Few would disagree that the church (in the larger sense of the word) is in doctrinal crisis today. Anyone my age or older knows that denominational designations used to mean something. Baptist churches were Baptist in doctrine, Methodist churches were Methodist in their doctrine, and Presbyterian churches were Presbyterian in doctrine. About 40 years ago, when churches first started removing the denominational designation from their names, the “old codgers” warned that the name goes first, the doctrine later. The “agents of change” assured the old codgers that the church would never sway, never be moved, but that it was all about “reaching people.”
Well, the 40-year experiment failed. The churches didn’t reach people, and they did sway from doctrine. In fact, they made such a sway that there is little doctrinal difference from one denomination to another today.
As an independent fundamentalist, I’m not a denominationalist, but I am a “doctrinalist.” I think that doctrine is the gathering point for fellowship and the foundation for congregational meaning.
Why is the church in a doctrinal crisis today?
Problem 1: doctrine has been boiled down to purely theological topics.
When you mention doctrine in most local churches, eyes glaze over and that “don’t go there” look gets turned on. Doctrine, it is assumed, is that theological stuff of seminaries. It’s perhaps great discussion for future preachers interacting with each other over their lattes and frappes, but it certainly doesn’t belong in the local church.
I believe that anything that a Christian believes that is based on the Scripture is a doctrine. While some doctrines are more essential than others, all doctrines are either right or wrong, and the Scripture is the final word on the correctness of a doctrine. And all belief and behavior is doctrinally based.
There is a doctrine of human sexuality that desperately needs to be addressed in the church today. And the doctrine of work. And the doctrine of economy. And the doctrine of parenting. And the doctrine of government. And the doctrine of proper attire. And the doctrine of geriatric care. And on and on and on.
And, sadly, rather than teaching these as doctrines (which find their source in scripture), these things are taught as personal opinion or popular opinion. We need to get God’s opinion on all these, and more. The church, both locally and denominationally (when there is a denomination) should have a doctrinal position on these matters, and should teach their doctrine.
Problem 2: doctrine has largely been reduced to “secondary” and “tertiary” matters of interest.
If you are a layman and try to ask your pastor (or prospective pastor) a doctrinal question, he is likely to say something like, “Well, I have my thoughts on that (he probably doesn’t), but we just don’t focus on that here at _____ church. Our focus is on loving people and helping them through life’s circumstances. Doctrinally issues can become divisive, and we want to bring people together.”
And every time he says this, he pushes doctrine to the back burner. And every time doctrine is pushed to the back burner, the doctrinal crisis grows.
If you search the internet for “tertiary doctrine” you’ll find a plethora of explanations on why certain doctrines are “secondary” or “tertiary.” For example, Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes that, “the meaning and mode of baptism, and gender roles in the church” are secondary doctrines. Akin goes on to say, “An example of a tertiary doctrine would be the timing of the rapture during the period of tribulation.” (Incidentally, the rapture does not take place “during the period of the tribulation.”)
I think most of you would agree with me that if “the mode of baptism” is secondary and “the timing of the rapture” is tertiary, then there must not be much in doctrine that is primary. This is the point of view of the leaders of evangelicalism.
Problem 3: Pastors are not taught the doctrines of the church nor practical doctrines of the faith, thus they do not teach others.
Pastors who attend the “big box” seminaries for their education are inept at doctrine. I’ll define “big box” as the cookie-cutter preacher-mills that are accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (I wouldn’t recommend a single one of these seminaries, by the way, they are a royal waste of money, time, and potential). For the standard “Master of Divinity” degree, accreditation requirements are as follows:
- A.2.1 …The learning outcomes for the MDiv shall encompass the instructional areas of religious heritage, cultural context, personal and spiritual formation, and capacity for ministerial and public leadership.
- A.2.2 Religious heritage: The program shall provide structured opportunities to develop a comprehensive and discriminating understanding of the religious heritage.
- A.2.3 Cultural context: The program shall provide opportunities to develop a critical understanding of and creative engagement with the cultural realities and structures within which the church lives and carries out its mission.
- A.2.4 Personal and spiritual formation: The program shall provide opportunities through which the student may grow in personal faith, emotional maturity, moral integrity, and public witness. Ministerial preparation includes concern with the development of capacities—intellectual and affective, individual and corporate, ecclesial and public—that are requisite to a life of pastoral leadership.
- A.2.5 Capacity for ministerial and public leadership: The program shall provide theological reflection on and education for the practice of ministry. These activities should cultivate the capacity for leadership in both ecclesial and public contexts.
It is no surprise that the graduates of these preacher-mills are so skilled at preaching the denominational brochure and so inept at doctrine: that is what they are trained to do.
You are the answer
There is one way to fix the problem: learn doctrine. You. Tell your pastor to teach it. Learn to study the Word to learn it. Consider every issue a doctrinal issue, and then develop your doctrine. Decide you are going to quit funding doctrinally inept churches and ministries. Move on. Get involved in doctrinal growth.
Doctrine is based on a knowledge of the Word, so doctrinal growth includes large amounts of line-by-line Bible study. Doctrine divides, so expect to lose a few friends. Doctrine isn’t cool, so don’t expect applause. Doctrinal learning takes time, so expect to have to back up and change paths from time to time. But doctrine is so foundational to a healthy church and society that you need to begin the journey toward being a doctrinal expert.