Doctrinal Unity in the Midst of Doctrinal Ambiguity

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. (Luke 16.22-23)

This week I want to share a few thoughts on a topic that I have found almost impossible to get people to see, until it finally just “clicks” for them. I believe it offers a path toward doctrinal unity (for those to whom this is a priority) in the midst of very real, and for some very frustrating, doctrinal ambiguity. First, doctrine is defined as a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group. But what I want to help us see this week is that there are really two types of “doctrine.” My hope is that we can rally around the one “type” or “kind” of doctrine while tolerating and even embracing the ambiguity that exists with the other “type” or “kind.” Let me use the story above, which was told by Jesus, to illustrate what I mean by all of this.

The best way to see what I’m talking about this week is to ask, “What was Jesus’ purpose in telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus?” What we do know is that this story was not a historical retelling of two actual persons but rather a folktale that had been told and retold within many cultures of that day. “In order to understand the parable in detail and as a whole, it is essential to recognize the first part derives from well-known folk material…. This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Osiris, the son of Setme Chamois, to the under-world…. Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican Bar Ma’Jan.” (J. Jeremias, <I>The Parables of Jesus</I>, page 183.) Numerous versions of this story are found in the ancient world, including the one told by Jesus.

So what was Jesus’ purpose in telling (or rather, retelling) this story?

Was it to give us a detailed exposition on the doctrine concerning what takes place in the “afterlife”? As one who rejects the doctrine of eternal torment (and has openly done so for the past twenty years), I find it curious that the context of Jesus’ retelling of this folktale was not in response to someone asking Him the question “What happens when we die, Jesus?” Instead, it was in response to being ridiculed by the members of a political party, called the Pharisees, who were lovers of money: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” (Luke 16.14)

So Jesus uses a story that would have been common to them to communicate an ethical “truth,” which may or may not be “true” ontologically. In other words, the ethical treatment of the poor was of higher value to Jesus here than strict adherence to the truest picture of what really happens in the afterlife. You have two types of truth here: ethical truth and ontological truth. (Ontology, in its simplest explanation, is the study of what kinds of things exist.) Jesus met these Pharisees where they were at ontologically—the Pharisees believe in the eternal torment of wicked souls (see Josephus’ <I>The Wars of the Jews</I>; volume II, chapter 8, paragraph 14)—even at the risk of appearing to condone their ontology, to teach them a much more important <I>ethical</I> truth. (Ethics are defined as the moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s <I>behavior</I>.)

Some have endeavored to distinguish the difference (although in reality the lines are very blurred!) between these two types of “truth” with the terms “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy.” Orthodoxy is related to beliefs about how we should <I>think</I> about things (e.g., whether or not hell exists and what do we think it will be like). Orthopraxy is related to belief about how we should <I>live</I>. It defines matters of <I>practice</I> (i.e., “praxy”) or conduct. To be fair, Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, in my opinion, is a story rich in establishing the <I>orthopraxy</I> of a Jesus follower, with total disregard for how it may confuse the <I>orthodoxy</I> of a Jesus follower. (I’m sure those of you who embrace eternal torment are not seeing my distinction, but for those of you who feel the overarching evidence of the New Testament leads you to be either an annihilationist or a universalist, both of you can appreciate the distinction. How many times have you wished Jesus had not used the story of the rich man and Lazarus when you were trying to have a dialogue with someone who intensely embraced the doctrine of eternal torment?)

Judaism was largely a strongly orthopraxic religion. It possessed a poverty of theology concerning what the afterlife really looked like for a Jew, compared with Egypt and Babylon, whose afterlife theology was intricate and ornate. It was mostly concerned with how a Jew was to live in this present life. Within Judaism, out of which Christianity was born, you were unlikely to be criticized for <I>thinking</I> incorrectly, but you would most definitely be criticized for <I>behaving</I> incorrectly.

Early Christianity, when one begins with the New Testament and reads all the way through the Patristic writings, emerges as a movement that, like Jesus, placed orthopraxy (doctrinal truth concerning how we are to live) above orthodoxy (doctrinal truth about how we are to <I>think</I> about things). Now this is not to say that orthodoxy was not important to them. Again, it’s not a matter of all or nothing. Both orthodoxy and orthopraxy have their value and importance. But if we have to choose between uniting around orthopraxy versus uniting around orthodoxy, <I>early</I> Christianity was very clear on orthopraxy, while it possessed varying degrees of ambiguity surrounding some issues of orthodoxy.

