Hello Again. :-)
Thank you again for all the kind wishes when I disappeared. They really were touchstones for me.
Those of you who are my friends know where I've been, so I'll not belabor it. Things are probably 10-20% better than they were, and for the first time in a long time I'm not stealing time from anyone if I blog a little. I doubt that I will be coming back 100% for a long time, but I've got things to talk about, so maybe I'll be able to get something out here a time or two a week.
So, with no further ado, I'd like to say something about doctrinal unity. Weekend Fisher has already put a strong piece out there, so everything I say will more or less assume her points. The question is, "What are the essentials of doctrine?"
I met Salguod in person the other day, (it was a great lunch :-) and he told a story about a church that had created a statement of unity. It was a list of doctrines that mattered, the essentials. He said about that document, "They called it a statement of unity, but really it was a statement of division. It was the list of things over which they would divide." That was such a great insight.
That's why I would like to declare the question a false dichotomy. The question really asks which doctrines we can devalue for the sake of unity, when our unity was never, ever found in doctrine. As Weekend Fisher said so well, our only unity is in Christ. At the same time, though, I would like to argue that there is no doctrine we can afford to devalue.
I would like to start by quoting 3 verses, all by Paul, all from the book of Galatians, and all feeding the fire over circumcision that was burning in 50 AD.
2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.
(Before I go on, I just have to quote them again from The New Testament in Scots :-)
Hairken me, Paul, as I tell ye this: Gin ye hae yoursels circumcised, ye s' get nea guid o Christ. Aince mair I warnish ilkane at hes himsel circumcised at he s bund tae keep the haill o the Law. Ye ar twined frae Christ, ye at wad be juistified bi the Law; ye ar forfautit an deprived o grace.
For whan a man is in Christ Jesus, it maksna an he be circumcised or no: the ae thing at maitters is faith wurkin warks o luve.
For naither is circumcision ocht, nor oncircumcision: ar ye new creatit, or no, is the ae thing at maitters.
Paul writes a long letter against circumcision, and the people who promote it, then ends it by telling everyone it doesn't matter.
So, is Christ's salvation stymied by a knife to the foreskin or not?
That's a pretty important doctrine to fight over, and Paul comes down publicly on both sides of it. If I'm a nervous gentile in 50 AD, do I take as gospel the 95% of the book that tells me to put that knife away? Or do I cling to the 5% where he says I can do as I please?
But that's not the hard thing about this doctrinal question. The hard thing is how the 1 question becomes 4 options so quickly. You may not have noticed, but there are 4 positions to take on any single doctrine, because half the people will say the argument doesn't matter. The argument about whether circumcision matters will grow much larger than the one over whether circumcision is wrong. On the one side, the soft-hearted crowd (who will be made up of those with and without foreskins) will want to make sure everyone feels comfortable with their choice, and the hard-headed crowd (again, with and without) will remind everyone again and again that doctrine shapes faith, and therefore makes all the difference in the world.
You can bet at some point you'll find two circumcised people digging at each other over whether they should fight over circumcision.
And you thought calculus was confusing.
At least in calculus there was SOMETHING that wasn't changing every time you calculated the equation again.
With doctrine, you can't even pin the question down. You stick a thumbtack in the idea of circumcision, and tell everyone to debate it. In seconds they're debating whether debate is scriptural, deciding it's not, patting themselves on the back, and finally able to agree on something - that you are not very spiritual if you want to debate circumcision. About twenty minutes after you get your head unspun again, it occurs to you that your calling may be "helps," and you leave all doctrine behind.
And there's one more dimension that doubles the number of positions on circumcision from 4 to 8. Yes, there are 8 possible positions on any single doctrine. The third dimension of doctrine is that of teacher or learner. You might be teaching that circumcision is bad but that we should not fight over it, or you might be a student of that belief. How you see yourself makes a huge difference in how you present a doctrine.
This doctrinal unity thing gets scary quick. 1 doctrine = 8 positions, and that's before we start talking about the people with truly bizarre ideas. If it were just 8 positions, life would be pretty manageable, but the outliers keep everyone guessing. Have you never heard anyone say anything like, "Circumcision is prohibited physically, but it's absolutely necessary spiritually. Being spiritually circumcised means that you have put off all the behaviors of the old man - all of them!" And I guarantee you, that brother has a bushel-full of verses to back his invention up.
So, we have 8 positions plus untold outliers, and we haven't even mentioned the unsaved yet, much less the unsaved who think they are saved but are deceived. Without the indwelling guidance of the Holy Spirit, the oddest things of all make their appearance. "The most spiritual people on earth are the Buddhists, and they don't circumcise, so we shouldn't either. What's that you say? Yes, of course I'm a Christian. Why do you ask?"
