I’ve been doing some thinking about the difference(s) between dogma, doctrine, and opinion when it comes to the local church.
Simply put… it looks like this.
- Dogma — Irreducible beliefs of the Christian faith. What do we say about Jesus?
- Doctrine — Historical or traditional beliefs on a plethora of theological issues. What sets us apart?
- Opinion — Debatable issues that you’re free to agree or disagree upon. What do you think?
I agree with these three distinctions (leaving room for some overlap), but how do you determine what belief goes where in these categories? And is it possible for a local church (pastors & elders) to proclaim a certain view as “doctrine” but leave room for members to disagree? I think so.
One thing is for certain, this is a task for folks in community together and those who are willing to wrestle with it. That’s an invitation.
Two Ways of Dealing With It
Let me first address two common ways of dealing with these issues, and then I’ll share my working thoughts.
Group One — “Give me Jesus, not your divisive doctrine.”
Some of you know that I spent about five years meeting in homes and interacting with a network of “organic” churches. I had some great experiences. However, many of the folks I ran into sought to downplay the role of theology and creeds (statement of beliefs) for fear that it is divisive and characteristic of the beastly institutional church.
They have a point. Beliefs can be divisive. But I don’t think the answer is to avoid the need for a creed, or set Jesus against doctrine.
So, I’m saying that I know people that don’t seem to think that worrying about dogma, doctrine, and opinion really matters. In their “opinion” (catch that?), we should just wander about in nebulous fashion and refrain from any organization—church practice and theology included.
This group is imagining that there is not a systematic theology at work in the members of their group or church. It doesn’t need to be posted on a church website or posted on the wall of their meeting place, it’s alive in the hearts and minds of the saints there.
A fellowship may not discuss what they believe openly or form a statement of faith by consensus, but it’s at work among them. Avoiding the obvious need for a creed of theology, mission, and vision will lead to a certain death. That’s if the church even gets off the ground in the first place.
You can’t escape a “theology of the people” who have decided to band together for Kingdom purposes.
Trying to do so will lead to division of another sort. Once more proving that reactionary thinking and practice is not the answer.
I suppose this groups believes that if you stay away from labels and systems of thought that there will not be any division or controversy. They must think this reflects a purer stage of the NT church.
Back when there weren’t any problems, right?
I respect the desire to not be needlessly building walls of separation between saints. I’m all for that. But I can’t espouse the idea that having a statement of belief (creed) is damaging to the church.
In fact, I believe it is healthy and necessary.
Group Two — “Let’s get back to the basics… of the 4th century.”
Then there are other folks who are rightfully fed up with sectarianism in the church but believe that we must stand firm on some basic theological truths about Christ. They believe we should only stick to the ancient creeds in our attempts to articulate the essentials of our faith.
I grew up a Southern Baptist. The SBC has a very lengthy confession (Baptist Faith & Message) dealing with just about every issue under the sun (OK, I’m exaggerating a little bit). Needless to say, I didn’t grow up reciting the Apostles or Nicene Creed. I regret that.
My wife and I attended a Methodist church for a year and we deeply benefited from the recitation of these ancient creedal statements. The recitation of creeds in worship is a healthy way of reminding everyone in attendance of what brings them together and is forming their new identity as members of the universal church.
Hear me out. I like reciting the ancient creeds, but I do think it’s important to remember that the Apostles & Nicene Creeds (4th cent) were written against their own contextual issues of heresy and debated ideas of Christology in the church from ages ago.
Let’s remember the ancient creeds and recite them together in our churches. I’m cool with that. I think there is something deeply beneficial that comes with this practice. But I submit to you that a healthy church will continue to wrestle with dogma, doctrine, and opinion in every age and culture.
The local church can do this by amending the ancient creeds to better address our 21st century issues and challenges.
It’s necessary for a church that wishes to be a relevant organism seeking to make a Kingdom impact in every culture and context. Our evolving world demands it. We must not be afraid to speak to, for, and against issues of our time. We must move forward with courage.
Finding a Third Way
If you follow this blog regularly, you know that I have intentions to plant a church in the near future. I do this with fear and trembling. It’s not gonna be easy, but I’m convinced the Lord wants it.
The church today is fragmented in many ways. And I don’t wish to add to the problem by doing more of the same. But a new church plant is gonna require some line-drawing when it comes to dogma, doctrine, and opinion.
