When, Why, & Where To Draw Boundaries
Christian groups usually have doctrinal statements that define the “boundaries” of their organizations. How can they know whether to add new topics to their doctrinal statements from time to time? This is the question of drawing new boundaries. Four questions come to mind:
WHY DRAW BOUNDARIES AT ALL?
Why should Christian organizations draw boundaries at all? There are several reasons.
1. False Teaching Harms the Church
False teaching harms the church. In a day marked by much pluralism and subjectivism, the destructiveness of false teaching needs to be remembered. In the epistles of the New Testament, sound doctrine is taught again and again, and error is corrected (Gal 1:12; Acts 20:29-30; 1 Tim. 6:4-5). Do any of us have the same sober apprehension of the destructiveness of false doctrine that the New Testament apostles had?
2. False Teaching Spreads
If false teaching is not stopped, it spreads and does more damage. In 2 Timothy 2:17-18, Paul pictures false teachers quietly working their influence among unsuspecting church members, spreading silently and invisibly like “gangrene.” Once a church or Christian organization allows some vocal advocate of a false teaching to have a position of influence, those people become precedents by which others can be allowed in.
3. False Teaching Causes Controversy and Distracts
If false teaching is not stopped, we will waste time and energy in endless controversies rather than doing valuable kingdom work. When Paul urged his readers to “avoid controversies,” he meant the fruitless, endless controversies that hinder us from doing more productive ministry. There comes a point when it is no longer wise for a church to continue arguing over certain controversies. They should come to a decision and go on to productive kingdom work.
4. Jesus Holds Us Responsible
Jesus and the New Testament authors hold church leaders responsible for silencing false teaching within the church, and they expect that those in authority will remove the platform that these false teachers have (See Tit. 1:10-11; 2 Pet. 2:1-3). Most sobering are Jesus’ rebukes against churches that tolerated the presence of false teachers. He rebuked the church at Pergamum merely for having among them people who held to certain false teachings. (Rev 2.14)
WHY DRAW NEW BOUNDARIES?
Why should evangelical organizations draw new boundaries? When I speak of “new boundaries,” I do not mean boundaries that would make an organization fundamentally different from what it was from its beginning. Rather, I mean boundaries that for the first time state explicitly what was already believed by the vast majority of the members for many years. “New boundaries” are put into place to keep the organization from becoming something significantly different from what it has been.
This process may be summarized in the following principle: False teaching changes, so old boundaries do not protect against new problems.
In every age, the church has faced new challenges which it was forced to address. In recent years within the evangelical world, several new problems of false doctrine have arisen, and therefore old doctrinal formulations that do not address these questions are inadequate. I am convinced that Christian organizations and denominations will soon need to add new boundaries to protect against these new forms of false teaching.
WHEN SHOULD WE DRAW NEW BOUNDARIES?
When should evangelical organizations draw new boundaries? Evangelical organizations should draw new boundaries after a false teaching has become a significant problem, but before the false teaching does great harm, and before it has a large following entrenched in the organization.
It is impractical and impossible to rule out doctrinal errors before they appear. Problems must be dealt with after they arise, and after they have become a significant problem for the church. Yet we cannot wait too long to exclude a false teaching, for if we do, it will gain influence and may soon become entrenched in the church or organization.
HOW DO WE DISCERN WHEN NEW BOUNDARIES ARE NEEDED?
How do churches and evangelical organizations discern when new boundaries are needed in doctrinal and ethical matters? This question requires wisdom, judgment, prayer, and discussion on the part of leaders and members in churches and organizations. Here are some questions each church or organization should ask when considering whether to draw a new boundary:
How sure are we that the teaching is wrong? Have the advocates of this teaching been given a fair hearing? Has there been enough time to reflect on the matter carefully? And is there a growing consensus among God’s people generally that this new teaching cannot be right? I believe God gives to His people a generally reliable “spiritual instinct” about when a particular teaching simply cannot be consistent with Scripture.
2. Effect on Other Doctrines
Will this teaching likely lead to significant erosion in other doctrines? Some doctrines are absolutely important to maintain because of their effect on other doctrines. If we abandon the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, or the deity and humanity of Christ in one person, or the inerrancy of Scripture, or justification by faith alone, many other doctrines will be lost as well.
3. Effect on Personal and Church Life
Will this false teaching bring significant harm to people’s Christian lives, or to the work of the church? The advocacy of homosexuality, for instance, brings significant destructive consequences to people’s lives. Or, to take another example, inclusivism tends quickly to destroy the motivation for evangelism and missions.
4. Historical Precedent
Is this teaching contrary to what the vast majority of the Bible-believing church has held throughout history? Those who denied the inerrancy of Scripture were in the difficult position of saying that the vast majority of God’s people throughout the history of the church were wrong. Open theists have a similarly huge burden, for probably 99.9% of Christian believers throughout history have believed that God knows all future events.
5. Perception of Importance Among God’s People
Is there increasing consensus that this matter is important enough that the false teaching should be explicitly denied in a doctrinal statement? This consideration takes into account the deep spiritual instincts of God’s people, not just regarding the rightness or wrongness of a doctrine, but regarding its importance. Often God’s people will say, “Something fundamental is at stake here. The God this teaching describes is simply not the God of the Bible.”
6. Purposes of the Organization
Is the teaching a significant threat to the nature and purposes of the organization? Here I am attempting to take into account the fact that God raises up different organizations for different purposes. Each evangelical organization must ask itself, what things are fundamental to preserving our purpose and identity?
7. Motivations of Advocates
Does it seem that the advocates of this teaching hold it because of a fundamental refusal to be subject to the authority of God’s Word, rather than because of sincerely-held differences of interpretation based on accepted hermeneutical standards? With regard to some specific type of false teaching, after some interaction with one of its responsible advocates, we might ask ourselves, “Deep down inside, is he (or she) just embarrassed by the offense of the cross?” Or we might ask, “Deep down inside, is he embarrassed by the exclusive claims of Christ to be the only way to God?”
On the other hand, to take an example where I think the motivations are good on both sides, we could think about differences among evangelicals over the length of the days of creation in Genesis 1. I do not think that people on either side of this question have any deep refusal in their hearts to be subject to Scripture. Rather, I think people are just weighing various factors and coming to different conclusions on a complex question.
8. Methods of Advocates
Do the advocates of this teaching frequently manifest arrogance, deception, unrighteous anger, slander, and falsehood rather than humility, openness to correction and reason, kindness, and absolute truthfulness? If so, then we have a further indication that what they teach is not the “wisdom from above” that James speaks about (James 3:17-18).
SOME WRONG QUESTIONS TO ASK
There are some questions that should not be part of our consideration in deciding which doctrinal matters to exclude with new boundaries. For example:
“Are the advocates my friends?”
“Are they nice people?”
“Will we lose money or members if we exclude them?”
Such questions are grounded in a wrongful fear of man, not in a fear of God and trust in God.
We look back with admiration and thanksgiving on those from previous generations who defended many important doctrines of our faith, but with disappointment and shame on those who failed to take a clear stand. Now God has entrusted us with a stewardship in this generation. Now the choice of whether to do something or nothing about false doctrine is up to us.