Another Lesson in the Power of Doctrine

Yesterday in worship we sang the old Gospel hymn, “I Stand Amazed in the Presence.”  It’s one of those songs that gets me all choked up.  I know, part of it has to do with my upbringing: Sunday night worship in those little Methodist churches my Dad served.  We sang all those songs either from the Cokesbury hymnal or from that little whitish-gray paperback, the Upper Room songbook.  Nostalgia granted.  But there’s a lot more going on here than nostalgia.

In case you don’t have the whole thing memorized, let me pick some of my favorite lines:

(First stanza)

I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene

And wonder how he could love me, a sinner condemned, unclean.

(Chorus)

How marvelous!  How wonderful and my song shall ever be!

How marvelous! How wonderful is my Savior’s love for me

(Fourth stanza)

He took my sins and my sorrows.  He made them his very own;

He bore the burden to Calvary and suffered and died alone.

How marvelous!

I’m quite aware that some of my sisters and brothers in Christ don’t like this song, not as a matter of personal stylistic preference, but as a matter of doctrine.  They just don’t like what the song teaches.  The song clearly teaches substitutionary atonement.  I believe it.  Others don’t.  They recoil at the implications.  They express moral repugnance at the idea a God who would enact judgment in such a way.  Likewise the anthropology: “a sinner condemned, unclean.”

I also acknowledge that the song is very individualistic.  We need to watch the individualism.  I’m with you on that one.  But still, the personal appropriation of the Gospel as presented in this song strikes a deep chord in my heart.

So, while my heart thrills and my eyes fill with tears of gratitude and amazement, someone else likely feels cold, even repulsed, horrified.  Imagine sitting in the same worship service and having such divergent reactions.

I have written elsewhere that doctrine teaches us what to care about (Aiming at Maturity: The Goal of the Christian Life; go here http://www.amazon.com/Aiming-Maturity-Goal-Christian-Life/dp/1610972465/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1409614578&sr=8-1&keywords=aiming+at+maturity or here https://wipfandstock.com/advancedsearch/search?search_type=keyword&keyword=aiming+at+maturity&go_search_btn.x=-371&go_search_btn.y=-572&go_search_btn=GO)  I think my experience in yesterday’s worship illustrates this point.  Clearly, doctrine is not just about head knowledge.  Over time, as we learn to think of God, of humans and of the Christian life through certain terms and teachings, we begin to feel particular emotional responses in relation to how our affections have been shaped.  Why?  Because we learn from others, our teachers and pastors and community leaders – through the choice of words, the tone of voice, even body language – what our community believes is true and important.  In other words, we learn to care about the same things others in authority (formal or informal) care about.  When I use the term “care about,” I mean to include intellectual thoughts as well as the feelings and sensibilities that attend them.

Another implication attends these thoughts, one about which I’ve been haranguing people around me in an entirely different context, but for a similar reason.  A while back I read Elliot Eisner’s The Educational Imagination and pondered his concept of the “null curriculum.”  That is, we teach both by what we emphasize, but also by what we avoid, by what we leave out of the curriculum, by what we never mention.  This concept reveals a couple of very important points regarding Christian formation.  First, no teaching is theologically is neutral.  This is not to say that everything is arbitrary, but it is to put the kibosh on the notion that we can put together a curriculum without bias or perspective.  And if this is the case, then we all need to be much more self-aware about our biases, much more reflective than is the case most of the time in our church settings.

Second, there is as much formation going on informally as through our formal teaching.  Sunday School class materials, youth group Bible studies, confirmation classes and other formal settings are often easily countermanded by what happens outside those settings and what is communicated everywhere else in our congregational relationships.  Again, the call for self-awareness.  Do we have any idea what we are teaching our charges that actually directly undermine our stated values and beliefs?  What are we really interested in with regard to the Christian life?  To church membership?

This is why I get impatient with those who are impatient with doctrine, who exhibit that characteristically Methodist penchant for hurrying past doctrinal conversations to “getting things done” for Jesus.  Doctrines do matter.  They teach us what to care about and what we care about reflects what we believe to be both true, good (or evil) and deeply important.

One last thought, going back to the hymn: it’s one thing to admit that we have stylistic preferences and differences.  This is just the reality of life.  Some people like a certain song.  Others don’t.  But what do we do when we  can find no common doctrinal ground for our preferences?  And that ground lies at the heart of the Christian faith?  About matters like the Person and Work of Jesus Christ?  What do we do when some of us find “I Stand” deeply true and important, life-giving and powerful?  And some of us find it morally repugnant, abhorrent, to be avoided at all costs?

What do we do then?

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Charles Horotn says:

    The question is important because if it is not dealt with, Christians, it seems to me, could be somewhat inhibited from growing in grace and love toward and for each other. In other words, in your example of opposite views on Christ’s substitutionary work on the cross for us, 2 Christians on opposite sides of this one will need to be able to humble themselves in graciousness toward each other in order for them to have a meaningful conversation.

    This is easier said than done, because I too have certain doctrinal beliefs that I care about that are not shared by all Christians. I want my friends to well-understand where I am coming from and why, and hope I will be able to be of the same mind in well-understanding where they are coming from and why. This is not an easily attained outcome, I think, but a desirable one just the same.

    But both parties perhaps will do well to remember Paul’s words in Romans 14:21-22 that says “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing [such as hold strongly to the doctrine of the substitutionary work of Jesus, perhaps?] whereby thy brother stumbles, or is offended, or is made weak. Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemns not himself in that thing which he allows.” This seems to make room for 2 people to hold very different views on a topic, yet remain as one in the faith. This is not an easy thing, because on the other hand, we have Amos’ “How can two walk together except they be agreed?” Somehow some ground rules need to be established that both parties can agree to before entering discussions where they disagree, such as “we agree that both sides are interested in each others’ salvation, justification, and sanctification”.

    I too hold to Jesus’ substitutionary work on the cross. It helps me to never forget that I brought death onto myself through my sin[s], and that God’s and Jesus’ love through Jesus’ sacrifice makes it possible for my death to be overcome and exchanged for eternal life.

    Here is another one probably far less thought about: the doctrine of the 1,000 years of Jesus reigning on earth with his resurrected followers – saints – resonates with me. An important question raised by this doctrine is, how will you be prepared to think, speak, and act when you are resurrected here on the earth at Jesus’ return, and find yourself face to face with a human brother who has not been resurrected, say, a devout Jew who never accepted Jesus? Will you demonstrate God’s – Jesus’? – gracious love toward and for that person, one of God’s Chosen People? or issue out some judgmental phrase of condemnation?

    Questions like this one make “aiming for maturity” a pretty important thing to do.

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