For example, some issues of “classical” theology, especially as it relates to our view of God in Christ, need to be revisited in order to reflect a change in the 21st cent church—a church that presently finds herself forced to accept views about God which contradict the revelation of God in Christ, or leave behind belief in a good God altogether.
The church that humbly professes the better view of God in Christ is being a faithful church, not a divisive or dogmatic church.
If we don’t speak up about these matters and courageously hold our ground against competing views that undermine the revelation of God in Christ… what good are we? What Gospel are we proclaiming?
There are other issues related to our culture and context that should be addressed in our creeds. We can’t afford to avoid these issues.
Some positions will need to be taken in response to culture, most others in response to misguided Christians propagating views about God and his sovereignty that don’t look like Jesus. It will require us hold positions that may not be popular, but are necessary to maintain the centrality and supremacy of Christ for authentic faith and practice.
Here’s what I’m saying… what may have been considered “opinion” or a non-essential in one generation can move into the realm of accepted doctrine worthy to be included in a church’s creed and statement of faith if it is needed in our response to bad theology and pagan culture.
The creeds of the local church should move forward in every cultural context, though never away from Christ who is eternal in the heavens.
The way forward affirms the importance of beliefs, expands on matters critical to our confession of Christ, and is willing to draw necessary lines in order to be faithful to the Kingdom.
This third way looks like Jesus Christ of Nazareth—Truth for the church and culture, saturated in love and grace for every age.
D.D. Flowers, 2013.
January 22nd, 2013 at 3:03 am
“Here’s what I’m saying… what may have been considered “opinion” or a non-essential in one generation can move into the realm of accepted doctrine worthy to be included in a church’s creed and statement of faith if it is needed in our response to bad theology and pagan culture.”
I’m curious, do you have any examples of what you mean here?
January 22nd, 2013 at 8:14 am
Hey Stephen, good question. I’ll respond later today.
January 28th, 2013 at 10:07 pm
Hey Stephen, I apologize for not responding sooner. You raise an important question. I can think of a few issues, but I believe a matter of science is currently on my mind.
While some churches say nothing about Gen 1-2, a few others specify that they interpret it literally… therefore, the earth is somewhere between 8-10,000 years old. I think this is bad biblical interpretation and terrible science. I think where we were once unclear about the age of the earth (& universe), as the church was once unclear or dogmatic about Galileo’s claims, we now ought to stand with science (natural revelation) and promote a hermeneutic that finds the Scripture in harmony with it.
In this case, Gen 1-2 is ancient cosmology, not a modern scientific description of creation. And since this has become a real concern in our culture and context, it could rightfully be moved into the realm of accepted doctrine, not mere opinion. That’s my take on it. 🙂
January 29th, 2013 at 1:14 pm
Okay, sorry I asked. 😉 LOL, just kidding.
Although, I am a “young Earth-er”. I believe that there is very good science to support the young Earth view. There are many resources available from places like the Institute for Creation Research, Answers In Genesis, Creation Today, and many more. I also believe the Bible itself is pretty clear on creation and that Jesus confirmed the Genesis creation account.(Mark 10:6, John 5:45-47)
I’m not overly interested in a debate on creation here, I would imagine you are not either, but I do have one question based on your statement that I hear/see many people make, “therefore, the earth is somewhere between 8-10,000 years old. I think this is bad biblical interpretation and terrible science.” Could you give me one example of “good science” that discounts the ability of God to speak creation into existence with age or an Earth science phenomenon that could not be explained by a global flood? Just one “good science” example of why the Earth could not possibly be only a little over 6,000 years old. The lineage from Adam to Jesus with their ages is found within the pages of the Bible, so we know how long it was from Adam to Jesus and from Jesus to today. So I would guess that your problem with the Genesis creation account is not with the creation of man but with everything else.
I believe that above all else that we as believers should be unified in our belief in Jesus and our love for one another(1 John 3:23-24) and allow the Holy Spirit to teach us.(1 John 2:27)
I enjoy your blog and I’m glad I asked 😉
January 29th, 2013 at 1:41 pm
Hey Stephen, yeah… you really stepped into a hornets nest. 🙂
As I’m sure you could imagine, I grew up with the Answers in Genesis view of creation, and their interpretations of scientific discoveries. I even once promoted Kent Hovind’s “canopy theory” early in college. I think it should be acknowledged that a person that reads Gen 1-11 literally (thinking that’s the proper reading), will feel they are obligated to make science fit the biblical text. It’s important for everyone to understand that this inevitably impacts their view of the scientific evidence.
