Does Doctrine Divide?
There is one thing I'm becoming more and more aware of as I grow both in age and in faith, and it's that the Church has adopted worldly mindsets to a much greater extent than we may be ready and willing to admit. I'm not even referring to our standards where entertainment, relationships, or ethics are concerned, though these are important to examine, too. Rather, Christians are enthusiastically adhering to their culture's philosophies on the key concepts of love and truth – even when these philosophies stand in direct opposition to the biblical understanding of such things.
This flaw in the contemporary Christian worldview is perhaps most obvious in how many people approach doctrine and theology. By "approach," I actually mean "run in the opposite direction." Many believers today are more hesitant than ever to get involved in the world of theology, Church history, and biblical hermeneutics. Why? Because "doctrine divides." And this is in fact a flaw, considering this claim hinges on the idea that it's impossible to reconcile truth and distinction with love and unity. The false premise here is that all division is bad and all unity is good. That simply isn't true, though. And as with most disagreements, it all goes back to how you define and identify the terms.
Good unity is characterized by a mutual concern for respect, humility, growth, and consistency, especially in the face of conflict. On the other hand, good division – which does and should exist – is characterized by compassion-filled honesty, accountability, and discernment. Division in and of itself is unavoidable. There is a distinction that has to result when one claim of truth contradicts that which it opposes. If one person has a conviction that they believe is objectively true and another person holds the conviction that the opposite is true instead, one of them *must* be wrong, according to basic rules of logic. And it's an honorable thing that both parties are committed to truth as absolute. We shouldn't seek compromise by appealing to relativity instead, as though the best way to bridge the gap is to say, "All is well. That can be true for you while this is true for me."
So how do we move forward from there?
This is where things get messy, especially where doctrine is concerned. It seems like there are only a handful of individuals or communities here and there that successfully strike the balance between firmness of conviction and respectful humility in these moments. I'll freely admit (as my family members and close friends can testify) that I fail in this area often, and on both sides of the spectrum. I cannot count how many times I've sacrificed love in favor of truth and truth in favor of love in my relationships with people whom I disagree with spiritually.
But here is a classic example of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." Just because the sinful nature of human beings causes us to approach good things in bad ways, it doesn't mean those good things are bad in and of themselves. Yet this is exactly how some contemporary Christians seem to handle the subject of theology and doctrine.
Before I go any further, I want to point out that many people do have a legitimate reason to criticize the aggressive way in which doctrine is often discussed. While there is a good kind of division and a good kind of unity, there is a bad kind of division and a bad kind of unity as well. The kind of division that we should aim to avoid – division that neither honors the Lord nor edifies the Body – is rooted in pride, selfish motivations, and a lack of genuine concern for one's neighbor. If you want an example of bad division you can browse the comment section of almost any Christian page or theology group on social media. To say that the claws come out is somewhat of an understatement, because since the subject matter is of upmost importance, it's only natural that tensions arise when distinctions become more and more evident. A thread that begins as a simple question or observation can turn into an ugly mess of hostility, accusation, and arrogance in the blink of an eye, and no one learns a single thing other than how to badly win or lose a heated debate.
The unfortunate reality is that this causes many people to be outright opposed to any discussion of doctrine, especially if they've been directly affected by these experiences. The battle cry rings clear from then onward, and it was my own mantra for a long time, believe it or not: "Doctrine divides! Love unites!"
But here's the problem, when we set up truth and distinction as being irreconcilable with love and unity, we forget what it means to love and seek unity from a biblical perspective. Unity that is founded on complacency, fear, ignorant allegiance, and hollow tolerance is not biblical unity, and it doesn't exhibit godly love any more than sinful divisiveness does. This love and unity is of the world. It is reliant on sameness and smooth sailing. Sure, the effort to remedy any damage done by divisiveness may be honorable in and of itself, but if we begin to adopt such a flimsy, relative approach to Christian unity through these efforts, we have swung too far on the pendulum.
To truly love your neighbor is to care about the state of their soul. This involves who they think God is, how they think He should be worshipped, and how much all of it matters in the first place. Genuine unity is motivated by a decision to rally around truth and submit to it at the cost of self, at the cost of pride, and at the cost of petty offense. So, yes – doctrine does divide. But the only real trouble in doctrine is our sinful manipulation or neglect of it.
Scripture never exhorts us to speak the truth or love; it says to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). You cannot truly separate one from the other. We see this everywhere we look throughout the biblical accounts of Jesus' life and ministry. And we should see it manifest in ourselves as we grow and mature in our pursuit of Christlike-ness.
Jessica Hageman is a native to the Appalachian mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, although she now resides in northern Virginia with her husband. She has been a lover of reading since elementary school and a lover of Christ since high school. She is a full time English major, in hopes that her studies will help her more effectively minister to other through written words. Her favorite things in the world are British tea, old books, autumn leaves, dry humor, and rainy weather. Her goal as a writer is to demonstrate how the Gospel, objective truth, and sound theology are not only applicable, but essential, to all aspects of life as a woman, especially in a world that celebrates sin, false doctrine, and self-sufficiency.