Doctrine defines not just who we are but also what holy book we read, what prophets we follow, how we worship, the rituals we use, what we think and do in this life and what we think about the after-life. Shared doctrine unites, different doctrines divide. Why doesn’t God simply make clear which doctrine is correct?
The Tower of Babel was built to try to reach God, to get to know Him and His ways so humans could put God’s ways to use for human purposes. After they had begun to build it, …
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. (Genesis 11:5-8)
First, let it be noted that despite Man’s best efforts to reach Him, God was still a long way off. God had to “go down”, because the tower was nowhere near to reaching heaven.
Second, God’s plan is not for a world of sinful Man unified, a world of one people with a common language.
Third, His response to the Babelonians shows that God knows full well how readily Man weaponizes doctrine. We expect God to be clear and unambiguous about the correct doctrine, but He was clear and unambiguous that a single, unified, human doctrine would not be allowed to reach Him. God’s statement that if it were to do so: “nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them,” is similar to His statement after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit: “Behold, the man has become like one of Us” (Genesis 3:22).
God’s plan for Mankind was for for us to rely on Him to reach out to us, not the reverse. We wish to know God, to penetrate His secrets, to harness His power, to speak and act on His behalf, but it seems that this is not His plan; that how God sees us is more important than how we see God. Perhaps we should reconsider these passages, both of which report the same event:
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.For I came to set a man against his father, and a (Matthew 10:34-36)
Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division;for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)
I am reminded of the movie A Few Good Men, where in response to Lt. Caffee’s demand for the truth, Colonel Jessop shouts: “You can’t handle the truth!” This seems to be what God was saying to the Babelonians. In the so-called High Priestly Prayer in Gethsemane on the eve of His arrest, Jesus prayed:
“Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word;that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:17-21)
This prayer is of unity around Truth, but the Truth is around mission more than message, and the mission and the unity is founded upon love:
“Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.
“O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me;and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:24-26)
God’s unity is not based upon doctrine, but upon love for one another:
“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
We want to make it about what we believe, but God wants to make it about loving one another. Is it possible to conceive of a church built on a doctrine of unity and love? Can the Syriac Orthodox Church, whose members speak Arabic in daily life, continue to worship in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, as it has done ever since the Church was founded 1,500 years ago?
Thinking machines, artificial intelligence, a more thorough understanding of history and how the universe works, unlimited information at our fingertips… how will all of this help to inform us about God and about who He is and about the doctrines we hold about Him? Will God be needed? How? We He even be relevant?
Will our doctrines have any chance of standing up against time? A thousand years from now we will have more answers than ever before, but will the answers be enough? Most people seek answers from religion and its doctrines. Most Christians see the Bible as a book of answers. But how can a book written millennia ago provide answers in another millennium? Is doctrine based on answers at risk, given that answers (often changed answers) are coming at an ever-increasing pace? Should we be asking questions instead of seeking answers?
David: Through questions we may begin to perceive the vague outlines of an answer. They are valuable in that regard. But it depends on the question. For instance, when Jesus said He came to divide us, what did He mean? I don’t think we can answer the question any better today than His contemporaries could have answered it, and neither will our successors in another 2,000 years. The Bible asks many questions that lead not to answers but to a vague sense of enlightenment, of spiritual progress, but some of them seem to be to unanswerable even in principle. I cannot answer what Jesus—the epitome of love and forgiveness—meant when He said He came to divide us. It is contradictory and therefore makes no sense.
Donald: An evangelistic series is a sequence of answers spread over a sequence of nights. Churches (not just Adventism) evangelize on the basis that their doctrine has the answers. If we question whether we really have the answers, we question doctrine. Not all Christian churches evangelize, but those that do are saying: “Come, we’ll tell you what you need to know.”
Robin: Doctrine appears to be fluid. The more that we read and pray for the Spirit to enlighten us, the more we learn. Sometimes, that means the Church’s stand changes a little bit, but our understanding of God remains the same. Yet it is our understanding of Him that should grow. Growth is change.
Culture and doctrine influence one another. Even a young denomination such as ours has seen doctrinal change.
David: It changed famously with the end of the practice of dining on fat porkers!
Robin: The church accepts that its legalistic emphasis was on what we had to do and learn, as against what has been done already and what we should believe and emulate. We tend to worry about the effect of change on our numbers, but it seems to me the more important effect is on people’s spiritual closeness and awakening.
Anonymous: I remember as a young woman being afraid to be caught drinking tea! Today, everybody drinks coffee or tea.
Donald: Has the doctrine changed, or the culture? Culturally we have become more tolerant, but doctrine has not changed.
David: Jesus stressed the fundamentals of faith but was dismissive of the legal details. Could a Christian church do the same? The Universalist Unitarians do that, yet its membership is tiny. Then again, it does not evangelize—it does not actively recruit. Could it? Did Jesus send the disciples out to evangelize after His death, or to do something significantly different? Did He want them to go out and praise Him and His miracles, or did He want them to go out and spread a gospel of love?
