I’ve been studying the Bible for more than 50 years – you’d think I would have learned something by now. And I have. For one thing, I’ve learned not to be so blasted dogmatic. I’ve learned to tell the difference between what I know and what I believe. Knowing and believing are not the same thing.
I remember an occasion that took place when I was pastoring a pair of churches in Oklahoma (Tulsa and Ponca City). One of our members in Stillwater had died. Before her death she had stipulated that she wanted a WCG minister (me) to give the funeral. Out of respect for her family, she allowed the funeral to take place in their Pentecostal church.
As it turned out, it was a water and oil situation. With zeal, but not according to knowledge, I decided to set the Pentecostal congregation straight on the afterlife. Christians, I asserted, do not go to heaven at death. Furthermore, they do not have immortal souls.
As I waxed elephant, I could feel the eyes of the church choir, and of the pastor, burning holes in my back. I wasn’t making any friends. But I saw myself as a man of God boldly proclaiming The Truth to a “pagan” audience. I was long on zeal, short on wisdom.
One of the great problems in all religion is denominationalism. Many of the wars we see around the world are sectarian in nature. Doctrinal differences can be deadly.
At the same time, do we want to have one universal world religion in which some ecclesiastical tyrant imposes his or her will on everyone? No way! At least denominations prevent any one group from becoming too big for its vestments.
It’s my theory that everyone has a personal theology. We all believe, or disbelieve, certain things about God. Where we got those convictions varies from person to person.
The other day, I heard one TV commentator say that 90% of Catholics practice birth control though the Church teaches against it. If that’s the case, then what difference does it make what the Church teaches? How we live out our Christian faith is what’s important.
It is quite possible to argue theology and doctrine till the cows come home and still not convince anyone that you’re right. I don’t think I’ve ever won a theological argument in my life. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who has. As a friend of mine used to say, “Á man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
Coercion No Measure
A forced conversion is a bogus conversion. Yet, “The [Catholic] Church, throughout much of its history, has demonstrated a disregard for human freedom, dignity, and self-determination, It has attempted to control spirituality, the relation between an individual and God,” The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Elerbe, p.1.
Elerbe’s book is worth reading.
Internalizing Our Faith
The apostle Paul advised Christians to “Test all things, hold fast to that which is good,” (I Thessalonians 5:21). Our skills for putting ideas, doctrines and dogmas to the test varies from person to person, but we have to go with what we’ve got.
We can’t all be exegetical giants. In fact some exegetical giants disagree with each other. Perhaps we would be best off internalizing our personal theologies and not trying to impose them on others. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves,” (Romans 14:22).
People who come into Christian congregations arrive with varying degree of understanding and perhaps gifting. The contribution of some can be chaotic. Paul wrote: “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each one of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification,” (I Cor. 14:26).
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating anarchy in the Church. There is such a thing as sound doctrine (II Timothy 1:10). There is also false, or unsound, doctrine. (Doctrine merely means “teaching.”) We need to be thoroughly grounded in the teaching of the original Jewish apostles and Paul (Acts 2:42).
The more I study the Bible and the early Church, the more I realize the Church has abandoned much of its Hebraic heritage. It has often replaced that with Hellenism, paganism, Romanism and anti-Semitism.
The point is, we all need to keep an open mind when we study. We need to respectfully question those who claim to be authorities. Always be willing to reexamine your own beliefs and practices in the light of new and better understanding. Don’t be a spiritual stick-in-the mud. Question your own assumptions. Keep growing in understanding and in the Holy Spirit.
When the Lord returns, he will reestablish his own doctrine and practice. There will one faith, not dozens of competing religions and denominations. Until then, we strive to move closer to truth in all things.