Doctrine and Life Go Together–Mostly, but Sometimes Not

beliefs

Why Indiana Jones? Why not?

Paul’s injunction for Timothy to keep a close watch on his “life and doctrine” in order that he might save his hearers has rung in my ears ever since I realized I was called to the minsitry (1 Tim. 4:16). Life and doctrine go together–what the mind and heart believe, the hands perform. This is why sound doctrine leads to sound living. When we understand the truth of the world, ourselves, and God, how we live in the world will begin to be aligned and attuned to this realities.

Except when it doesn’t.

See, while I still believe that doctrine and life go together, I think there’s a bit of confusion more broadly about the connection between believing and living. People seem to have bought into a popular version of what economists call “rational actor theory”, where (on my dummy definition) people make their decisions in a goal-oriented, reflective, and maximizing way. In other words, there’s something of a clean link up between beliefs and behaviors. If you know one, you should be able to draw a straight line to the other.

This is the kind of folk theory you see at work in a lot of our conversations around politics, or in theology, and so forth. Joe believes in penal substitution, and he just punched Lou in the face, so clearly it’s his violent ideology at work. Jenny struggles with anxiety, so that must be her Arminian theology of providence crushing her with stress. Jake has been flirting with progressive theology lately, so we can expect him to acquire a harem soon. And so forth. Or, we’re shocked when someone who believes as we do acts in a manner we never would.

But the more I watch people, the less that seems correct. Beliefs matter, but humans aren’t consistent, believing machines. For one thing, not all of our beliefs are consistent with each other. Talk to the average person on the street (even the well-educated ones) for very long and it’s easy to find unresolved tensions and contradictions in their thought. In which case, they might act in such a way that deeply contradicts one belief they hold, because it is perfectly consistent with another, different belief and they just haven’t connected the dots.

What’s more, even when people do have consistent beliefs, they don’t always live them out consistently. This is the point of talking about weakness of will, or akrasia as Aristotle termed it. We just know that people often consciously act against their best or conscious beliefs under pressure, temptation, or desire. Or we rationalize and note the way we are exceptions to what we generally expect for others and so forth.

Or even further, we forget that there are usually a number of different conclusions you can draw from your collection of beliefs. Especially if you’re evaluating someone else’s position from the outside. I mean, if you can’t even keep all of your own beliefs straight (as is likely), it’s not surprising that you might have trouble with others’. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain that “no, point B is not what I believe, nor does it even plausibly follow from point A” to various non-Christian friends over the years on any number of issues.

Finally, (and we could keep going) we forget the way various psychological, emotional, social, and historical pressures influence us from moment to moment, in surprising ways. Traumas (or graces) from the way we were raised might create residual behavioral patterns at the level of habit in a way that isn’t simply dislodged by a good syllogism and a few propositions being switched around in your grey matter.

Theologically, a lot of this makes sense, right? Yes, we were created in the Image of God but that’s been broken such that all of our faculties (reason, will, etc) are damaged by sin. They don’t always function or connect up properly. Even after the grace of Christ comes into our lives, the Holy Spirit is at work to restore us progressively. In which case, there will be many times when our beliefs don’t match up with our living.

I mean, this is a lot of why Paul spends so much time reminding people of what they believe, but then also trying to connect the dots between that and how they live. Whether out of folly or rebellion, they weren’t drawing proper conclusions for living from the doctrine that they were intellectually believing.

More positively, this is part of why people will surprise us with how much better they live than we imagine their beliefs would lead them to. Tim Keller talks about the way the Holy Spirit’s work of common grace in the lives of unbelievers leads many to live more wisely and graciously in some respects than believers. Some of that happens, I think, by a happy disconnect between some of the more corrosive beliefs a person may hold and their instinctive behavior. Or, there are great behaviors produced by odious or harmful beliefs.

There are a number ways this can go.

One, I think, is to maybe slow us down from drawing too straight a line between the behaviors of our intellectual opponents and the beliefs of theirs we despise. Yes, again, I do think there is a connection between life and doctrine. There are beliefs that, held in the right way, change us for the better or for the worse in the long run. But in the mess of history, unless they come out and explicitly explain their behavior, it can be very difficult to interpret just what led someone do the dastardly thing they did. Or it could be that someone–under the pressure of desire, peers, etc.–actually betrayed their beliefs. I’m not saying we can’t draw the line between behaviors and beliefs–I am saying we need to be a lot slower and take more care with that argument.

Second, I think we need to be less surprised when large chunks of population don’t behave according to the model we think they should in our head. This is true when we’re thinking of the Evangelical electorate or any other group. We need to be careful about the kinds of causes or explanations we accept for behavior or the beliefs of people we disagree with. Single-cause/single-belief explanations are almost always wrong. People are complicated, so we need to slow down, weigh a variety of complementary or competing explanations for these sorts of things. So, give the other side the kind of charitable interpretation you’d love the to give you when people on your team are being terrible.

Third, on a personal ministry level–each person is their own person. You’re almost never dealing with a cookie-cutter version of the last person you talked to. Sure, you can begin to create “types”, or “patterns”. Stereotypes usually have some basis in fact. But as soon as you’re sitting across the table from one of those types, the mold will usually start to crack, so before you begin “dialoguing” with the robust arrogance of knowing “exactly who this guy is”, maybe slow down and listen to who he actually is.