I don’t think that view of science fits a literal reading of a pre-scientific theology book, i.e. the Bible. To be clear, I don’t have a problem believing that God spoke everything into existence (ex nihilo) all at once in order to bring about the universe as we know it. The problem is that the science doesn’t support an “all-at-once / appearing old” interpretation. We very clearly have an old earth, and even older universe. That much is true.
It seems that you recognize an old earth, which you are attempting to use a global flood as reason enough to give an appearance of an old earth. Even if a literal “global” flood could produce such evidence (I don’t think it could), it raises more problems than gives answers. Do you seriously believe that Noah literally fit every single species on the face of the planet on his ark? And dinosaurs too? I don’t mean any disrespect toward you (you know that), but this view is incredulous and laughable.
And you still have a universe that has every appearance of being approx 13.7 billions years old. This is not some conspiracy to refute “the biblical” view of creation. I’m arguing that we’ve been reading the Bible incorrectly. Science can teach us a thing or two.
Here’s what I wrote to a brother on the matter of biblical genealogies:
Rest assured that my interpretation of Gen 1-2 (specifically) is not shaped by science, but instead comes by first being able to accept that Gen 1-2 was not meant to be read as a modern scientific description of primordial and precosmic events. Then my theology/biblical interpretation work together with science (natural revelation). That’s why I don’t find theistic evolution and an old earth threatening to the main thrust of Gen 1-2 as ancient cosmology. A new understanding of Gen 1-2 allows the door of science to swing wide open.
I’m breaking my own rules by posting a comment this long. I must be punished. 🙂
January 22nd, 2013 at 9:09 am
Whether ever officially stated or not as dogma or doctrine, some classic examples in the SBC include “no dancing, no alcohol, no tobacco, no rock-n-roll music”, etc. Many church leaders have moved these out of doctrine and into opinion where they belong, but there are some who still hold strong to these things, and many other rules like them.
 Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,
 (Touch not; taste not; handle not;
 Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?
There are many other examples which I will not go into here, but a few years ago in my quest for optimum health by eating natural foods, regular exercise, and other healthy lifestyle choices, we were kicked out of our church for doing some things that were common for centuries (even part of the official church creed for the first few hundred years) but now in only recent times has become thought of as taboo in some congregations. I recognised the church’s position on the issue was hypocritical to a degree, and arose out of a gnostic viewpoint that has long corrupted Christian thinking, but was a non-essential at its core, so we simply moved on without putting up a defense.
January 22nd, 2013 at 2:40 pm
You’re not alone, Logan. You highlight the importance of space for dialogue and freedom in the church.
January 22nd, 2013 at 11:17 am
It seems to be the human tendency to “deify” practice and even humans who are dead and gone. Their legacy of doctrine is a matched set with their person; and though none would say they worship Calvin, Augustine, or Luther, for example, the effect is the same.
Their teaching is treated as God-breathed rather than seen as the fruits of fallen men, seeking the kingdom, getting some things wrong and some things right in a particular historical context.
When I have debated doctrinal issues, my position is dismissed on the authority of these influential folks who have risen to positions almost equal with Christ. We ought never be afraid to reexamine faith and practice in light of God’s word.
January 22nd, 2013 at 2:36 pm
Good word. I didn’t even begin to address how some have elevated 16th century Protestant theology to the throne of God. I think the debate over the meaning of “justification” in Paul is an example of that. And of course Calvinism is on the comeback with many young evangelicals.
January 22nd, 2013 at 3:14 pm
I agree with your premise that theological thinking, through the medium of creeds/confessions, is important for the local church. As a Southern Baptist, I have wrestled with some issues brought up in the Faith and Message. However, it is healthy to have a reasonable debate. And, for SBC churches at least, there is no hierarchy pushing doctrine or dogma down. The local church is at the top of the org chart.
