[Editor’s Note: This post requires time to mull it over, so we’re reprising it today]
by Henry Neufeld, Energion Publisher
On the front of a local church, prominently displayed, is a list of the critical doctrines of that congregation. These include KJV 1611, dispensationalism, premillennialism, and pretribulationalism. If I were about to enter the church, I would look at the sign and realize I would not fit in.
While this list of doctrines is not one that would attract me, I am not writing this to complain about their doctrinal narrowness. They sound to me like they might be a bit narrow, but many churches have long and detailed doctrinal statements, and no warning on their sign or the front of your church. Until you’re sitting in the pew you may not realize that everyone around you is reading only the KJV, or you may learn through stern comments in Sunday School that you have come to a place where the timing of the rapture is settled doctrine, not open to discussion.
Most of us have some list of doctrines that are absolutely settled, even if that is only the settled doctrine that there are no settled doctrines. We have varied responses to discussing such doctrines. For a community, some sort of statement of beliefs and/or goals is necessary. Why is it that you choose to meet together at certain intervals? Why do you support one another? What goals do you have in organizing?
When I was looking at congregations of the United Methodist Church for the first time I spoke to two different pastors. One told me that he and his congregation didn’t care what I believed. Just come be with them if I would enjoy the congregation. The other asked me about my spiritual walk at the time. Often churches try to follow the pattern of that first pastor in welcoming everyone irrespective of their beliefs. But there are also problems with this approach. In general, churches that have expectations of their members grow faster than those that don’t. It’s nice to be accepted, but one wants to be accepted into something.
This same issue can arise when a church accepts people with limits. For example, does your church accept divorced people into membership? Will your church allow a divorced person to take a position of leadership? My purpose here is not to argue for or against whatever standards are involved, but rather to suggest that we examine our reason and be honest with those who come into the church.
A person who joins a church congregation is likely to have a purpose in doing so. If that purpose cannot be fulfilled, or if such persons do not find a place where they can be useful and valued, they will likely move on or become apathetic. I do not have statistics, just personal conversations, but I suspect that many apathetic, uninvolved Christians lost their drive and energy because somebody thought they were not good enough to go beyond pew warming. We may not say it that way, but our behavior makes it clear that some people are just not good enough for our church.
Some church members have discovered that their beliefs or their histories are considered less acceptable than that of other church members only when they have tried to move into new levels of ministry with that congregation. In one case (I’m intentionally not citing specific people or congregations here), a couple discovered that they were expected to sign a statement affirming opposition to same-sex marriage, but were only told about this after they were in the process of training for leadership. Nobody had said anything before. Membership was OK, and nobody had discussed same-sex marriage before that moment, nor had they heard it mentioned from the pulpit, but to step into leadership they had to sign a statement.
Again, my purpose here is not to question the policies of that church, but rather to point out the difficulty that arises when our beliefs and the emotional vehemence with which we hold them sneak up on us. We need to think about what is really essential so that our emotions, and I think more importantly, our local culture (whether church or community) doesn’t have us unintentionally emphasizing things that we’re used to, but that we can’t defend as truly essential.
I wrote a post for my personal blog about 10 years ago, and in it I used the following illustration, which I have redrawn for this post:
With just four church member types you can be confident that there is something stereotyped about these. I think I tend to have some sympathy for #2, for example, and I would deny allowing doctrine to trump service; doctrine can drive service, but shouldn’t trump it. But that is a danger.
What I want to show with the diagram is that the more doctrines we make essential, the harder it is to work with one another. If everything is essential and certain, it’s very hard for us to accept others who may disagree. That’s the case of the fanatic, for whom all that is necessary is that he or she holds a belief for it to be critical. One who disagrees on anything more important than color preferences is immediately anathema.
But there is also danger in #3. While I didn’t draw it, there are those who eliminate almost all doctrine from consideration, and then we lose both coherence and motivation. To be motivated to serve, one likely needs to believe, at a minimum, that service is desirable.
In addition, one should be careful to ask “essential for what?” when discussing essential doctrines. I consider myself part of a Christian community that includes Calvinists. I have no objection to working with them, and I do believe I share a faith with them. I’m less likely to actually join a congregation that is Calvinist, especially if predestination is, or approaches, an essential for that congregation. That doesn’t mean we can’t run a soup kitchen together or do evangelism together.
On the other hand, a small group within a church might unite on a longer list of doctrines than the church congregation as a whole. For example, a church might welcome both Calvinists and Arminians. But sometimes it’s nice to get together in a study in which you don’t have to defend everything, so such a church might have small groups defined by one position or the other.
I’ve done all this to suggest an individual exercise. If you feel comfortable with it, write up the results in a comment, or post about it on your blog and post the link in a comment. I recommend writing the answers down and then thinking about them.
Answer these questions:
- For what purpose are you defining essentials? [for example: determining what is “Christian”?, church congregation, small group, debate]
- For the defined group or purpose, what would you consider essential doctrines? These are the doctrines that would be a requirement for someone to join your group or participate in your activity.
- What are some specific non-essentials, things that you believe but don’t feel others must agree to?
- How strong are the boundaries? Are there any essentials that you might allow exceptions to? Are there any non-essentials that you might find difficult, even if you think they should be non-essential?
- Finally, ask yourself if you are satisfied with this list in connection with the gospel commission. Would you want other people to view you with reference to the same list? Remember that this is in reference to the group or activity you chose in #1.