There are more conclusions we could draw, but all this to say that doctrine and life are definitely connected, but it’s a complicated affair. Which is why the spiritual life and gospel ministry isn’t a simple matter of formulaic truth-dispensing. Preaching and teaching must take their place in the Church–a web of social and historical relationships in which the Spirit works on a person’s heart, mind, body, and soul over time.

Thankfully, the Spirit’s got plenty of it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Jesus Hates Heresy (And So Should You)

I’d like to take a moment to point something out that may have escaped your attention last time you went to church or watched  a Nooma: Jesus and the rest of the New Testament authors don’t like false teaching, or heresy. I mean, they really hate it. It doesn’t take long reading through the thing to see the forceful way they spoke of “false teachers/prophets” and “false teaching” about God and the Gospel.  Don’t believe me? Here are just a few quotes. See for yourself.

Gentle Jesus

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 7:15-20)

Not so Gentle Paul

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. (Romans 16:17)

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9)

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you. (1 Timothy 6:20-21)

Old-Man John

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:1-3)

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. (2 John 1:7-11)

Peter “the Rock” Bar-Jonah

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3)

This is Weird to Us

These quotes can seem disturbing to people of our age.

Our culture likes the idea of heresy. Whenever you see the word ‘heretic’ used on your average blog, news article, etc. it’s synonymous with bold, controversial, and creative thinking. It’s thought not confined with dogma and church controls. It’s ideas that scare the “theologians”, and break out of the traditional mold. (As to why scaring theologians has become a valued activity, I’m somewhat puzzled. Is there similar trend elsewhere? Should I want to perplex philosophers? Or, mystify mathematicians?)

It’s sexy.

Alister McGrath has even gone so far as to talk about our “love affair with heresy.” It epitomizes all that us entrepreneurial, free-thinking, radically individualistic Americans believe about religion. It’s up to us to figure out and nobody has a right to lay down a “correct” or “right” way to think about spirituality and God.

In this context, anybody trying to talk about orthodoxy or heresy immediately calls to mind images of nefarious, medieval church councils, trials, and other wickedness. (Which, incidentally were the result of false teaching about the nature of the church.)

So, why do they think different?

So why do Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John seem to approach the problem of false teaching differently than we do? Their attitude seems so intolerant and harsh. What about freedom of thought? Independence of mind?  What accounts for the difference? Is it just that we are more enlightened and cosmopolitan than these backwards dogmatists?

Eugene Petersen, my favorite pastoral theologian and theological pastor, cuts to the heart of the matter when discussing John’s attitude towards false teaching:

“Our age has developed a kind of loose geniality about what people say they believe. We are especially tolerant in matters of religion. But much of the vaunted tolerance is only indifference. We don’t care because we don’t think it matters. My tolerance disappears quickly if a person’s belief interferes with my life. I am not tolerant of persons who believe that they have as much right to my possessions as I do and proceed to help themselves… I am not tolerant of businesses that believe that their only obligation is to make a profit and that pollute our environment and deliver poorly made products in the process. And [John] is not tolerant when people he loves are being told lies about God, because he knows that such lies will reduce their lives, impair the vitality of their spirits, imprison them in old guilts, and cripple them with anxieties and fears…

That is [John’s] position: a lie about God becomes a lie about life, and he will not have it. Nothing counts more in the way we live than what we believe about God. A failure to get it right in our minds becomes a failure to get it right in our lives. A wrong idea of God translates into sloppiness and cowardice, fearful minds and sickly emotions.

One of the wickedest things one person can do [is] to tell a person that God is an angry tyrant, [because the person who believes it will] defensively avoid him if he can… It is wicked to tell a person that God is a senile grandfather [because the person who believes it will] live carelessly and trivially with no sense of transcendent purpose… It is wicked to tell a person a lie about God because, if we come to believe the wrong things about God, we will think wrong things about ourselves, and we will live meanly or badly. Telling a person a lie about God distorts reality, perverts life and damages all the processes of living.”, Traveling Light: Reflections on the Free Life (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982), pp. 33-35.

We don’t care about false teaching and heresy because we don’t see what it does. We don’t see that “A lie about God becomes a lie about life.” Jesus is intensely opposed heresy because he doesn’t miss the connection between what we believe about God and every inch of our lives. Paul opposes it with every fiber of his being because he is passionately for the church. John is not simply out to control his “beloved”, but rather make sure that they remain free, truly free to live the life God has called his children to.

Good theology is not just an academic exercise for “theologians” in seminaries. It’s not just for pastors in their studies. It’s for everyday Christians for everyday living. This is why we care about these things. This is why we preach, teach, and correct in light of the Word of God.

So again, “Why does Jesus hate heresy?” He loves you too much to have you believe lies about God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Resources for avoiding Heresy:

1. Any good systematic theology. (Classic Christianity by Thomas Oden, The Christian Faith by Michael Horton)
2. Heresies and How to Avoid Them by Ben Quash and Michael Ward
3. Heresy: A History of Defending Truth by Alister McGrath
4. Free article by Craig Blomberg “The New Testament Definition of Heresy (Or When do Jesus and the Apostles Really Get Mad?)