I also agree that creeds are shaped by their times and issues in the culture. Thus they are not complete. For the sake of brevity, all is not included. When more is addressed, they get longer and less useful for public worship. Personally, I don’t think the Faith and Message is terribly long. My son learns part of the Westminster Catechism at his Presbyterian school. The Q&A format is great for teaching and learning.
Finally, you are right that the division of dogma, doctrine, and opinion is where all the fussing starts. While I disagree with the rapture theology taught at my SBC church (not all SBC churches), I do not think it is worth dividing over. And I know that many in our church agree to disagree on this. While I think the teaching of the Scriptures is clear, others agree it is clearly not what I think. I want to leave room for grace and for the fact that I may not (gasp!) always be right. No one has a full, clear picture of all the God has done or is doing.
January 22nd, 2013 at 3:21 pm
You’re right, Sean. The brevity of the ancient creeds are good for using in worship. I like that, and I propose we continue doing that with beliefs that are central to a local church’s doctrine and mission.
As for SBC churches, I do think there is more of a hierarchy than we often see at work. Many conservative Baptist seminaries function as the Vatican in the eyes of many pastors. I’ve seen it. But you’re right that Baptists promote autonomous local churches.
Glad this resonated with you.
January 24th, 2013 at 10:18 pm
Praise the Lord! I’v been in the Lord’s recovery since 1993 and glad that this ministry is standing on the local church. It is very clear in the new testament economy that we can only build up the body of Christ by locality. Watchman Nee saw it and tried to recover this forgotten truth.
January 26th, 2013 at 6:33 pm
Ok. But how are we to respond to others, whether in our group or not, who hold a different view to our doctrine (or even dogma)? Put them out if they’re incompatible? Tolerate them, but not as full members? E.g: “You don’t believe in plenal verbal inerrancy so you can’t be a member of the church”? And if these forms of words are not a sort of religious shibboleth to distinguish who’s in” from “who’s out”, well what are they really for at all?
January 26th, 2013 at 11:26 pm
Hey Pat, good question.
I have dealt with something like that before in a post on doctrinal issues in organic/house churches. Let me know what you think. Thanks, bro.
January 27th, 2013 at 5:31 am
Hi David. I enjoyed your article on the Trinity and handling related differences. Your advice to focus on how to relate to Jesus is very helpful, as are considerations of how hard another’s view is being “pushed”. I think where I’m coming from is a view that maybe it’s wiser not to have too lengthy or detailed a creed that just presents obstacles for people — barriers to belonging. You hear of communities (I’ve never been) where belonging precedes believing or behaving and it sounds very constructive. I think many churches eventually tend towards a kind of exclusiveness based on doctrine and not wishing to associate with others who may be “wrong” on some points.
For reasons too complex to get into, I’m presently leaning towards Quakerism where creed never enters into discussion at all and everyone is accepted. But I’m open at present.
January 27th, 2013 at 12:16 pm
I agree with the heart of what you’re thinking… too “lengthy” a creed presents obstacles. I’m also concerned about that sort of thing.
I quickly move off church websites when I see that they believe in a “rapture” pre-millenial/pre-trib theology. That’s of course because I so strongly disagree with it, and often don’t see why it needs to be stated. Let’s just agree Christ is returning. If there were a statement included that allowed for differing views on the matter… that would be different.
However, I must say that I don’t see anything wrong with a church saying, “Here’s where we are as a local fellowship.” I would rather they be upfront about it, because it’s there whether visible in a creed or not. This is good and can please the Lord. I think it’s beneficial for visiting Christians to know where a church is in its journey. A doctrinal statement can reveal that to a certain extent.
In reality I think it’s unhealthy not to at least hold some distinctives as a local church seeking to express the Christ they know. I believe it’s possible to plant your church’s creed/mission/vision in certain doctrinal ideas while at the same time welcoming everyone who agrees upon the foundation, Christ.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to enter into any fellowship where creed isn’t apart of the church’s life together. So, I would say folks will (and should) find union with saints based on their basic confession of something like the Apostles Creed. But I also believe it’s healthy (even necessary) for a church to be upfront and clear about their doctrinal positions, holding them in love, grace, and humility.
I think it can be done, even if it’s not seen very often.
