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Wanted: An End to Dogmatic Religion

 

Steve Jones

Atlanta, Georgia

 

Dogmatists think it their sworn duty to pass judgment on their brethren. They see it as a great commandment to spatter fellow Christians with the title "heretic," and that duty they discharge with all diligence.

 

They also use such terms as "deceiver" and "false teacher," sometimes even “antichrist”, but their relationship with the word "heretic" is special. It echoes through the ages of religious bigotry. In a bygone era, the cry of "heretic" sent men and women to the flames and a host of unspeakable tortures at the hands of "the orthodox." It is only fitting, then, that today’s super-orthodox should have such an attachment to the word.

 

The amazing thing is that the issues that distinguish the "heretics" from the "orthodox" are highly abstract with few, if any, practical applications.  Neither the precise natures of God and Christ, the dynamics of the atonement, nor the means of creation, produces the Christ-like goodness so essential to discipleship.

 

Dogmatism convolutes the mission of Christ. Why did Jesus walk among sinners and preach his message? Was it to make men theologically astute? Did Jesus come chiefly to give us right metaphysics, to present dogmas to the mind?

 

The doctrinal stalwart believes so, at least in part. To him, one of the great duties before God is to mark the right doctrinal box on the Christian checklist and to drive from the church all who don’t. The doctrine may have nothing to do with whether he loves God or neighbor, but to him, it is a matter of spiritual life and death. The dogmatist must expose all who deviate. He must ruin their reputations in the Christian community, and for this, he expects someday to hear the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

 

‘False teachers’ and ‘heresies’ 

 

Many heretic hunters will respond by quoting New Testament passages that condemn false teachers. There must, therefore, be such a thing, and it must be incumbent upon the church to find them and drag them into the light of day. So goes the reasoning.

 

But the reasoning is flawed. Virtually every false teaching attacked in the New Testament is ethical in character. The biblical authors oppose these teachings because they led to either immoral living or harsh asceticism. The condemnation is not over the doctrine’s technical incorrectness, but over the consequences of belief in it.

 

Gnosticism, for example, in one form taught that matter was unredeemable. It made no difference to Gnostics, therefore, what one did with the body. This led to sexual promiscuity and perversion. The early churches were infected with this teaching. It endangered Christian purity. The New Testament writers condemned it on these grounds.

 

The Judaizing sects also caused problems in the church. They took the unfettered character of the faith and killed it. Austere Christians (as they do today) put heavy burdens on the saints. But Jesus never imposed any of these laws on his followers. Such things were never his emphasis. He knew they engendered only pride, an outward show of piety. This was the "other gospel" anathematized by Paul in Galatians. It was not an abstract belief about the nature of Jesus or the mechanics of salvation. This is a point the dogmatists always miss.

 

Another is that false teachers of Paul's day openly withstood the apostles and led away disciples after themselves. They shouted down the very messengers that Christ had sent into the world. For this Paul, John and others issued stern rebuke. But honest dissenters from orthodoxy today (at least the responsible ones) do not rise up and demonize Paul. They, like their orthodox detractors, acknowledge the New Testament authors as authoritative. It is a matter of differing interpretation of the same data, not a flouting of apostolic authority.

 

Still, the objection is common: The Bible enjoins us to follow sound doctrine, but the word "doctrine" simply means "teaching." We would really be better off if we discarded the old term "doctrine," for it is misleading. Many Christians think it means "abstract, theological concept," but there is no justification for this thinking. Any teaching is a doctrine. Jesus’ statement "love your enemies" is a doctrine, a teaching.

 

Another misunderstood word is "heresy." Look up the word in a concordance or a lexicon. You will find that it does not address doctrine per se, but only division. A heresy is anything that proves divisive. A heretic is one who ruins unity among brothers and sisters. Yes, false teaching can divide Christians, and thereby be a heresy, but so can true teaching and the insistence upon theological purity. Dogmatism is itself a heresy, maybe the worst. Few things have so severed the communion of saints. Few things have so pitted brother against brother, as William Ellery Channing so eloquently points out:

 

"It is truly wonderful, if excommunication for supposed error be the method of purifying the church, that the church has been so long and so woefully corrupted. Whatever may have been the deficiencies of Christians in other respects, they have certainly discovered no criminal reluctance in applying this instrument of purification. Could the thunders and lightnings of excommunication have corrected the atmosphere of the church, not one pestilential vapor would have loaded it for ages. The air of Paradise would not have been more pure, more refreshing. But what does history tell us? It tells us that the spirit of exclusion and denunciation has contributed more than all other causes to the corruption of the church, to the diffusion of error; and has rendered the records of the Christian community as black, as bloody, as revolting to humanity, as the records of empires founded on conquest and guilt." [1]

 

What, then, must we believe? 

