaos. To get to emptiness and true community requires setting aside prejudices and positions they hold dear and traditions they hold sacrosanct. But churches do not like emptiness, and tend to do all in their power to fill it up with doctrine. 

David: Don mentioned some weeks ago in class that in their early days Adventists went from enjoying a fine porker to being strict vegetarians. There was a doctrinal change, but it did not arise through emptiness. I doubt that the doctrinal change made any spiritual difference. I doubt that ceasing to celebrate Christmas enhanced Jehovah’s Witnesses’ relationship with God. Pork and Christmas are worldly matters of no spiritual relevance, it seems to me. 

Mikiko: Catholics believe in infant baptism. 

David: Another worldly issue of no spiritual significance.

Mikiko: Yes it is!

Peter said to them: “Repent, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the free gift of the holy spirit. (Acts 2:38, New World Translation)

David: OK, then. Let each one of you go out and eat pork and drink wine in the name of Jesus Christ! And if you act in the next five minutes, get a FREE gift of the holy spirit! But hurry!! While supplies last!!! Now that’s what I call an offer not to be refused! 😉 

What matters is what one believes inside. It’s the second approach to God described in the Catholic catechism. It’s the inner light, it’s our conscience. The first (worldly, sometimes non-porcine) approach is valid to the extent it helps some people relate to God, but in terms of knowing and understanding the truth about God—of seeing the true image (or as close to it as we can get)—it won’t work. We cannot know God through the intellect, through human reason. Catholics seem to think we can. Job found that neither he, nor anyone else, could do it. It is a matter of spiritual enlightenment, not of intellectual reasoning. 

Donald: We form nations and governments for purposes of control. Is doctrine a control mechanism? 

Don: Yes, but that is not all bad. 

Donald: A great problem in Africa is the division of tribes when statutory boundaries are drawn. Is doctrine a mechanism for controlling human behavior?

Don: To be continued…

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