Doctrine Is Inevitable

A decade later, the Emergent Church discovers that you DO need boundaries. Just the right ones.

I’m old enough to remember a movement in the mid to late 2000s called “the emerging church.” I still own some of their books, because as a high school/college student raised in conservative evangelicalism, I resonated with a lot of what they taught, including the idea that conservative evangelical culture was far too obsessed with policing doctrine. I loved this point, because (at the time) it expressed a coldness I had felt for a long time growing up in the church. Emerging church literature pressed a dichotomy between relationships and religious dogma and laid the blame for the schism at the feet of fundamentalists. “Yes,” I thought, “this is why church feels so inauthentic.”

Many of these authors were explicit in their recommendations. Do away with “what we believe” lists. Stop making theology the test of church membership or teaching. For every verse you read from Paul, read the Sermon the Mount 10 times. If given the choice between insisting on a point of doctrine and welcoming someone into your fellowship, choose the latter every time. It was alluring stuff, because you could hug it, shake its hand, take it out to coffee, not just read or recite it. And it won over a lot of my generation.

I’m no longer allured by it all. For one thing, what we referred to as the “emerging church” doesn’t really exist anymore, and the cause of death is unflattering. Rob Bell went from pastoring to touring with Deepak Chopra. Velvet Elvis (his first and most broadly successful book) was wrongheaded in a lot of ways, but at least it was a book about Christianity and didn’t sound like it should be featured in a Readers Digest column by Gwyneth Paltrow. Don Miler’s Blue Like Jazz was a sort of “searching for answers my religious upbringing didn’t give me” manifesto. Miller now runs a corporate branding company and doesn’t go to church. Well then.

But here’s the most illuminating part. Many of the writers and spokespeople who talked about prioritizing relationships over doctrine have actually become quite adamant about their own theology. It just so happens that the doctrine that is worth making standards around is just a different kind. For example, opposing the death penalty is worth excommunication:

And the ordination of female elders is worth schism (and, presumably, excommunication as well):

The time has come for a schism regarding the issue of women in the church. Those of us who know that women should be accorded full participation in every aspect of church life need to visibly and forcefully separate ourselves from those who do not. Their subjugation of women is anti-Christian, and it should be tolerated no longer.

Christianity’s treatment of LGBT people, too, is worth taking a stand on:

Death penalty, gender, ordination, sexuality: Aren’t these issues that alienate people? Aren’t these divisive topics that keep people at arms length from each other instead of bringing them together around Jesus?

By the standard that was applied ten years ago to conservatives, yes, they are. But it turns out that not all orthodoxies need be “generous.” Not all gatekeepers are bad. It’s a matter of having the right ones.

On that, I certainly agree.


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Does Conservative Theology Empower Abuse?

Here are three things that I believe are true and that are important for honest people to admit:

  1. It is a moral travesty when religious people or organizations use their beliefs, influence, or infrastructure to hurt, control, or manipulate other people.
  2. Theologically conservative organizations have been guilty of doing this, many times, often with disastrous, multi-generational consequences.
  3. For people who believe in things like inerrancy, the exclusivity of Christ, and the necessity of the local church, the costs of using the faith in this sinful, abusive way are exponentially higher, and thus, it is a greater tragedy when it is those people who engage in it.

All these points are, I believe, completely true. You won’t find me denying any of them. As someone who was raised in theologically conservative evangelicalism, I don’t think there’s any question that all three points are correct, and further, that theologically conservative evangelicals like me should be in the business of confessing them and working accordingly.

But here’s something I’ve noticed. I’ve noticed that, for what feels like a growing number of younger professing Christians (whether they use the word evangelical or not), there seems to be a 4th statement that holds a lot of weight with them. You could put it something like this:

4. Because theologically conservative institutions and people have been guilty of this abuse, it follows that theologically conservative doctrine empowers and facilitates such abuse.

I completely reject this statement for many reasons, most of which would probably be easy to guess for readers of this blog. But what’s interesting to me is that this 4th statement is, for a lot of young religion writers, so self-evident and so important to their worldview that to deny it amounts to nothing less than an instinctive valuing of theology and ideas over human beings at best, and at worst, an ambition to likewise abuse, control, or manipulate others with our religion. Arguing with this 4th statement is almost always construed to be really arguing with the first 3. The only reason (they say) that someone would dispute statement 4 is because they’re really living in denial of statements 1-3. Either you don’t really believe that theologically conservative churches or institutions have hurt others (in which case, you’re simply in denial of reality), or else you don’t believe that such hurting actually matters.

There’s a lot going on here in this dynamic. Part of it is understandable. If you’ve been hurt by theologically conservative churches or people, it’s not hard for a reasonable person to understand why the theology you encountered in those settings might seem endemic to what you suffered. But is that the only reason this dynamic endures? I don’t think so. I think something else is happening as well, and it’s something rooted not in authentic experience, but in an ideology-driven, nakedly political equivalence.

Here’s a strong example of what I’m talking about:

https://twitter.com/d_l_mayfield/status/877246876340199424

If you read through the thread for the context, you’ll discover that what’s being talked about is a missionary who abused children, and was (allegedly) protected from exposure by people and institutions connected to his mission. Mayfield’s “main” takeaway from the story is that fundamentalism–by which she means the conservative theology of both the missionary and the people who protected him–is inherently abusive. The implication is that if the missionary or the institutions over him weren’t fundamentalist, if they weren’t all aligned together on a particular side of the doctrinal scales, such a cover up would either have not happened or else not happened to the extent that it did.

