Disunity is a Luxury Good: In Praise of Doctrinal Statements

Have you read your church’s doctrinal statement? If you haven’t, or if you haven’t recently, you should read it. There is something about it that I think we should all pay particular attention to:

The things that are not in it.

I’ll use the doctrinal statement of the Baptist Missionary Association of America as my example, but I bet yours (if you’re Protestant or Evanelical of any kind) is similar.

I don’t know who wrote the revised doctrinal statement for the BMA, and I’ve heard it was just barely adopted.  But looking at it as a “Millennial,” I would say the writers were wise. If I could describe our doctrinal statement in two words, they would be “conservatively liberal.” Let the ringing-of-hands begin!

While my choice of words might seem contradictory, I assure you, they are not. Allow me to explain.

Our doctrinal statement is “conservative” because it clearly seeks to conserve, or, more precisely, preserve the core doctrines that are fundamental to our faith. Some of these matters include salvation by grace through faith, God as the creator of all things, the virgin birth, etc.

This focus on the essentials makes the doctrinal statement “liberal” in the truest sense of the word because it does allow a great deal of room for open minds to pursue Biblical scholarship. Did you know that the doctrinal statement does not take an official position on how old the universe is? Nor does it take a position on how to interpret the book of Revelation; what Bible translation to use; Arminianism, Calvinism or Molinism along with a whole host of other non-essential doctrines about which Christians have been fighting over for centuries.

I dare say that if you were to present our doctrinal statement to pastors of most protestant or evangelical churches, the vast majority of them would have none-to-very-little disagreement with its content.

I know some will lament this fact, but I do not: the church, especially in America, needs to be as united in the essentials as possible for the sake of the Kingdom.

The time for heated argument over non-essentials is over. There was a time when, especially in the Bible belt, that non-believers had some Biblical knowledge and widely considered Christians to be “good people” and that “Christian” behavior was desirable. Consider that as a time of luxury for the American church. Inter/intra-denominational arguments over things such as style of worship, when and how exactly the rapture will occur were luxury goods for a religion with a lot of social and political clout. We can’t afford those luxuries right now; they were mostly a drain on our “economy” anyway. I am not saying that these are not topics to study or that they are unimportant, but I am saying that they are less important than the gospel and we can be unified with those whom we disagree.

We are living in a time in which younger generations are growing up in a world that not only considers them stupid for believing that Jesus was God’s son, but that Christians are immoral people for believing in the exclusivity of Christ or objective morals. Most churches are shrinking, and many are ill equipped to address the questions and challenges coming from the information age and it’s rapid pace. In the 1950s, information, worldwide, doubled every 30 years. By the 1980s, it doubled every 20 years. By the mid ‘90s, it doubled every 5 years; the 2000s, every two years. Now, worldwide information doubles every 7 months. Is it any wonder many church-goers are going to be skeptical when they are told to accept everything that comes from the pulpit without question? 

Now, more than ever, it is a good thing that our doctrinal statement is conservatively liberal. Now is a time to focus on the true fundamentals. If you would like to see a good outline of what those fundamentals are, the BMA doctrinal statement, as written, is a great place to start.

When Naaman Went Home

*Disclaimer: My featured image for this post has nothing whatsoever to do with my content.

If you’ve ever heard a sermon on the story of Naaman (found in II Kings 5) then you’ve probably come away with a great lesson on humility, trusting God’s command or avoiding greed — unlike Elisha’s servant, Gehazi. If all of this is unfamiliar to you, please read the passage. It’s great.

Naaman was a commander in the army of the king of Aram (Syria). Moreover, Naaman was at the head of the Aramean army when they defeated Israel. He was a mighty man, but he was also a leper.

Through the testimony of a captive Israeli servant-girl, Naaman learned that he might be able to be healed by Israel’s prophet, Elisha.  After a journey to see Elisha, some quibbling over the method of healing and having to eat a plate-full of humble pie, Naaman was healed of his leprosy. But that is not my favorite part of the story. 

While listening to a sermon by Tim Keller, my attention was pointed to two verses I had never noticed nor remember being emphasized. After Elisha refuses to be paid for the miracle the Lord performed, Naaman says this, “…please let your servant at least be given two mules’ load of earth; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering nor will he sacrifice to other gods, but to the Lord. In this matter may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter” (II Kings 5:17-18 NASB).

After experiencing the work of the living God, Naaman knew he could never go back and continue his old life as if nothing had happened. However, as a high-ranking official in the Aramean kingdom, he knew that he still had to go back to a world that did not know God.

Is this not the same paradox that Christians in the 21st century face?  After conversion to belief, a decision to complete surrender or simply living as a disciple from day-to-day, those who follow Jesus do so in a world that is mostly hostile to his message. As I see it, in America there are two major temptations that we, as disciples of Christ, must avoid:

1. The temptation to privatize our relationship with Christ. In a multicultural society that has largely embraced the idea that “what’s true for you is good for you and what’s true for me is good for me,” we are told that people ought to keep “religion” to themselves. Your religious beliefs should remain private because no one can possibly know what is true and so it is offensive to share your faith openly.

To privatize your faith is to live in the world, and perhaps not participate in certain immoral activities, but never speak of your faith nor for its validity in the world. Privatization often leads to compromising or neglecting values set forth by God in order to avoid conflict.

This is not an option for the Christian because if you are a believer then your entire life in every aspect — your very identity — is Christ.

When Paul went to Athens, he went to the marketplace to talk with people about the gospel. Athens was the cultural center of the world at that time, and the marketplace wasn’t just for physical goods, it was where you had to go to learn about religion, philosophy and other ideas. There was no mass media back then, and so the “marketplace of ideas” was literally the marketplace. Paul essentially took the gospel straight to the equivalent of what would be Wall Street, Harvard and Hollywood all rolled into one place. He did not set a good example from a distance and hope people would be curious enough to come ask him “what’s so different about you?”

2. The temptation to withdraw from the “world.” It is tempting, for the sake of living a “righteous” life, to try to avoid all non-believers and secular culture as much as possible. This might mean quitting a job where you have an unbelieving boss or wild coworkers. For some, it means unconditional avoidance of the secular education system. For others, it means never associating with non-believers unless it is in a purely “outreach” context.

This approach, too, causes problems. It is hard to be the light of the world when you’re doing your best to avoid any contact with the world. Jesus prayed not that his followers would be removed from the world, (by God) but that they would be “kept from the evil one” (by God).

Naaman set a great example of how to be “in the world but not of it.” As a symbol of the truth he had learned about God, he took dirt from Israel back with him to Aram to create a place of memory where he would sacrifice to the true God only. He went back to his old job, but he would never do his job the same way again. Naaman knew that his boss, the king, would not convert, but that did not stop Naaman from being an example. Naaman did not disassociate with the people in his life nor demand that the unbelievers convert immediately or he was out. 

Is it possible that we, as Christians, need to stop overthinking every detail about how much of the world to be “in” and just be Christians where we are? If we will be Christ-focused and trust and listen to the Holy Spirit, He will guide us and we won’t have to put so much human effort into determining exactly what our life should look like.