I write a lot about unity in diversity because of my upbringing in the Churches of Christ. Because of my writings, friends of mine correctly point out that while we can have unity despite our diversity, correct doctrinal teaching does matter. In fact, one of my friends said that he felt some of my beliefs could be classified as “heresy,” but that he did not think I was a heretic in the truest sense of the word because of my attitude towards others and the room for error extended to everyone.
So every now and then, I sit down to write up a blog, maybe a disclaimer, on why doctrine does matter.
First, there’s a few negative motivations for desiring correct doctrine. These are motivations I’ve had in the past, so I think they’re important to name.
Negative Motivations for Correct Doctrine
One motivation I’ve had in the past is the lust for knowledge. Having the correct answers, being certain of those answers, and being able to articulate the reasoning behind them can feed one’s ego, especially if one is able to “take down” someone who is viewed in high regard in whatever religious group they are part of. This feeds into similar themes of religious supremacy, us/them thinking, and the desire for popularity, money, or power within one’s particular tribe.
This leads me to another reason one may seek to be doctrinally correct: often doctrinal correctness is a mark of faithfulness or loyalty to a certain tradition. If your tradition happens to be one that comes under a lot of pressure from the outside for its extreme or outlier views, then those who can articulate their positions the most efficiently, despite being outnumbered our outgunned in terms of scholarship, can often claim the status of the persecuted and gain even more clout within their community as a loyal member of the tribe and defender of its tenents.
Another powerful motivation is fear. If you were raised in a tradition in which doctrinal conformity was a requirement for membership within that tradition, then studying is a matter of life and death. Understanding the correct conclusions means inclusion in the tribe and, by extension, heaven. But if you misinterpret, reach the wrong conclusions, or don’t toe the party line, then not only will you miss out on the benefits of membership in your tribe, which may be economic, social, or familial, but you will also miss out on heaven.
Positive Motivations for Correct Doctrine
On the other side of things, there are positive motivations for desiring a correct understanding of doctrine, and one person may experience some of the negative and positive motivations simultaneously. This mixture of positive and negative motivations can be dangerous because the obvious positive motivations may be used as a cloak to hide or even excuse the negative motivations that are more difficult to point out and name.
One might desire to come to correct doctrinal conclusions because they simply want to know more about God. They may have a strong love for the Christian tradition, the character of Jesus, and the nature of God and the Spirit. Their desire to grow in understanding can come from a place of wanting to know more about their Creator.
Another related positive motivation could come from a love of teaching. It might be that they find joy in communicating the good news of Jesus, so learning more about doctrine is a way for them to fulfill that joy by better articulating that message on behalf of others by pulling from a wide variety of resources such as traditions, illustrations, and, of course, scripture.
While the first two examples are true for people who are relatively happy with where they are spiritually, there may also be a darker side to these positive motivations. One could find themselves in a crossroads between maintaining their intellectual integrity and continuing in a tradition that they believe would compromise that. This person studies to stay true to themselves and to honor God through following truth wherever it leads, even if it is away from their most beloved traditions and even their tribe.
While these two lists are not exhaustive, they describe various motivations I’ve felt or have been tempted by, some stronger than others. Perhaps they’ll help you identify where you are or have been too.
Two Reasons Why Doctrine Matters
There are two major reasons for why doctrine matters, and they relate to the two commands of Jesus: to love God and to love our neighbor.
Many doctrinal questions are really questions about who God is. Questions relating to atonement theory, the afterlife, and the end times may be framed as questions about the nature of God. Is the universe a safe place to be? Is God someone who we can love and trust? Does God want what is best for us?
Many characters in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the wisdom literature, asked questions like this. The evolving understanding of who God is in the Hebrew Scriptures is a good example of humanity wrestling with this question, a tradition we carry on today.
Other doctrinal questions we may have relate to the second command: love your neighbor as yourself. These questions relate to the work and purpose of the church, ethics, and questions relating to the well-being of our fellow humans and the church’s responsibilities in those areas.
These two commands are intertwined: how we understand God impacts how we treat each other, and how we interact with each other can influence how we understand God.
Deconstruction, then, is a word we use to describe the process of peeling back observations others have made about God or our neighbors that we have found unhelpful and not in line with the justice, love, and mercy of God as revealed through Jesus. Deconstruction, for many of us, is not about questioning God; it’s about questioning things we’ve heard about God that we find suspicious and even dangerous.
When we talk about the purpose of God’s kingdom, questioning doctrines which appear to work against that purpose are not only necessary for us to remain intellectually honest, but they are also necessary if we are to follow the tradition of Jesus.
Doctrine and the Sermon on the Mount
Jesus, a thirty-year-old carpenter from Nazareth, stood up in Matthew 5 and had the guts to say, “You have heard how our ancestors were told… but I say to you…” As he began to preach, he talked about how we treat others, such as calling us to not commit adultery but to not even lust, and he also talked about who God is, such as by saying that if we want to be children of God, then we have to love our enemies like God.
Correct doctrine, for Jesus, meant correct living. In order to create the people that would change the world, he had to deconstruct a lot of surface-level interpretations given throughout the ages. For him, doctrinal correctness was not a matter of gaining popularity among the religious elite, showing off his reasoning skills, or some other vain motivation, but it was about showing who God really is and how we should live in light of that.
So why I believe that the need for correct doctrine can be overstated, I also believe that it can be understated. We still need to have conversations on eschatology, soteriology, and other subjects, but we don’t need to lose sight of what these discussions are really about: how we can show our neighbors who God is through our love towards them? In this way, doctrinal debates move from an us-versus-them, good guys versus bad, and heretics versus true Christians, to a joint effort in discovering God together.