“It doesn’t matter what you believe, just as long as you believe something.”
That’s the sentiment once expressed by President Dwight Eisenhower. America would be strong if its citizens maintained a “deeply held faith in God—and I don’t care what it is.”
Seventy years later, that’s the mainstream view of religion in our society. Faith is a personal and private thing that helps you be a good and moral person.
Even among Christians, this view often holds sway. We don’t really believe our neighbors who sincerely hold to other faiths are in spiritual danger. Or at least we don’t act as if we do. And when it comes to doctrinal differences between believers in the church, we’ve seen theological debate become a mask for lovelessness. Some are quick to anathematize believers on secondary points of doctrine, or for different judgments in how best to live faithfully in the public square.
Doesn’t doctrine divide? Why should we be concerned about theological details? Why not just focus on Jesus and his love?
These questions make sense, but only if Christianity is only about what happens in your heart. They don’t make sense if we’re talking about a real God who took on real flesh, who died for real sins and rose again to remake and renew the real world. If we’re talking about something real, something not just true for me or true for you but True with a capital T, then what we believe matters.
But, some say, doctrine divides! Yes, but doctrine also unites. And it’s because of doctrine—the central affirmations of Christianity expressed in the church’s ancient creeds—that we can unite with people all over the world and through thousands of years of history to say, “Yes, we believe together. This is the Jesus whose name we bear.”
Consider the substantial agreement of Christians on the Trinitarian core of orthodoxy. This stunning consensus has endured through multiple cultures and languages and eras. It’s the “mere Christianity” that C.S. Lewis wrote about, or the “classic” or “consensual” Christianity that theologian Thomas Oden expounded. Yes, you can look at all the denominations and divisions in the church and think, Look how doctrine divides! Or you can change the frame: in spite of all those divisions all Christians everywhere affirm these central truths. In the end, it’s the agreement that stands out, not the division.
But surely we should just focus on Jesus and his love, some say. All good, but the question remains—what Jesus himself asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Christian theology is a response to that question. To think we can focus on Jesus by doing away with doctrine is like a man saying he loves his wife without ever caring to learn anything about her.
What’s more, to leave a word like “love” undefined opens the door for sentimental, worldly conceptions of “love” to rush in and fill the void, stealing from us the rich agape love that wills the good of the other, the love that stands at the heart of our faith, the self-giving love that flows from the heart of God.
Theology is inescapable.
You can’t “be Jesus” for the world unless you know who Jesus is, and what aspects of his life and ministry you are called to represent, and which actions he did that are unrepeatable. You can’t “love Jesus” without giving attention to what Jesus actually said and did. And nowhere in Jesus’ teaching do you get the sense that doctrines don’t matter, that sincerity is what saves, or that religion is just about being nice to one another. Jesus issued warnings against temptation, and sin, and the reality of eternal judgment. He called out religious hypocrisy while pointing us to a new way of life.
How can we as pastors awaken in the hearts of our people a love for truth in a time of fads and fashions? How can we help them see the enduring relevance of orthodoxy?
First, by making sure our teaching has an edge. It’s not enough to simply expound what the Bible is teaching. We should also include the sharp edge of contrast: this is what makes the Bible so interesting. You have heard it said in the world… but the Bible says… This approach heighten the difference between the worldview of the Scriptures and the various beliefs on display in our world. We are to show how the Bible counters untruth but also fulfills the deeper longings that lead people to fall for falsehood in the first place.
Secondly, give your congregation a sense of rootedness that goes beyond the present moment. When you quote the church’s great teachers from centuries past—the Reformers, the church fathers, our missionary mothers—you remind believers that we are not the first generations to encounter the Scriptures. We are standing on the shoulders of giants. The cultural winds may blow, but our roots go deep, through the ages of the Christian church and back into the pages of God’s inspired Word.
Third, put on display your cheerful confidence that orthodoxy will endure. It shouldn’t surprise us when people in our congregations wrestle with certain doctrines and teachings that offend our sensibilities. If Christianity is really true, then we should expect it to challenge every culture at some point or other. Anticipating and answering the pressure points where your congregation is most likely to experience “unsettledness” is good pastoral leadership.
Just remember: we don’t want to leave people feeling perpetually unsettled by Christian teaching. A believer who is deeply unsettled about the goodness of the faith is unlikely to persuade others: “Come and join me, where you can be as unsettled about my faith as I am!” In the end, we want to regain and renew our confidence in the goodness and beauty of Christian truth.
The key to renewal is to return to the only truth that is reliable and sturdy when so much in the world seems fleeting and faddish: the gospel of God delivered once for all to the saints. Ancient truth, ever new. The way forward is to reach back. To find renewal in something old—foundational truths tested by time, a fount of goodness that refreshes and satisfies, long-forgotten beauty from the past that lifts our eyes above the suffering and sorrow of the present.
Trevin Wax (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is vice president of research and resource development at the North American Mission Board and a visiting professor of theology at Cedarville University. A former missionary to Romania, Trevin is a regular columnist at The Gospel Coalition and has contributed to The Washington Post, Religion News Service, World, and Christianity Today.
He has served as general editor for The Gospel Project and has taught courses on mission and ministry at Wheaton College. He is the author of several books, including The Multi-Directional Leader, Rethink Your Self, This Is Our Time, Eschatological Discipleship, and Gospel Centered Teaching. His latest book is entitled The Thrill of Orthodoxy. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevinWax
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