“Doctrine.” Immediately muscles below the waist begin to constrict and tighten (especially for those of the Christian Reformed tradition). With so many directions and possibilities and conversations to begin and end and start again, just mentioning that one word is a guaranteed conflict starter. Some inevitably jump at the opportunity to defend the faith, others shy away from conversations that seem so detached from daily life, but both sides can admit that to talk “doctrine” is to hold a loaded gun with an loose trigger.
Like a gallon of gasoline to dry wood, all it takes is a single spark and presto: instant forest fire. All to Smoky’s despair.
In the fall of 2016, Lifeway, the Nashville-based Christian research firm, released a study on current theological belief trends held by Christians in America. The survey found that the most prominent position held across all denominations, demographics, and age groups to be this: uncertainty. The trend was prevalent in every area — from the more complex aspects of Christian thought like soteriology (how salvation works) and Trinity (the character of God) to the basics of Christian community — scripture and worship. When it comes to their faith, Americans are just unsure.
Many have used these findings and similar research to lambast the “lazy” Christians among us and lament the state of theological education in America, “We should be ashamed of ourselves!” they cry.
I think another story is being told, especially to Pastors — the caregivers of souls among us; the people called to guide, lead, and tend to the people of God.
When we compare these findings with the scriptures here is what we find: the exact same thing. People, God’s people at that, plagued consistently with doubt and uncertainty. Unsure, simply trying to go about their lives, care and provide for their families, and figure out how God fits into the equation. In the middle of all the mess of everyday life, how are we supposed to get everybody on the same page about matters of faith, and Jesus, and God?
In a famous conversation, Jesus speaks directly to this tension.
Surrounded by Pharisees and scribes — those who took it upon themselves to “guide” Israel in the proper ways of worshipping God — Jesus picks up on their conversation. In particular, he notices that they don’t have very flattering things to say about the way that he is dealing with the people around him, “welcoming sinners and tax collectors, the local riff-raff and the like.”
Jesus responds with three of his most well-known stories comparing the present company of sinners and tax collectors (us) to sheep, a coin, and a wayward son. All lost, all needing to found, all celebrated and extravagantly enjoyed once returned. But the stories don’t end with the party. Instead, Jesus ended this conversation with an invitation. He tells one more story of an older brother — one who knew the most, did the best, and never disappointed his father with his work, or so he thought. And yet while he sat outside of celebration, reaming his younger brother for all the things he “didn’t know” he missed the opportunity to care for his brother. And so the Father offers him an alternative, “Come inside.”
Good Theology is important, nay essential, for healthy formation and maturity. Sound Doctrine is foundational to any healthy church. But we have to be able to openly and honestly discuss these issues if we want to get clarity. For far too long, we pastors and leaders have surrendered hearts for the opportunity to be “Right.” We falsely believe that if we can just get everybody to believe the right things and check the right boxes then we’ll be able to have the kind of disciples Jesus wants, and have the kind of impact we want to have. And in the middle of this tension we miss the heart of our calling — To shepherd souls toward health.
The truth is that the current state of belief in America has been the same state of belief that people always start with. It has been the canvas on which *every generation of Christian leader has had to work with going back to the very beginning. The goal is not just “right belief” or “right practice” for that matter. The goal of healthy Christian formation has always been congruence — that what is true on the inside becomes what is real on the outside, that who I am on the inside becomes aligned with who I am on the outside.
Stop yelling. Come inside. Join the conversation.