 

But, says the detractor, how do we know what to believe unless we have an orthodoxy pointing the way? The answer is that only those things that are obviously Christian – part and parcel of the church’s witness from day one – should be deemed indispensable. These are the great themes that traverse the sacred scriptures from cover to cover, then the life of the church from the first century to the 21st. They shape the character into the image of Jesus. These, and only these, are the non-negotiables.

 

I believe we must each decide for ourselves what these central tenets are. (The alternative is to let someone else decide for you.) I’ve come up with my own list of non-negotiables. They are small in number, but are believed by nearly all Christians in one form or another. Dogmatists complain that these things are "least-common denominators," but in today’s increasingly secular age, they may yet be revolutionary.

 

I would include the following:

*  God is a Heavenly Father, characterized by love, goodness and justice.

*  Jesus bore a profound relation to God and exhibited the divine characteristics to a profound degree.

*  He was crucified as a supreme act of self-sacrifice. Three days later, his followers had an encounter with him that shook their lives and changed the world.

*  By the Holy Spirit, he bears a special relation to his people, who have found him to be a source of strength, healing, inner peace.

*  There is a future life.

*  Wickedness and righteousness will be recompensed.

*  God desires that we live in faith, peace, love, goodness, self-control, servant-hood.

*  Prayer is of great benefit.

*  There exists a family of saints, an intimate connection between members of the faith family. They meet regularly, become involved in each other’s lives, partake of the Lord’s Supper and practice baptism in one form or another.

 

No, this is not a creed. Creeds are meant to condemn non-conformists. It is a personal interpretation of what is basic to Christian faith. If someone wants to omit baptism, for example, for his or her belief system, I won’t hurl insulting names at them or deny them the Christian name. I will simply realize that not all Christians see things as I do.

 

My list omits doctrinal refinements, such the nature of God, the atonement, the meaning of inspiration. I believe these are side issues. To be openly dogmatic about them is to sow dissension and, thereby, become a true heretic.

 

If we must adhere to a creed, let it be that ancient minimalist statement of faith, the Apostle's Creed. Here is a basic set of truths that most Christians can agree upon (give or take a few points). For large portions of Christendom, this sufficed for a long time. Not until Christ's people drank deeply from the well of Greek speculation did the arcane become binding.

 

Conclusion  

 

The world is unimpressed with our erudite arguments. Our metaphysics seldom lay hold of the human heart. But when a group of social-minded Christians moves into a disaster area to fix houses, people notice. When a man accustomed to wild, self-centered living, adopts a Christian character, it astounds all who know him. Nobody cares whether he embraces one of the historic creeds. They see life, and that's all that matters to them.

 

It is time, more than ever, to unite on the heart of Christian faith, to live it rather than demand conformity to somebody’s idea of "essentials," and to exalt the parable of the Good Samaritan above the churches’ most hallowed creeds and confessions.

 

Dogmatism has had its day. Its chronicles reek of shed blood. Broken lives and relationships litter its halls. But a new day is here, theological bigotry must now be relegated to the dead past.

 

Dogmatism needs a stake through its heart.

 

 

Footnotes

 

1 Channing, W.E., "The System of Exclusion and Denunciation in Religion Considered," from The Works of William E. Channing, D.D, (Boston: American Unitarian Association) 1889, p. 488. 

 

 

About the Author:

 

A former newspaper editor and religion reporter, Steve Jones writes marketing materials for a software company in the Atlanta, Georgia  area. He converted to a "consistent monotheist" position 10 years ago after reading works by such early American Unitarians as W.E. Channing, James Yates and Orville Dewey. You can e-mail him at steve@aboutstevejones.com.

 

  


© 2002 American Unitarian Conference