God and Government 12: Doctrine in the Life of the Believer

The story in Matthew 22:23-33 we have been studying is also captured by Mark:

Some Sadducees (who say that there is no resurrection) came to Jesus, and began questioning Him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves behind a wife and leaves no child, his brother should marry the wife and raise up children to his brother. There were seven brothers; and the first took a wife, and died leaving no children. The second one married her, and died leaving behind no children; and the third likewise; and so all seven left no children. Last of all the woman died also. In the resurrection, when they rise again, which one’s wife will she be? For all seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. But regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken.” (Mark 12:18-27)

The essence of the question we (and, in a way, the Sadducees) are asking is: What role does doctrine play in faith? Is doctrine a tool of faith, or a tool of fear?

The word originates from the Latin for teaching, or instruction. It is a code of belief, or a body of teaching or instruction. Doctrines constitute the principles of a branch of knowledge or a belief system. The Greek word for catechism is similar in meaning. All faith systems, religious groups, denominations have doctrines stemming from holy writing, revelation (real or imagined), or from tradition. In simple terms, doctrine is what God revealed to us Himself about how He wants us to live, to believe, and to act. And all faith groups believe that their understanding, their belief, their interpretation, their way of thinking, their way of seeing God is authentic, unique, and (above all) correct. Most feel, in addition, that their doctrine is immutable: Timeless and unchanging.

In the passage above, Jesus seems to establish a clear doctrine—clear teaching or teachings—on doctrine itself. First, said Jesus, the doctrine must come not just from reading scripture, but from interpreting and understanding it. Second, the power of God can overwhelm doctrine. Third, and most significant: By paralleling doctrine to the lives of Abraham, Moses, and Jacob while stating that He is the God of the living, not of the dead, Jesus seems to be saying that doctrine is to be a living, vibrant, growing, organic, and ever-changing document—like life itself.

Every faith group cling to its doctrine as never-changing. We have no way to modulate, change, or even just to tweak, our own doctrine. Even in Jesus’ time—and Jesus was perhaps the greatest proponent of doctrinal change—doctrine did not change. And even during the Reformation, the church burned heretics at the stake rather than change its doctrine. Even today, we shun, disfellowship, or otherwise isolate those who share doctrinal differences with us. They are viewed as rotten apples which, if not ejected or at least censured in some way, will infect the whole barrel.

We have no mechanism to embrace, examine, or adopt change. We need a sort of pending file, to store other viewpoints so they can be studied, examined, vetted, and maybe even tried out on an experimental basis in practice. Some may be seen in a new light and accepted; some may be rejected as uninspired drivel. All faiths and denominations act this way, including my own.

Take, for example, our prophetic paradigm: In the Book of Revelation we see ourselves, our country, and our Western civilization in vivid imagery, from which we construct doctrines—teachings and interpretations that fit us, speak to us, and reassure us. This is good, and not to be dismissed as wrong. But what does this prophetic paradigm—our doctrine, as we understand it—say to the Eskimo, the Palestinian, the sub-Saharan African, the peoples of the vast expanses of Asia? How does our story relate to them? If the Bible is a timeless, eternal, everlasting Word for all of God’s people, then the doctrines of the Bible must apply to all people everywhere and in all ages.

George R. Knight, professor of church history at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University, performed a great service in pointing out how our doctrines have changed through history. The change has not always been formal, in the sense of planned, deliberate action; but often through the informal, individual expression of new ideas that took on a life of their own and grew organically, fostering change in both thinking and practice. His classical article in Ministry magazine in 1999, titled “Adventists and change,” began with these provocative works:

“Most of the founders of Seventh-day Adventism would not be able to join the church today if they had to subscribe to the denomination’s Fundamental Beliefs.”

He went on to point out, in case after case, areas where our understanding and practice have changed, and our doctrines along with them. Even Ellen White herself, in 1906 made this provocative statement:

“For sixty years I have been in communication with heavenly messengers, and I have been constantly learning in reference to divine things, and in reference to the way in which God is constantly working to bring souls from the error of their ways to the light in God’s light.”

She later acknowledged that from time to time her advice to the early church had been mistaken, and that she had “run ahead of the angel.” Take, for example, the eating of pork—a subject of ardent discussion from the very earliest days of the church. In 1850, James White published a powerful argument seeking to prove that eating pork was quite appropriate in the Christian era, based on the following passage in the Bible:

On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky. (Acts 10:9-16)

Another early church Father in the late 1850s, Steven N. Haskell agitated against the eating of pork. Ellen White urged him not to press his personal viewpoint, so as not to cause division among the early church. At that time, James and Ellen White, like most other Adventists, ate pork. We know this because on the back of a letter from Ellen to her sister, in which Ellen urged her sister to cook some pork for her husband, James wrote “That you may know how we stand on this subject, I would say that we have just put down a 200 pound porker.”

By the early 1860s, Ellen White’s views on pork began to change. A new disease, trichinosis, had been discovered in hogs. In 1863, she had what became known as her “health reform” vision and advocated the eating of clean meat and even vegetarianism. Another early church Father, John Loughborough, said about the creeds of that time:

“The first step of apostasy is to get up a creed teaching us what we should believe. The second step is to make the creed a test of fellowship. The third step is to try the members by that creed. The fourth step is to denounce as heretics those who do not believe in the creed. The fifth step is to persecute them.”

