United Methodist mega-church pastor Mike Slaughter asks in a tweet:
Why must we divide ourselves over doctrinal differences?—
Mike Slaughter (@RevMSlaughter) October 16, 2013
As Wesleyans, we United Methodists should all agree with the spirit of the question. John Wesley famously wrote time and again that it was not doctrine that defines true Christianity but holiness of life and heart. “If your heart is as my heart,” he preached from Scripture, “give me your hand.”
But, of course, the trick here is that Wesley had some pretty high standards regarding his own heart. It was no easy matter to have your heart in the same place as John Wesley’s. It is a severe misreading of John Wesley to think his downplaying of doctrine translates to a low standard for Christian life or an eagerness to turn a blind eye to vice.
So when we join together and say “We should not divide over doctrine,” we often mean different things by the statement.
But, perhaps more to the point, we cannot avoid dividing over doctrine. As George Lindbeck has argued, most of the doctrine we have is the direct result of division and debate. The church’s beliefs only solidify into of formal doctrine because controversy requires careful articulation of what we believe and the drawing of lines. We do not divide with each other because of doctrine. We have doctrine in the first place because we were divided with each other and needed to spell out the boundaries of those disagreements.
Because we all see “through a glass darkly,” we are perhaps unavoidably going to disagree about what we believe. This should call us to humility about our differences, but it should not lead us to pretend differences are unimportant or that doctrine has no purpose in the life of the church.
To say this is not, of course, an appeal for conflict and controversy, but I do think we do disservice to our own history to forget why we have doctrine in the first place.