Embracing Purposefully Vague Theology & Doctrine

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Here's a thought for all of us: what's wrong with being clear about the fact that we're not clear about some things?

Let me be clear (Ha! Ha!) ;-)

There are some things about which the Bible is very, very clear. Like, for example, the fact that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light and no-one comes to the Father except through him. Or, as another example, "God is Love" — those are both clear statements from the bible. Not only that, but they are central statements too. We believe (rightly so, I think) that the choice for everyone is to either believe those things (and some others) or to not believe them. We've got these "central" things written down very nicely and concisely in the three creeds we confess, for the most part. 

But as we get "farther out" from the central doctrine we also quite often get into muddier waters. When we do go out to those peripheral things, we quite often have great discussions — which is good — but we also quite often have a lot of hurt, and we have a lot of splitting up of the body going on. As an example, I married a baptist girl (a blessing for me for sure), and one of the things that my father-in-law and I have always agreed on about the baptist church in general is that it is exclusive based on something that is not core to the gospel. The very name for their theological grouping testifies to this fact: if you haven't been baptised in the right way, then you may not be a member of this congregation! There are exceptions, I would imagine, where baptist churches might conceivably allow me, a professing member of the CRC, to be a member of their congregation, but I've never run across one. 

We have, of course, similar lines in the sand in the CRC. All denominations do. But why? That's my question. Why on earth (or in heaven, for that matter) can we not have a Christian Reformed Church in North America which is absolutely clear that there are somethings we don't agree on and that are not biblically absolutely clear and that aren't central to salvation anyways, so we're not going to sweat them too much? What's wrong with that kind of belief system? Why do we have to nail everything down?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating for a simplistic "Just Jesus" kind of theological life. Instead I'm recommending that we do the following (and I think I've said this before, but I'll say it again):

1) By all means, have doctrines about every last possible issue and/or concern! BUT

2) Acknowledge those doctrines and issues about which we are not and/or cannot ever be absolutely certain and which are not central to our salvation anyway.

3) Pursuant to that acknowledgement, allow those who disagree with us on any/all of those doctrines to be full members/leaders/participants within our churches, provided they agree to teach the denomination's doctrine on those issues fairly, and that, when presenting other theological positions they do so fairly and openly.

What would be wrong with that? Can anyone answer that! Please!

...

sigh...

The reason I bring it up again is that I'm heading to Synod this year and once again there are doctrinal issues at hand which cause division and strife even though they're not central to our salvation. Why can't we say: "Our best interpretation of the scriptures is that children may participate in communion based on their age and ability appropriate obedience, and that part of that obedience would include baptism. However, we recognize that many other Christians today and throughout the ages have made strong arguments about this issue and come to different conclusions. We recognize that this is not an issue that is categorically, clearly, unequivicably dealt with in scriptures."

What's wrong with that, and why can't we do that with other issues too? Help me out here folks.

In His service,

Dan.

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Dan,

 We are all broken,sinful and narcissistic. Some Christians know this and are humbled. That group can get along with most anybody. The other group of Christians don't understand this and that is  what leads to intolerance of most idea"s or persons that do not think the same way.  That is the difference. and the reason we don;t get along.

Ken

Participant

Ken, beautifully put...and you might add- those who are humbled are the "servant leaders" of our denomination, seek them out...

I am reponding to your remarks about Baptists. There is only one thing that is required to join our church and that is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Only Christ's blood is sufficient to make someone a member of the church. I hope I am being theologically clear.

Community Builder

Dear Iowa Baptist,

Thanks for contributing to the discussion. I'm not sure what the baptist denominations are like in your neck of the woods, but in Ontario here you are absolutely correct in one sense, but I would humbly submit, totally incorrect in another. The truth of the matter that pretty much any Christian denomination would echo your statement that belief in Jesus is the only requirement for membership in the church.

However, the reality is that, practically speaking, almost all denominations and churches require more for actual "membership" per se. For example, most baptist churches require not only belief in Jesus Christ, but also they require that a person be baptised as a "believer" as opposed to not being baptized at all or being baptized as an infant. Most of the Baptist churches I've been involved with (and there've been quite a few) will not accept a person into full membership in the church without this believer's baptism.

Some baptist churches will not accept a person into full membership unless they've been baptized by full immersion as a believer too. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that this is evil somehow or anything like that. In the Reformed tradition we have other "requirements" for full membership--not just belief, but a baptism (infant or believer's) and/or a profession of faith afirming the promises of that infant baptism. Some of these requirements are good for sure. 

