Wednesday, October 01, 2008

on teaching doctrine

George Lindbeck, in his important book, The Nature of Doctrine, defines “doctrine” as “communally authoritative teachings regarding beliefs and practices that are considered essential to the identity or welfare of the group in question. They may be formally stated or informally operative, but in any case they indicate what constitutes faithful adherence to a community.”[1] It is a cerebral definition, to be sure, but one that we in the United Methodist Church need to embrace.

Lindbeck makes an important point in stating that doctrine is “communally authoritative teachings.” The second part of this sentence is obvious – doctrines are “teachings regarding beliefs and practices.” Yet we need to understand they are “communally authoritative.” Another important point Lindbeck makes in this definition is that doctrine impacts both identity and practice of a community: “indicating what constitutes faithful adherence to a community.”

In a culture which puts high value on individualism this is a problematic definition of doctrine. We, as individuals and as groups, have a difficult time agreeing upon and accepting this communal responsibility. We have been taught to prize our opinions (despite that fact that everyone has one) and autonomy. We do not respond well to hierarchy or authority. We, as humans, desire control, influence, and power. We don’t want someone else telling us “how it is” and “what is what.” Yet, for doctrine to be as effective as it is essential, submission to a communal understanding is crucial. This is part of the problem in the United Methodist Church, not that we lack good doctrine, but that we embrace individuals who refuse to hold them as communally authoritative.

Now, this question from ¶335 forces me to answer questions about “traditional evangelical doctrines.” However, I refuse to answer by offering up “my opinion.” In the end, “my opinion” doesn’t really matter. What should be more important is whether or not Chris Roberts, as a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church, will uphold the communally authoritative teachings… essential to the identity and welfare of the United Methodist Church and our Wesleyan tradition. It should be the will of the Church at-large that I, as an ordained minister in the UMC, faithfully uphold that which “constitutes faithful adherence to the community.” I will teach and practice in the churches to which I am appointed less my opinions of various doctrines and more what our church holds as formally stated or informally operative doctrine. The good news is that “my opinions and beliefs” match the “doctrines” of the UMC (and if they don’t then I should not be permitted to continue in this ordination process).



[1] George Lindbeck. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Post-liberal Age. (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1984) 74.

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