“Doctrinaire”

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In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

No one likes to be called, “doctrinaire.”

Doctrinaire people seem rigid. They think that there is only one truth, and they know what that truth is, and they will cling to their truth, whatever the consequences. As one dictionary defines the term: those who are doctrinaire “seek to impose a doctrine in all circumstances without regard to practical considerations.”

A doctrinaire libertarian, for example, doesn’t like restrictions on his personal liberties—even if he recognized that more people would be hurt by allowing a given freedom. He might be against some traffic laws like those requiring seat belts even though he knew that such regulations save lives.

A doctrinaire supporter of unions always takes the labor side in a dispute—even if the union position would cripple the corporation and ultimately hurt the workers.

A third example might be members of the United States government who recently refused to compromise on raising the national debt, even though they were risking fiscal damage to the country.

Here, the issue isn’t a matter of being liberal or conservative – radical or traditionalist. The problem is being practical. The doctrinaire person’s beliefs clash with reality. They won’t work—and yet the person keeps holding onto the beliefs anyway.

Now we Christians are often accused of being doctrinaire. We seem to cling to out-of-date ideas that society will never be likely to accept.

In a recent interview, Pope Francis complained that journalists expect him only to speak of certain issues like abortion and homosexuality. He didn’t deny that the Catholic Church has a counter-cultural attitude regarding these matters. But he felt that media obsession with them made the church appear as though these questions were the only things that could possibly be on the Pope’s mind.

Still, we Christians can’t avoid doctrines. After all, we have to say something definite about what we believe. That’s why theologians propose what they call, “sound doctrine.”

And while we don’t want to appear dogmatic, we need good principles. The Epistle lesson for today notes what happens when people decide to follow ideas that aren’t well-thought-out.

The text warns that “the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

Even though the church was only a few decades old when this passage was written, some of its members were already deciding that they could find better interpretations of the Gospel than the one that had been given to them. For instance, some worshippers drank as much of the communion wine as they could–thinking that more wine would give them extra spiritual power!

Other Christians adopted the lax moral standards of the Roman empire. They thought that it was all right to be cruel to their slaves or servants. A few members of the early church apparently thought that they could get away with incest!

As the lesson indicates, if people don’t have sensible doctrines, they are likely to come up with dubious beliefs. People need to have faith in something. So those of us who are religious have to have some ideas that distinguish us from non-believers.

The key is, as the Epistle says, to embrace sound doctrines—not just doctrines that please us. Yet the negative image of the “doctrinaire” label also teaches us something important about religious truth.

According to the dictionary definition, a doctrinaire person is committed to an idea that is “impractical.” As Pope Francis suggested, a faith that only addressed a few issues wouldn’t be satisfactory because it would ignore most of the spiritual problems that bother people—like the meaning of life or pain and suffering , or loneliness.

Sound doctrines will recognize these complications of human life. A sound faith will account for the whole of human existence. Anything less will be impractical.

So those of us who consider ourselves moderate or liberal Christians shouldn’t shy away from doctrine. Instead, we should try to reclaim the word. Our goal should be a set of beliefs that embodies reasonable and coherent thought without being doctrinaire.

Take, for example, belief in God. While we hold to the basic truth that God exists, we recognize that Christians have had, over the centuries, many different ideas of the divine. While some of these ideas are certainly true, such as the belief that God is love, others may be questioned.

And it is a value of the liberal perspective that we are open to change. We are always being led by the Spirit, and the Spirit can therefore push us into new places. Because of God’s ongoing presence in the church, we expect our concepts of God to grow.

For example, many of us have been impressed by how the theories of modern physics seem to give a picture of the infinity of God—while, at the same time, these theories imply that the universe is so inventive and complex that it couldn’t have come into being on its own. Our God is the same Lord of Heaven and Earth whom our grandparents worshipped, but our grandparents’ doctrines are outdated.

We would also reject a God who could be manipulated by magic formulas. Nor do we believe in a vindictive God who is looking to punish us for everything that we do wrong.

Here’s one final example of how we can have a doctrinal faith without being doctrinaire. The Anglican understanding of Christianity has sometimes been described as solid in the center and fuzzy around the edges.

I like this image. It affirms the need for creeds and ethical standards. It is the foundation for action on behalf of freedom and justice. At the same time, it makes room for dissenters of various kinds.

We can still reject bad teaching and, as we Anglicans know all too well, doctrinal debates can be messy.

But solid at the center and fuzzy around the edges is the best way to allow for creative thinking and it is the best way for us to arrive at a new understanding of how God is at work in the world he has made for us.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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