Series 1 Episode 2
What is Doctrine?
So we’ve talked about “Why doctrine matters” and maybe you found it to be satisfying, maybe you didn’t. I know for me, I absolutely LOVED going to a Christian college, learning theology, and finding out that there was more to Christianity than what I had learned in Sunday School class. I even remember being frustrated in high school with the lessons that I had been taught about God and I just wondered, “isn’t there more to our faith than this?” I got to college and come to find out Christians for centuries have been wrestling with questions and finding amazing answers to things like, “Why didn’t God send Jesus to die immediately after Adam and Eve sinned?” In one way or another that question has been addressed by Christian theologians. Isn’t that awesome? Here was a big one for me and I remember a girl asking this when we were in middle school. She asked our Lutheran pastor this question: “How did Jesus die on the cross for our sins?” Here’s what she was asking, “What does a man dying and what does our belief in Him as our Lord have to do with forgiveness and salvation? I mean it’s not like on my death bed I can just announce, “I’m doing this for the forgiveness of everyone’s sins.” I mean the two seem utterly disconnected. Some of the earliest Christian theologians have talked about this.
Almost any question you can think of – someone about fifteen hundred plus years ago or more was probably willing to ask it and willing to wrestle over it. And I think that’s amazing. Let’s dig in.
I want to start by asking a few questions
What does it take to be a Christian?
What are the bare minimum beliefs?
Do requirements of belief vary from person to person?
In other words, does everyone have to believe the same thing?
I’ve seen three really good ways of categorizing doctrine.
My favorite way is by talking about:
1. Dogma, Doctrines, Preference
Dogma would be the absolute essential, basic beliefs of Christianity. People usually point to things like the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed for this. By the way – the apostle’s creed is an early creed that was formulated by the early church, it’s a biblical summary of our faith meaning that every word in it can be found in scripture. The Nicene Creed was formulated in response to false teachers who were still able to uphold everything in the Apostle’s creed. For example, it’s possible to not believe in the Trinity while still being in agreement with the Apostle’s creed. Depending on how you understand some of those words. So the Nicene Creed was developed in order to be more specific and as a result it’s a theological summary of the Christian faith. Some of its words aren’t specifically found in the Bible but they’re useful for comprehensively and accurately summarizing the teachings of scripture.
That’s dogma. Right? It’s Jesus is fully man and fully God. God is one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No person in the Trinity is greater than the other. No one can come to the Father except through Jesus. That’s dogma.
Doctrines are a step down from dogma. They’re important. They have a significant impact on the expression of our faith. They might even cause us to sin or to advance in holiness and sanctification depending on where we land. So these are important but nonessential. They include things like infant dedication vs infant baptism. One baptism vs rebaptism. Some of you didn’t even know people cared about that. Consubstantiation vs transubstantiation vs ordinances. That’s okay if you don’t know what I just said. Issues like, Can you lose your salvation? Is birth control a sin? Young Earth creationism vs evolution. These are all doctrinal questions.
Finally Preference. Should I dress up on Sunday? Should we have drums in worship? Should we have an American flag on stage? Should I attend worship on Wednesday evening, Saturday night or Sunday morning? Will our church serve folgers, decaf, and Keurig coffee or should we serve real coffee?
It’s interesting to note that some churches and even cults will take a preference or a doctrine and make it a dogma. It’s also interesting to note that there are some denominations that teach as if everything was dogma. You have to believe everything 100% the way we believe it or it’s not the true Church and you’re not a real Christian. Youch. Dogma, Doctrine, and Preference. Learn it. Embrace it. It is such a healthy way for you to have fellowship with other Christians whose beliefs might differ from yours.
Another way I’ve heard it been categorized is this way:
2. Essentials vs Nonessentials
Rupertus Meldenius was a German theologian in the early 17th century who said “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.” I thought it was Augustine, did you think it was Augustine? What’s it mean? Basically: In things that are essential (dogma) we should be united, we should have agreement and likemindedness, in things that aren’t essential we should have liberty meaning we should allow ourselves and one another to be free to believe what we like and finally in all things we should have charity meaning that we should treat eachother with love, respect, and kindness.
3. Must Believe, Must Not Reject, Should Believe
Finally, honestly one of my favorite ways to categorize doctrine but it’s harder for me to memorize so I usually just stick with “Dogma, Doctrine Preference” is from some guy named Michael Wittmer. I read about his view one time and wrote it down. No idea who he is. Michael Wittmer. I’m sure you could google him. He categorized doctrine as:
What you must believe
What you must not reject
What you should believe
What you must believe would be the barebones: You must believe that Jesus is God and that He died for your sins. You know there are plenty of people, like the “no Creed but Christ” people that would be 100% able to affirm that. That’s most of your lay Christians. Then Michael says, you have this other category, “what you must not reject.” Meaning that if you gave your life to Jesus and you died the next day without being taught everything about Christianity, you’d still make it in as long as you didn’t outright reject these things.
These are things that you must not reject: That Jesus is fully God and fully man. No, you don’t neccesarily have to know that doctrine in order to be saved but you can’t explicitly reject it and still be considered a Christian. I hope I’m explaining this with clarity. You might not have been taught about the doctrine of the Trinity when you first prayed for forgiveness and told Christ that you were going to follow Him. You don’t have to be taught about the Trinity in order to accept Jesus but you can’t outright reject it and still be considered a Christian.
Finally What you should believe: Things like the virgin birth, demonic possession, miracles, spiritual gifts, the primacy of scripture, etc. These are all things you should believe in.
I really like that. What you must believe, what you must not reject, what you should believe. Of course there’s grey areas for a lot of it. Theology is an effort to make something messy into something neat and more concrete. There’s always going to be some overlap and some disagreement. The important thing to recognize is that not every doctrine is weighed the same and there’s a lot of room for diversity of beliefs in the Body of Christ.
That’s how I would answer the question “What is doctrine?”
Just to put some flesh to this…
I was having coffee with a visitor from our church and they were talking about young earth creationism vs. evolution. In response, I brought up this idea of varying levels of dogma, doctrine, preference and I defined those categories and then asked this person, “Is young earth creationism a dogma, a doctrine, or a preference to you?” They responded by saying that they thought it was a dogma – you must believe it in order to be considered a Christian. And they said the reason they believed that was because it’s the only way to read the Bible and if you don’t believe it then you don’t take the Bible at it’s word.
So you can see that even with these three categories there will be some disagreement as to what’s considered Dogma, Doctrine, and preference.
When we taught this class at our church one person reflected on their upbringing and they said, “you know, at my last church… everything was dogma. There was only one right set of beliefs and either you fully agreed with everything that this particular church taught or you weren’t a Christian. At least, that’s what it seemed like.”
So I think we can begin to see the importance of having some categories for doctrinal beliefs and even allowing some beliefs to weigh more than others.
In our next session, I want to talk about how. How do we discern doctrine? How do we know what’s true and how do we know when something is dogma or doctrine or preference? How you answer that – I think – will determine whether you’re calling all the shots or if you’re submitting to a faith.