What discussions of doctrine and denominations miss

Over the course of this semester, the Culture page of Chimes has welcomed several pieces engaging richly with questions regarding nondenominationalism and the creation of good doctrine. The conversation was initiated by a piece that argued against nondenominationalism as a whole, suggesting that it softens theological tradition and disregards doctrine, thus weakening discussions within Christianity. This was tempered by a subsequent piece that argued that nondenominational communities are still capable of theological rigor and participation, even if they are not inheriting a curated set of resources or doctrines. Last week, another piece resuscitated the discussion and furthered the argument of the first piece, contending that disassociation from a denominational body leaves one largely clueless to prior theological debates and without a strong framework to see through old heresies or discuss new ones.

While my brief sketch of the conversation thus far errs on being reductive (I would encourage you to go back and read these pieces), the throughline has centered on doctrine, primarily debating if one can be well equipped with good doctrine or rigorous, educated theological opinions outside of a denomination.

However, I think that the conversation thus far is missing something that is key to having a rich discussion around doctrine and the role that denominations play in the production and practice of it. Namely, there has been no accounting for the systemic sin that has been revealed in denominations (and in churches outside of one) in recent years and for the fact that even some of the oldest surviving systems of Christian belief have been unable to prevent or appropriately respond to this sin when it has emerged.

To be specific, consider the widespread, decades long sexual abuse and accompanying cover-ups in the Catholic church and Southern Baptist Convention. Here are two systems of theological belief that stand on more or less opposite sides of the doctrinal aisle. And yet both were unable to effectively prevent the sin from appearing and punish it when it did. The kind and quantity of sexual abuse that existed, and perhaps still exists, within these two examples are not instances of “bad apples” or exceptional failures of character. This kind of sin is systemic, which is also the level that doctrine is supposed to be operating at.

A.W. Tozer, a leading Christian thinker in the early 20th century, argues that there is no failure of ethical practice that cannot eventually be traced back to a lacking picture of God, and I would tend to agree with him. In many ways, our picture of God is a matter of doctrine; consider notions like the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus. If Tozer is right, then even those denominations with the most robust doctrines have failed to produce a doctrinal, congregationally accepted picture of God that could prevent one of the most obviously evil and damaging sins on a systemic level.

Now some might contend that that is simply a testament to how thoroughly depraved all people are; I would affirm this. But I think it also shows that good theology is not a silver bullet against sin, nor does it seem to really be that effective for addressing certain sins. Even if theologically sophisticated and committed denominations are the best place for producing proper doctrine, they have also shown themselves to be places of extreme systemic harm.

To not want to participate in structures that are both capable of and have proven themselves inclined to widespread abuse seems to me perfectly reasonable, even if the hard work of theology has to become harder. One needs only to see how Jesus interacted with the Pharisees to realize that sin is unacceptable, regardless of how good your doctrine is.

I am not saying that denominations are inherently evil, nor that nondenominational institutions are free of similar sins. The point I am making is that good doctrine does not necessarily translate to good practice and that being a community which encourages and directs good practice is the mission of the church. If you can find a church that does this, it is worth being a part of it, whether it is denominational or not.