What is the purpose of doctrine?

A fellow student was talking about his work at seminary yesterday. He said he felt it was important for him to come to understand what it is the United Methodist Church believes and what it teaches before he ever got up in a pulpit to preach. He wanted to make sure he understood UM doctrine, so he was doing what he was supposed to do if he one day becomes a pastor.

I chuckled and tried to break the news gently. I wished him well in discerning what our doctrine actually is.

But later in the evening, I found myself asking this question: What purpose does doctrine serve in the church?

It does not save. Right doctrine does not save us. Wrong doctrine does not damn us. And yet, bad doctrine can lead to all manner of decisions that are contrary to holiness and God’s will for our lives. Doctrine is not a secondary concern, as many people say, as much as it is the framework and superstructure than sustains and guides the way we live and act and even interpret the world around us.

I think that is the crux of it. What we believe about God does change the way we act in response to God.

This is why I find confusing the pitching over the side of doctrines relating to the judgment of God, wrath, the sinfulness of humanity, and eternal condemnation. Dropping this cluster of doctrines, it seems to me, deflates the tension at the very heart of Christianity. It takes all the bite out of the question whether God cares or is involved. It leans toward a neurotic Deism. Sure, God cares, but its not like he does anything about it. Yes, injustice is terrible, and God intends to send off a strongly worded memo on that topic soon.

Doctrine is the skeleton of the body of Christ. (This, at least, is my provisional thought.) It gives structure and shape to the body, but it does not give either life or movement. And yet, neither movement can happen nor life be sustained without doctrine.

I don’t want to push the analogy too far. And I am not sure this is the best way to think about doctrine. But it does seem to me that doctrine is worthy of our attention and care not for itself but because of the function it serves in the mission of God and the body of Christ.

If it does serve a function, then our denomination’s struggle to teach and preach its doctrine may explain part of the reason why we have been wandering the wilderness for so long.

6 thoughts on “What is the purpose of doctrine?

  1. I think the issue is less discerning what our doctrine actually is (the doctrinal standards are there for a reason–the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, the Standard Sermons and the Explanatory Notes on the New Testament). I think the issue is being so bold as to teach it. I’m honestly not sure how many UM preachers actually believe the doctrine, and I think that’s the problem.

    There’s an anecdote about David Hume, the famed atheistic empiricist. He was found in a crowd listening to George Whitefield preach. Someone asked him whether he believed the Christian faith. “I don’t,” he replied, then pointed to Whitefield, “But he does.”

    Or as the great British Methodist William Sangster put it, “The world could not long ignore a holy church. The church is not despised because it is holy: it is despised because it is not holy enough. There is not enough difference between the people inside the church and those outside to be impressive. A church in which saints were as common as now they are rare would convict the world, if only by contrast. Sanctity [which cannot exist without faith, and more than that, orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathy] cannot be ignored. Even a little bit is potent. So far from the gates of hell prevailing against it, it hammers on their triple steel.”

    1. James, You are technically correct. However, United Methodist doctrine is certainly not very accessible. If a new Christian came up to you and asked, “What does the United Methodist Church believe?” would you refer him or her to the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, the Standard Sermons and the Explanatory Notes on the New Testament? Our doctrine is also not completely consistent. The Articles of Religion from the EUB were not completely reconciled with the old Methodist Articles of Religion at the time of the merger and Wesley’s faith evolved during his preaching career. Where they differ, are the earlier Standard Sermons or the later Standard Sermons the official doctrine? If our doctrine were accessible and consistent, there would be no need for exercises like “By Water and the Spirit” (Just read Wesley’s “The New Birth” and similar) or “This Holy Mystery” (Just read Wesley’s “The Duty of Constant Communion” and similar). {While these are officially approved positions, they are not doctrine.) I am thankful that bishops like Scott Jones and William Willimon have taken seriously their teaching office and have attempted to make our doctrine more accessible. I believe that we would benefit from a more accessible and more consistent official doctrinal resource. However, given the restrictive rule,s we are likely to be stuck with inaccessible doctrine, unofficial popularizations like those by Willimon and Jones, and offiical positions on doctrine, like those on baptism and communion.

  2. John–I think you a right on. It is important what we believe and also it is important to know why we believe what we believe. I appreciate your thoughts and musings and they cause me to do a great deal of soul searching, and Bible searching, and tradition searching and experience searching. With all this searching going on–you would think I lost something–no I just need to be searching.

  3. One thing that gets us into knots about the role of doctrine is that we cast away too easily the idea that doctrine saves. We do this having in mind the absurd idea of the last judgment being a quiz on the double procession of the Spirit or the idea of grace. But doctrine does save, because the truth sets us free. Part of being a Christian is to have received the revelation of God’s wisdom and the knowledge of the mystery of Christ (e.g. 1 Peter 1:10-12, 1 Cor 1-2, etc.). The gospel, as Paul said, “is the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16)–doctrine saves. In Wesleyan language, the teaching of the faith (doctrine) is a means of grace. Of course, once we get to the point where we do not think learning the truth is part of healing the condition of sin (which we can do both by plain relativism and by the idea of divine judgment by intellectual technicalities), it is easy to question the point of doctrine, because that healing is the point. Most of us know this intuitively, because of the importance we afford to preaching on Sunday mornings, but in the rarer air of the seminary classroom this basic truth about doctrine can easily be lost.

  4. I think the concept of skeleton is apt. In many daily actions, the exact position of the skeleton in not evident, especially if the body is corpulent. A really lean church does not engage in extraneous enterprises, so it’s doctrinal skeleton is more evident, however it has less strength to maintain a variety of different missions. How to be robust without being obese is an organizational problem.

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