In the early days of the internet, I remember defending asked to prove my Christianity. I was a new pastor, new to social media—we weren’t even calling it that yet—and eager to talk about church and faith. It was interesting and fun.
At one point, someone I did not know began to ask me questions about what I believe. At first I thought they were curious about Christian doctrine. Aah, the naïveté of youth.
It soon became apparent I was being tested. Are you worthy? Do you qualify? Are you really one of us or just a pretender?
Interestingly, every question was about what I believe. There wasn’t one about how I lived.
This practice of checking who’s in and who’s out based on what they profess to believe, is not the best use of doctrine. Granted our history here is not good.
For example, when the early church gathered at Nicaea to debate and determine right belief (the literal definition of orthodoxy), those who argued for the eventual ‘losing’ side were excommunicated.
Recently, I came upon an understanding of doctrine from famed theologian Henri Nouwen. I like this much better:
Doctrines are not alien formulations which we must adhere to but the documentation of the most profound human experiences which, transcending time and place, are handed over from generation to generation as a light in our darkness.Reaching Out, Kindle loc. 960
I love this image of doctrines as documentation of human experience handed down from our forebears to be a light in our darkness, illuminating our journeys.
Far too often, doctrines become boundaries. If you are on the “correct” side, welcome. If you are outside, sorry, but you are not one of us. That’s what my early internet “friend” was doing.
It’s happening right now in my own denomination. A group who have declared themselves the keepers of the “orthodox” faith, have decided others of us do not belong because we disagree with them, or are at least open to understandings other than theirs. Since we “heretics” won’t leave, they tell us they must.
Somewhere along the way, we stopped seeing one another as fellow pilgrims traversing the valley of the shadow of death together. Instead, we’ve become zealots convinced that God will like us more if only we could remove the “unclean” from our midst. It’s troubling.
Also, I would argue it’s not the way of Jesus. He consistently surprised the religious leaders of the day by hanging around, and even touching those who were considered outside—the word they used was unclean.
Jesus challenged these clean/unclean boundaries, and often reminded the “clean” they weren’t as tidy as they thought themselves to be (Matthew 23:27-28).
Light in our darkness
Maybe it’s time to recognize that all of us need some light for this journey.
I’m reminded of a famous definition of evangelism from D. T. Niles:
Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.
Nouwen appears to imply that doctrine is similar. It’s documentation handed down through the centuries, from one pilgrim to the next—a light in the darkness—leading us to the bread of life.
May we decide to journey together.