Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why Emphasize Doctrine?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the importance of doctrine:

Q:  Why do many churches emphasize doctrine so much?  As long as a person is sincere, does it really matter what they believe? 

Christian doctrine, that is the content of what a Christian or denomination believes and teaches, has become a difficult subject in recent years.  The large number of Christian denominations today are a result of the fact that over the course of Christian history differing positions developed on certain teachings, with the result that those on opposite sides of the issue formed separate organizations as a result of their differing beliefs. 

In contrast to this, the most recent century of Christian history has been characterized by different church bodies either merging or reinitiating fellowship with one another across denominational lines.  However, as the various churches have come together, it has not been because they resolved their differences, but instead, because they decided to overlook those differences and agree to disagree. 

But many Christians sincerely question whether this approach is acceptable or beneficial to Christianity at large, because although it might be more comfortable to overlook differences rather than resolve them, it merely ignores the problem rather than solving it.  Look, for example, at a marriage.  A couple who overlooks or ignores their differences rather than solving them will not have a healthy marriage, or perhaps a marriage at all, for very long.  And so it goes for churches. 

Doctrinal compromise, rather than resolution, also has other risks.  Some teachings stray so far from the truth that those who believe them cease even to be Christians, because the definitions have changed so much as to result in not just different beliefs, but a different God.  This was the case when the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness religions arose in the mid-19th century.  Because they no longer taught that Jesus was God or that God was a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they became not just another denomination of Christianity, but a completely different religion.

Other teachings do not stray so far as to cause the loss of salvation, but they do differ enough from truth to pose a danger to those who believe them.  For example, I have had friends in the past who believed that it was necessary to contribute some small part, such as responding to an altar call, in order to be saved, rather than God doing 100% of the work of saving.  I witnessed people who responded to as many as a dozen altar calls, because they were uncertain whether they were sincere enough the previous time they went forward.  This seemingly small difference in doctrine became an occasion for the enemy to cause them doubt and attempt to shake their faith.

Ultimately, Christian doctrine could be compared a sweater.  When a snag occurs and a small thread is exposed, the sweater still serves its purpose, but if the thread is pulled, the damage continues to increase until the entire sweater is unraveled. 

We can see this happening in recent church history.  Around 60 years ago, some denominations began to question certain commands in the New Testament regarding church order and morality.  As they began to change their churches’ teachings over the following decades, more and more topics became open to question.  By the time a generation had passed, such foundational teachings came into question that their seminaries began to teach that Jesus did not really rise from the dead and that Mary was did not really conceive Jesus as a virgin.  This trend eventually reached the point that the presiding bishop of a major denomination declared a few years ago, that she believed that there were paths to salvation other than Jesus.

If Christianity were merely a mystical path to enlightenment, individuals could shape and form it to fit their personal preferences, but that is not the type of spirituality the Bible portrays.  Instead, Scripture makes factual claims that can be weighed according to the evidence and proven or disproven, trusted or rejected.  As such, it is not a customizable set of principles, but instead, a united proposition concerning spiritual truth which stands or falls as a whole.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Violent Sports

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Violent Sports:

Q:  Is it a sin when a person injures another person in the course of a sports competition?  Is it acceptable for Christians to enjoy or even to participate in sports which appear violent or have a high risk of injuring one’s opponent, such as Boxing or Mixed Martial Arts?

Participation in sports competitions is one issue which has never become significantly controversial among Christians.  This is probably because there are several occasions where Biblical authors, especially St. Paul, use athletic competition and the physical training athletes undergo as comparisons for the way Christians ought to approach the spiritual struggles they face. 

While there are a very small minority of Christians who have avoided all sports out of an understanding that it is an unfruitful use of their time, Physical training and athletic competition have typically been enjoyed by Christians throughout the ages, and have been a traditional part of the curriculum in Christian educational institutions because of the understanding that our bodies and our minds are connected, and when both are trained and disciplined, a person benefits more than if only one is emphasized.

But with this kind of competition does come the risk of injury to varying degrees.  Certainly some sports have elements which lend them to a higher injury risk, and some sports appear more violent on the surface than others, but appearances can often be deceiving.  Many of us would guess that highly physical sports like Football or Boxing would have the highest injury rates, but I have heard that sports that seem very safe, such as Cheerleading and Basketball actually have higher injury rates.

Sports have rules intended to prevent serious injury, but the risk will always be there, and if a player competes according to the rules and does not act with the intention to injure, he ought not fear that he has sinned if an opponent becomes injured.  On the other hand, if one causes injury intentionally or as a result of going outside the rules of the sport, they may have sinned. 

Mixed Martial Arts is probably the sport that could cause the most concern among Christians as to whether they can participate in good conscience because of the apparent level of violence involved in competing.  The Bible has some very clear commands regarding murder, assault, and other acts intended to harm another person, but there are two significant factors which prevent us from concluding that all highly-physical sports such as MMA or boxing are sins and unfit for Christians to participate in. 

The first is that the intent of these sports in not to injure.  No one can deny that the nature of the sports leaves a competitor open to injury, but the intent of the sport is not to injure.  For example, in MMA, the goal of the competition is to use several disciplines (boxing, wrestling, martial arts) to cause one’s opponent to submit or to win by a judges’ decision at the end of the match.  In fact, there are numerous rules set in place to prevent the competitors from injuring one another in the course of the event.  If the goal were to injure, a sport like this would be unfit for Christians, but that is not the intent of the sport. 

Secondly, no one is assaulting or mugging their opponent.  Instead, both competitors enter the competition with knowledge of the risks and consent to participate according to the rules.  If the intent of the sport were to injure one’s opponent, this factor would not even come into consideration.  For example, dueling with pistols is an unfit sport for Christians, because even though both parties compete with consent and knowledge of the risks, there is no other intent but to injure. 

A Christian might certainly refrain from participating in such sports because of the guiding of his own conscience, and Christians certainly ought to consider the impact of all of their actions on their own reputation and that of their congregation and the Christian faith as a whole. However, for a Christian to impose commands on fellow believers based on their own preferences or weaknesses is inappropriate without a clear universal command from Scripture prohibit the action.