This is part 2 of my discussion on Religious Concepts. The last discussion ended on How It Began: Building Religious Concepts From Scripture I will move onto Worshiping Doctrine.
One important product of Christian religious Concepts is Doctrine, essentially a set of ideas and themes drawn from a Concept, and woven together to assert a specific philosophical tenet that generally was often not explicitly present in the scriptural text, but was imputed from it by linking several verses and ideas found there. Some are fairly straightforward and provoke little controversy, while others continue to be contested.
Some of these Doctrines are labeled heresies, usually because they tended to divide the Church into factions, or because they contained elements that appeared to misrepresent God, or contradicted the dominant Doctrines of the period.
There is an old saying: “History is written by the victors.” This helps in understanding why we believe what we believe today in the Church, at least in terms of Doctrine.
The problem begins to unveil itself here: Once a Doctrine gains sufficient prominence, it tends to draw not just advocates, but worshipers. Instead of worshiping God alone, we worship Doctrines about God, and promote and defend them passionately. They are easier to understand and control than a Being Who is Holy, Wholly Other, Omnipotent and Omniscient.
Even if I believe God loves me, and desires loving relationship with me, His power and otherness frighten me—as they should.
Doctrine doesn’t scare me. As with wealth, fame, success, and possessions, I want to hold on to my doctrine and defend it. And like wealth, fame, success, and possessions, I can and do make an idol of it.
We die for and kill for idols all the time. Humans always have. We still do. Whether “honor” or position, fame or religion, nationalism or race, gender or beauty, we tend to idolize what we want or want to keep, and we fight for it, often regardless of the harm we do to other people or to our world.
We make idols and fight to defend them. We justify such battles with self-righteous explanations, and we labor to get others to bend to our will or submit to our vision. Such idolatry is not unique to Christians, or even to religion, but it is common to our humanity. This is why Scripture is so compelling, and why we must listen again to God’s first commandment:
You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. (Deuteronomy 5:7-9)
In the event that anyone thinks this passage is simply about tribal gods made of stone or wood, and not about idols like pride or fame or property or wealth—or idols of Doctrine, Ritual, even Hermeneutics—just read the Bible. It is replete with such idols and exhortations against them. We began all of those kinds of idolatry right at the beginning, and they were well-known to God and to the ancient authors of Scripture. We were warned early!
Our idolatry of Concept—especially the part called Doctrine and supposedly all about God and holy behavior—leads us to attack, disfellowship, injure and hate others who cling to different Doctrines, or to none.
Even if their Doctrines are wrong, we conduct our debates as if we are exempt from God’s commandments about loving neighbors and even enemies. We attack and belittle others. We treat them with condescension and sarcasm, full of ourselves and with self-righteousness. At our worst, we murder our opponents en masse. The partisanship for and the idolatry of our Doctrine wounds the heart of God. Our actions are wrong—even if our Doctrines are right.
The problem is rooted in our focus on Doctrines, and debate about them, rather than on loving relationship with God and neighbor.
If we want evidence that the Church has forgotten what Jesus taught, we need only consider the state of the Church—disputing not over how better to live as Jesus called us to live, or about love of God and each other, but over Concepts: doctrine, worship, authority, liturgy, baptism, gender, Communion, translation, hermeneutics, tradition, tongues, evolution, end-times, titles, music, rapture and the internal structure of God. And a thousand thousand more. We have collapsed into a heap of warring factions, followers of this Concept fighting followers of that Concept. We are obsessed.
The problem is that our foundation is not God, not even Scripture. It is instead Philosophy, and its Concepts.
We are not doing what Jesus told us to do.
We love Concepts and fight about them in the “Lectures About God” lecture halls. We avoid the door labeled “God.”
Even now, seeing this achingly clearly perhaps for the first time, we will likely return to our fights, and we will find other things to do. We will justify our sin as a defense of God.
