In Poor Communities, Does Doctrine Matter?
A few years ago I (Mike) sat down for coffee with an old college friend and listened to him explain how his view of ministry had changed since we had been students. He was now in leadership over college ministries on a number of local university campuses, and he was explaining their decision not to be as “cross-centered” (his word) as we had both been fifteen years earlier: “You know, Mike, we prefer not to be so . . . doctrinal. The cross is important, to be sure. But we don’t want to get stuck in sixteenth-century arguments over the atonement. After all, Jesus used a lot of different images to describe his salvation, things like a mustard seed growing. We want to spread the kingdom of God by proclaiming good news to the poor and freedom to the captives. There’s good work to be done, so we can’t get bogged down in theology.”
Leaving aside for a moment whether the apostle Paul would agree with my friend’s priorities (since he declared to the Corinthians that he wanted to know nothing among them but the kingdom of God spreading like a mustard seed . . . oh wait, never mind [1 Cor. 2:2]), what about his larger point? His position is not without merit.
Let’s say, for the sake of illustration, that you are on a ship sailing to a faraway town to warn the people of impending doom. If you don’t get there in time, everyone dies. Needless to say, you want your ship to sail as fast as possible. You avoid any excess cargo that might slow your progress. You don’t waste time worrying about clean decks or polished brass. The urgency of the task requires you to operate with efficiency and leanness.
People like my friend argue that the urgency of the Christian mission requires us to trim our theological sails and jettison the heavy freight of doctrinal precision. Such freight yields only bickering and in-fighting between people who should work together. If people are suffering, the poor are oppressed, and the captives are bound, why write books and hold conferences and argue about the meaning of a few words?
There is a legitimate point here. The church would be better off if Christians spent less time bickering on the Internet about infralapsarianism and more time talking to their neighbors about Jesus. But that does not mean that churches looking to reach the poor and needy should jettison convictions and conversations about theology.
Doctrine is not freight on the ship. It’s the hull and mast.
A church’s doctrine determines the character and quality of its witness. Its theology shapes its goals and the way it tries to achieve those goals.
So the question is this: does disciple-making require churches to know and teach doctrine? Can we achieve those twin goals simply by demonstrating the love of Christ and working to renew our communities through acts of service? It sure seems unlikely.
Instead, what we see in the New Testament is that theology is essential to every aspect of a church’s life. Let’s consider two: salvation and sanctification.
SALVATION REQUIRES DOCTRINE
Critics of doctrinal necessity sometimes snidely remark that surely God is not going to open up people’s heads on the last day to ensure the right doctrinal formulas are inside. No, probably not. But he will ask them something like, “Were you trusting me? The real and true me, and not a made-up version of me?” In other words, God is very much interested in whether we are trusting in certain truths, because with God doctrinal truth is personal truth.
To experience Christ’s salvation, a person must believe and trust real truths about the real God. If someone has not turned with his or her whole heart to God and trusted him, he or she cannot be saved (Rom. 10:13–17). Doctrine is required for salvation!
This is why, when the apostles went about making disciples, they did not shy away from preaching doctrinal messages. Look at all the doctrinal topics they and others covered for the unbelieving crowds in the book of Acts:
- The Holy Spirit (2:14–21)
- The sovereign providence of God (2:23; 17:26)
- The resurrection of Christ (2:24–32; 3:15)
- The crucifixion of Christ (8:32–35; 13:28–29)
- The way the Old Testament points to Jesus (3:22–24; 7:2–53; 28:23)
- The reality of the coming judgment (10:42; 17:31; 24:25)
- The exclusivity of Christ (4:12; 19:26)
- God the Creator (14:15–17; 17:24)
- God’s self-sufficiency (17:24–25)
- The kingdom of God (19:8; 28:23
The apostles understood that in order for unbelievers to come to repentance and faith in Christ, they needed to understand certain truths about God and his salvation through Christ.
In fact, when Jesus appears to a discouraged and dispirited Paul in a dream, he tells him: “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome” (Acts 23:11). Jesus summarizes Paul’s entire evangelistic ministry, both to Jews and Gentiles, as testifying to facts about him. That’s what Paul did; he went from town to town conveying facts about who Jesus was and what he did.
It is hard to reconcile this picture of the church’s evangelistic task with the claim that our witness should be driven primarily by acts of love and mercy toward the needy. The fact is, the world can watch Christians ladle soup or paint over graffiti for a thousand years, and they’ll never come to the conclusion the Jesus died for their sins and rose again. We must open our mouths and speak the content of the gospel to the world, or no one will be saved.
SANCTIFICATION REQUIRES DOCTRINE
Some might be tempted to believe that a person needs a basic amount of doctrine to become a Christian, but that most “doctrine” is unnecessary to grow as a Christian. Instead, we need to get about the business of living like Jesus in our communities.