Mayfield is hardly the only representative of this belief. Almost anytime there is a scandal involving theologically conservative evangelicals, a reliable group of voices tend to make the same point, either explicitly naming Calvinism, or fundamentalism, or complementarianism, etc etc. The message is always the same: These incidents happen because people are victimized by traditionalist theologies or churches.

What’s going on here? After all, the notion seems logically faulty on its face. The Roman Catholic Church is hardly a bastion of “fundamentalism,” yet it endured one of the most widespread abuse scandals in modern history. The vast majority of abuse cover-ups do not occur within the context of any religious community, and the common factors shared by such scandals are almost always more related to power structures and financial control than to worldview. You have to assume that progressive evangelicals like Mayfield who lay such harm at the feet of fundamentalism know this. So why make the connection at all?

One theory: Attributing endemic abusiveness to theology is a handy way of avoiding doctrinal arguments, and of marginalizing theological opponents.

After all, if fundamentalism empowers and enables abuse, if it’s the theology of choice for those who want to coerce and harm others, why on earth would you need to spend time figuring out if the Bible really says what the fundies claim it says? Why waste precious seconds thinking about what’s true when you can know for certain that those who believe opposite of you do so for nefarious, ulterior motives?

This is precisely what I mean when I talk of things like “polarization.” The essential characterizing of polarization is not that people disagree with each other. It’s that they use such disagreement as the grounds for attributing the worst possible motivations to those on the other side. You don’t need to be told how often this happens in politics. But it happens a lot in theology as well, and especially in a culture that increasingly prioritizes personal narrative and “my story” as the only authoritative touchstones for knowledge and truth.

Engaging both Scripture and the world honestly means allowing for two things. First, all human beings are sinful and, apart from preventative grace and normal means of restraint, all of us tend to seek our own good at the expense of others. This is a Christian doctrine, not a challenge to it. The idea that people in our theological, political, or social tribes are somehow less prone to this tendency, or the idea that those outside our tribes are more prone or are somehow inevitably given to it, are both heretical ideas. There is no hint in Scripture that people who know the truth are automatically more holy because of it. In fact, Jesus taught something close to the opposite.

But a second thing is also true. Objective truth is real, and human beings who behave wretchedly are not automatically wrong about everything they believe because of it. “The people who believe this hurt me” is not, in fact, an actual evidence against an idea. It’s only evidence against a person. We all live beneath our  best ideals, and this fact does not actually mean our ideals are false. This is why “fundamentalism empowers abuse” is not only wrong, but deeply deceptive. It implies that a theology’s truth claims are irrelevant compared to how its practitioners behave. It’s true that the world knows we are Christ’s because of our love, but that doesn’t mean the world will know who Christ is because of it. There are realities above and beyond our daily obedience of them.

Again, the three statements I laid out at the beginning are totally true, and I believe them. We have to humbly accept our own failures, and those of our tribe. But statement #4, while increasingly popular in a “post-evangelical” age, is not honest thinking. It may engender a lot of empathy in a narrative-oriented age, but its fruit is merely polarization and shoddy thinking.

C.S. Lewis Explains When To Stop Believing a Doctrine

Should you disbelieve a doctrine of Christianity if it makes life hard? C.S. Lewis has an answer

One thing I’ve read a lot lately from some contemporary progressive evangelical writers is this: If a particular belief makes relationships difficult, or makes people around you feel alienated or upset, you should probably stop believing that doctrine.

The logic goes like this. Jesus said we can judge a tree by its fruits. When people are excluded by or express personal frustration at a point of doctrine, we should be suspicious of that doctrine because of the bad fruit it is beginning to bear. On the flip side, we should evaluate doctrines for their truthfulness in large part by whether or not they bear good fruit–that is, by whether or not, by believing them, we become more friendly, more inclusive, and more ingratiating to the people around us.

But C.S. Lewis has some problems with this idea. And in his essay “Man Or Rabbit,” he explains why this sort of approach of doctrine isn’t a respectable one:

One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human. As a matter of fact, I don’t think any of you have really lost that desire. More probably, foolish preachers, by always telling you how much Christianity will help you and how good it is for society, have actually led you to forget that Christianity is not a patent medicine.

Christianity claims to give an account of facts–to tell you what the real universe is like. Its account of the universe may be true, or it may not, and once the question is really before you, then your natural inquisitiveness must make you want to know the answer. If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be; if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all. [God in the Dock, p.108-109]

When we’re looking at doctrine, our ultimate question cannot be, “Is this helping us?” Rather our ultimate question must be, “Is this true?” That means at least two things.

First, it means that our doctrines of Christian belief are not meant primarily to help us live and work well with others on this earth, but to help us know and be known by God. We should indeed strive to live at peace with all men, and our love for other Christians is a sure mark of our Christianity. But this is much different from saying the essence of our Christianity is our relationships with other humans. Christianity is news from God first, before it is helpful to us.

Second, it means that we simply cannot judge a doctrine’s truthfulness by how seemingly helpful it is in our life. Truthfulness and helpfulness are not the same thing. To conflate the two is really a Darwinistic way of looking at Christianity, as if the “strong” doctrines that further social harmony are meant to survive and the “weak” doctrines that are antiquated or unpopular need to die off. The Bible is clear on many points of doctrine that our neighbors may not admire us for believing, or that may not actually help us win favor and friendship (even inside the church!)

But as Lewis reminded us, truth is valuable apart from its helpfulness. Truth is not merely a means to an end but an end itself. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6)