Doctrine prioritizes the Christ and the Church before ourselves

The Shield of the Trinity or Scutum Fidei - a ...
The Shield of the Trinity or Scutum Fidei – a traditional Christian visual symbol which expresses many aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity, summarizing the first part of the Athanasian Creed in a compact diagram. Original Latin-language version. Text was converted to paths for improved display. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Matt has responded to a previous post. I want to quickly answer a few things.

First, it seems to me a false step to set our theological priorities against the positions we hold. Is it not the case that our priorities influence, perhaps even determine, the positions we hold?

via Incarnatio: Scripture & Culture in Wesleyan Perspective: On Priorities, Positions, and the #UMC Via Media (@eJoelWatts).

I don’t want you to think I intend to aim my criticism directly against Matt, because I am not; however, these view to me is the basic problem of (modern) Protestantism. We are so focused on “living” we have forgot to think about why we are living. Our focus is on our bodies and our neighbor’s but not on Christ. Indeed, if we spent as much if not more time focusing on Christ — Who he is, What he did — we would find relief. Theology must come before our individual positions. Why? Because theology exists outside of ourselves. It is not concerned with our individual actions so much as it is in continuing the Great Tradition. Thus, the Trinity (et al) comes before our views on LGBT issues and even alcohol.

If we confuse the great doctrines of the Church with positions, we are in serious trouble. But honestly, haven’t we? In discussing things with John, he said he would take holiness over doctrine. This smacks of Pelagianism. When we call LGBT issues a matter of salvation, we are setting our position against the priority of the Church.

Matt goes on,

How does the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity relate to marriage and sexual ethics?….Perhaps different attitudes towards human sexuality emerge from fundamentally different visions of God and what it means to bear the image of God. 

And yet, Genesis 1.26-27 doesn’t really include sexual ethics, or if so, ethics that may surprise you. I believe a reasonable argument can be made that the “male and female” bit “in the image of God” can be understood to be androgynous. This view is not modern, post or otherwise, but can be found in ancient works as well. I mean, read 2 Clement.

Let me also suggest that there is a lot more to Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 than sexual ethics (Wright can argue for Creation, the sanest anti-LGBT argument a Protestant can/should make). There is the whole notion of personhood and what that means in light of the image of God. If we are going to argue for positions, we need to start with God as Creator, move through the notions of things in proper order, and what it means for humans to exist as persons of sacred worth. In that final discussion, I believe, is the subset of sexual ethics.

But, beyond arguing, I want to give you “real life” examples of Doctrine v. (for a lack of a better term) Holiness.

The Creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Constantinople) do not speak of holiness of the life of the Christian. These originated as baptismal formulas meant to shield the doctrine of the early Church. The questions weren’t asked “Do you promise to lead a Christian life?,” “Is X Christian?,” and so on. No, the questions were simple. Do you believe in God the Father…In Jesus…in the Holy Spirit…? What do you believe about them?

Where are the moral positions in the creeds?

Or, as Tom from Good News brought up but never returned to answer my questions, the Articles of Religion and Confessions of Faith? In the Articles of Religion, marriage is mentioned once,

The ministers of Christ are not commanded by God’s law either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage; therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christians, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness. – Article XXI

Why is this in there? No doubt because of the still lingering Catholic influence – which is why Wesley had to define his doctrines against Rome in matters of purgatory, the sacraments and ministerial marriage.

Where, though, are those positions related to holiness? Yes, Wesley mentions that these things will follow our justification (Article X). Does he list them? In the great doctrinal standard handed down to us by Wesley, does Wesley list the aspects of holiness or does he list doctrines and then say holiness will follow our justification? By the way, justification is a doctrine that is defined doctrinally.

Tom pointed out the Creeds do not give witness to episcopal authority. Yet, the Creeds were approved by Bishops. For us United Methodists, our doctrinal standards were approved by the ordained. This means the episcopal authority pre-existed the creeds and in fact, the creeds are dependent upon episcopal authority.

But, before I finish… Let me call attention to the (so-called) Athanasian Creed. While Fr. John disagreed with certain clauses of the Creed (such as the Hell bit), the creed that existed in Christianity long before Wesley is important for this conversation.

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

If I were in any given mood, I might suggest that orthodoxy (right doctrine) is all that “saves us” but I don’t think so. I don’t think Scripture upholds that, nor the majority of Christian teaching. However, this creed is important because it establishes the importance of proper doctrine before anything else.

Our positions on holiness, however you may define that, will come after — not before, and not alongside — in regards to proper teaching.

What gets me here is that the right and the left are virtually the same when it comes to this matter. No one wants to invest the time in doctrine. This has left us with the idea that gay marriage is related to salvation and that the only thing we need to do to be a Christian is to love our enemies.

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10 Replies to “Doctrine prioritizes the Christ and the Church before ourselves”

  1. Hi Joel, thanks for interacting with me on these questions related to the via media. Let me start by saying I’ve never been accused of giving too little attention to doctrine. Quite the contrary, to be sure.

