For us to even attempt to build churches by minimizing doctrine is a philosophy so far removed from the original purpose of Christ and His apostles that one would wonder if we were in the same movement. How close is this to the prediction of Paul when he said that “they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). It is too close for me.
I have been involved in leading churches for four decades, with an emphasis on church planting in the last few years. I’ve also visited and addressed hundreds of churches around the world and have had the privilege of meeting thousands of Christian leaders. Through this time I’ve watched an unintentional doctrinal imprecision on the part of many pastors become intentional. In other words, I have witnessed a new “conventional wisdom” emerge. Simply stated it is the “wisdom” of attempting to circle in more people for our churches by unashamedly minimizing, or perhaps nearly eradicating, the restricting influences of doctrine. What pastors used to do (because of being poorly taught perhaps), they now do by intent, all for church growth.
The problem is, it works.
For instance, I just visited with one friend concerning a large church in our area that has grown exceptionally well. The directional pastor of this church is a smart man who has some distinct beliefs he holds personally. I can talk with him about doctrine when alone. He reads and knows the Bible. But in his leadership and preaching he fully intends not to go beyond the most elementary issues, and appears (appearances are about all we can go on) not to be that concerned that his people differ on major doctrines, some of which are most significant. Outside of an expression of the gospel and some “how to’s,” there isn’t much to get your teeth into in his preaching. He has created a birthing station but not much else.
Doctrine does narrow things. And we don’t like that word, “narrow.” Where you will find one person who is attracted to sound doctrine, you will find a hundred who want to allow all sorts of beliefs to be tolerated. I have been in such churches where great heresies were listened to as if it were perfectly permissible to hold such views as “your opinion.” And I’m not talking about the guest’s view, but the member’s view.
This happens on the mission field as well. Preparing for a mission to Mozambique soon, I’ve been reading the reports of a good missionary doctor who has attempted to plant churches. Because he cares about doctrine, there are some real pains in building a church. He knows that because of the communal nature of the people, an apparently large church could be built easily. Whereas he may find only a handful of believers in most churches in his area, there may well be ten times as many who just attend, believing themselves to be Christian only because it is their custom to be joiners. If he were to avoid doctrine in favor of shallow evangelism, he would build a large unregenerate church. Is that useful for the kingdom? He does not believe so. But he is the exception.
Few Think of This
In all of this acceptance of doctrinal sloppiness and miasma of beliefs, I find that many have totally disregarded a tenet that should be obvious to any Bible reader. I mean this: The apostles began churches with the intent to grow them as solidly as possible by means of a steady and meticulous interest in doctrine. The biblical data is overwhelmingly in line with this conclusion.
The apostles saw the church as “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim.3:15). And so, giving attention to doctrine was paramount to them. I am sure that the entire future of the work was in mind as Paul and the other apostles emphasized a wide assortment of critical doctrines. Whereas we would say, “At least we have a witness in the city of some sort, preaching Christ,” the apostles would say, “Because this church is a witness in the city, and other churches will come from this one or emulate their beliefs and practices, we must be all the more precise.” There is a world of difference between the two schools of thought.
And these doctrines were to be “taught” and “preached.” In other words, it was not the prerogative of those elders that were appointed by the apostles to minimize the importance of doctrinal precision. Similarly, I don’t think we can be like Jesus or like the apostles in our leadership without emphasizing what they emphasized. It is, in fact, ludicrous to think otherwise. I don’t think Paul would listen very sympathetically to our explanation of why we have minimized doctrine for the sake of church growth.
All of us are aware of the need to avoid being doctrinaire, that is, of teaching doctrine in a sterile, pedantic manner, without application and devotional “heat.” Look to Jesus and Paul as perfect illustrations of how to do teach doctrine correctly. If we teach the Scriptures faithfully and exactly as stated, we will automatically teach good doctrine. We have to be very clever to avoid it. But many do miss it, either by selecting and addressing passages that are only behavioral, or by avoiding Scripture all together, or by being a diverter, like a pastor who preaches on time management based on Jesus’ cry, “It is finished.”
We forget that the difficult doctrines that we talk about are found in the Letters to the Churches. These were epistles that contained the very truths we are refusing to talk about in our churches. Do you see the incongruity? Is it really right to think that we should not talk about those doctrines that were the staple of the earliest churches? I know I’m being overly obvious, but haven’t we overlooked this fact? And many of those difficult passages that we are absolutely afraid to teach were written to nascent churches. Paul thought it critical to present the whole truth to these people (Acts 20:27). He did not “shrink” from doing this. But we do.