Correct Doctrine Is Not Enough (Bio, part 2)

Until I was in my mid-twenties and a Bible college graduate, my perception of Christian faith and practice was mainly shaped by protestant fundamentalism.  As a young pastor, I determined that the fundamentalist view of the Kingdom of God and Christian discipleship was too narrow and restrictive. I came to understand the Kingdom as a far broader and more inclusive reality than I had previously been taught, and I moved from fundamentalism to the “kinder and gentler” experience of American evangelicalism.

Then, as a student at Houghton College and later at Wheaton Grad School, I observed that much of evangelical Christianity had imbibed too deeply of American culture and looked more like the prevailing culture than the Kingdom of God. I was encouraged by the historical example of the Anabaptists, the “radicals” of the Reformation, who had strongly influenced my own Baptist tradition, and whose legacy was preserved, at least in theory, in groups such as the Mennonites.  My pilgrimage in pursuit of authentic faith led me to complete my MDiv degree in a Mennonite seminary and to devote a quarter century of my life to ministry among Mennonites.

When I formally embraced historical Anabaptism and joined a Mennonite congregation in 1982, I did so at the expense of relationships with a network of close friends and even within my family.  My friends and family professed Christian faith, but they rejected the idea of biblical nonresistance and found other elements of radical discipleship unpalatable. Identification with historical Anabaptism was costly for me.

As a Mennonite pastor, I began meeting regularly with a group of likeminded Mennonite leaders.  We believed that a voice was needed to call the Anabaptist tradition in America back to its historical and theological roots, and in 1992 we formed the Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship. I was named EAF’s Executive Secretary and served in that role until the organization closed in 2001. EAF was not a denomination but rather a loose-knit, nationwide network of pastors and other church leaders from the Anabaptist tradition concerned that the doctrinal foundation of contemporary Anabaptism was being undermined by the growing influence of theological liberalism.  As “a voice for spiritual renewal” within the Anabaptist community, EAF employed the unofficial motto: “Reclaiming the evangelical heart of our Anabaptist heritage.”

I noted in an earlier post that I have sometimes been wrong-headed but I have never been half-hearted in my pursuit of authentic faith.  My experience with EAF is an example of that. For the nine years I was Executive Secretary, my strong emphasis on “doctrinal precision” built walls between believers and so contributed to divisiveness in the Body of Christ.  I know that the truth of the gospel sometimes drives a wedge between Christians and those outside the Kingdom.  I fear, however, that I may have encouraged division and separation between genuine believers simply because some of them didn’t articulate their convictions exactly as I did.

I now believe that, while doctrine is important, correct doctrine is not enough.  Paul told Titus (2:1) to “speak the things that are fitting for sound doctrine.”  Sound doctrine is truth which contributes to spiritual health and wholeness.  When an insistence on uniformity in doctrinal articulation, particularly a focus on orthodoxy without an equal emphasis on orthopraxy, builds barriers to fellowship between genuine believers, our doctrine may be correct—accurate, exact, precise—but it is not sound.

More anon.

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