Division creates doctrine, not the other way around

United Methodist mega-church pastor Mike Slaughter asks in a tweet:

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.


8 thoughts on “Division creates doctrine, not the other way around

    1. 17 But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. 18 They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” 19 These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.

  1. I wonder what doctrinal differences he is speaking of. Any idea? In any event, it’s disconcerting that someone with such a large platform in our denomination has such a wishy-washy view of doctrine (I know, he’s one of many now), whatever the particulars might be in this case.

    1. Paul states what the differences are pretty clearly in 1 & 2 Corinthians.
      Notice Paul says:

      2 To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:

      What Paul writes is not just for the Corinthian Church but to every follower of Christ everywhere.
      Standing against the practice of some Stoics, Libertines and Jews Paul would invoke the cross, the Trinity, list sins of sexual immorality, immoral practice in general, the resurrection of the body, covenant relationship and more to sure up his arguments against those that had either misunderstood what they had been taught previously or simply refused to believe.

      When the doctrine, practices and principles the Apostles laid down, based on the teaching of Christ, came under attack great Councils of the Christian Church would be assembled to declare and make clear where the Christian Church stood and what the official positions of the church were starting in Acts 15.

  2. “We do not divide with each other because of doctrine.”

    That blanket statement is very troubling if Doctrine includes the resurrection of the body, Christ Crucified, God in the flesh denied and a few other key points division is called for and demanded depending on what “doctrine” we are talking about. Some acts committed sometimes demand division.


    1. My intention was only to argue that division leads to the formalization of doctrine. We have a doctrine about the resurrection because we got into arguments about what happened on Easter.

      1. I think that is true and not true.
        Formally God did rise and that would be formal even if argued against and challenged.
        It would be considered unquestionable by those that witnessed the event.

        Officially written down…OK .

        What I am getting at is, the official teaching of Christ and the Apostles was the official doctrine of the church even if we do not recognize or refer to their teaching in that way. When challenged those established truths (doctrine) are restated, defended and maybe better understood.

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