Here is an example of the concepts we fight about and how the problem manifests:
Baptism with water in Scripture is a physical action with spiritual meaning. It signifies initiation and acceptance by God, was and is used by Jews to signify repentance and purity (both literally and figuratively), and occurs in the New Testament with John baptizing both repentant Jews, and Jesus. Later Jesus instructs His disciples to take the Good News to all nations and baptize them “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) We later read of the disciples doing just this.
There are no rules given in Scripture regarding who can do baptism or receive it, although many rules have been formulated based upon various verses referring to baptism, as well as upon varying Concepts of God and the Church.
Nowhere in Scripture will you find a formula for only an adult making a specific and individual profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and then being fully immersed in water, with certain unfailing words, in order to be baptized and become a member of the church. But today you will find certain sects of Christians who will insist that certain specific rituals and practices about this are necessary, or not, to the true faith.
• Some will baptize infants unfailingly, and adults only if they had not been baptized as infants. These sects will not re-baptize an adult if he or she was baptized as an infant, believing baptism can only happen once, though they normatively require someone baptized as a child to go through “confirmation” when they reach the age of reason, and then profess their faith in Jesus.
• Others refuse to baptize infants, insisting that only an adult can make a true profession of faith, and only after this can baptism occur. If an adult was baptized as an infant, it is considered no baptism at all, and re-baptizing is required (though of course it isn’t considered “re-” because the first baptism isn’t acknowledged).
• Some sprinkle or pour water for baptism; others call this “Satan’s counterfeit” and require full immersion.
• Some denominations recognize baptisms done by some other denominations. Others consider them meaningless, and insist on baptizing anyone joining their church from outside the denomination.
• Some ritually baptize ancestors who died outside of their denomination, and even outside of the faith.
• Some churches will allow followers of Jesus to receive Communion in their church only if they have been baptized. Others will allow anyone professing faith to receive Communion. Still others will allow anyone who desires it to receive Communion. Some will allow only members of their denomination, and who have been baptized in their denomination, to receive Communion in their church.
• And some believe, as in the story I told back in Chapter 3, that unless you have been baptized in their single local church, you are still lost in your sins.
Every one of these positions on baptism is argued voluminously by countless authors over many centuries, and those who disagree with any of these positions have either fled or been forced out of their churches. Although today these debates consist, at best, of lengthy analysis and argument, and at worst of ad hominem accusations, sarcasm and disfellowship, over the centuries thousands of people were literally tortured and killed for choosing one side or another in this disagreement.
It was and still is a scandal.
Every one of these rituals and practices (as well as the Doctrines and Canons that accompany them) came from a religious Concept, drawn from pieces of Scripture and tradition, and reasoned out in a thoroughly analytical Greek way, and then used as a plumb line by which to judge the faith and worthiness of individuals and other Concepts.
Religious Concepts of Jesus range from believing He is actually literally also Father God and Holy Spirit (manifesting Himself as each as needed), to three Persons in One God, to belief that He was a liberal political activist (not divine at all) railroaded to death by conservative enemies. All of these, and thousands of others, are the excuse for bitter dispute, division, divorce, disfellowship, and with many, even torture and killing.
What in heaven does this have to do with loving God and neighbor?
It is attention to things, not God or people. Even if we are thoroughly convinced that our Concept is superior to the other Concepts, how sad it must make the heart of God to see us viciously attack and separate from each other for the defense of our favorites.
We elevate things above people. Even though our “things” are built with religious words, and are partly derived from Scripture, they are still Concepts, not God and not human beings! Jesus did not set aside the Law and the Prophets, but He did insist they hang upon, and are subservient to, love of God and neighbor.
We fabricate religious Concepts, worship them, and we hurt actual people while defending them. We fail to preserve the love of God and neighbor.
Do our Concepts outrank love of God and neighbor? Sadly, the answer is yes. No excuses. It is what we have come to. God forgive us. What shall we do?