Many years ago at another church, a husband and wife, who were visiting for the first time and who were admittedly “looking for a new church” met with me for about fifteen minutes following our 10:30 a.m. service. During this visit they asked me several questions about the church and my personal journey as a Christian and inquired about my preparation for the ordained ministry.
At one point in their questioning (which I must say was quite intense), the wife informed me that as a couple they had visited many churches (of various traditions) over the previous months and further stated how “disgusted” they were “with several of the Ministers” they had interviewed whom she and her husband believed were “unwilling to stand up for the Biblical and orthodox Christian faith.” She then asked me: “Do you agree that it is important for a church to uphold correct doctrine and the revealed truth?” My answer to her was (of course) “Yes, I do!”
From that point in our limited conversation I went on to explain the doctrinal beliefs of our Congregation and she and her husband eventually left that morning with much literature regarding our church family. I have to tell you that they never returned!
I must say that the visitors’ concern does raise a very important point. It is very true that ignorance of the basic tenets of the historic Christian Faith is widespread today among all types of “believers.” Indeed, even for many of the clergy (of all kinds of traditions, but especially among the liberal mainline Protestant clergy) the revealed Truth (the Holy Scriptures—the revealed Word of God) is not what is really important. Rather, what matters most to these so-called Ministers is the “sincerity” of the belief held by the seeker—even if such sincerity is overtly contrary to God’s Word.
Of course, generations of authentic Bible believing Christians have held that the Truth of the Gospel message is essential to mankind’s salvation. And, unfortunately, centuries of doctrinal feuds amongst denominations who have argued about indifferent nuances of this Truth have often attested (in a negative way) to the seriousness of this conviction. More important for one to consider, however, is the witness of the countless Christians who over the centuries (regardless of denominational affiliation), when faced with the choice of either being killed or publicly blaspheming their Lord and thus having their lives spared, have chosen to die for their uncompromising faith in Jesus Christ.
The unfortunate fact is, that for even the most “religious” people in the United States today, the Truth is not a high priority. Indeed, far too many of the “Christians” I have met in the course of my ministry as a Deacon, Presbyter, and Bishop in the Church have shown little confidence that they can (or should) know (or claim) any absolute “truth” beyond their own “feelings.”
What is truth? Religion or “faith” is simply a matter of personal choice for most in our nation, and the idea of “one way to God” is a foreign idea, even for many (if not most) of those who emphatically claim to be “Christian” (including “Evangelical” Christians). In the United States today, there exists not only an attitude of “my opinion is as good as yours,” but there is a definite hostility toward any person claiming to know any ultimate truth (the Truth), such as is contained in the inerrant and infallible Word of God. Thus, the claim made by Holy Communion Anglican Church in her Bylaws that “the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the rule and ultimate standard of the Christian Faith and contain all things necessary to salvation” is dismissed as self-righteous babble by “enlightened” secular humanists.
In the United States today, few Christians are able to satisfactorily explain their belief in the saving work of Jesus on the cross of Calvary, that place in time and space where Christ made, “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (see the Common Prayer Book, p. 254). Over the last two decades, the Evangelical Christian and esteemed sociological researcher George Barna found that 40% of all professing Christians in America believed that prayer does not have the power to change their circumstances.
Further, Barna states that slightly less than half of those who claim to be “born again” (that is, not just churched people, but regenerate Christians) as adults believe in absolute moral truth and only 40% of born again adults are convinced that Satan literally exists and that evil is a real force in the universe.
Even more shocking, less than 50% of self-professed “Evangelicals” agreed that “all people, whether they consider Jesus Christ to be their Savior or not, will live in heaven after they die”—that is, the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross for human sin was (and is not) necessary for a person’s salvation. To make such a claim, of course, either makes Jesus a liar or a lunatic: “And Jesus said, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me’” (John 14:6). And surely we have slid much farther from the truth since then.
The conviction that all Christians (Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) must share certain core beliefs—has eroded into a state of oblivion in America. Personally, I believe the cause of this erosion is a rampant individualism in our churches. The trend has been especially prominent among the members of the “baby boomer” generation (born from 1945 to 1964) and who have subsequently passed on these unbiblical values to their children and grandchildren who in turn are now passing them onto their children.
A huge proportion of the “baby boomers” adopted the notion that they must arrive at their religious beliefs quite apart from any “traditional” church affiliation, and certainly apart from the “oppressive” authority of Holy Scripture, says Gallup. However, failure to pay attention to historic and essential Christian doctrine, according to Barna, has not meant that the children and grand-children of the “baby boomers” have grown up with no ideas about religion, but that they have inherited “a lot of wrong ones” that will not serve them well in the long run, as they struggle in their lives with such ultimate issues as sin and evil, suffering and death.
Every aspect of the genuine Christian life is founded upon Biblical revelation, and without a clear understanding of the Truth of the Gospel, we can all be sidetracked or derailed in our living of the Faith. Without understanding essential Christian doctrine, we are unable to discern the real from the counterfeit. Without sound doctrine, the Christian churches have no basis for rejecting false teaching, refuting false doctrine, or distinguishing what is morally right from what is morally wrong.
In its broadest sense, doctrine is simply Biblical content. The ultimate source of orthodox Christian doctrine is God, while all other “doctrine” is either of human origin or of demons. Saint Paul reminds us of this in his Letter to the Galatians:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.”Galatians 1:6-9
Thus, having heard Saint Paul’s exhortation, we should not lament too much over the situation we find ourselves in today. It is important to remember that neglect of God’s revelation of himself in Holy Scripture is not just a twenty-first century phenomenon – the great prophet Isaiah, Saint Paul, and yes, even Jesus himself, lamented over this fact in their own times.
The Truth Makes People Free
So what shall we do? We shall continue to affirm a high view of Holy Scripture and the essential elements of Christian doctrine and creedal orthodoxy. However, we must also use the Bible as the basis for translating sound teaching into godly living.
The New Testament is filled with exhortations to make sound doctrine the heart of the Christian Faith and of the “work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). To negatively question the value of doctrine, then, is to deny the saving work of Christ on the cross, the Apostles’ witnessing to the power of the Resurrection, and the remarkable faith of the martyrs of the Church through the centuries. Some people argue that “doctrine deadens” or “doctrine is irrelevant,” but the reality is that the Truth brings life and unifies those who seek it. The Truth offers the only lasting solution to our problems. We must take essential Christian doctrine seriously if we desire to honor our Lord and Savior: “Jesus said … ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’” (John 8:31-32).
The essential Truth of the Christian Faith is clearly outlined in the definitive creedal statement of the Universal Church—the Nicene Creed. And as is taught in the Thirty- nine Articles of Religion (the classic and authoritative Anglican doctrinal confession), the Nicene Creed “ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for (it) may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture” (Article VIII).
As an ordained Presbyter (and Bishop-retired) serving Holy Communion Anglican Church , I am thoroughly committed to Bible-centered preaching that emphasizes a believer’s personal responsibility in his or her relationship with Jesus Christ. I freely admit that such a commitment may drive away the half-hearted, but it will attract the serious and the growing Christian.
“Who stands fast? Only the person whose final standard is not reason, principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)