James White agreed. “Making the creed,” he said, “is like setting a stake barring the way to all future advancement.” The Bible, our church Fathers have always said, is our only creed. We reject everything in the form of a human creed.

So what do we need doctrine for? Do we benefit from it? Does it divide us or unify us? Does it lead us to God? Or does it simply provide us with identity?

Donald: Ideas evolve, so it is troubling to think that people are excluded for not observing an idea at a particular stage of its evolution. Identity seems important. Our group gets together to discuss our beliefs. We are good to one another as long as we all endorse those beliefs. We fall apart otherwise. Adventism today is different from times past. But its doctrines come from Scripture as well as from traditions. When traditions form doctrine, we are bound to have trouble in a global community of differing traditions.

David: Traditions evolve, too. It’s the evolution of God and religions that causes so much confusion and trouble. Jesus pointed to just two things as being really important: Love God and your neighbor. These are not tradition, and so are not subject to change. They are unchanging and eternal personal principles. If we act upon them, we are never going to shun or persecute our neighbors, no matter how different their tradition. Unfortunately, we allow human doctrines to override them.

KB: In my culture, when boys reach the age of 12 or 13, they have to go live on the mountain for a month, in the winter, wearing only a light blanket. Then they are circumcised. The idea is to prepare them for manhood. Prospective brides prefer a man who has been to the mountain. The boys’ fathers are proud to have a son who has gone to the mountain. But many Seventh Day Adventist mothers challenge the tradition, demanding to be shown its Scriptural justification. Some take their sons to hospital for a less painful and much safer circumcision, and don’t let them go to the mountain.

The problem is, first, that even within the church, young men who have not been to the mountain are not considered man enough to preach or perform other duties; and second, that preachers move from church to church, so inevitably some come from areas that don’t observe the old tradition. The older generation questions their credentials to preach. Now, our Conference has even directed that young men who want to be pastors should first go to the mountain before they go to college to study theology.

Donald: There is much Adventist evangelism going on among the deeply traditional Masai of East Africa. Can a Masai be so readily changed? Culture and faith are so intertwined, it seems, that tradition could be strangled. But the Masai hold to the simple philosophy that we have two hands and can therefore hold two things at the same time; and so it is with ideas. For them, there is no dissonance in holding both their faith and their tradition.

KB: Our community, too, is tending that way now. At church camp, we hold celebrations for those who have just gone to the mountain. We pray that they be blessed. We think that God doesn’t care whether or not they have been to the mountain, but our culture does.

Jay: It is a wonderful example of how a culture can survive religious intrusion by holding both together, not treating them as either/or.

Donald: Borders set by colonialists in Africa often cut through tribes and cultures. People on either side found themselves with separate, foreign, identities that damaged or destroyed their common traditions and cultural bonds.

KB: Doctrine is important in providing direction.

Mikiko: Before Noah’s Flood, people could not eat pork, rabbit, or camel, because they were ruminants. But afterwards, Jehovah God told Noah:

Every moving animal that is alive may serve as food for you. Just as I gave you the green vegetation, I give them all to you. Only flesh with its life—its blood—you must not eat. (Genesis 9:3-4)

The people of Okinawa are the longest-lived people on earth, and their staple food is pork!

David: Besides “Love God and your neighbor,” what doctrines are needed to provide direction in life?

Jay: I think the answer depends on the individual, and on what stage they are at in their relationship with God. It is like a child going through stages with its parents as it grows and learns new things. Doctrine can be helpful so long as it does not try to replace God. I cannot imagine not being Adventist. Many Adventists cannot imagine the taste of meat—it might as well be cardboard, for all they know. Our traditions and culture become ingrained in us and help determine how we live our lives. There are Adventist doctrines that help me follow the universal doctrine of “Love God and thy neighbor.” But if I elevate our local doctrines to the level of divinity, where to ignore or cross them would be a sin, things get dangerous, and identity starts to interfere with the relationship with God and one’s neighbor.

KB: Before I was baptized, I recited the 17 Fundamental Beliefs of Adventism. These were essential to helping me get started in the church. They were something I could hold onto as I learned to adapt.

Donald: They helped you change lanes. And those of us born into the church tend to feel ours is the right lane.

David: Church programs such as serving in soup kitchens are one way to help members of the church follow the universal doctrine of “Love God and thy neighbor.” Do such programs amount to doctrine? Daoism does not prescribe a Do Good doctrine as the means to follow the Way; on the contrary, it prescribes a passive Do No Evil doctrine, to avoid either doing evil or to minimize the effects when evil is done to one. Was the Good Samaritan following an organizational doctrine when he helped the victim on the road, or was he just following the “Love thy neighbor” universal doctrine? The Daoist doctrine is equally universal, in the sense that, if it were universally observed, there would be no victims, no neighbors in need, to start with.

Donald: It is more important to treat people well all the time, instead of just doing good at weekends.

Leave a Reply