Deeds not Creeds: The Anti-Doctrine Doctrine
A new variety of church-growth movement is squarely upon us. It decisively attempts to illegitimize any attempt at “doctrinal wall-building” for fear of excluding those frankly, who are unwilling to believe. This sentiment has found itself at home in an increasing number of churches in recent years; being a boon to church growth (numerically) by removing those pesky doctrinal encumbrances which often cause people to seek membership elsewhere.
“Our very survival is at stake,” we are told. The church, it is suggested, is to be about “tearing down walls” rather than building them; having entered into a “new” church-age whereby we focus attention copiously on harmony with others rather than differences. Commonalities draw us together. Differences divide us. The church is to be a place of unity, fellowship and cohesion. Anything that combats such a state of unanimity is quickly expelled as discordant, contentious and sinful. (Sadly, about the only “sin” that can be agreed upon in our modern user-friendly church culture is that of being disruptive to the alliance of “group sentiment.”) Such division, of course, is seen as a direct path to the most horrific sin of all: exclusivism.
This line of thinking has ultimately led to a tremendous lapse in the teaching of doctrine in the modern church. We are now growing a generation of pastors that are utterly incapable of a biblical gospel presentation, yet they have devised a 10 point strategy to improve one’s financial security according to purportedly “biblical principles.” Such unbalanced teaching is avowed to be a gateway which “gets people in the door of the church” for the gospel presentation he is downright unqualified to proclaim and which will never be attempted.
While this infusion of worldly ideology into the church is frustrating enough, insult has now officially been added to injury by the taking of the next logical step in this spiral of doctrinal decay. It seems now that the teaching of theology is to be understood as somehow counterproductive to the work of the church. The discord which is produced by the teaching of sound doctrine splinters the church and allegedly renders it ineffective in its task of making disciples. Thus, the tasks of the church are being allowed to trump the teachings of the church in terms of importance. In the end assessment, according to this movement, it is not important that we believe properly, but that we act properly. It is more important to do the things that Jesus did than to believe the words Jesus spoke. Whereas there has always existed a synergy between faith and the action which it produces, there is now a discrediting of faith altogether in favor of “proper action” by whatever means necessary.
This is a counter-biblical mentality, focusing God’s favor toward the works of one’s hands and having utter disregard for the cognition and faith of the truth which sets one free by grace. It is most certainly a works-oriented gospel of fruitful labor rather than a grace-based gospel to those who believe. The denial of the necessity of proper belief proposes an impossible circumstance for one to be saved regardless of one’s actions.
Romans 10:14 (ESV)
14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
Can one even call one’s work a “gospel ministry” if doctrines are not preached? Is not the gospel itself a doctrinal truth to be heard, believed and received?
Yet, this movement, in an effort to distinguish its non-dogmatic stance from the traditional “divisive” methodology of preaching doctrines with scriptural clarity has coined a phrase which summarizes its position on the matter. This phrase is a sort of battle cry against the propagation of those abrasive, provoking and divisive standards that other less cutting-edge church groups are so intent on upholding. The phrase sums up the attitude of clean, unadulterated devotion and service to Christ (or deity of your choice – we’re not doctrinal here) without any encumbrance of doctrinal assent required.
The phrase states simply: “Deeds, not Creeds.” Work it into a sentence of your choice: such as, “God is interested in deeds, not creeds,” or “our church is all about deeds, not creeds. Dude.”
As one who has expended a great deal of time and energy studying the nuances of this unorthodox movement, I’ll admit that I am a bit more sensitive than are some to the finer hints of the presence of this anti-doctrinal doctrine. The “deeds, not creeds” phrase, of course, eliminates the requirement of one having a developed sense of discernment. Typically, when that phrase is touted, it is done so as an outright challenge to those of us “Bible thumpers” who must defend ourselves for having the nerve to own up to a doctrinal position. The phrase is pre-fabricated to defend one’s lack of biblical clarity on doctrinal issues. Sadly, it is touted as a more spiritual position to be in than to actually know, believe and preach the scriptures with clarity.
With this background in place, try to imagine my surprise last night when I walked into a break-out session at a denominational event in which the “deeds not creeds” doctrine was attempted to be spoon fed to my very unwilling mouth in the context of a session entitled, “How Healthy is Your Church?”
The session was being led, not surprisingly, by two men who referred to themselves as “church growth consultants.” They had a projection screen setup and were clearly going to take us through a presentation entitled something to the effect of “Hindrances to Church Growth.” Well, this wasn’t the same subject matter begged by the title of the class, but I was here- so I may as well listen & learn, right? What I learned could be the content of another post altogether. It lacked any biblical direction whatsoever, but was a compilation of human argument & traditional wisdom. In my line of thinking, “church growth consultants” would be the men you might call after you’ve done everything the apostles said, but still needed some help. Perhaps such an official might be able to help one find some things in the scripture that were inadvertently missed on one’s pastoral journey. In this case, however, I got a completely different response from that expectation altogether.
I happen to be one who thinks that the scripture is utterly sufficient to provide the church with her needs. As a pastor, I turn to the scriptures for guidance and direction continually. I learn what the purposes of my church are from the scriptures. I learn the skillset which the Holy Spirit imputes into the congregation to accomplish these purposes from the scriptures. I have learned – and taught – exclusively doctrines from the scriptures which have shaped the nature and vision of our church. I do not think that we need to turn to industry, government or secular educational wisdom in order to know the needs of the church, nor do I think these worldly institutions could begin to provide such counsel. And, I do not apologize for that approach. I trust wholly that the scripture is sufficient on the subject.