But, we sometimes hold on to a "reformed" or "baptist" or "pentecostal" distinctive at the expense of the gospel, I'm afraid. If reformed people truly believed that saving faith in Jesus was all that was required for membership in the church, then we wouldn't have the forms that we do have for profession of faith or baptism, would we? No. Those forms include not just that saving faith in Jesus, but also that saving faith in Jesus + belief that everything that this church teaches is the true interpretation of the gospel + that we've gone through whatever hoops we believe are required in addition to "just believing"

Anyway, sorry for being long winded, Iowa Baptist, but in the end I'm afraid that, unless your church/denomination is quite a bit different from all others I've come in contact with, I'll have to disagree with your statement that your church only requires faith in Jesus--that's not all my church requires either.

in His service,

Dan.

I appreciate this article

Thanks

My thoughts on this are as follows,

You are talking about the difference between Doctrine and Dogma in a certain sense. Academicians will fault me on this doggerel distinction, but Doctrine is generally accepted as what the Bible teaches and by its very nature cannot be vague and Dogma is what the Church believes and/or requires. This is an oversimplification, but for the purposes of argumentation I hope you'll allow it. Historically, where to draw the line in the sand between the two has always been fuzzy. Each denomination was born of some historical necessity for separation (no judgment here on if it was a good or bad reason) which became a deeply ingrained raison d'etre and it's hard to change that for one main reason. People NEED to believe that what they believe right now is the truth. This is the only way people can be comfortable in their thoughts. The corrollary to this, however, is that we need to be aware of the fact that what we believe right now is not the whole truth and some of it will likely be changed as we live, learn more or experience different things. The truth is, though, that it's hard to go back and say (as an organization expecially) at worst, "we were wrong," and at best, "we aren't the only ones with truth."

This should be mitigated in Protestantism in the fact that we (read, Luther) tried reforming inside the church and was not so nicely asked to leave, so we were forced to create identity outside of the, then, Church. We have a big, biblical, raison d'etre, but those churches who have split and formed new churches over the color of the carpet or some other sort of trivial issues are confusing dogma and doctrine, but this just goes to prove, albeit in an extreme manner, the difficulty of identifying just where that line between the two is. The church exists as an authority for a reason, so how do we decide what exactly is an essential and what exactly is important but non-essential, and what is not important at all?

You may or may not be familiar with the guidance attributed to Augustine on these matters, but he apparently said, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." When we're talking about truth like we do in the church, it's difficult to know where to draw the line between essentials and non-essentials, but like you implied, if we can at least love each other enough to see past these differences we'd be better off.

One caveat, though; when it comes to the issue of leadership. I have definite reservations about allowing people in leadership who don't "tote the party line" (to be real crass), because they are not there to push their own ideas, but to support the denomination that put them there. Why would we elect someone who doesn't agree with what we say we believe as a denomination? Certainly it is true that not everyone, even in leadership, monolithically agrees with everything, that's why we have the debates we have at Synod and elsewhere. The lesson learned, I think, is that there is a proper time and place for disagreement in leadership, that is distinct from disagreement in the pews.

In a very real, practical sense, I think what you asked in your post is actually going on. The pews are filling up with people now (at least the trend in the US, I don't know about Canada) who are seeking more stability and legacy than just the Mom & Pop church in the old Grocery store building that just started last week "for Jesus." There is a lot of liberty in the Church for disagreement, but if we are going to have purposefully vague theology, we muct be purposeful about it.

Community Builder

 

 

Sorry it took so long for me to get back to you, Richard, but let me just say that I LOVE what you've written here. It's very helpful for me.

But now I have another question: What if I said that "nailing down" innessentials is a SIN (not saying that's what I necessarily think--but just take it as a proposition)? 

If that proposition were true then:

1) It would be a SIN to require infant baptism over believer's only baptism and vice versa.

2) It would be a SIN to require women be allowed in office, but it would also be a SIN not to.

3) It would be a SIN to require that people be amillenial, premillenial, etc.

4) etc., etc.,

In other words the more we "codify" what the gospels supposedly teach on matters that can be legitimately debated, the more we fall into the sin of phariseeism.

Would that be a fair definition of phariseeism? If so, then wouldn't things like this year's "Faith Formation Report" (for Synod 2011) be a problem? It's stated madate is to "discourage" infant dedication. I myself agree wholeheartedly with infant baptism and the covenant theology surrounding it, but there are many who do not and who can make very good arguments the other way. Shouldn't we, as a denomination do something different here?