    Two things:
    1. We must take on board the reality that the relationship between faith and practice (or doctrine and ethics) is more complex than we often portray it. The way we articulate our beliefs (doctrine) certainly shapes our practice, but it is also the case that our practices inform our beliefs. I don’t want to say that holiness is more important than doctrine any more than I want to say doctrine is more important that holiness. It’s a two way street. They are woven together, which makes it difficult in my estimation to easily categorize or prioritize them.

    Respectfully, it seems to me that your strategy of deprioritizing sexuality issues actually functions to advance your progressive view of human sexuality. So, in the end it doesn’t appear that you actually lower the priority of progressive sexual ethics. You seem to have made a rhetorical move that bumps it down in the argument; nevertheless, in using doctrinal priority to argue for a revisionist attitude toward sexuality, you elevate the priority of your conclusions on sexuality.

    Again, thanks for the interaction.

    1. Matt, #2 seems appropriately numbered.

      The function of sex in our discussion of doctrine is reserved for ethics, or works of holiness. However, unless we have these things properly framed by doctrine they matter little and instead make us Pelagians. If we suggest ethics are doctrine, we gravely err because we then have nothing to supply those ethics. I believe doctrine does shape our practice, our ethics. For instance, I would suggest doctrine shapes our view of human life. Human life itself is not a doctrine, but the practice of preserving it in accordance without doctrine is made manifest when we give proper place to our doctrine.

      “revisionist” is a poor choice of words, Matt, as it doesn’t really take into account my stance, or those like me. I would hope you can do better in the future.

  2. Again, I speak up as a person who has lived for 16 years in what the church has proclaimed to be one of the two (and only two) “right” answers for a homosexual person to live as a good Christian and go to Heaven when they die. I’m the straight wife of a gay man who thought God would fix him if he married me– because that’s what the church promised. If he got saved enough and sanctified enough and filled with enough of the Holy Spirit, his sexual orientation would change. He’s one of the most Spirit-filled people I know– and he’s still gay. His other option would have been celibacy. In some ways, our marriage has been one of a sort of enforced celibacy on both of us. We can’t, because of our mismatched orientations, fully experience the intimacy God designed for marriage. We can love each other– which we do, and we can do the physical and sexual things that married heterosexual people do– which we also do, but there’s a piece missing that I can never quite explain to someone who hasn’t been there.

    The argument seems to be about what constitutes “holiness.” I would propose that holiness does not look the same for all people. I grew up in a Wesleyan Holiness denomination. Over the 137 years of our history, we had a split about whether or not wearing a necktie was “holy.” We have some people who believe wearing a simple gold wedding band is definitely “worldly,” and anyone who does so is vain and on a handcart headed straight for Hell. We’ve had opinions about breakfast cereal. Certainly, even in that group today, there’s a perception that “holy” people only listen to Southern Gospel music, allow their womenfolk to wear a prescribed amount of makeup and NO SLACKS to church, and speaking of womenfolk, even though we affirm they are called equally by God to serve in ministry, we don’t really want one of them to be the pastor of OUR church, because a man would be more “holy.” The point I’m trying to make is that our views and definitions of “holiness” seem to be about pointing out what people who are different from ourselves are doing wrong. It’s almost always the case that when I hear a debate about holiness, it’s really a discussion of how I’m holier than you or how we’re holier than them. We seem to miss the biblical idea that holiness is less a matter of outward appearances and behaviors and more an attitude of the heart. If you think I’m making that up, I would suggest a thorough re-reading of the Psalms and the prophets. Holiness is about our attitudes and actions towards God and one another. And if I’m write about that adjacent sentence, the fact that we’re even continuing to have this debate in all of its various nuances means that we’re getting holiness terribly wrong. Once again, we’ve found a group of marginalized people, and we’re doing everything within our power to make sure they stay in the margins, forgetting that our God built his whole reputation on hearing the cry of the oppressed.

    So what does holiness in personal relationships look like for an LGBT Christian? Should an LGBT person be forced to bear a burden of celibacy (which is not commanded anywhere in scripture. And when you come back to show me where it is, I’m going to school you in a little something called eisegesis, so be forewarned)? Should LGBT Christians be asked to “play it straight” and struggle in marriages to a heterosexual person under the false premise that if they pray hard enough and sincerely enough, God will heal their disordered sexuality? I continue to argue that God’s plan for relational holiness is universal for both homosexuals and heterosexuals. If the answer for heterosexuals is, as the church has asserted for centuries, monogamous Christian marriage, then the same answer applies to homosexuals.

  3. OK, this is trivial compared to other issues. But the link to alcohol says “one “do no harm” by “Drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.”…from the Book of Disipline 2004. Holy Cow! What “extreme necessity”? Snake bite? This must have been written in the 18th century. I don’t advocate drunkenness. But if Jesus enjoys wine, I can enjoy beer, without going to hell. Looks like the Book of Disipline was put together in a cut and paste action from a 18th century document. Needs updating.

  4. One thing I’ve found with Methodists…at least they keep it to themselves. Never heard any sermons, or comments from members, yet, on demon rum. Or St. Pauli beer. After all, it must be named after a Saint. And I think the ancient texts even say Paul occasionally had a Maccabee.

  5. 2 Maccabees 15:39 [39] For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work. And here will be the end.


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