Saturday, July 11, 2009

Christian sects: Our most distinctive doctrines

I have spent some time pondering the different Christian groups, our similarities and our differences. We have a large common ground, and then we have our distinctive doctrines. These are often doctrines about which our group has thought long and hard, areas in which we take a unique pride as our special identifying mark.

I have noticed that each group's most distinctive doctrine -- the one which they hold but almost nobody else does -- is very likely to be a matter of pride with them. It is their marker, like a mockingbird's white stripe, a quick way in which each group can recognize its own as quick as a flash. Most groups are both vocal and defensive about their markers. Most groups have devoted a large portion of their theological thought to the area in which their own group is unique, to establishing and defending their claim to correctness. Each group typically considers that marker to be the sign of the most true, most devoted, most pure religion.

I have also noticed that, for most groups, it also happens to be the area where they are most likely to be mistaken, most likely to be mistaken badly, and least likely to be receptive to the thought that it is their weakest and most mistaken point, not their best and most valuable contribution.

I'm not going to pick on anyone else's group, tempting though it may be. I'll mention my own. In our particular group, there is a lot of emphasis on the doctrine of "fellowship". And of course all Christians have some basic familiarity with fellowship: it is the family-like bonding and common purpose which unites all Christians to each other through Christ. It is grounded in the shared hope given us by his resurrection, and by the promise that he will return. It is distinguished by brotherly love, by gentleness and respect. But our group, having made "fellowship" a distinctive marker, discuss it almost exclusively in terms of exclusion and excommunication. As we focus so much on "fellowship", we do not discuss how to build the brotherly love or encourage each other; we focus on how to make sure we don't have fellowship with anyone we shouldn't. And so our most distinctive doctrine, the area in which we pride ourselves, the area where our resources focus, has become the area in which we are most likely to forget the most important things that God wants us to learn about that very topic.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

This is a good analysis of the situation. I've thought about this issue too, but not with the clarity you bring to it. Sometimes "my" group talks about the doctrinal/theological area we bring to the Christian table. That's putting a positive slant on things, and that's OK. But it is NOT ok when we "dis" what someone else brings to the table without really looking at it.

I've thought of "God" as a mountain. I never saw a mountain until I was 27, on a trip, where I saw a number of mountains. Many images have stayed with me, but most importantly, I came to realize that travelers might all see the same mountain, but from different sides, different distances, with different foothills and trees and clouds blocking part of the view. We all see the SAME mountain, but we would all describe it differently. And any of these descriptions would be incomplete.

This is how I've come to view doctrine and theology.

Weekend Fisher said...

And all the people are just convinced that if you don't see the same scenery on the way up, you must be at the wrong mountain ...

Sometimes I think "focus" is just another word for "tunnel-vision" ... it carries the risk of it, anyway.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Diabolical Genius said...

Nice perspective on this phenomenon. Not too many people can step outside their own world to give a fair critical analysis like this.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

The Lutheran church I attend seems to attract people from a number of different church backgrounds. For example, a retired Presbyterian pastor, former Episcopalians, former Catholics, former Methodists, former not-as-well-known protestant groups. Also 5 retired Lutheran pastors. Many of these people become members. I think that a person's previous denominational outlook never leaves them, giving our discussions a richness that is often lacking in pure-denominational groups/studies/classes.

I've had friends who have moved several times because of jobs, each time finding a church but not based on brand-loyalty. These people tend to identify as "Christian" rather than by denomination. One of these people refused to join our church after he looked at the constitution. I think that decision was based on those Lutheran things about Augsburg Confession, etc. that are extra-Biblical. But how many people actually look beneath the surface before they join a church group?

At one time I had a blog discussion with a Lutheran-pastor-in-training who was astounded and appalled that a Lutheran church could have a Bible class without the pastor doing the "teaching." Actually, I pity people who have to attend classes where they are told what they believe.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Sorry about the double commenting. Blogger said I wasn't signed in, but it apparently accepted my comment anyway.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

I'm not sure what to make of your comment. (Tongue-in-cheek) Don't churches exist exactly so they can tell you what to believe?

(Not so tongue-in-cheek) I think a main point of our mission is to proclaim the message of Christ, & that comes down to at least some measure of telling people what we know and how we know it, & if they join us it's because they believe the same.

I wonder if you object to a doctrinal checklist? I wonder, myself, where the line should be. In some perspectives, I'd go lower than the Nicene Creed and go for the Angel's Creed: He is risen!

But I don't grudge churches at all for going beyond that; in some perspectives I'd go beyond it myself. I know it's hard for me to see myself in agreement with people who teach (say) that God doesn't want all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, or that Christ wasn't actually raised from the dead, or Jesus is an angel half-brother of Lucifer.

Still, when it gets to the badge-of-pride part, the "Christianity Plus" part, that's where I get off the train.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

The way I put it is that some churches have more hoops to jump through then there are to get into heaven.

The "church down the street" has many very active people (some defacto leaders in that church) attending who "can't join" by their own conscience because they have already been baptized (ie before the age of 12) and therefore don't have believers' baptism. A number of these people are x-members of my church.

Churches have their rules for their own reasons. I've wondered, in my cynical moments, whether there is someone in that particular church who tells new people: "He was baptized as an infant. He isn't allowed to teach here." "She may seem like she belongs and is a (women's) leader, but she is NOT a member."

Ok, I'm on a bad role now. What about those churches with "closed" or "close" communion. When there is a new pastor, does somebody clue "him" in on who to deny communion to?

My pastor says that the Lord is our host. The pastor shouldn't deny someone who is invited by the Lord. So it is a good question as to how we apply this to membership. New confirmands are theoretically full members, but because students are confirmed at a fairly young age, we know that they aren't "mature" in their faith, yet we admit them.

I guess this is getting off of your original topic.