Monday, November 16, 2009

Doctrines Have Consequences

During the early days of the Jesus Movement, there was an attempt to get away from a vision in which people defined their Christian experiences primarily on the basis of dry intellectual doctrines which were considered to be devoid of life and vitality. Consequently, doctrines were often disparaged as unimportant. This was a symptom of the slow shift from modernism and its excessive emphasis on rationality to postmodernism and its excessive emphasis on mystical experiences. It was in some sense related to things going on in the larger culture, particularly in terms of the increased proliferation of hallucinogenic drugs. Jimi Hendrix's question, "Are you experienced?" seemed to emphasize subjective experiences, and was related to a simultaneous increase in the number of philosophers who questioned the existence of objective truth. Truth with a capital T was replaced by phrases such as "your truth" and "my truth". Multiculturalism and moral relativism can also be said to be related to the emphasis on subjective experiences over objective facts.

This made it very difficult to debate with unbelievers when comparing the relative merits of Christianity with the merits (or lack thereof) of other belief systems. Critical analysis of various belief systems was seen as passé, and being "tolerant" of various belief systems was equated with refusal to engage in such analysis.

Churches which emphasized personal subjective experiences, such as Pentecostal churches, were therefore more attuned to the new mentality than older, more established denominations, which I think helps to explain their rapid growth during that period and during subsequent decades. Jesus People sometimes adapted their evangelistic appeals to that mentality, using phrases such as "get high on Jesus" and "turn on to Jesus" in an attempt to connect with the youth subculture in a relevant way.

To be sure, there was more than an ounce of truth to criticisms of churches which appeared to have been sapped of their vitality by an excessive reliance on tradition and intellectualism. Some churches had clearly chosen to ignore large sections of the Bible which supported the idea that the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit were still available to modern believers. Many good things happened, in terms of church renewal, during the Jesus movement. But when the pendulum swung towards subjectivism, it sometimes swung too far.

Personal experience and doctrines are to authentic Christianity what yeast and flour are to the art of making leavened bread. Neither element is sufficient, but both elements are necessary.

Ironically, the idea that doctrine is unimportant is itself a doctrine. The manner in which we define our beliefs, in the form of written or unwritten doctrines, is vitally important, because it shapes our actions for better or worse.

Take, for example, the prosperity doctrine which has recently become popular in many Pentecostal churches, and also in some other large evangelical churches.

There's an interesting article in the December 2009 issue of the Atlantic magazine. (Here's a link to that article.) That cover story asks the provocative question "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?" But really, when you read the actual article, the author isn't claiming that Christianity itself caused the crash. Rather, Hannah Rosin argues that a particular subset of Christianity, consisting of people who subscribe to the "prosperity doctrine," was responsible in large part, because they had eschewed the historic Christian emphasis on thrift and fiscal responsibility in favor of a new doctrine which equates faith with undisciplined lifestyles which some others might rightfully regard as foolish.

As a committed Christian, my initial inclination when I saw the cover of that issue of the Atlantic was to think that it was just another example of how the secular media frequently seeks to find fault with the church in order to disparage Christianity itself. But after I'd read the article, I had to admit that the author had made some good points. (I was also pleased to see a separate article, in that issue, pertaining to Dave Ramsey and his attempts to call Christians to practice fiscal self-discipline.)

The article by Hannah Rosin didn't address every possible reason for objecting to the "prosperity doctrine". My own reasons for doing so include the ones listed in her article, but they also include the observation that such a doctrine diminishes an appreciation of the sovereignty of God, by treating God as if he's a cosmic vending machine who is obliged to deliver prosperity to anyone who follows a few simple principles. In that sense, the doctrine is insulting to God. (Admittedly, the insult is probably unintentional, but it's real nevertheless.)

That doctrine is also insulting to people who struggle with poverty, inasmuch as it implies that such struggles are invariably the result of lack of obedience to God. Since poverty is ostensibly always the fault of those who suffer from want, the doctrine becomes a convenient excuse for failing to offer meaningful and compassionate help to such people. Words such as "community" may be used with great frequency in such churches, but when you look beyond the attractive rhetoric, their pastors and other leaders rarely consider that they have any responsibilities to engage in traditional acts of charity in order to help people to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles which hinder them from experiencing true prosperity. Rather, such pastors seem to believe that their responsibility begins and ends with teaching the principle of sowing and reaping, in self-serving ways which conveniently happen to expand the size of their offerings from week to week. If unbelievers see this as a form of exploitation, we should hardly be surprised, because it is.

None of this is to deny that we reap what we sow to some extent, but things are often more complicated than that. The story of Job teaches us that people are unbalanced in their views when they adopt simplistic explanations for situations which can conceivably have multiple causes. Job's "friends" blamed Job for his troubles, assuming presumptuously that God was punishing him for some sin. But those who have read the entire story know that that wasn't the case at all. If anything, Job was tried precisely because God was proud of Job's faith in God, and sought to demonstrate the depth of that faith to Satan, who had suggested that Job would serve God only as long as Job continued to prosper. In the end, God's faith in Job was rewarded.

The "prosperity teachers" say that God wants us to prosper, citing scriptures in support of that view. I don't disagree with them on that point; but the question is, how is that prosperity supposed to come about? The Bible teaches that when one member of the Body of Christ hurts, all members hurt. It logically follows that when one member prospers, all members prosper. In other words, we all have a vested interest in relieving the suffering of fellow Christians, and in doing everything possible to help one another to succeed and prosper.

Rather than blaming the victims whenever we're presented with evidence that some of our fellow believers are suffering, we ought to see that as God's voice calling us to take action to help those believers whenever we have the means with which to do so. Whereas individual Christians often lack the means, the church collectively has the means more often than not, provided that they're more interested in helping people in need than in empire building.

One might describe this view as the "new prosperity doctrine" since it replaces the "old" doctrine which has caused so many problems in the church in recent years; but really, theirs is the newer of the two doctrines, since it has a shakier foundation insofar as scriptural support is concerned. The traditional biblical view promoted an understanding of the crucial role which believers individually and corporately play in meeting one another's needs, not just with specious rhetoric and spurious self-help theories, but with real acts of charity which promote human dignity.

When our doctrines deviate from the truths presented in the scriptures, the church suffers insofar as credibility is concerned. The history of the church is one of refinement in terms of our understanding of what is and is not biblical. In past centuries, bad doctrines have been used to rationalize the existence of monarchies (using the doctrine of the "divine right of kings") and slavery, just to name two examples of doctrines which we have now largely discarded as a result of deeper reflection on the requirements which can be found in God's word. We are fallible human beings, and we make mistakes, and we sometimes realize only in hindsight that our doctrines have had unintentional negative consequences. Maturity entails showing the humility to acknowledge one's mistakes and to do what is necessary in order to correct those mistakes. I pray that we will do so insofar as the prosperity doctrine is concerned.

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