Let me give you an example. “In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist; one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked.” (From The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, page 96, paragraph 3.) Even within the first three centuries of Christianity you see well-respected “church fathers” within Christianity believing in eternal torment, annihilation, or even universalism. (“The earliest system of Universalistic theology was by Clement of Alexandria, who was the head of the theological school in that city until 202 A.D. His successor in the school was the great Origen, the most distinguished advocate of this doctrine in all time.” (From The New Schaff-Herzog, page 96, paragraph 2.) Yet for the first three centuries of Christianity, do you know what every follower united around, agreed on, without one dissenting voice or disagreement among the church fathers?

The doctrine of nonviolence, the doctrine of helping the poor, the doctrine of enemy love, the doctrine of the golden rule (doing unto others as you would have them do unto you), these were the doctrines that the primitive Jesus movement agreed on. They were able to unite around doctrinal truths in the areas of orthopraxy while tolerating <I>differences</I> (which would be unthinkable in Western Protestantism today) regarding doctrinal truths in areas of orthodoxy. Again, the lines are not always clear. Some matters of orthodoxy parade as matters of orthopraxy, as well as the other way around. Sometimes it’s not always easy to see the difference. But an oversimplified place to begin is to ask “how does this affect the way I treat others?” If the subject’s connection to our treatment of one another is either missing or convoluted, most of the time it’s a matter of orthodoxy.

In all fairness, it’s about balance. True orthodoxy should always support, encourage, and be in harmony with (not contradict) true orthopraxy. Yet it is orthopraxy that should govern orthodoxy, not the other way around. But we’ll get to that in a moment, in the teachings of Jesus.

Today we find ontological arguments abound concerning such topics as hell, the Trinity, eschatology (end-time events), what happens when a person dies, the mystery of the Incarnation, atonement theories—the list could go on and on. Meanwhile, matters of orthopraxy (the manner in which we treat one another) are being entirely ignored or worse. Many times, Jesus’ strict teachings on orthopraxy (how we relate to one another) are being defiantly disobeyed in the name of defending what we consider to be orthodoxy.

It must be remembered that although there were matters of orthodoxy that were deemed heretical within the first three centuries of Christianity, to the largest degree, Christianity did not become a “creedal” religion until the era surrounding the Constantinian shift. Remember, this was a time when the ethical teachings of Jesus became abandoned or marginalized by a church that now favored unity as defined <I>by</I> and based <I>on</I> what people “thought” about “things.” It became an ontologically weighted religion rather than a radically different, ethically based movement. Jesus gave us a way to heal the world. This “way” was centered on the way of love. This “way” was largely abandoned with the union of the Roman Empire and the Christian church in the fourth century. Where the <I>early</I> church was defined as “the Way” to live in relation to others, the church that arose out of the Constantinian shift became the way to <I>think</I> about certain <I>topics</I>, or else you’d be burned at the stake. The doctrinal beliefs concerning certain ethics were significantly marginalized in favor of discussions about the doctrinal beliefs concerning certain ontological realities.

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, eloquently wrote. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5.22-23) The fruit of the spirit, notice, is all <I>ethical</I> differences that are made in a person’s life, not necessarily <I>ontological</I>. The Spirit, while giving some measure of priority to doctrines of <I>thought</I>, doesn’t seem to give them the same priority as doctrines of <I>being</I>.

Some will say, “But correct orthodoxy is worth fighting for because it is what produces orthopraxy. What we believe about <I>things</I> leads to and affects how we treat <I>others</I>.” As much as I used to believe this, and would love to again, here are two realities that that kind of thinking ignores. First, in my past twenty years of following Jesus, I have met loads of people who have what is considered by many to be right thinking about topics but are just downright <I>mean</I>. They are <I>unkind</I>. They are right intellectually but dead wrong when it comes to the fruit of the Spirit. They have what is considered by many to be doctrinal truth in regards to how they believe about certain <I>topics</I>, but they are absolute <I>heretics</I> when it comes to the doctrinal truth of how they are to <I>relate to others</I>. If right thinking always leads to right living, then one has to wonder how long that process is going to take for these folks. It didn’t seem to take quite as long in the book of Acts.

The second point tells us why the book of Acts reveals a different experience for the early church. Quite frankly, it’s Jesus. And this is my second and biggest objection to placing orthodoxy above orthopraxy. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not do much ontological correction in regards to how people thought about <I>things</I>. Instead, Jesus spent the majority of His teaching time on matters of <I>ethics</I>: how we are to relate to others. Jesus did not explain the nature of the Trinity, the mystery of His incarnation, what happens to a person postmortem, etc. and say, “If you want to be my follower, believe in these things.” What Jesus did teach was enemy-<B><I>LOVE</I></B> and <B><I>JOY</I></B> in the midst of persecution, the way of <B><I>PEACE</I></B> or nonviolence, <B><I>PATIENCE</I></B> with the way of a mustard seed, <B><I>KINDNESS</I></B> toward the ungrateful and unthankful, <B><I>GENEROSITY</I></B> toward those being marginalized on the basis of being religiously judged as living contrary to the Torah, <B><I>FAITHFULNESS</I></B> to the sacredness of every person, <B><I>GENTLENESS</I></B> toward even one’s oppressors, and <B><I>SELF-CONTROL</I></B> when one wants to retaliate. (cf. Galatians 5.22-23)

And this is where orthodoxy and orthopraxy actually unite. For Jesus, His orthopraxy <I>WAS</I> His orthodoxy!

