The Devastating Effects of Correct Doctrine

The liturgy has been finalized and is being printed for this evening’s Gathering for Worship In the Liturgical Tradition​. The homily is prepared. All other elements necessary for the service have been cared for. It is a beautiful morning here in central Ohio, and I am looking forward to tonight’s gathering. Nonetheless, my heart is heavy.

I am thinking this morning of how devastating religious belief can be. I am recalling how many of my friendships have been weakened, how many relationships have suffered–some to the degree that they no longer exist–all because of religious beliefs and doctrinal “convictions.”

I began my ministry more than forty years ago in the context of conservative evangelicalism, what some would call fundamentalism. As my beliefs changed and my attitude became less doctrinaire, my fundamentalist brethren wrote me off for having succumbed to modernism. I developed a new network of friends and associates, however, within more mainstream evangelicalism, where I found a home for a time. Until, that is, I began to develop convictions in the area of pacifism or “biblical nonresistance.” That was simply too much for many evangelicals to countenance. I found a new home among Mennonites.

For more than a quarter century, I was a minister in the Mennonite Church. I was also still a conservative evangelical, and a vocal one, so I was regarded skeptically by the “establishment,” who didn’t always share my evangelical convictions and weren’t certain they could completely trust me to faithfully carry the banner of their tradition. As my views have changed and my theological and political convictions have moved more toward the left in the past ten years, many of those who had regarded me skeptically have warmed to me–although it would be an overstatement to suggest they have enthusiastically embraced me; I’m still an outsider in many ways. On the other hand, many of those who regarded me as a kindred spirit in those days when I identified as more conservative and evangelical have now severed ties with me. To their way of thinking, my change of belief represents an abandonment of the true faith.

I could recite a similar litany so far as my relationships within the Anglican communion are concerned. They developed, then, in many cases, dissolved, owing largely to theological beliefs and doctrinal convictions. And, I suspect, as my beliefs continue to evolve, or as the full scope of the changes in my beliefs become more public, even more wedges will be driven and more relationships undermined.

I have reached a point of near-despair. In my seventh decade of life, I observe that, while there are overarching parameters that can, and probably should, set out some sort of boundaries for Christian orthodoxy, it is simply not possible to establish a doctrinal statement with the kind of absolute certainty of correctness that so many accept as a test for faithfulness and, apparently, for friendship.

Ironic, isn’t it. I may pass from this life to the next with full assurance that the umbrella covering Christian faith is far broader than I used to think, that many with whom I don’t fully agree are still members of the body of Christ and of the household of faith, and yet with far fewer friends than I’ve ever had, because I no longer believe precisely the right thing.

This is not right.

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