Thursday, May 5, 2011

Doctrinal Diversity

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Doctrinal Diversity:

Q: If all Christians get their teachings from the Bible, why is there so much doctrinal diversity among the various Christian churches? Is Christian doctrine a matter of opinion or fact, and is every individual interpretation of the Bible equally valid?

In today’s churches, there certainly is broad diversity in the doctrines that are taught, even on the most foundational teachings of Christianity. For example, one church might teach that God saves people purely as a gift, while another teaches that God requires that humans port forth a majority of the effort from their own ability in order to earn salvation. One Church might teach that Jesus literally and physically rose from the dead, while another might teach that Jesus’ resurrection is merely a myth meant to inspire us to hopeful living.

The first thing to consider when examining this diversity is whether the question is a doctrinal issue or something called an Adiaphoron (something the Bible has neither commanded nor forbidden).

On the issues of Adiaphora, there may be wise or unwise choices, but there is no Biblical command regarding how they must be handled. This type of issue would include things like church government (whether a congregation’s business affairs are decided by the pastor/priest, a group of elders, or democratically by every member) and the style of music used in the worship service. In this sort of question, there is room for diverse conclusions.

In doctrinal questions, such as whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or whether God actually forbids theft, murder, or sexual immorality, there are definite factual answers, and when disagreement arises, only one position can be correct.

The reasons behind the doctrinal diversity we see today are complex, but I can see three primary factors that account for a majority of the differences:

The first of these is what a church believes about Scripture. Some churches believe that the Bible was given by God to human authors who accurately recorded the message they were given. As a result, they believe that the Bible (in its original languages) is without errors and completely trustworthy. Others believe that the Bible is a recording of human contemplation about God, and as a result, contains both elements of divine truth and elements of myth or opinion. This difference will certainly play a large role in accounting for the differing conclusions reached on important questions.

Secondly, what a church considers valid sources of doctrinal authority will play a role in determining its answers to doctrinal questions. Many churches see the Bible as the only authority for Christian Doctrine while others see the Bible as one authority alongside of others, such as traditions, the past rulings and proclamations of church authorities, or personal revelations claimed by individuals or church leaders through such means as dreams or visions. Again, this question will have a significant impact on conclusions reached regarding other doctrinal questions.

The third of these factors is assumptions that are brought to the table when discerning what the Bible says on a given topic. For example, Americans tend to highly value personal freedom and the value of individual effort, which has the potential to distort our understanding of what the Bible is saying. On other occasions, we may approach the Bible with a conclusion we are seeking for it to affirm rather than a question we desire for it to answer. If we are not careful to clear away these sorts of assumptions while we study the Bible, we may find ourselves making the Bible say what we want to hear rather than listening for what it has to teach.

When Christians arrogantly approach the Bible seeking to affirm their existing opinions or trying to harmonize it with what is taught by the world or human authorities, they will probably come to whatever conclusion they desire, but when Christians humbly approach the Bible, acknowledging its authority, they will certainly be led to a deeper understanding of Him about whom all the Scriptures bear witness—namely Jesus, who is the Truth in human flesh.

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