We’ve all heard the maxims. “Doctrine divides. _____________ unites.” You can fill in the blank. “Love unites.” “Mission unites.” “Service unites.” I’ve heard them all.
The problem is, no matter what goes in the blank, the assertion will be false. Any opposition that begins with the assumption that doctrine divides will always be wrong. Doctrine unites.
Doctrine is a lofty word. It seems complex. Indeed, many doctrines are. But the idea itself is quite simple. Doctrine means, simply, “teaching.” A Doctor is a teacher – think professor, not physician. A doctrine is a teaching.
This morning, I taught my son how to button his shirt so that it wouldn’t end up askew. This, of course, is not the teaching we have in mind when we talk about doctrine. Buttoning-teaching aims at getting buttons properly aligned. Christian doctrine aims at something else.
Christians have sometimes added the adjective “sacred” to signal our doctrine’s aim. It is sacred doctrine. Or, if you like, holy teaching. It aims to make us sacred; it aims to make us holy. Those who follow this teaching, Christians believe, will become holy. Christian doctrine makes us like God, the Holy One.
Jesus prays for his disciples shortly before his arrest. Scripture records the prayer in John 17.
“Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” (7-8)
Christ, the great teacher, gives his words to the disciples. They received his teachings, his doctrine. They knew it. They believed it. And so, Christ asks the Father two things on their behalf.
First: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. “ (11)
And second: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (17)
First, Christ asks that the disciples would be protected, but for the sake of something greater. He asks that the disciples be protected “so that they might be one.” He prays that the Father preserve the church so that the church might be united. Even united as the Father and Son are united.
This unity is not just any unity. It is not merely a unity of operation – a unity of work. Christ does not ask that the Father to unite Christians merely so that they can form just societies, although where Christian unity exists, Christians work for justice. But this unity of work is not enough.
No, the unity that Christ prays for is a deeper unity: that we might be sanctified in truth.
To be united to God is to be sanctified – to be holy. “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,” “Holy, Holy, Holy” the angels cry (Rev. 4:8). We join their refrain, together confessing in one voice the character of God. God’s nature is Holy. God is Holy. And when we are united to God, we share in that Holiness. We are sanctified by the One who is Sanctus. We are made holy by the Holy One.
Second, the truth of Christ’s word, which he gives to the disciples and the disciples share with us (see John 17:20-21) is a means to our sanctification. We are united to God in the truth, the truth of Christ’s teaching.
Christian doctrine fits within this picture of things. The doctrinal heritage of the church is the Father’s answer to the prayer of the Son: “Sanctify them in truth.” Christian doctrine is part of how God makes us sharers in the divine nature (1 Peter 1:4), in God’s own Holiness. Holy teaching makes us holy. It unites us to God. And it is only by being united to the same God that we are united to one another.
Doctrine unites us to God, to such an extent that we, like God, are Holy. If this is so, we cannot be careless about our doctrine. Because doctrine is teaching that makes us holy, and I need to be made holy.
[WATCH] William Abraham explains why doctrine matters in this Seven Minute Seminary video; [READ] Jim Heidinger explains why doctrine is important for American United Methodists; [READ] Beth Felker Jones explains why deeds and creeds are not mutually exclusive.
Once a strong, vital, and growing denomination, the United Methodist Church is now barely recognizable after more than four decades of demoralization and membership decline. What has gone wrong? In The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism, James Heidinger discusses the rise of liberalism in America, its anti-supernatural focuses, and the resulting transition in Wesleyan theology. Get your copy from our store now.