In this short course, however, not only was there a lack of biblical basis for any of the points made, there seemed to be a silent disdain for such a basis. This became fairly clear as we continued to study “Hindrances to Church Growth,” one of which was noted at the next bullet which stated, “too strong of a focus on dogma.”
Having too strong of a focus on dogma is a hindrance to church growth? Am I missing something here?
For the record, “dogma” refers to “an established belief or doctrine held by a religious entity which is considered authoritative and is not to be disputed or diverged from” (my paraphrase of a decent Wikipedia definition). In other words, a dogma is that which is considered an absolute within the confines of the organization supporting the dogma. Now, in our post-modern culture, dogma has certainly gotten a bad rap. After all, a culture which absolutely states that there is no absolute truth will naturally steer away from dogma altogether (other than their own, of course); since its very definition assigns unwavering assent to a principle. The church, however, is an institution which requires dogma. There are truths which the church holds to that are considered authoritative and indisputable based on the scriptures which claim them. An example might be this: “Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah, born of a virgin, crucified for the sins of fallen humanity, raised on the third day, rules at the right hand of the father and will return bodily to the earth to judge the living and the dead.” This is a dogma. It is a statement of faith- however detailed or generally depicted – which is ascribed to by the organization. Simply put, if you belong to my church (for example) you should not have a problem with any of the above statements. If you have a problem with any of the above statements, you should not belong to my church. Dogma is the doctrinal standard which allows a church to set barriers which preserve the tenets of faith and restrict the deterioration thereof.
So is “too strong a focus on dogma” a hindrance to church growth? Only if you’re Unitarian, or the “growth” you have in mind is unbiblical and entirely numerically oriented.
But, knowing that dogma has such a negative typical usage in our culture I gave the church growth expert the benefit of the doubt and awaited his explanation. I was sure he was going to fix his over-generalized bulleted axiom. He was surely going to clarify.
While still formulating a proposed “benefit of the doubt” on his behalf, he removed all such doubt by unapologetically reasserting, “We all know that God is more interested in our actions than our beliefs.”
Few things frustrate me quite to the extent of the “we all know” preface. Suddenly, you are in an indefensible position, because everyone else already knows a contrary truth to your own. How ironic that those who take issues with doctrine, primarily out of disdain for the prospect of absolute truth, all know how true their supposed truth is!
In that moment I found myself bewildered with indecision. Do they all ”know” that God is more interested in actions than belief? Was I the only one who was going to disagree? Should I stand up in front of the small group and shout, “no he’s not!?” Should I have stood and preached,
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work?
According to this text, we cannot possibly comprehend, let alone be prepared for any good work outside of the doctrinal training of scripture.
Should I have noted Paul’s exhortation to Titus that our pastors,
Titus 1:9 (ESV)
9 …must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it?
Or what he said to Timothy?
Titus 2:1 (ESV)
1 … as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.
I wondered in that moment, “did Jesus had to pay damages when he overturned the temple tables?” Did that laptop and projector have my name on them?
Before my compulsions took any real-world root, the church growth consultant had moved onto another uninspired – but at least not anti-inspirational – sentiment. Fortunately, this was “the quick version” of an apparently more in-depth presentation on the church’s need to not have a “too strong of a focus on dogma.” I am more tolerant of the inconsequential than the heretical, so I kept my seat.
For the record, the church growth specialist certainly knows his business. I am in no wise condescending of the ability of a church who embraces the “deeds not creeds” philosophy to grow a church. Such a church will most certainly grow.
It will grow with people who are complacent about the dogma of the gospel altogether. It will grow with people who do not know and cannot discern any distinction between the scriptures and the Koran. It will grow full of people who are content in their sin; being uncertain that an immutable and inspired testimony of God has condemned it. They will teach others to do the same and join them in judgment; most likely decrying lack of warning all-the-while.
And, in the worst cases I can only imagine they will claw at the eyes of their false teachers for all eternity; enraged at having been deceived by a soft, no-fault gospel into being one of their apostate pastor’s church-growth trophies.
Make no mistake… this anti-doctrine doctrine will grow churches right into further apostasy until such a time as the scripture has declared.
1 Timothy 4:1-2 (ESV)
1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared.
May one find hope in the same text as Paul notes also the cure for church who decries “deeds not creeds.” That solution:
1 Timothy 4:6-7 (ESV)
6 If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness.
Get your creed on, church! Our commission is to make disciples – not bigger churches. You can generate mere “church growth” preaching from the Oprah Winfrey program. To make a disciple, you must have dogma. Those churches who set their eyes on disciple making – instead of church growth increasing – will preach a biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Christ crucified for sins: a dogma. They will pursue the spiritual development of their members by effective communication of the principles of God’s Word: creating dogma. And they will test all other teachings – even if they come from within their own denominational ranks – with scripture itself.
1 Timothy 4:11-16 (ESV)
11 Command and teach these things. 12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
Perhaps the artificial “growth” of church is indeed hindered by having “too strong of a focus on dogma.” Real church growth, however, is symptomatic of it.