Doctrine has fallen on hard times among mainstream Christian churches. Liberal churches have disparaged doctrine for at least a hundred years. By “doctrine” they meant the traditional orthodox doctrines that asserted miracles, original sin, the incarnation and atonement, the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, and others. According to Liberal churches, modern people schooled in natural science and critical history can no longer believe these teachings, and such controversial teachings distract attention from the liberal agenda of progressive moral advance in society. (For more on the idea of Liberal Christianity, see my essays on Liberal Christianity posted on August 01 and 08, 2015). In the first half of the Twentieth Century Liberalism was opposed by traditional believers who defended the orthodox doctrines mentioned above. But even within conservative Christian circles in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries there were revival and evangelistic movements that down played “denominational” doctrines so that they could more effectively evangelize the unchurched. That is to say, the practical concerns of evangelism and church growth nudged evangelists and pastors toward minimizing doctrines that were not directly related to conversion and salvation. Requiring prospective church members to consider and adopt many doctrines would distract them from making a “decision for Christ.” Hence in their own way many conservative opponents of Liberal Christianity down played doctrine.
We can see many of these same forces at work in 2015. Liberal churches still reject orthodoxy and continue to pursue a mission of social change according to progressive philosophy. Many evangelical churches continue to put a high priority on church growth and churching the unchurched. Of course the methods of attracting people into churches have changed. Over the last years I have noticed an increase in two areas: offers of social support and exciting “worship experiences.” Instead of evangelistic “crusades” or revival meetings churches provide a full spectrum of social programs that appeal to young families with children, singles and other affinity groups. And they spend huge amounts of money and energy to provide moving experiences of worship and uplifting messages from the pastor. Doctrine does not fit well into this picture. And it’s not hard to imagine the consequences of years of doctrinal neglect. People may eventually begin asking themselves, “Why are we here?”
So, what is doctrine? The English word “doctrine” derives from a Latin-based word that means “teaching.” Jesus taught his disciples and the crowds. In his “great commission” recorded in Matthew 28, Jesus commanded his disciples to go to the nations, baptizing people and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (v. 20). The apostles remembered Jesus’ teaching and passed it on. They also taught about what happened to Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. They explained how his death and resurrection affect us and how we are to relate to the Lord Jesus Christ. The church “devoted” itself the “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). The New Testament is the record of the apostles’ teaching and the apostles’ memories of Jesus’ teaching. Preaching is simply a particular way of teaching. The gospel is not opposed to doctrine. The gospel is the first and the most important thing that must be taught.
Doctrine, that is, Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching, informs us about certain historical events and their meaning, about the right way to live in the world, and about God’s promises. The Bible teaches about God’s nature and identity, about the identity and work of Jesus Christ, about sin and salvation, about the church and her sacraments. Christian doctrine instructs us about whom to trust, for what to hope and how to love. It teaches us how to use our bodies and souls and tongues. The task of the church is to continue to teach and live the full range of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching. We do not have the right to limit teaching only to areas that are consistent with progressive culture, as do Liberal churches. Nor do we have a right to focus only on the “exciting” “affirming” and “uplifting” teachings as do many evangelical churches. To church the unchurched should not mean simply getting them in a worship assembly three or four times a month. It means to work toward re-forming them in the image of Jesus Christ. It means to help them to know and rely on all the promises of God, to engage them in the practices Jesus and the apostles taught us: prayer, the supper of the Lord, baptism, listening to the Word of God and confession.
But doctrine is boring, some say. No! Some teachers of doctrine are boring. But everything Jesus’ and the apostles’ taught is exciting, revolutionary and challenging! When various teachings get separated from the heart of the good news of how much God loves us and has done for us in Jesus Christ, then, yes, they are onerous and boring. But if we keep clearly and steadily in mind that doctrine—every doctrine!—is about who God is or what God has done for us or how God’s love can become a real power in our lives or how we can live in this world in faith and hope and love, then each and every morsel of teaching (doctrine) will be like honey in our mouths, wisdom for our minds, and energy for our souls!