Without the House of Doctrine, The Church Is Morally Homeless
Preparing for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Three Days before Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 14
Old Testament: Jeremiah 13:20-27
Epistle: 1 Timothy 1:1-11
Psalter: Psalm 51:1-10
Epistle: 1 Timothy 1:1-11
Merciful God, your desire to bring us into your commonwealth is so great that you seek us in the places of our ignorance, and the forgotten corners where we hide in despair. Gather us into your loving embrace, and pour upon us your wise and holy Spirit, so that we may become faithful servants in whom you rejoice with all the company of heaven. Amen.
I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach different teachings and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training[b] that is known by faith. But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions (1 Timothy 1:3-7).
I spent thirty-eight years as a United Methodist pastor, and I currently serve as an adjunct professor teaching theology for twenty-eight years. I find both enterprises in which I am engaged to be complementary. Indeed, I would not know how to be a pastor if it were not for the theological reflections I have engaged in over the years with the voices of many contemporary friends and thinkers as well as listening to the great theological wisdom that has come down to us through the ages. Pastoral ministry must be theologically oriented. My work as a pastor has been formed and shaped on the potter‘s wheel of theological reflection.
At the same time, my work as a pastor reminds me that theology is first and foremost about practical divinity—doctrine forms and shapes the life of the church and the individual believer. Christian doctrine and Christian living must go together and both are distorted when they are separated.
Unfortunately, many Methodists seem to have the idea that we daughters and sons of John and Charles Wesley are unconcerned with doctrine, that Methodism is more concerned with the sincerity of one’s beliefs than the actual beliefs themselves. How many times have I endured sitting through an Annual Conference where someone stands up to address the Conference in an effort to squelch theological debate by quoting John Wesley out of context, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand,” while conveniently forgetting that Wesley also said that “we think and let think” when it comes to opinions that “do not strike at the root of Christianity.” Apparently, Wesley thought the sincerity of one’s heart was not sufficient when it came to core Christian doctrines.
Bishop Ken Carder in his wonderful book, Living Our Beliefs: The United Methodist Way writes,
A perception persists that one can believe anything and be United Methodist.... such a characterization has deep roots in our history, though it represents a misreading of our tradition. As faithful Anglicans, Wesley and his colleagues presumed and affirmed the basic doctrines, beliefs, practices, and liturgies of the established church.... Wesley held tenaciously to the historic doctrines of the Christian faith and diligently proclaimed and taught them to the Methodists and the masses who heard him preach. That emphasis continued in America when the Methodists formed the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784 (pp. 24-25).
It is certainly understandable why there are Christians who react rather viscerally to this emphasis on the significance of doctrine because in history the church has used doctrine as a weapon to go heretic hunting; and it is true that in some traditions heretic hunters exist today (though they are not so much fighting against historical heretical formulations as they are their own self-defined brand of orthodoxy which exists in their own little group). But the Wesleyan concern for sound doctrine has little to do with discovering the heretics in our midst. Indeed, we Wesleyans are more than willing to dialogue and coexist with our heretics because they remind us of the need the church has for orthodoxy and that doctrine by necessity draws boundaries.
What matters to Wesleyans when it comes to doctrine is the absolutely essential place of doctrine in forming and shaping the Christian life. Again Bishop Carder instructs us well:
Methodists take religious belief with the utmost seriousness as a way of viewing and living in the world. We know that beliefs shape behavior and practice. Beliefs and the stories that express them influence our self-image, our relationships, and our commitments. The Book of Discipline states, “No motif in the Wesleyan tradition has been more constant than the link between Christian doctrine and Christian living” (p. 26).
In other words, doctrine is the house in which the church lives. Theology is the way we move through the house connecting doctrines to one another while we prayerfully reflect on how our doctrine informs our pursuit of holy living. As Joel Green notes somewhere, Wesleyans do theology on the ground.
To be sure, it is not always an easy thing to connect our beliefs with our practice, and we will disagree on more than a few occasions on how beliefs instruct us in Christian living. As we Methodists move through our doctrinal house, we will bump into each other. But one thing we must not do is jettison the significance of our doctrine as if that will free us to do as God desires. All too often that is a recipe for living first and foremost for ourselves and giving in to the temptation to form God after our image. All one needs to do is look at how the consumer model of ministry has infected the church at so many levels. Too often church and its practices have become commodities. I quote Bishop Carder one more time:
Commodification reduces doctrines, languages, rituals, symbols, and practices of religion to their utilitarian function. Religion becomes an option among multiple options in the marketplace of products offering self-actualization, fulfillment, success, relief from suffering, and immortality. Profound symbols become trinkets or adornments, part of the advertising, or rhetoric by which we sell economically driven agendas.... God is reduced to a facilitator of good feelings, a celestial “Dr. Phil,” a means of avoiding suffering and struggle, and a champion of personal happiness. The church becomes a religious spa, the effectiveness of which is judged by its ability to solve personal problems and create positive feelings (pp. 31, 33).
We Christians need the historic doctrines of our faith. Without them we will be reduced to a church that is not really a church, but a loose association of self-absorbed people whose primary focus in life will be to do what is right in our own eyes (Judges 17:6).
Without the house of our doctrine, we will become morally homeless.
PRAYER: Persistently forgiving God, we are a stiff-necked and stubborn people who try your patience; yet, instead of giving us up for lost, you seek us out until we return to you. Break our willfulness and bring us back from our wanderings; bend our pride and create in us pure and faithful hearts, which rejoice in your forgiveness made known through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Check out my blog “Faith Seeking Understanding,” here.