Don: In His High-Priestly Prayer, He called not for the sharing of ideas but the sharing of love. He said the defining characteristic of the disciples was that they showed love for one another. Unfortunately, this seems not to be a very compelling message that “sells” well in the marketplace. It is easier to sell hard truth than soft truth—to sell five-times-a-day-prayer, 40-day fasts, prohibitions concerning food and drink and the Sabbath, and so on. The more detail, the more appealing people seem to find it. The fastest-growing religions and denominations are those that tend to be the most conservative, the most demanding of their members’ time and effort.
Robin: Scripture has many examples of God supporting the underdog and giving them victory. Twelve men changed the world. That’s some evangelizing! Today, numbers are tightly associated with wealth. The more members, the richer the church.
David: Were the disciples and apostles successful when they went out? One could argue that their work led to the founding (300 years later) of the Christian Church which became the biggest religion and changed the world. But did they add to the sum total of love in the world?
Robin: The mindset before they went out was that one had to be born a Jew, but they went out to the Gentiles as well. Thus, the message of love expanded.
Don: It has always been a work in progress. The New Testament Books of Acts and Galatians shows tremendous discourse among the disciples around the issue of whether Gentiles could be Christians, and whether the Jewish laws regarding circumcision and eating kosher foods should apply to Gentiles who sought to join the early Christian movement.
The constant backdrop to evangelism is the contention between “This is what you have to do” and “This is what God will do for you.” How do we keep the good of granularity? There is some good to be found in the granularity—the detailed doctrines—of all religions; things that benefit society and individuals. Yet we get so bogged down in granularity that we cannot see the forest for the trees. It becomes so easily weaponized against those who hold different grains. There is potential value in doctrine, but our irresponsibility with it leads us down some dark and dubious paths.
Donald: Is doctrine a commodity we append to fundamental Christian principles so we can call it our own? At weekly all-male and all-female meetings of the Bible Study Fellowship, politics, sports, and doctrine are taboo subjects. Fellows discuss their personal understanding of the Bible, their faith journey, and spirituality, all without reference to doctrine and how any particular denomination views those things. The only requirement is to have read the Scripture. It might surprise people constrained by their doctrine to learn that discussion of the Bible, Christianity, spirituality, and one’s faith journey is quite possible in a doctrine-free setting. If, for example, the Sabbath is mentioned in the Scripture under study, there is no discussion of the proper day of the week for it.
Don: What are the advantages to a denomination of holding, say, a trinitarian view of God vs. a non-trinitarian view?
Anonymous: At the personal level it doesn’t matter in the least. I have a beloved friend who is a Jehovah’s Witness. Our different views do not diminish our love.
David: But from the corporate perspective, a Jesus who is part of a divine trinity is far more powerful (and therefore attractive to followers) than a Jesus who is just a good man. The apostles went out to try to make some difference, but what difference could they make to the fundamentals of loving God and one’s neighbor? If theirs was a corporate as opposed to a personal effort, what difference could it make? A church cannot love or be loved, no matter what its members may think. Corporate evangelism can make no difference, it seems to me.
Don: Must doctrine have some utilitarian value? Must it make a practical difference, or is it just verbiage? What is the practical value of holding the doctrine that God is a trinity (or not)? That the Sabbath falls on Saturday (or not)? That pork may be eaten (or not)?
David: The razor blade is pretty fundamental. Whether it is a Gillette or a Schick, it will give a good shave. Their respective corporations insist that their blades are better, but that is mere marketing, just verbiage. I’ve tried both, so I know that the blades are equally good at giving a close shave. Take away the marketing and the corporate branding and leave plainly wrapped blades on the supermarket shelves and men would be just as well shaved as ever. They would get what they need without anguishing over which to choose.
Donald: We could extend the analogy to cars and trucks. The moment we add one “extra” to one of the trucks—Ford, Chevy, or Ram—then the others have to start embellishing their models with extras, too. But the fundamental truck, and its fundamental value as a means of helping people haul loads, does not change. Religions seek to help their members reach the truth, not by discussing the open-ended questions that might actually take them there, but by presenting far more popular doctrinally embellished answers guaranteed (says the marketing) to lead people to the truth. People are just not comfortable with the open-ended questions. What is love? Do we really need to discuss it?
David: Did the disciples really have to go out and teach people about love? Did mothers not love their children as much before Christianity came?
Don: We will talk more about questions. Is it possible to construct a doctrine based on questions? What is God’s modus operandi?
Donald: The non-doctrinal Bible study fellowship I mentioned provides a fundamental commodity rather than a brand.
Don: Part of the conundrum is that most of us in this class feel strongly connected to the corporate church, to our brand. Its doctrines and positions have worked well for us and bear up under Scriptural scrutiny. The question is whether ours is the only way.
Donald: Is not the denomination that has the Truth the only way? How do we account for the declines in religion described in an earlier class?
Anonymous: The truth is knowing and believing in Jesus. He said: “I am the truth.” It is really quite simple.
Mikiko: But let us not forget that Jesus acknowledged that he derived his power from God.
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