In my online forays, I’ve observed that its increasingly common for someone to explicitly reject a doctrine, or the notion of orthodox teaching in general, on the basis of its abuse. You’ll quite often read something along the lines of, “I grew up in a church that had a heavy emphasis on doctrine X (depravity, judgment, sola scriptura, etc.). My pastors and elders used that to berate people, cow them into submission, or excuse horrible evils.” So, now, whenever they hear that, they can’t accept it because they know (feel) it’s a tool being used to control them, or some other harmful result. In fact, some will go further and turn into a principle of theological methodology to the point where, if a doctrine could be or has been used to hurt or damage someone, it’s to be rejected out of hand.
First off, I want to say: I get the impulse. For someone who’s been beat down with the Bible like it’s a weapon, or doctrines like they’re billy clubs, when they see someone pick them up, even as agents of healing, some PTSD is understandable. It can be hard to distance or differentiate a doctrine from its uses, especially if that’s all you’ve ever known. It doesn’t matter if someone’s trying to offer you an oxygen mask, if someone used one to choke you out in the first place, you’re going to flinch when you see it, even if it’s what you need most.
Everything Get’s Twisted
What I want to point is something very simple, though: just about any doctrine can be distorted or misused to harm others. Tim Keller makes this point in The Reason for God when speaking about the way Christianity has been distorted throughout church history. Many would look at the way Christianity’s been used to justify horrible evils as evidence of it’s inherently flawed character. Keller points out that even universally praised values like reason, freedom, and equality have been the battle-cry of unjust regimes like the Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France. Instead of seeing the abuses of Christianity and Christian theology as evidence of their falsehood, it rather points to the fact that something is so wrong in the human heart that it can take anything, no matter how good and true, and use it for wicked ends.
This is true not only of the types of teachings we culturally are more apt to reject like judgment, original sin, or inerrancy, or the types that we typically find appealing.
For instance, we tend to like the idea of a gracious, nonjudgmental God. A deity who loves us and affirms us unconditionally, mess and all, seems kinder, gentler, and difficult to imagine as a tool of oppression or power. And yet, this is the kind of doctrine that criminals use to justify their own crimes. If God doesn’t judge, then how dare we? If God would never punish, then how can we punish oppressors? In the same vein, I’ve seen people excuse their glaring character defects like pride, narcissism, harshness, and insensitivity to the fact that “it’s just my personality; God made me the way I am.”
Or take classic teaching on forgiveness. Christians are told that God is a forgiving God, having forgiven all of our sins in Christ. We then are told to forgive those who sin against us as Christ has commanded. Now, the problem here is that people have taken this teaching on forgiveness and used it to force victims to ‘forgive’ their abusers in ways that basically brush over sin and ignore the reality of justice.
Again, pick almost any doctrine you can think of (creation, fall, grace, etc.) and there is some way it can be abused and applied improperly. Given this reality, if our main criterion for accepting or rejecting doctrine whether or not it can be used to harm others, we’ll be left with a two-word creed: “I believe…”
Abusus Non Tollit Usum
This is why one of the most important rules I’ve had to learn in my theological studies is abusus non tollit usum, or “abuse does not take away use.” The basic point is that just because fire can destroy, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for cooking or keeping your home warm; an oxygen mask can still save your life, even if someone choked you with one; scalpels can still cut out cancer, even if someone was injured with one. In the same way, doctrines can still be good, true, beautiful, and helpful despite the ways they’ve been abused or misconstrued in the past.
As always, Jesus points the way forward in this regard. When correcting the Pharisees and Sadducees’ distortions of scriptural teaching, he didn’t do it by chucking Scripture, but by quoting it, and pointing them to its true meaning. (Matt. 9:12-13; 12:1-8; 19:4; 22:29, 41-45) In the Sabbath controversy, it wasn’t a denial of the Sabbath command that brought relief, but a renewed, deeper understanding of what the command was always about. Or again, when Paul wanted to correct the Judaizers who were saying the Gentiles weren’t full members of the covenant by faith alone, but needed the practice of Torah as well, he didn’t reject Torah. No, he went back to the Scriptures to make his argument (Gal. 3-5)
As difficult as it might be (and I get it, it’s really difficult sometimes) Jesus shows us how important it is to strive to distinguish the true doctrines of the Christian faith from their distorted applications and expositions. There will be things you might end up rejecting after the process. Often-times there is some bad theology that has to be rejected being taught along precious truths to be held firmly. I would encourage you to search the Scriptures, though, before rejecting something only on the basis of your negative experience with it. It may take some years of books, conversations, good churches, and maybe a good counselor, but it’s worth it to make sure you’re not rejecting some key truth of the Gospel because some wicked teacher ruined it for you.
Soli Deo Gloria