One of the topics that came up over lunch a couple weeks ago was the importance or unimportance of doctrine. I’ve been thinking about it ever since and attempting to pull my ideas together on this.
Doctrine describes what a church group believes. Of course there’s no written agreement church members must sign that states they also believe what church leadership sets forth. This creates a dichotomy I call doctrine vs practice. Case in point: the Roman Catholic Church considers it wrong to take communion unconfessed of certain sins, however, membership is rarely (in my experience never) expected to answer for their status prior to taking the eucharist. If no one is really checking you believe what church says you must, is doctrine really that important? This is a hard one for me. If I checked every church’s doctrine to see if I believed all parts of it, I’d never go to a church. (I do question the very existence of God at times, which is kind of a keystone for Christian churches.) And if I rejected churches on that basis, I’d miss those with other qualities I seek. There have been several churches whose focus on saying you surrender your life to Jesus* has been overwhelming. But at the same time, these churches showed me a new quality of worship, or a willingness to accept those with differences. If I’d narrowed my requirements I never would have seen immersive, shouting, falling-down worship. I never would’ve felt connected and alive and elevated by such worship. I would have missed out.
Yet doctrine is important. It sets the tone for how we live our life in the faith that is ours. It is a written copy of something outsiders can look at and say, “This is what they believe.” If there are gaping problems in that doctrine, it becomes harder to reconcile oneself to identifying with the organization. It is easier for me to handle this because so far I still call myself my spiritual home. If I were to join a church as a permanent, frequently attending member, things would get more difficult. I suppose at that point the question changes. I would need to ask how doctrine is set and maintained. Churches like the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches have more rigid heirarchy with doctrine and rules being set by the top levels with little to zero input from the membership. In such a structure, changes happen less frequently. Some Protestant churches (Episcopal comes to mind) have mechanisms in place for doctrine and rules to be determined by leadership at a mid-level, with leaders coming together from around the country to meet and discuss proposed changes. This means changes can actually happen from time to time, after discussion and agreement. Some churches have an even higher level of participation. Congregationalist churches are designed to be run by the membership of the individual congregation. In theory at least, this means numerous changes could happen quickly, should the congregation all agree.
Each of these models of church government comes with good and bad. I’d argue that if a good idea was part of the doctrine of a heirarchy-heavy church, it would stick for a long time. But, problematic ideas would stick around too. Alternately a church that allows for doctrinal change very quickly could be changed for good or worse. It would be easy to weed out bad ideas, but just as easy for the church to be hijacked by negativity. I guess I’m glad I don’t feel the need to join a specific church because it means I don’t yet have to navigate this type of complexity. I may have to revisit the topic though if I get to a place of wanting a permanent church home in the future.
*I have some issues with the idea that just saying some words will change our lives now as well as our afterlife destination, not to mention the heavy salesman-like pressure this is most often accompanied by.