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Doctrine: When the Need to Be Right is Wrong

(Written by Dying to Control contributor, Mike Ballman)

The gospel of John tells us that Jesus, in his final hours of freedom before his arrest, trial and execution, devoted himself to prayer. I would guess that most of us, faced with a similar fate, would also feel a strong need to pray. The fact that he chose to pray when faced with imminent death is not that surprising. However, what is amazing about his eleventh hour prayer is for whom he prayed. The gospel writer tells us that his primary focus was not on his own needs but on the well-being of his friends; and not only his disciples but all who would believe in their testimony about him to the very end of time.

“20 I do not pray only for them (my disciples). I pray also for those who will believe in me because of their message. 21 Father, I pray that all of them will be one, just as you are in me and I am in you. I want them also to be in us. Then the world will believe that you have sent me.”

His prayer was that his believers in the First Century and forever after would be one—one voice, mind and purpose—unified in their great diversity thus demonstrating the power of Jesus to break down all barriers that we use to divide ourselves and belittle one another.

Fast forward to 2013, any cursory perusal of Facebook and internet articles will reveal that Christians are not unified. Not only are Christians divided along the same lines as the non-Christian world, i.e. liberal v. conservative, but Christians are even sharply divided within those camps, i.e. calvinists v. arminians; charismatics v. cessationists; dispensationalists v. amillennials and so on and so forth ad nauseum.

So then if Jesus prayed for his followers to be unified, why is there so much division?

I would argue that the greatest source of division keeping Christians from experiencing Jesus’ desire for unity is doctrine. There are roughly 41,000 protestant denominations in the U.S. alone. Can you guess the primary measuring stick used to differentiate them? If you guessed doctrine, you are correct.

The problem, however, isn’t doctrine itself, but how we misperceive and misuse doctrine. Doctrine is a human construct that helps us understand God; it’s a necessary tool to help finite beings make sense of an infinite God. Problems begin to arise when we start to view our ideas about God too highly, when we begin to revere our doctrine as though it were God or think our doctrine somehow protects or encapsulates God. It is at that point things start to get ugly; this is where we begin to fight for and defend our doctrine as though God or his character is somehow at stake. We fool ourselves into thinking that we are fighting a righteous battle for God when in reality we are merely fighting for our doctrine and for positions of power and influence, which brings us to another problem.

A good thing like doctrine goes horribly wrong when Christians use doctrine to exert power over one another and exclude one another from the kingdom of God. Jesus never required doctrinal regulations for inclusion in his kingdom. I can’t find anywhere in Scripture where Jesus says, “I will never leave you or forsake you as long as you can recite the Westminster Confession or know the five tenets of Calvinism.” Yet we as Christians continue to divide ourselves and cast judgments about who is “in” or “out” of the kingdom of God according to doctrinal beliefs even though we all pretty much agree about the basics of who Jesus is.  How can this be?

Unfortunately, it is in our human nature to seek to define God rather than understand him—to choose right and wrong for ourselves rather than trust God to lead us. That is what we do when we come to reasonable yet finite conclusions about God, and turn these conclusions into absolute, infinite dogma to exclude one another and exert power over one another.

That brings me to the doctrinal controversy dujour which is the Mark Driscoll v. John MacArthur feud over the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

I think Mark Driscoll does a good job of illuminating the heart of the controversy in an excerpt from his open letter to John MacArthur:

“…I then explain how important it is for us to rightly define our borders: who is in and who is out when it comes to essential Christian doctrines.”

I would argue that the heart of this issue and most modern doctrinal disputes is a power struggle to determine who will be the keeper of doctrinal correctness and who gets to decide who is “in” and “out” of the kingdom of God. Both parties are using doctrine to divide and not unite.

At this point I hear the keepers of correct doctrine crying, “How do we know the truth apart from sound doctrine?”  I would argue that Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever. We grow to know Jesus through the Holy Spirit through the diversity of community. If that sounds too elusive, too dynamic, too uncontrollable, too unmeasurable, then that sounds like a relationship with a God that is infinite and too big to be contained by finite doctrine.

So the next time you have the urge to post a preachy doctrinal Facebook quote, or shoot a condescending frown as you drive by a “liberal” church, or make jokes about the pope, or just downright think that your understanding of God is the most right—remember Jesus’ prayer for unity and don’t be an idiot.

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