Mask of Doctrine
In the face of biblical dispute or disagreement, the concept of doctrine is humanly bantered about as a justified demarcation of one’s personal truth. Doctrine has become the conceptual mask that hides the root cause of biblical disagreement, thus it is necessary to define the concept contextually for its vast persona. Biblical doctrine cannot be limited, expanded, suppressed, or placated. When a mortal announces, concludes, or identifies a doctrinal violation, what has he/she actually discovered? If a person does not like a particular practice that over time (in the minds of humanity) has moved from tradition to precedent and precedent to biblical command, can it be classified as doctrinal error? What is biblical doctrine? The answer is at the core of every biblical debate, but rarely is it analyzed.
Simplistically, doctrine is defined as “teaching, that which is taught, and the act of teaching and instruction.” The primary problem faced with the mask of doctrine exists in the realm of biblical command and its management. The Christian practitioner who seeks to engage a practice that appears to lack a specified biblical command is accused of doctrinal heresy and challenged with passages such as 2 John 1:9-10, Romans 16:17, and others. In churches of Christ this historic shift of biblical interpretation began with the fight style of Daniel Sommer (1850-1940).
During early restoration history of churches of Christ it was stated by Barton Stone, “If the bible is silent on a position, the church will not make it an issue of division, despite personal perspectives.” As the movement continued, the influence of Daniel Sommer shifted the statement to, “If the bible is silent on an issue or practice, it is forbidden in the church, despite personal perspectives.” Whether publically stated or not, the second statement currently stands as the prevailing paradigm within the American church of Christ epistemic and is linked to law of silence conceptions and forms of patternism. With the two identified schools of thought at work, with the first probably being labeled progressive or liberal, the concept of doctrine becomes the mask.
With reference to labels, I do not agree with the process of branding people of God with legalist, liberal, progressive, or conservative tags as static dispositions or approaches to scripture. If such labels are not given to humanity by God, why should humanity bind them on His elect? Theoretically every Christian should traverse the legalist, liberal, progressive, and conservative spectrum, depending on context. For example, in situations of absolute biblical command, I must be a legalist; when it comes to benevolence and forgiveness, I must be liberal; when it comes to actualizing a risky and radical faith like Peter walking on water, I must be progressive; when it comes to my diet or social situations that can evoke temptation, I must be conservative. If a Christian is stuck in any of the four categories they cannot fulfill the mandates of God.
Instead of taking the time to patiently sift through the scriptures, some prefer to maintain their previous thoughts and doctrinal schematic understandings. It reminds me of the healing story of Jesus, “And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly” (Mark 8:23-25). There is much we can learn from this narrative. After biblical investigation some dogmatically profess that they can see clearly, but in reality it is only after deeper looks into scripture that one can see with great exegetical clarity. Some have concluded others to be in doctrinal error while they can only see men as allegorical trees.
Based upon passages such as Matthew 23:15 and Matthew 28:19-20 all Christians have been influenced by the men and women who discipled them. In many evangelism and conversion cases — with no harm intended — our scriptural perception and lens was skewed by the handed-down schema of our mothers/fathers in the gospel. Despite the mandate of Matthew 28:19-20 most church of Christ members were discipled after baptism and not holistically before. Additionally most members in churches of Christ learned of restoration history — and its connection to American church of Christ development — years after conversion, thus being inherently shaped unconsciously by theologically forces before having a firm grasp of holy writ. However, there comes a time in the life of Christians when we begin to “grow up into him” (Christ) in the freedom of the purity of His Word (Ephesians 4:15). Until that happens we seductively hide behind the mask of doctrine, anticipating the day of no longer seeing men as trees (Mark 8:24).
Students of the Bible cannot arbitrarily make or apply law where there is no law and label the activity biblical transgression. If something is declared a transgression it must be specifically, rightly dividedly, or hermeneutically linked to the scriptural concept or law it violates. The Pharisees thrived in binding law where none existed. The mask of doctrine has become a hiding place and hindrance to biblically authentic dialectic processes. Nuanced practices and beliefs in the church that belongs to Christ are being labeled doctrinal violations without definitive biblical application and or a lack of comprehensive scriptural research and exploration. This does not mean a person has to agree with a practice of worship or preference, but one should be cautious in labeling things sin or rashly drawing divisive kingdom lines in the sand.
Based upon what Paul wrote concerning fellowship and a withdrawing of fellowship, do we really think he had in mind some of our 20th and 21st century points of biblical contention that historically and currently dominate debate structures of preacher’s forums, gospel meetings, crusades, and lectureships across churches of Christ? When Paul addressed the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20:28-31, do members in churches of Christ really believe he was prophetically indicating that one day Christians in the church of Christ would introduce praise teams, women serving communion, hand clapping, and more? Were those the things he warned and cried over for three years that would move Christians and congregations into apostasy? The emphatic emphasis seemed to be more about moving away from the sovereignty of Christ as Lord, while embracing various forms of vile living like drunkenness, sexual perversion, pride, strife, blasphemy, and deceit (1 Corinthians 5:11; Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:1-7; Colossians 3:5-9).
A clear mask of doctrine passage is found in Romans 16:17-18, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.” In the Message version of scripture Romans 16:17-18 is rendered, “One final word of counsel, friends. Keep a sharp eye out for those who take bits and pieces of the teaching that you learned and then use them to make trouble. Give these people a wide berth. They have no intention of living for our Master Christ. They’re only in this for what they can get out of it, and aren’t above using pious sweet talk to dupe unsuspecting innocents.”
The critical inquiry is connected to the phraseology of Romans 16:17, “contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned” and “the teaching that you learned.” What was the doctrine/teaching they learned? The goal is not to micromanage a text, it is to deal honestly with its trajectory and conceptions. Christians are commissioned in the Roman passage to identify and avoid those who teach against what they had been taught. Is it out of line to ask what it was they learned? This is imperative because this passage is being used to warn Christians who engage in a multiplicity of practices. The primary impetus of the Roman epistle is belief, faith, grace, justification, the imputed righteousness of Jesus to Christians, and the flaw of binding Old Testament Law under a New Testament covenant. Thus we must be careful in stretching the parameters of scripture to apply to what we schematically do not understand or agree.
The scriptures provide all that we need and it is unnecessary for biblical students to contort the Word of God into formations that acquiesce to personal desires or notions. The apostle Peter said, “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord, According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:2-3). Doctrine belongs to Christ — as evidenced by the astounded response of the multitude as He concluded His Sermon on the Mount: “And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus went on to say through the pen of John, “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:16-17).
Again, the concept of doctrine can have general connotations, but each rendering must be investigated and gleaned within its embedded context, because its core often refers to a set of passages or principles specifically codified, as with the full content of the Sermon on the Mount. Management and application of biblical doctrine requires discipline and reverence for the Word by its students. For example, as the church was spiritually preached into a physical existence (Acts 2:14-41) the first converts “…Continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Although we cannot say with certainty what the “many other words” were of Acts 2:40, we know that the saints continued in the doctrine, teachings, and leanings of the apostles.
Part 2 of this Mask of Doctrine project will explore additional passages and the general and specific theologies of biblical teaching, but remain mindful open and refrain from using doctrine as a mask, resulting in a covering of the real and even unconscious issues of disagreement. Just a simple touch of Sahealing…