And all this after Paul lays out the answer on circumcision so clearly. Imagine if it's a doctrine that's not so clearly spelled out. Try this. Replace the word "circumcision" with the word "baptism" back in all those verses up there and see if we don't find ourselves in the midst of a 20-position doctrinal debate post-haste.
The question was, "Which doctrines are essential?"
Unoriginal though it may be, I have to answer none of them and all of them.
We cannot separate over doctrine
Paul paints it clearly. The only thing that matters is the new creation in Christ. When you were dead without Him, quoting every doctrine exactly as Christ meant it could not save you. Even the devils believe and perish. You might have had all knowledge, and spoken with the tongues of angels, but you could not see His kingdom; you could not love Him. Christ remained of no effect to you.
And now that you are alive to Him, everything else is secondary. Though you speak with the tongue of a baboon, have faith such that a mustard seed could bowl you over, and muddle the clearest doctrines into mysteries, you have looked to Him and are saved. You see His Face, and you've entered His kingdom. You are a new creature in Him, and He is become your salvation. None of the doctrines matters.
But that only works in a perfect world, one in which no one is deceived into thinking they know Christ when they don't.
In the world in which I live, people claim the Name of Christ, do wonderful works of love, and never know Him. People say things like, "It doesn't really matter what you believe, as long as you believe something," and never seek Him. People in this world assume that everything spiritual is divine, when that is horrifically false. Lying spirits prophecy. Lying men steal from honest children of God. It's like taking candy from a baby, except that it's devastating.
Every doctrine is important
I stand here and tell you that circumcision is wrong, and that it's important to say so in certain terms.
When a man teaches circumcision, he is teaching God's children to fear their Father and trust him instead. Circumcision is the teaching that a man remains spiritually unclean before God, and that he must do something physically to be clean before his Father. And the man doing the teaching implies that only he has the magical formula that will clean his audience. Christ becomes of no effect to those children of God, because they start looking to the guy with the knife and the magic for their salvation.
Our hearts deceive us. Over and over we believe we have the mind of God, when all we have is a good vibe and a scripture that feels right. Whether we are teachers or learners, whether we believe in debating or pacifying, whether we believe this doctrine or that, our flesh wars against our spirit in the battlefields of our lives. We are tempted when our lusts draw us aside to sin. And we are weaker against all our enemies when we believe false doctrines about how our lives with God work.
So we need doctrine. The Spirit distinguishes soul from spirit for us through the blade of scripture.
We stand forewarned that not every man who fills a pulpit and proclaims the Name of Christ knows Him. Not every church that calls itself Christian has a lampstand. These things don't just matter, they protect us. We each need doctrine, right doctrine, and as much of it as we can get. When the world, our own flesh, and the devil all want to deceive us, only the milk and meat of the word can deliver us.
So, what is essential for unity?
There is only one essential, Christ; and one command, Love.
What is essential for Life?
Every doctrine is essential, and there is a right answer to every question. How does God predestine? What does baptism do for us? Are the gifts for today? Is contemplative prayer profitable? Should women lead? There is only one right answer to each of these questions, and we need to get as close to it as we can.
And sometimes we need to separate
I played classical guitar for a few years. I loved it, but the diesel mechanic-ing destroyed my precision fingernails too often. While I was learning that art, I read one master say (paraphrased), "No guitar lesson should ever be given to a person who doesn't know how to play already. If you want to play guitar, and you cannot make the instrument sing by ear, teaching you to pretend like you can play is a disservice to the world. First prove to me that you have the guitar music in you, then I will teach you everything I know."
Even so, If you run into a teacher peddling error, don't hope that he'll "get better". Run. Don't try to teach him when the music is not in him. Flee. You'll save yourself years of waste.
Paul had a chance to divide from those Galatians, and he did not. He had a chance to divide from Peter over his error, and he did not. He had a chance to tell them to divide from anyone who would divide from his foreskin, and he did not. His last word was that it was the new creation that mattered, and he meant it.
But he didn't water down doctrine one little bit. He laid it all on the line, telling them that they were in danger of being divided from Christ over this little issue.
Both of those things require courage. To not separate in heart or deed from those who disagree with you, and to draw a line in the sand where the Truth lies are both frightening things. The church has been too long with only one of those courages. We need both, and we need them badly. I know it's "impossible", but Paul did it, and so did Timothy, Titus, Aristarchus, Gaius, Sopater, Tychicus and Trophimus, and Epaphroditus after him. I may give up on seeing both courages in the church some day, but I'll never quit trying.
Lord, grant us courage.