I didn’t know that Christians fought about beliefs until I was a freshman at Bible college.
We were required to take two semesters of Acts of the Apostles. It met early on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. (Incidentally, this is when I formed my coffee addiction. But, that’s another story.) My professor was a soft-spoken, deeply passionate man in his late 60s who had been a preacher and professor for over 40 years. He had also been an amateur boxer in his youth. He had huge fists and he made a habit of pounding them on his podium whenever he wanted to drive home a point. It worked!
A few students took exception to what he taught and used every opportunity to give full expression to their perspectives. What I discovered was that, doctrinally speaking, my professor was deeply “conservative.” So, whenever these “liberal” students would move to the left he would react by moving further to the right. Both the professor and students talked with equal conviction but they couldn’t have disagreed more. Arguments were typically resolved with the thud of the professor’s fist on the podium and a few final remarks.
Because Satan is dark and twisted, he has discovered that he can divide Christians based on how we interpret God’s Word. And, he can even cause us to worship the counterfeit god of doctrinal accuracy.
The Dangers of Doctrinal Accuracy
When Christians worship at this altar, they make two critical errors.
First, they think more highly of themselves than they ought. Most of the arguments between my professor and his students were because both sides were long on pride and short on humility. This is dangerous because, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1, NIV). A few chapters later, the Bible says, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2, NIV). Bear in mind, these words were written by the Apostle Paul, the preeminent theologian in the history of the Church. He had earned the right to think highly of himself and to pridefully stare down his nose at the doctrinal weaklings around him. But he didn’t; he allowed God’s Word to make him humbler, more winsome, and more like Christ. And, he used doctrine to build up the Church and to love God’s people.
There’s a second critical error. People who worship doctrinal accuracy separate themselves from brothers and sisters who don’t have the same convictions. Because of their own doctrinal preferences and perspectives, many Christians who cannot agree have found that they must go their separate ways, that they can no longer fellowship together. In confronting Christians divided by doctrinal nuances, Paul bluntly asked, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13, NIV). The answer is a resounding no! I believe it grieves our Savior’s heart when Christian brothers and sisters cannot fellowship with one another because they value their own doctrinal perspectives over love for one another. On the night before he was crucified, Jesus prayed,
I have given [those who will believe in me through the message of the disciples] the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22-23, NIV)
We must not allow Satan to have a foothold, to use doctrine to divide. This takes great humility. And it requires great love.
The Bible is a Mirror
James, the brother of Jesus, wrote,
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25, NIV)
God’s Word is a mirror.
On the one hand, we can gaze into the mirror of God’s Word and become more deeply infatuated with ourselves, our own goodness, our own right interpretations, and our doctrinal purity. This always results in pride and disunity.
Or, on the other hand, we can stare into God’s Word, see ourselves more clearly, obey what it says, and allow the God of the Bible to transform us into the image of Christ through the ministry of the Spirit.
Am I saying doctrine doesn’t matter? Absolutely not! As believers, we must be united on essential doctrines (e.g., the deity of Christ, the resurrection, the inspiration of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith, and etcetera). We must permit freedom on doctrines that are not central to the Christian faith (e.g., certain details about creation or the end times, worship styles and liturgies, which ministry programs churches should use, and etcetera). And, in all things, we should be characterized by love.
The Christian faith isn’t about a set of propositions. It’s about a person, Jesus Christ our Lord. God didn’t give us His Word so we could be right. He gave it so we could be righteous. And, God’s people shouldn’t be defined by the doctrinal nuances that keep us divided. We should be known by the grace and truth that unite us and empower our ministry to the world.