What About “Correct Doctrine”?

A problem I had to wrestle with when I began associating with a church was disagreement on doctrinal matters. I grew up believing that unity meant agreement in most such matters: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought,” Paul wrote. (1 Cor 1:10) Yet I found it common for persons claiming to be Christians to disagree on interpretations or even on which doctrines are important. Coming from my background, I also found it a bit distressing that there did not appear to be any “standard” for interpreting the Bible. I was used to having an authoritative governing body which acted as the source of and protector of the body of Bible interpretations and practices unique to my denomination. Although I had decided that the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses was not speaking for God, I still felt that there ought to be more agreement among true Christians about the meaning of Scripture passages.

Once again, I discovered that my expectations were not based on the actual situation among early Christians. Their main source of unity was their common acceptance of Jesus as Messiah and their determination to follow him by obedience to his commands. Christians were in complete agreement in their understanding of the Hebrew prophecies which identified Jesus as their Messiah. Why? Because Jesus himself explained them. Shortly after he was resurrected, Jesus met two confused disciples on the road to Emmaus. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27) Here, then, was the “official” Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. There was little need for clarification or interpretation of these matters. The apostles and other disciples passed on what they had learned from Jesus completely and correctly. First-century congregations formed and flourished without ongoing centralized direction by a group of humans, even the apostles.

When Paul and Barnabas were commissioned to begin their missionary work by the believers in their local congregation in Antioch (under divine direction), no other congregation, including the one at Jerusalem, was involved or even informed (Acts 13:2, 3). As discussed above, the letters which are now part of the Greek Scriptures were sent to individual congregations or believers in a particular region. They were not widely distributed until later. But there was another reason why early Christians did not insist on uniformity in unimportant matters.

Early Christians tended to allow a fairly wide latitude in regard to differences of opinion when it came to most theological matters. Of course, some Jews were dogmatic (the Pharisees and Sadducees views on the resurrection come to mind). But the desire to formulate “accurate” or “approved” interpretations, and use them as a basis for deciding who were and were not true disciples was not typical of early Christians.

The disposition to focus on righteous behavior and avoid being dogmatic about matters of theological speculation is still evident in the writings of Gentile Christians of the second and third centuries. But dogmatism in these matters eventually made its way into the thinking and writings of Christians. The tendency toward formulating and using “approved” opinions as the basis for deciding who was and who wasn’t a Christian increased greatly in the fourth century, especially after membership in the Christian church became more closely connected with Roman citizenship. “Heretics” were viewed as enemies of the state and forced compliance with dogma became much more common among persons claiming to be Christians. Over the centuries, the church drifted farther and farther away from the simple theology of the apostles and their focus on holy living resulting from union with Christ.

Centuries later, the Reformers made the Bible much more accessible to many believers. But they were at times even more dogmatic than Roman Catholics. Rather than a return to simple apostolic Christianity, their solution to theological disagreement resulted in separation from the main (though corrupt) body of Christians and forming entirely new denominations. Since then Christians have split again and again, forming many thousands of denominations. Theological dogmatism has divided rather than unified believers, for the sword of dogmatism cuts both ways: it can make those who hold “approved” opinions exclude those who do not, and it can prevent those who reject “approved” opinions from associating with those who accept them.

Recently, I became aware that there is quite a large body of information available about what early Christians believed and how they lived. Since it sometimes conflicts with the beliefs and practices of popular denominations, it has not attained wide distribution, and relatively few are even aware of it. Fewer still try to live by it. But it is an excellent source of guidance as to the doctrines and practices of the first-century apostolic congregation, making it easier to see those which are original, and those that were added later.

If you attend most any church, most members will likely accept some doctrines or practices adopted or defined long after apostolic times. Moreover, those who hold to those theological opinions are often not disposed to give them up easily. But that does not mean that you cannot find fellowship among those people, or that they are not Christians.

In the apostles’ day, Pharisees who became believers still called themselves Pharisees, in spite of Jesus’ well-known condemnations of some of them. It also appears that they retained at least some of their approach to things. (Acts 15:5) So we have apostolic precedence to allow individuals with different views to decide about nonessential matters of interpretation for themselves (Titus 3:9). Perhaps in time they will change, perhaps not. But it is good not to judge others too harshly, since you, too, may now reject teachings you once sincerely believed.

Many theological views are based on opinions about metaphysical matters not clearly revealed in Scripture. Others largely hinge on the meaning of certain words. Rather than waste time on theological wrangling or trying to win arguments, we do well to follow the example of the apostles and keep our focus on living as God would have us live, obeying Christ’s commands that express themselves as the fruits of God’s Spirit, in godliness and unselfish service to others.

Few if any doctrines that are widely accepted and taught in Christian churches contradict the two great commandments to love God and neighbor. In fact, if any passage of Scripture is interpreted and taught in a way that its implications in practical living contradict God’s expressed will in regard to our conduct, it is wrong, no matter how compelling the logic that appears to support it.

The simple fact is that most theological issues are largely irrelevant to the daily lives of Christians. If you are determined to obey Jesus’ commandments about attending to the needs of others and living an upright moral life, it is likely that you will find that your life is full and satisfying, and you will have no need to spend time either trying to resolve the correctness or incorrectness of theological convictions held by others, or converting them to your personal point of view.

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Thomas W. Cabeen - Excerpt from the article Where is the Body do Christ?