“Doctrine divides” became a popular refrain in Theological Liberalism, and its popularity continues as this heresy is rebranded as the “Emergent Church.” The idea is basically that when people believe different things about the world, it gets in the way of fellowship and creates a division between them. This is true after a fashion. However, being that I am a Christian rather than a Theological Liberal, I am compelled to put it differently: When a person disbelieves the truth, it creates a division between him and those who do believe the truth. This more precise formulation makes it clear that doctrine as such does not divide. Only false doctrine divides. Unfortunately, “doctrine divides” is itself a false doctrine—a teaching that contradicts what Christ taught on the subject.
But what is the appeal of such a doctrine? What does it bring to the table besides alliteration? Usually, the division brought about by doctrine is seen as inhibiting love. For some people, this is simply because division gets in the way of banding together to help the less fortunate (this was a big thrust of Theological Liberalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries.) However, as modernism gives way to postmodernism and Theological Liberalism becomes less about the benevolent plans of a centralized organization and more about subjective hyper-individualistic experience, doctrine’s supposed infringement upon love takes a different form. It has become essential rather than circumstantial. Division doesn’t just inhibit organized efforts to love, but is increasingly seen as being, itself, unloving.
Many people have taken up the idea that unconditional love means unconditional acceptance. Accordingly, doctrine and its standards of truth and falsehood inhibit acceptance and therefore love. They then conclude that doctrine is unimportant at best and hurtful at worst. This is reasonable in its own way. It follows a simple modus ponens:
1) If absolute love means absolute acceptance, then doctrine is harmful.
2) Absolute love does mean absolute acceptance.
3) Therefore doctrine is harmful.
It’s important to remember, however, that one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens. It’s just as logical to say:
1) If unconditional love means unconditional acceptance, then doctrine is harmful.
2) Doctrine is not harmful.
3) Therefore unconditional love does not mean unconditional acceptance.
So how do we choose between these two equally logical arguments? Well, we decide which of the conflicting premises is better supported. It’s “Doctrine is not harmful” vs “Absolute love means absolute acceptance.”
If one were to consult the Bible on the subject, it would be an open-and-shut case. Jesus couldn’t have been clearer about the danger of false teachers and the necessity of his Church teaching what he himself taught. Of course, if someone is already shying away from doctrine, he probably doesn’t particularly care what the Bible says on the subject. Thankfully, our reason comes to the same conclusion. As I indicated at the beginning of this post, “doctrine divides” is, itself, a doctrine. After all, a doctrine is nothing more than “a particular principle, position, or policy taught or advocated.” So even the “doctrine divides” crowd recognizes the beneficial importance of doctrine—they just pursue it absentmindedly instead of deliberately, and it shows in the quality of what they produce. Reason’s verdict, it seems, is just as open-and-shut as Scripture’s.
But what shall we make of the idea that absolute love means absolute acceptance? Once again, a Biblical consultation makes the answer very plain. Scripture is all about God’s perfect love for humanity, but it’s very clear that God does not accept every behavior, every belief, or even every person. Jesus was abundantly clear about narrow roads leading to Life and broad paths leading to Hell. But again, for those who disregard Scripture, reason still has something to say.
Absolute love does not mean absolute acceptance for a very simple reason: it is better to give than to receive. This is a Biblical principle, but its current popularity is generally due to the way it coincides with the imagination of the post-Christian West. Theological Liberals generally sees the Bible as a loose collection of documents written by a diverse crowd among whom the only real connection is an attempt to make sense of their various religious experiences. It can therefore be disregarded whenever our own religious experiences say “no” but held onto whenever the two coincide. For most, the two do coincide in the case of “it is better to give than to receive.”
So how does this apply to love and acceptance? Acceptance is all about receipt. Love, on the other hand, is all about giving. Accordingly, an all-loving God gives all of Himself to the world. However, this does not mean he must accept that which stands in the way of that giving. Sinful humanity is opposed to God; faithlessness rejects His gifts. As a result, those who do not believe remain condemned. This is not due to any deficiency in God’s love. It is only due to our own rejection of what was given.
As C.S. Lewis noted, when most people say “God is love,” they really mean “Love is god.” Despite how similar they sound, there is a world of difference. According to the former, there is a wonderful thing called love. We see glimmers of it in our lives, but as through a mirror dimly. We do not practice or recognize love as we should. In God, however, we encounter love as it truly is because God is love. On the other hand, when we mean “Love is god,” we still notice that there is a wonderful thing called love that we see glimmers of in our lives. However, we then elevate this thing from our own experience above all others and treat it as a god.
When we take this route, we make an idol of our own pitiful efforts at love and end up with all sorts of erroneous ideas about God because we are building Him in our own image. If we then take Biblical doctrine and consider it unloving, the only standard we are comparing it to is our own invention. At this point, our complaints about God and His teachings amount to nothing more than, “these teachings must not be God’s, because if I were God, I would teach something different.” It is hard to overstate how impoverished this experiential view of love is. It is far better to receive our ideas about love from the doctrines of One who is, Himself, Love than to box Him in by our own misconceived doctrines.