But it turns out that the authors of Scripture don’t share that point of view. Time and again, the Bible anchors right actions and behaviors and attitudes for God’s people in right doctrine.
Look at these examples:
- The Ten Commandments. This is the granddaddy of them all—the Big List of How to Live. Yet what comes immediately before these instructions for godly living? A piece of theology: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). Why should the Israelites have no other gods? Because the Lord delivered them from slavery.
- Love your enemies. Here’s a command that gets our gospel transformation juices flowing! But notice that Jesus grounds such active love in theology: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44–45). Why should we love our enemies? Because God, our Father, is an enemy-loving God!
- Be holy. Christians are supposed to be holy. Why? Again, an apostle takes us to doctrine: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:14–15). We don’t conform to the passions that once ruled us because of the holiness of God.
- The letters of Paul. Finally, the structure of Paul’s letters grounds commands in truths. Paul wants the recipients of his letters to present their bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), to put on the new self (Eph. 4:24), and to walk in Christ Jesus (Col. 2:6). But such commands come only after lengthy discussions of doctrine. Paul gives these churches an education in things like justification and glorification, typology and federal headship (Rom. 5:12–17; 8:30), election and predestination (Eph. 1:4–6), the depravity of man (Eph. 2:1–3), and christology (Col. 1:15–20).
Christian obedience, including sacrificially reaching out to the needy, must be anchored in and motivated by the character and activity of God. Remove the anchor and you might stay in the same spot for a little while, but soon the wind and waves will push you away. Such sacrificial activity will soon stop.
The more we know about God, the more we will be moved to obedience. How many people have prayed a prayer in a church or mission hall but then never moved on because they weren’t taught some of the real, doctrinal meat of the faith? How many Christians are stuck in patterns of selfishness and laziness and sin because they haven’t been challenged to consider the character of God and its implications for their life?
BUT HOLD ON . . .
One objection that I hear from time to time is that poor communities typically have less access to quality education, which means the people in those communities do not have the necessary tools to learn doctrine. If people are not living in an environment where reading and study is normal, or if illiteracy is widespread, you cannot teach them complicated theological concepts. If you try, you will shoot over their heads and lose their interest.
Honestly, such attitudes strike me as paternalistic and condescending. Poor people are poor, but they are not stupid. They are just as capable of understanding the character and ways of God as anyone else. Paul didn’t write his letters to the faculty of a seminary. His readers were generally not wealthy, privileged, or well-educated. And the Israelites leaving Egypt didn’t have advanced degrees in theology, but God didn’t hesitate to tell them all kinds of in-depth and complicated things about himself.
Poor people can grasp deep truths. I have seen that this is true in the church I serve in the States, and I saw the same thing at work in Mez’s context in Edinburgh.
Consider Gordon. He is in his early forties. He never finished high school and had never read a book in his life before his conversion. He had no prior experience with church or Christianity. He was literate, but only at a level that let him read a newspaper. When Gordon first came to Mez’s church, he said that the teaching was over his head. I’ll let him explain it in his words:
Before I got saved, I couldn’t understand what was being said in the Bible. Now it’s like it calls my name and draws me to it. I think that’s the Holy Spirit. I find myself thinking about the deep questions of life in a way I never did before. I just want to read all the time. Even though I got lost with the big theological words, I was determined to learn them. I wanted to love God more. I wanted to know him more. What helped was having good people around me who explained everything to me without patronizing me. At school, if a thing were too hard then I would just give up. Now, even though learning some of this stuff hurts my head, I have learned to persevere and have patience with myself.
Prior to faith in Christ, Gordon couldn’t hold down a full-time job. He was addicted to hard drugs and lived a chaotic life. He says he couldn’t sit still for more than two minutes. Now he sits and listens to a forty-minute sermon without any trouble and he loves studying the Bible at every opportunity.
We shouldn’t sell people short because they aren’t educated or well-read. Granted, you will need to adjust your pedagogical methods if you are working with people who are completely illiterate or mentally impaired. But all good teachers adjust their material to the level of their hearers. In our experience, we have yet to come across a doctrinal topic that was simply too complicated for needy people to understand. If you teach doctrine clearly and well, relying on the Holy Spirit, God’s people will want to learn it and grow from it.
Does a commitment to teaching and believing doctrine hinder the spread of the gospel in hard places? Hardly. In fact, our commission to make disciples and teach them to obey the Lord Jesus cannot be accomplished without such a commitment. It’s not enough to demonstrate the love of Jesus to a community in need. It’s not enough to work hard to see social structures renewed and repaired. We must speak the actual truths of the gospel, or we only bring glory to ourselves and leave them in their sin and guilt.
Editor’s note: This article is an edited excerpt from Mike and Mez’s new book, Church in Hard Places ©2016. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org. You can purchase the book here.