The issue of doctrinal correctness and the confusions generated by it, is one that is as old as the church. Right since the inception and birth of the church till now, there has been numerous issues as regards doctrinal correctness and what practices that one must have to belong to the church of God or the body of Christ. It is nearly impossible – if not entirely – to look upon the history of the church and not be awe-struck by the observation that the church has grown this far despite the innumerable controversies arising from different groups with different doctrines, and their constant threat to sniff the very life out of it all through the generations.
The greatest of this confusions rocked the early church on Resurrection Sunday. The entire object on which the hopes of the original apostles of Christ rested was vanquished at the death of Jesus. The One they had believed to be the Messiah and Deliverer of Israel, had been crucified; apparently failing in His Messianic mission. What would be the way forward for them? Had they – the disciples – been misled? How did the resurrected Jesus lead His disciples through this crisis of uncertainty to a solid understanding and experience of truth regarding Himself, His mission, and the future mission of the disciples? These, and many others are theareas that will be discussed as this paper seeks to suggest ways in which doctrinal differences can be handled in the church today.
It is worthy to point out in starting that, the Bible should be the basis of all doctrines according to the Christian worldview. It has its position as regards what true doctrine is, and how the church should handle issues that arise concerning it. According to the gospel of John, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”1 One may then proceed to ask, what is this truth? It is the knowledge of the self-revelation of God as demonstrated by Jesus Christ and captured in the Bible. Knowing God and His Son – Jesus Christ – and believing true things about him is transforming liberty. To this, Jesus himself asserts, “my teaching is not mine, but his who sent me; if any man’s will is to do his (God’s) will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.”
God’s self-revelation in the Bible is not a wax nose. Our everlasting salvation is determined by whether we believe it or not. To this, the apostle John writes in his epistles, “anyone who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son.”3 A doctrine is a teaching – and in this case – the teachings of Christ. A departure therefore – from Christ as the truth – is a departure from biblical doctrine, which is fatal to the Christian. To this, Paul the apostle writes, “take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”4 The importance then, of right or correct doctrine, cannot be over-stressed.
Doctrine is the foundation of teaching and learning. Biblically, true doctrine provides the opportunity to learn what is taught, what should be learned, and what is the desired result that God wants us to know from His Scriptures. Any variation of the true gospel of God is not gospel at all. To this, Nancy Pearcey writes, “the idea that a single generation can reject wholesale all of Christian history and start over again is doomed to theological shallowness… Instead of seeing farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, they (modern Christian traditions) are limited to what they are able to see from their own narrow perspective within a tiny slice of history.”5 Moreover, the freedom Jesus offers is a spiritual freedom from the bondage of sin—that is, release from the lifestyle of habitual lawlessness. The right belief in Christ becomes the springboard of all actions, and helps correctly align the intentions that undergird an action. To this, Lesslie Newbigin writes; “If we acknowledge the God of the Bible, we are committed to a struggle for justice in society. Justice means giving to each his due. Our problem, as seen in the light of the gospel, is that each of us overestimates what is due him compared with what is due to his neighbor. If I do not acknowledge a justice which judges the justice for which I fight, I am an agent, not of justice, but of lawless tyranny.”
When Christians disagree over main doctrinal issues such as the deity of Christ and His sinlessness, they must be gently rebuked and shown from Scripture why Jesus is both God and Man but is also more than just man. He is God, therefore He cannot sin. While it is fine to rebuke or correct another person who is clearly wrong about what the Bible teaches, such as the gospel of repentance and faith, we sin when we start being antagonistic towards others just because they believe in subjects that are non-essential to salvation and we don’t. Nancy Pearcy does well to note that, “the crucial challenge is to present Christianity as a unified comprehensive truth that is not restricted to the upper story. We must have the confidence that it is true on all levels—that it can stand up to rigorous rational and historical testing, while also fulfilling our highest spiritual ideals”
How often have Christians unknowingly destroyed the testimony or witness of the church by fighting among themselves over things that will not matter in eternity? Speaking of the difference between evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, the evangelist, Billy Graham said, “I don’t think the differences are important as far as personal salvation is concerned”8 Moreover, he often was heard saying, “the one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy, but love.” To this end, it is safe to say that love is all that matters.
In the gospels of John, Jesus is thus seen praying for the unity of the church, He also prays, “Sanctify them in the truth. Your word is truth.”10 It is the meat of the Word that nourishes healthy Christian living. In speaking about the responsibility of believers towards one another due to right believing in the doctrine of Christ, hfyjhftf writes; “And therefore God, in shedding abroad his love in our hearts, does as it were give us possession of that love that was manifested to us in giving Christ to die for us… When persons experience a right belief of the truth of the gospel, such a belief is accompanied with love. They love him whom they believe to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. When the truth of the glorious doctrines and promises of the gospel is seen, those doctrines and those promises are like so many bands, which take hold of the heart to draw it in love to God and Christ.”
Most Christians have a particular leaning based on our temperament, background, or context. For instance, it is possible for one to be naturally careful about theological clarity, but have a blind spot to the destructiveness of disunity. In the other direction, we might be horrified at the lack of love some Christians exhibit, but naive about the effects of doctrinal erosion. However, this is not to be the case. Christians are to love one another, but not to compromise on the verity of scripture in the name of that love. On this position, J.C Ryle writes the following; “Controversy in religion is a hateful thing. It is hard enough to fight the devil, the world and the flesh, without private differences in our own camp. But there is one thing which is even worse than controversy, and that is false doctrine tolerated, allowed, and permitted without protest or molestation…. Three things there are which men never ought to trifle with—a little poison, a little false doctrine, and a little sin.”
In conclusion, it is then safe to say that, unity is important but not at the cost of biblical truth. Biblical love goes hand in hand with sound doctrine. Love without doctrinal truth is not biblical love. The church must be as loving and inclusive as we can be without compromising sound doctrine. But doctrine is not an impractical subject for theologians to argue about.
- Edwards, Jonathan, David S Lovi, and Benjamin Westerhoff. The Power of God : A Jonathan Edwards Commentary on the Book of Romans. Cambridge: Casemate Publishers and Book Distributors, LLC, 2013. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=813813&site=ehost-live.
- Murray, I.H., and Banner of Truth Trust. Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000. Banner of Truth Trust, 2000. https://books.google.com.gh/books?id=aYF5QgAACAAJ.
- Newbigin, L. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. https://books.google.com.gh/books?id=ANsiqmwLfMUC.
- Pearcey, N., and P.E. Johnson. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Crossway Books, 2008. https://books.google.com.gh/books?id=zr-ewAEACAAJ.
- Ryle, J.C., and Banner of Truth Trust. Warnings to the Churches. Banner of Truth Trust, 1967. https://books.google.com.gh/books?id=2qphQgAACAAJ.