June 15, 2004

Is doctrine dangerous?

What a sad day. In a move that appears to be an intensely politicized move, the Southern Baptist Convention of the U.S. voted today to withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance. Read the story here in the secular press: MSNBC - Southern Baptists quit world organization. Christianity Today has yet to report on the vote; when they do, I'll post the link.

"I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the wrold know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
...Jesus Christ, Lord of the Church, John 17

I recognize that cooperation with ecclesiastical organizations is not the functional equivalent of the unity Christ prayed for all believers, but the dissolution of such bonds of fraternal cooperation must certainly be tested closely so that no political motives--which are obviously contrary to the prayer of Christ--can creep in. While some of the SBC's issues with the BWA have centered on doctrinal issues (though a quick reading the BWA's responses to the SBC's challenges one struggles to understand what doctrinal stances remain at issue) it's hard not to imagine other, less pious matters at the heart of this schism.

Reading Alister McGrath's excellent book Reformation Thought: An Introduction in preparation for my classes at Oxford this summer I came across a fascinating statement: "One of the purposes of doctrine is to divide" (23). The idea sparked the following thinking, which I'd love to have a few of my thoughtful readers test out for me. If it is true that we define doctrine to divide, then we must define only enough doctrine to separate ourselves from those teachings from which we must remain separate--heresies against the essential doctrines of Christianity--if we are to remain within the will of Christ as expressed in his John 17 prayer above. When we overdefine doctrine to the point that we encourage division within the Body of Christ, we violate the High Priestly Prayer.

An important question in the midst of this conversation: Is there a difference between promoting divisions and pointing out distinctions? And if there is, what does that difference look like in real-world terms?

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