January 27th, 2013 at 3:34 pm
Thanks for taking the time over this David. I guess you’re right that it’s there whether stated or not, and it’s better to be upfront. Maybe I just don’t like being told by someone else what I believe 🙂
January 27th, 2013 at 4:20 pm
I understand. That’s why I think it’s good for a church to express that the creed or the doctrine of that local church doesn’t necessarily represent where everyone is at on the issues, but it does describe the overall character of the fellowship. I think this can be good thing when folks are truly extending grace to others in community. Blessings, bro!
January 27th, 2013 at 6:36 am
Excited for your vision and praying for your church-plant.
January 27th, 2013 at 12:03 pm
February 4th, 2013 at 1:15 pm
Hi David, I have been thinking about our discussion and where it went. I just have a few questions for you. How much of the Bible do you take literally, if any? How do you decide what to take literally and what not to take literally? For instance, the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Sea and the Jordan, the walls of Jericho falling down by Israel walking around it, Joshua’s long day, Balaam’s talking donkey, Jonah in the big fish. Is it only Genesis that you find laughable? Do you believe that Jesus healed the sick, fed thousands with 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread, cast out demons, died on the cross, was buried and rose to life on the 3rd day, or do you believe that to be figurative and poetic as well?
I would imagine that most of the scientists who theorize and attempt to prove that Earth is millions/billions of years old(since they can’t agree on millions or billions) find not only Genesis to be laughable, but the account of Jesus dying on the cross and raising to life on the 3rd day laughable as well.
It seems to me that when it comes to the Bible, it is pretty much all or nothing. If you can only believe part of it, how can you believe any of it. Or if you believe only some of it is translated correctly, how do you know any of it is translated correctly?
Again, Jesus affirmed the Genesis creation when He said in Mark 10:6 But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ Rather than, “10 billion years after the big bang, male and female evolved from slime, but of course there are no missing links so you’ll just have to take my word on that.” 🙂 hehe
February 4th, 2013 at 1:40 pm
Stephen, let’s make a clear distinction between the Scripture itself and our interpretations of it. I never said that I thought any part of Scripture was laughable. I said that certain views and interpretations were laughable, i.e. dinosaurs being on the ark. Not only is the idea ridiculous, the Scripture says nothing about the dinosaurs which have been found in the dirt.
So, I’m in no way whatsoever taking a jab at Scripture, I’m being critical of the way it has been read and then making our science fit our literal readings.
How do we decide what is literal or not? Much in the same way you do everyday when you hear the way people use language. The context and ancient literary genres set the parameters of human expression. Is the writing form being used myth, historical narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, etc??? It matters for interpretation.
For example, I have argued that Gen 1-11 is rooted in truth (theological to be sure), but takes the liberty of telling the primordial story within the form of ancient myth. It was simply the way they communicated ancient truths. It’s not more spiritual to interpret things literally that were not intended to be read that way. Genesis 1-11 are events that happened before the recording of history. And Gen 1-2 is a prescientific account of creation. That much is clear. We can compare Genesis to other ancient cosmologies and see that other folks were doing the same thing with the written word.
The same applies to metaphors and hyperbolic language that Jesus used, which we still use in our way today. Do you really think people should gouge out their eyes or cut off limbs if they keep sinning with them? Can “hell” really be fire, darkness, and worms? These things don’t make sense taken literally. Same applies for the genre of apocalyptic literature used by John in Revelation. Should we really expect a seven-headed beast to come up out of the sea? It’s absurd to butcher the Scripture in that way. When we do that… we’ve missed the point, and we’ve removed the beauty of it.
Stephen, we may not agree here, but I want us to be clear that this isn’t a matter of the trustworthiness or reliability of the Scripture. We’re not throwing out all the rules or imagining the Scripture to say whatever we like. This comes down to how we’re reading the ancient text. We should strive to read it the way in which it was read and heard in the time it was written.
August 23rd, 2014 at 11:14 am
We return to the ancient creeds and studies, because the authorship of the only begotten Word of God hasn’t changed, so there isn’t much ground for us to change. And speaking of change, we humans still want to lapse and worship God however we want, with our own brazen bulls. We’re still the superstitious, legalistic, or morally relative sinners of 1000, 2000, and 4000 years ago. Culture does not progress or mature, like some gestalt collective, with body and soul. Individuals do, and more important than being culturally relevant is dying to that old self and identity with the culture, being made alive in Christian and his Word. The only world to which a creed must be relevant is the one to come.