There is a doctrinal crisis in the broader Christian world today. It is a crisis that is seen in Protestant, evangelical, and, to a lesser degree, in fundamentalist circles. It is a crisis that is rampant within denominational churches and a growing menace in independent churches.
For several generations, doctrinal teaching has been out of favor. Today, the chickens have come home to roost.
As I see it, the doctrinal crises has three roots.
Problem 1: doctrine has been boiled down to that which is purely theological
We live in a world that is desperately in need of Biblical doctrine, but instead of providing it, the Christian community has reduced doctrine to bibliology, theology, Christology, pneumatology, anthropology, angelology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. These are certainly fundamental doctrines, but we live in a society that can’t figure out which bathroom to use. Why is our world so confused? Because Christians have not taught that issues like gender identity, marriage, sexuality, elder-care, types of church music, end-of-life issues, abortion, and a million other practical issues are only resolved by doctrine. I think it is time that churches begin to teach their families and families begin to teach their children that doctrine pervades every corner of life and that every problem of societal life is addressed by doctrine.
Problem 2: doctrine has largely been reduced to “secondary” and “tertiary” matters.
A common quote (often attributed to Augustine, but not likely to be so), says-
In essentials, unity
In non-essentials, liberty
In all things, love
The problem with this quote is that in recent days, almost all things have become “non-essentials” within the church. In fact, one professor said,
“I found that this quotation is a pan-denominational maxim, quoted as authoritative in a dizzying variety of incompatible Christian traditions.”
What is an essential doctrine? While Christians and local churches could certainly agree on a very short list, there are endless Christian communities that only have a few items on the “essentials” list. It is secondary or tertiary to determine a Biblical dogma for matters of Baptism, for example, or gender of church leadership, or the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. In recent years, tertiary has become common when discussing doctrine. It is a word that seems to have come to mean, “Believe whatever you want, but we are not going to talk about it around here.” It is also a word that is almost always assigned to eschatology issues in doctrinally weak churches (and how can one claim to have a Biblical worldview if they don’t have a clue how the world will end?)
The assembly gathered in Acts 2 was gathered around “the apostle’s doctrine” (Acts 2:42). Today, it is hard to find any kind of doctrinal statement on a church website, and equally difficult to find out a church’s doctrine in a face-to-face visit. Ask about a doctrinal issue and you’ll often hear the Augustinian quote and a lecture about how, “we just want to love people, and issues like that divide.” How did it come to be that issues over which the first assemblies were gathered, and issues which later became the gathering point around which entire movements and denominations have been built, have now become issues that divide?
Today, the de-emphasis on doctrine to the secondary and tertiary has been a boon to the ecumenical movement, which is fully dependent on the trend toward tertiary doctrines. Because of this, churches that once had denominational or historical identity now join together for worship (because matters of gender leadership, prayer, gifts of the Spirit, etc. are all tertiary), Vacation Bible School (where evangelism is either non-existent or the churches simply don’t care that there really are doctrinal issues that affect even the manner of how to be saved, and what should happen after salvation), and missions (which has become mostly social-justice and humanitarian issue, but will still suck mission dollars out of unsuspecting generous donors).
Problem 3: Pastors are not taught the doctrines of the church nor practical doctrines of the faith, thus they do not teach others.
As I wrote about concerning the problem of denominational seminaries, there is little doctrinal or exegetical work done in the Master of Divinity program, which is the “go-to” degree for denominational pastors. I have personally grown away from denominational affinity (though I still retain a Baptist theology, one can be “Baptist” without being tied to any specific denomination), but denominations “rule the roost” in pastoral education. In the standard M.Div. degree, doctrinal education consists of a couple of classes of 10 areas of systematic theology and a class on denominational church history. No seminary student graduates with a comprehensive understanding of how to develop theological and practical doctrines. How can a pastor be expected to teach that which he does not know?
I would venture to say that the recent Master’s level seminary graduate that is headed into a pastoral role would struggle to carry on a conversation about most areas of theology, and I haven’t even discovered many signs that they want to engage in such conversations. This is because building a doctrinal bedrock is not a priority among these church-growth agents who will call themselves pastors.
A church without doctrinal clarity creates families with doctrinal drift. Families with doctrinal drift create confusion in society. Society under confusion is exactly what we have today. The only recipe to fix it is for churches to return to doctrinal clarity, and this is a “slow-fix” that will take a couple of generations but is well worth the effort.
It starts with your church, your pastor, your Bible study, your home. If you are in a church that doesn’t have doctrinal clarity, switch churches. If you are a pastor who has neglected doctrinal teaching, change your ways. Doctrine matters!
This article was adapted from comments given in the introductory sermon to a series called “30 Practical Doctrines You Need to Know.” The sermon can be viewed in whole below.