I’ve lived long enough to realize that spirituality does not grow without attention. Not only that, it doesn’t grow in isolation – those who think that they can be “solo Christians” without being involved in a local church that is doing the work of God in serving and preaching the Gospel are kidding themselves.
Of course, all churches are imperfect, and some are downright unhealthy. But looking for perfection in a church, doctrinal or otherwise, is “allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” It’s like looking for the perfect hospital before you get treated – you’ll probably die first!
But why do churches and denominations differ so much in doctrine and practice? The truth is, some of them are unhealthy and stagnant, while others are just customized by the local needs, culture, and leadership. So go find one you fit into 80%. And grow dammit!
What doctrinal differences matter?
I see four types of doctrinal differences to be aware of, some valid, some not so much:
In cases where there is a profound mystery, like predestination/free-will, love/truth, mercy/justice, we merely need to avoid taking a singular side. By this evaluation, both extreme Calvinism or Arminianism are already viewed as toxic, not just a “stream.”
Overemphasis on predestination can lead to unhealthy ideas like not needing to evangelize (“those who are going to be saved will be, with or without us”) or not showing any Christian fruits because we repented once (“once saved always saved” – the question is, were you regenerated in the first place?).
Overemphasis on personal choice can lead to a type of “holiness” doctrine where you are saved by grace, but kept and sanctified by effort, always in danger or losing your salvation through poor performance.
A balance of paradoxical truths is healthy, and I’ve proposed weighted paradoxes, an 80/20 approach. Pick the primary principle (e.g. predestination) and don’t lose the secondary, limiting principle (e.g. free will). For more see Solving spiritual dilemmas with weighted paradoxes. 1
2. Temporal / Locational Emphases
Christianity is to be applied with cultural relevance, which means in certain times and places, certain imbalances may need to be addressed – such as individualism and materialism in the West, superstition and demonic possession in animist and superstitious cultures, sexual morality among the promiscuous. This is totally valid, though dangerous if we are not also presenting the biblical balance of other topics. Emphasis, but not myopia. The full counsel of God needs preaching.
3. Historical Emphases and Biases
This is one of the biggest issues with older churches, they often reflect the righteous or unrighteous emphases of previous generations, and this needs biblical reform. Living faith and courage are required for this. C.S. Lewis gave us some advice on how we can tell what are timeless emphases versus historical when he recommended this pattern for reading:
“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
“The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”
“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.” 2
4. Unbiblical Emphases and Doctrines
The Reformation continues as we return to scripture AND mature our translation, hermeneutical, homiletical, and practical theology.
Currently, I think the church is being reformed in a few areas, including moving away from hyper-complementarianism (patriarchy) to a balanced partial complementarianism (not the other extreme pole of egalitarianism), a jettisoning of eternal conscious torment (I think Conditional Immortality should be the orthodox position, see rethinkinghell.com). 3 4
Elsewhere I’ve criticized unhealthy “orthodox heresies,” including: 5
- Rejection of the Self
- Rejection of the body
- Arminian Holiness
- Eternal Security
- Inerrancy of Scripture
- Eternal Conscious Torment in Hell
Doctrinal differences may be confusing, off-putting, or hard to understand, but conformity to any doctrines beyond the essentials should not be our measure of a good church. Some churches do suck, and you need to know how to avoid them. 6
Are their emphases kind, and appropriate for the current local culture? Do the people exhibit kindness? Does the church serve or rule it’s members? There are many marks of a healthy church, and while doctrinal balance and proper cultural relevance are necessary, don’t look for perfection. 7
- Solving spiritual dilemmas with weighted paradoxes (wholereason.com) ↩
- On the Incarnation: Saint Athanasius (amazon.com) ↩
- rethinkinghell.com ↩
- A New Testament Defense of Conditional Immortality (wholereason.com) ↩
- Orthodox Heresies – 7 False Doctrines of the Church (wholereason.com) ↩
- Why most churches suck (wholereason.com) ↩
- What is a healthy church? (wholereason.com) ↩