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.