Emergents, and the Importance of Doctrine

This is not my first post on this topic and it surely will not be my last. That is because we live in an age in which doctrine is downplayed, theology is ignored or disdained, and sound teaching is looked upon as a thing of the past. And I am not just speaking of all the usual suspects here, such as the liberal mainline denominations.

Sadly, many evangelicals are embracing this dangerous mindset. This is especially seen in the emerging church movement which is so very trendy and popular in so many circles in the West today. They actually delight in moving beyond doctrine, as if it were a bad cold to be gotten over.

They have bought the foolishness of the world which says that truth does not matter, and that to strongly affirm it somehow makes you intolerant and unloving. They have soaked up worldly understandings on these matters, and are therefore averse from standing up for biblical truth and defending Christian doctrine.

There are of course numerous appeals in the Bible to standing firm doctrinally and paying heed to sound teaching. I here wish to address just one such passage, which was part of my daily reading today. It comes near the end of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance” (15:1-3a).

The text goes on to speak of the core gospel claim: the death and resurrection of Jesus for our salvation: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (vv 3b-8).

But those first three verses certainly spell out the massive importance of right doctrine. Indeed, Paul makes it clear that our salvation depends on getting these matters right. It is by this particular gospel that we are saved – not another. Doctrine therefore matters. Indeed it is a matter of life and death.

We learn several things from this passage. First, this is not some generic Jesus or some generic salvation or some generic faith. It is a very specific set of beliefs about all three. True saving faith is not just feeling good about Jesus, or having a general “faith” in whatever.

True saving faith has a specific object: the reality of Jesus, his death on a cross, and his rising from the dead, for our sins. That is the core gospel message and one which never can be diluted or minimised. Without this foundational set of beliefs, there simply is no Christianity.

As Marion Soards comments, “This set of descriptive phrases makes it clear that Paul preached a definite message and that the Corinthians accepted that message in the specific terms of Paul’s presentation. In other words, at the outset of their belief, the Corinthians were in agreement with Paul concerning the substance of the gospel. Moreover, that message as preached and believed had the saving effect of bringing faith to the members of the church in Corinth. As Paul recalls the origins of faith in Corinth, he highlights that there was a definite foundation to the church’s beginning.”

And as has been widely noted, this message is not a new innovation of Paul’s. He is simply passing on an already existing accepted teaching. As Gordon Fee remarks, “it is generally agreed that in vv. 3-5 Paul is repeating a very early creedal formulation that was common to the entire church”.

Anthony Thiselton comments, “Belief in the resurrection of Christ is no mere ‘Pauline’ invention. It is expressed as part of the pre-Pauline bedrock of Christian faith, as a creed or confession of faith, which both declares a content of truth (belief that) and is like nailing one’s colors to the mast as a self-involving ‘Here I stand’. The readers received (v. 1) what Paul himself had also first received and then handed on (v. 3). These words serve in effect as terms for the transmission and reception of a prior, given tradition that is to be guarded and preserved”

Yet today many believers get uptight and accuse you of being judgmental, intolerant and unloving if you even dare to uphold a minimum of doctrinal standards. Simply to affirm the uniqueness of Christ and his sole role in mediating between God and sinful man can get you into hot water with many wishy-washy believers today.

That is certainly true in the trendy emergent church movement where doctrine is frowned upon, certainty is disparaged, and doubt is welcomed. So steeped in worldly notions of tolerance and acceptance are they that they will turn on other believers if they attempt to proclaim the unique and exclusive message of salvation in Christ.

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Indeed, any and all doctrine is seen as divisive and un-Christlike! As Michael Wittmer points out in his helpful 2008 volume, Don’t Stop Believing, many of the emergents refuse to even have a statement of faith. They say it alienates people, and claim that love must always be inclusive. Being, not believing, is what is important, claim the emergents.

Wittmer replies, “I appreciate this renewed turn to practice, but wonder why we must turn from doctrine to get there. . . . They correctly note that the Christian life is about loving God and loving neighbour, but as is typical of postmodernism, they often define love in exclusively inclusive terms.”

But biblical love is doctrinal, so it of necessity is exclusive. While plenty of people can quote what Jesus said in John 3:16 at the drop of a hat, they forget to include the very next two verses which are integral to his entire message in John 3: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

That is as exclusive as it gets, and it of course comes in the context of the great love verse – verse 16. And note what is said repeatedly in these three verses: belief is paramount here. Not just feelings, but actual adherence to truth claims.  Says Wittmer:

“Jesus added that belief in Christ is the sole difference between those who live forever and those who are condemned to destruction. . . . We must believe truth to be saved, for it is truth that the Spirit uses to regenerate and bring us into the Kingdom of God.”

He continues, “Contrary to what some postmodern innovators believe, those who reject these foundational doctrines of the Christian faith cannot be saved, no matter how swell they are and how well they behave. Being good is not enough. We must know and believe something – the basic facts about salvation – to be saved.”

Doctrine, in other words matters – and it matters big time. Right doctrine and right belief will determine if we are right with God by experiencing his only appointed means of salvation from sin and its penalty. Paul knew this. The early church knew this. All true Christians have known this.

Yet the emergents and others clearly think all these folks have been wrong, and we must just dispense with doctrine and truth because they think it is too divisive and too unloving. Well I have news for these guys – the only thing that is unloving is to allow people to go to a lost eternity because trendy Christians have cozied up to the world instead of the Word of God.

Truth matters and doctrine matters, so if we truly love others, we had better be prepared to deal with both – unapologetically.

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