What do you think, everyone?

 

Dan.

I very much appreciate the tone and intent of this conversation. It seems like we are looking for ways to be inclusive, while at the same time wanting to draw a line between who's in and who's out. We want to know what it means to belong, and we want to be somewhat clear about some sort of communal identity.

Dan, you mentioned pharisaism. What came to my mind is the line: "Thank you, God, that you did not make me like so-and-so". There's that line again. In Jesus' story such line-thinking was juxtaposed with a posture held by all who realize their position vis-a-vis Creator-God: "Have mercy on me, a sinner. I am not worthy to be in your presence".

What if it is not so much about what we know, but about that we are known?

What if it is not so much about "we hold these truths", as it is about that we are held in the palm of the hand of a loving God.

What if it is more important to love than to be right?

What if God were very pleased that we worship Him for graciously providing for our every need, and invite others to worship Him with us, and not quite so pleased when we worship Him for making us "distinctly Reformed"?

When it comes to who's in versus who's out thinking I agree with Richard Rohr, who says that the church's preoccupation with membership may well have been its greatest failure.

What if all of us concentrated on informing the world that all are in: God loves all. God's grace is extended to all. Jesus died for all. God's providence holds all. Come, believe, participate, connect, grow, love, serve.

What if the only really significant line is the line between those whose eyes have been opened by the Spirit of God to the reality of God's love, and those who are still in the dark? And what if our only responsibility as a church is to live with our eyes wide open, loving, praising and worshiping God in everything we do, and let the Holy Spirit worry about opening more eyes?

What if we could appreciate any and all differences among denominations, worship styles, emphases, as simply different ways in which different communities respond to God with their newly opened eyes?

What if................what if?

I would disagree with Vandonk and Rohr (as quoted above) about membership due to the historical importance in the rise of "membership." Even at the time of Paul and the Apostles, there was arising a need to distinguish the holy from the profane; the believer from the non-believer or heretic. It truly became necessary to determine who was in and who was out, not for the purpose of excluding people, but including them. We had to know what the Gospel was and what constituted correct belief and life in order to properly minister and evangelize. Paul spends most of his epistles doing just that. Perhaps the nuance has been lost, in that the Church has, at times, gotten too interested in cloning Christians, rather than growing disciples. True discipleship will help avoid some of this unwarranted focus on membership, but it can't and shouldn't be thrown out entirely.

I don't know how much theology you have read, but I am drawn to much of existentialism's dealing with these types of issues, mostly as represented by Paul Tillich. I will caveat this by saying that the Existentialists begin everything with man, and are very human-centric throughout, almost to the exclusion of God in some respects, so they are not to be read without caution, but, in dealing with man-centered problems I find their thought helpful and enlightening. They developed a sense of being able to hold two seemingly contradictory positions at the same time in counterbalance of each other. For example, Rudolf Otto (another dead existentialist) wrote an excellent book on holiness in which he described the wonder and terror of being in God's presence. On the one hand, we are accepted and can stand before God's throne, but on the other hand, and at the same time, we are terrified at the very prospect of standing before Ultimate purity and truth because of our fallenness (see Isaiah 6 for that prophet's reaction to this exact situation). We need to be able to hold the standards of membership, without excluding people who are not yet members.

We are in an interesting time demographically. If you read the studies of the Millennial generation (born 1980-200) they are taking longer to marry and longer to join because they are looking for authenticity and genuineness. In this sense, we need to be more about what is real, than what is true, but they should be the same. It's all in how it's presented. It's like the Church a couple generations ago had a problem stating what they believed, instead, they focused on what they didn't believe in (smoking, drinking, dancing, etc). The Church is now so focused on right doctrine that it is missing a generation that cares about that, but isn't interested in it until they have tried out the church first to see if the people are genuine. They can cope with brokenness, because they recognize their own brokenness. They want their's healed through relationships with other broken people who can point them to the Healer. In this sense, I think the Millennials are seeking an excellent part of what the church is supposed to be about, community, and isn't that a hallmark of reformed theology? Perhaps that is also why there is a new influx of people into Reformed churches and some of the more popular church thinkers being published today are Reformed (Challies, DeYoung, etc).

Zylstra, I know I avoided answering your question about the sin of nailing down the non-essentials, but I'm not sure I understand the direction you were heading with it. (PS: sorry it took me so long to respond. I have a very tight and busy schedule. God bless you for thinking through things like this).

Godspeed!