Why Doctrine Matters: Examining our Constitution

I’ve heard so many people say over the years, “Doctrine is not what’s important.” And what’s that classic bumper sticker? “My karma ran over your dogma.” Isn’t that cute? But of course, both of those statements are dogmas. The first statement is making a truth claim about the value of truth claims. It is no less doctrinaire than saying, “Doctrine is the only thing that’s important.” The bumper sticker’s statement is just a thinly disguised claim that Hinduism is better than Christianity. I can’t think of anything more dogmatic than that.

What’s In a Doctrine?

Lots of people don’t want to admit it, but concreteness is a property of beliefs. Anything you believe in on the level of a conviction is going to have a certain kind of concreteness. The word “doctrine” itself comes from the old Latin doctrina which means “a teaching.” Our doctrinal statements are the things we teach, not the things we kill people over. We believe them, and we strive to act like we believe them. Their concreteness is a large part of their preciousness.

Doctrinal Statements

This is why churches form their doctrinal statements (summaries of their teachings) with great care and change them only with significant advisement. It is why they pour over the Scriptures and consider the wisdom of earlier Christians, meditating on God’s truth and undertaking the task prayerfully. This is especially true for the statements we put in our churches’ constitutions.

At High Point, our constitution requires that we revise it every five years. This includes going over all the organizational and institutional parts of the constitution, as well as the doctrinal ones. The last time the elders and the appointed committee went over our constitution, four doctrinal questions came into view. We knew at the time, though, that we as an elder board didn’t have consensus about what changes to propose, if any, and weren’t ready to take action on these controversial questions. Before it is time to review our constitution again and consider making changes in these areas, our congregation will need to have some theological discussions, or as they were called in the Reformation, “disputations.”

Four Doctrinal Questions:

  1. Baptism and Membership:
    Under what circumstances should we expect someone applying for membership to be baptized if they believe they have already been validly baptized? Our doctrine is that we believe in baptizing believers on their own profession of faith, and that we should do so through the mode of immersion, since immersing people captures both the imagery of cleansing, and death and resurrection, rather than just the former. Here’s an example: a Marine accepts Christ during a tour in Iraq. He believes he should be baptized immediately and is sprinkled with a bottle of water. When he returns, should he be re-baptized through immersion? And if so, should it be optional, or should we require it for membership?
  1. Creation and Evolution:
    Should we specify that human beings were not created by means of evolution? Our doctrinal statement says that “…human beings were created in the image of God by an immediate act of God and not by a process of evolution…” Should it be a point of constitutional doctrine that an evolutionary means of creating humans is false, and that Genesis 1 and 2 can only refer to an immediate act of God that excludes evolution? Or, should the negative statement, “and not by a process of evolution” be removed strictly for purposes of not being unnecessarily combative? Another question may be, “Is our statement restrictive enough?” That is, evolution is only ruled out as a process of creating human beings, and not for any other form of biological life. And yet the words in Genesis 1 are exactly the same for the creation of life and animals as are used for the creation of humans. Should the statement rule out the creation of anything by evolution? Practical example: joining the elder board requires full affirmation of our doctrinal statement. Should otherwise qualified candidates be disqualified from serving on the elder board if they believe that human beings were created by God by means of a process of evolution?
  1. The End Times:
    Should we specify a pre-millennial return of Christ with a pre-tribulation rapture? That’s a pretty specific view of the end times. Some have argued that we cannot be a broadly evangelical church if we take so specific a view of the end times. Varying interpretations of Christ’s return include a 1,000 year earthly reign of Christ before the final judgments, and a “rapture” (a spiritual calling up of all Saints into the presence of Christ). There are at least four historic views of the rapture, identified primarily by their chronological relationship to the period of time called “the tribulation” (pre-tribulational, mid-tribulational, post-tribulational, and no rapture). There has also been long speculation as to whether or not the single reference to the thousand year millennial reign in Revelation 20 is a figurative round number or a literal period of time. Our doctrinal statement affirms a specific view of the rapture and a specific view of the millennium. Is this what we want? High Point Church emerged out of a fundamentalist Baptist background, in which pre-tribulational pre-millennialism was a position strongly defended. Do we still believe this, or do we want to adjust it? Or more importantly, what does the Bible teach, how sure are we, and how can we best reflect it in our doctrinal statement?
  1. Statement on Hell:
    The wording of our constitution says that the unredeemed will be “consigned to the lake of fire.” No further statement is made about eternal conscious torment. The word hell is never used. Because of this, the statement is open both to an “eternal conscious torment” view of hell or to a view called “annihilationism” (that after final judgment resulting in a period of suffering, the damned will cease to exist). This openness had not been noticed before, but I have also found evidence that that openness was intentionally written when this version of the constitution was drafted. Do we want to keep that openness, or do we want to focus down onto a single view?

I will be explaining these four questions a little more in upcoming blogs. But most importantly, we should welcome theological disputation. We should want to study our Bibles, hear the reasons to believe in each view, and seek to become more faithful to God through that process. And in doing so, we might hope to know God’s truth better, enjoy a better knowledge of what he’s really like, and learn how to love each other better.

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