But what about those other things? Aren’t they important? Of course they are. But what Jesus reveals is that correct orthopraxy does not necessarily flow out of correct orthodoxy. In reality, Jesus taught the exact opposite. If you follow Jesus’ teachings on orthopraxy, it will challenge, influence, and, ultimately, radically change one’s orthodoxy. Jesus asks us to live a certain way, whether that makes sense with what we believe about God, ourselves, and others or not! The magic is that once one embraces how Jesus taught us to live, it challenges and corrects any mistakes we might be holding on to regarding how we see God, others, and ourselves. As just one example, if the Jews of Jesus’ day had embraced how Jesus was saying they should relate to the Romans, that in itself would have demanded a radical change in what they were then believing about God’s character, who they were in relation to others, and who others were in relation to themselves.

My wife, Crystal, often jokingly points out that I invariably always choose the path of most resistance. Whatever the most difficult path is, I’ll take it. The path of trying to figure out ontological truth in hopes of one day arriving at ethical truth is a hard, uncertain, and unguaranteed path. I have discovered this from experience. That was my path for years. But then I saw what Jesus was actually teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and how radically different it was from my present religious experience. Having embraced his teachings there has radically influenced, and in some areas radically changed, what I believed, at that point of my journey, about almost every other ontological doctrine. The path of following the ethical teachings of Jesus, uniting on the doctrines of the golden rule, nonviolent enemy love, generosity to those we used to deem as morally inferior to ourselves, (the doctrines in the Sermon on the Mount), giving these doctrines priority—these are the doctrines that should unite us. These are the type of doctrines that influence what we believe about almost everything else.

Should we have doctrinal unity? Absolutely! Yet let the doctrines we unite on be those doctrines Jesus actually taught, while allowing each person to be in process, wading through the ambiguity that exists on doctrines that Jesus chose not to expound on. This is how I believe we can experience doctrinal unity around certain “kinds” of doctrine, even amidst what, at the time, are very significant amounts of ambiguity surrounding other “kinds” of doctrine.

In the end, we won’t be given a test on our ontology. We’ll be asked how we treated “the least of these.” (Matthew 25.31-45)
<B>HeartGroup Application</B>

In C.S. Lewis’ famous book <I>The Last Battle</I>, Aslan meets a Calormen named Emeth. Emeth has lived his life in service to Tash, the false God of the Calormen. Yet the spirit in which this servant served Tash was so radically different from the character of Tash, much more in harmony with the spirit of Aslan, that Aslan says, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.”

The point is clear: we can even “cast out demons” in the name of Jesus but one day be unrecognizable to him (see Matthew 7.21-23). And yet there are things done by people in the spirit of love, in ignorance and not consciously knowing Jesus, that John states quite clearly could not be done unless they were responding on some level to God (knowingly or unknowingly) in their lives (see 1 John 4.7).

The way of Jesus defies our labels. We are all on a journey. We are all in process. Be careful how we evaluate ourselves and others. The Pharisees looked at one single focal point in a person’s life and judged whether someone was a living in harmony with the Torah or whether that person was not (“a sinner.”) Jesus, on the other hand, looked at three focal points, at least. Jesus would look at where someone had been, where that person was right now, and Himself. Sometimes completely ignoring the Torah, he would simply look at whether a person was moving toward HIMSELF or away from HIMSELF. And to those who, regardless of where they were in their life at that moment, were moving toward Himself, He said, with open arms, “Welcome to the Kingdom! It is much more radically inclusive than many are comfortable with. It will scare some, but it will be the lighthouse, guiding the rest home.”

This week I want you to spend some time with Jesus, sitting and contemplating with Him three passages:

Matthew 25.31-46
Matthew 7.21-23
1 John 4.7

Journal any thoughts Jesus shares with you as the two of you sit and meditate on these passages and what they are saying.

Lastly, share with your HeartGroup what Jesus taught you this week.

Keep encouraging one another, keep loving one another, all the more as you see the day of universal restoration approaching. (Hebrews 10.24-25, cf. Acts 3.21) Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love you guys. See you next week.