Question: Can Doctrine Become Idolatry?

Anonymous asked:

It seems that too many Christians make agreement with the right beliefs into yet another work they use to save themselves and an excuse to hate other Christians (especially liberal and progressive Christians.) Do you think adherence to correct doctrine can become an idol?

Hey my friend: I don’t mean to sound like an alarmist, but pretty much everything can become idolatry.  Especially doctrine.

A few years ago, I was really caught up by the Reformed Calvinist movement and their “Gospel-Centrality,” and while I still mostly agree with the theology, I no longer self-identify as a Calvinist.

Mainly it was because their heads were stuck inside the implications of the Gospel instead of the author of the Gospel Himself, so there was no real relationship with the Living God.  But it was also because most of the Calvinists I’ve met were insufferable a-holes who yelled “heresy” from a distance on their super-blogs while hardly loving God or people.

I know I’m undermining my own point here, and God has grace for them too, but my friends who are actually cool Calvinists do not wear the label.   In other words: if I can’t tell a Calvinist is a Calvinist, he’s probably doing it right.

The Christian life is often about maintaining a balance between tensions.  So while we absolutely want to have correct doctrine, we also want to be in the mess with people and love on them.  While we adhere to the discipline and law of God, we are also motivated by God’s grace and mercy.  While I believe in predestination, I also believe this reconciles with free will — and I don’t claim to know how, because my brain is too small and I’m allergic to paradoxes.  When we swing too much to either side, it becomes doctrinal idolatry.

Let’s break this down a bit.  The reason why even Christians resort to shutting each other down is because —

1) People always default to a false dichotomy of “for” versus “against,” so that we can maintain a distinction and act as if we are championing a particular cause.  Even people who say, “I don’t label myself” are already labeling themselves. Everyone picks a side and demonizes the other.  We naturally tend to define ourselves on our differences in the most negative way possible.

If you’ve ever witnessed the debate on marriage or abortion, then you know: it doesn’t even sound like anyone on either side cares about the people.  They end up yelling about abstract issues or hogging up the political square to get attention.

2) Every facet of culture ends up categorizing the other, so that we live in a reactionary culture in which every category is simply born out of aggression towards another.  Basically, the Protestants came about this way.  Most sermons and Christian books are built on the thesis, “Don’t be like that one guy.”

Many ministries are simply just a response to being hurt somehow by another ministry — but any church built this way will eventually succumb to passive-aggressive attitudes, resentment, fear, tribalism, and graceless theology.

From the megachurch to emergent churches to hipster churches and urban ministry: we’re all in some ways fighting back against “the institution,” which is some false straw-man of what we do NOT want the church to be. Certainly there is some wisdom in fighting off bad methodology, but if we are solely built on this: then who is “winning?”  Well: pretty much just Satan.  This is why so many Christians end up hating other Christians right down the street.

When you combine all this, we get a toxic church culture that dehumanizes and cannibalizes.  But I’m not blaming anyone.  This is the way it is, and it’s extremely difficult to escape the vortex of our fallen human nature.  The only thing we can do is have some humble self-awareness, to fight against these instincts by the grace of God, and get under the authority of the Holy Spirit.  Anything less will inevitably cause us to begin categorizing the other.

Jesus was really hard on the Pharisees because even their own namesake meant “the separated ones.”  They would pray things like, “Thank God I’m not like those other people.”  There was no room in their hearts for the tax collector, prostitute, the blind, beggars, demon-possessed, and born-again disciples.  Jesus had no such categories and loved them too.

I don’t mean to be hard on the Pharisees.  Then I’d be categorizing again.  I mean to say: Jesus picked on the Pharisees the most because they had utterly lost the point.  I’m sure Jesus was sick to his stomach about this.  Part of Jesus’s death was to demonstrate there are NO unique categories of people and that he came to die for us all.  Jesus, at the cross, demolished our right to grade other people to a standard.  As John Stott once said, Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross … At the foot of the cross, we shrink to our true size.”

But when you meet people who still categorize in black-and-white, even those people who pretend to be nuanced and smooth-talk it by saying, “We should pray for them” — they all need grace too.  Do not hate the hater.  Do not idolize anti-idolatry.  Be patient with the impatient.  Embrace the tension and maintain the balance.  It’s easy to think we’re superior to Reformed Calvinists or Arminians or hyper-grace guys or megachurches or those N.P.P. dudes, and it will be a lifelong temptation to look down on them — but they are fellow human beings whose lives continue long after we’ve bashed them, and they need Jesus like you do.

Philippians 2 tells us, “Consider others better than yourselves.”  This doesn’t mean we roll over and play loose with theology.  This doesn’t mean we water down the truth.  It means we go for the same heart that Jesus had when he took on flesh, became one of us, and gladly died for you and for me.  If you squint your eyes at someone and feel the categorical anger in your bones — remember, Jesus died for that guy too.  The sooner we embrace this, the more free we shall become, and perhaps even work together across our doctrinal differences.

I’m starting to find that everyone’s Christian faith is utterly, uniquely different. Not so different on loving Jesus and loving people — but the way we wrestle through doctrine by strict academia or by poetic reflection, how we sing at the top of our lungs or in quiet osmosis, how some of us pray at sunrise in a pew or at three a.m. on a beach, how some of us are dying to journal or would rather die than journal, how our political tensions clash so broadly and brutally, how one forgives so quickly and the other is bitter indefinitely, how some of us are strong in faith or we’re faith-weaklings, how we each hold onto quirks like Bible translations and worship genres and preaching styles, how we like to gather in crowds of thousands or a group of a dozen.

There’s no need to fight over these things. No need to accuse another of being wrong, or to try to be better than the “other” church, or to recast the same mold. We are so many shades of an endless jewel, a glorious community of unified diversity fueled by the endless imagination of God. I hope we don’t dash ourselves on our personalities. There is room for you and for me in this Body.

— J.S.

4 thoughts on “Question: Can Doctrine Become Idolatry?

  1. J.S.,

    You wrote: “while we absolutely want to have correct doctrine…” Really? If you ever meet anyone like this his name will start with a J and end with an S. You know of Whom I speak, yes? 😉

    Meanwhile, I love that you focus on LOVE. Right on, brother. Since only Jesus has seen the Father, He’s the only One who has correct doctrine. The older I get the less I feel the need to be right and the more I lament my lack of love. Correct doctrine has never gotten the church anywhere (not that I think any human being has ever been correct).

    Always a pleasure reading your blogs!
    Happy New Year,


    1. True, I should’ve been more careful to qualify that sentence.
      If our doctrine doesn’t bring us close to love God and love people, it’s certainly not a doctrine worth having. 🙂


  2. “I’m starting to find that everyone’s Christian faith is utterly, uniquely different.” Yes, yes, yes! I think I was still in my teens when I realized there wasn’t another Christian on the planet who saw everything exactly like I did. If I were to make fellowship and approval dependent on complete synchrony, I’d be really lonely.
    What’s confusing is there are issues worth dividing over and we’d better not go soft on them. But there are far fewer than most believers seem to realize.
    Love your counter argument, too. If I only hung out with equally tolerant people, I’d still be really lonely. Personally, I look for people who seem to be hanging out with God to be friends with. You can feel it when someone is in harmony with the Holy Spirit. The rest I pray for and love on.
    Great topic. 🙂


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