the new Issues, Etc. Journal - Vol. 1, No. 4
Doctrine AND Practice
Responding to "Real Absence" Arguments
by Todd Wilken
For about four years a pastor friend and I wrote and edited a little journal called Doctrine & Practice. The driving force behind the journal was our concern over the trend to divorce doctrine from practice in the life of the Church. Oddly, although the journal was called Doctrine & Practice, we never wrote an article just about the relationship between doctrine and practice. Well, Doctrine & Practice has been defunct for almost a decade, but here it goes anyway.
First letís define our terms.
Doctrine is simply teaching. Doctrine can be true or false. True doctrine is teaching that conforms to Holy Scripture. False doctrine is teaching that deviates from Holy Scripture. The only way to know whether a doctrine is true or false is to measure it against Scripture.
Contrary to conventional churchly wisdom, doctrine is good, true doctrine that is. True doctrine is what the Church is built upon (Ephesians 2:19-20). True doctrine edifies and unifies the Church (1 Timothy 4:6). True doctrine is saving doctrine (1 Timothy 4:16).
False Doctrine is not harmless (Galatians 5:9). False doctrine weakens and divides the Church (Romans 16:17-18; 1 Timothy 3:6-5). False doctrine damns (2 Peter 2:1-3; 3:16).
Practice is any conduct, custom, ritual, ceremony or observance. In this case we are focusing exclusively on practice within the Church.
Just as doctrine can be true or false, so also practice can be true or false.
It is popular in the Church today to isolate doctrine and practice from one another. Doctrine, it is said, is a matter of substance. But practice, it is said, is a matter of style. Practice is viewed as doctrinally neutral. But this is a serious error that ignores the relationship between doctrine and practice. And like all errors, this one has consequences.
Practice Does as Doctrine Is
If you want to understand the relationship between doctrine and practice think Source, Content and Goal.
Doctrine is the source of practice. Doctrine is the content of practice. Doctrine is the goal of practice. In short, when it comes to practice, doctrine runs the show. Practice grows out of, is shaped by, and serves the purpose of doctrine.
In simple terms, Christian doctrine is the What of Christian theology and Christian practice is the How of Christian theology. The What always determines the How.
So doctrine isnít only something that Christians believe, doctrine is something that Christians also practice. Practice does as doctrine is.
Doctrine and practice are inextricably linked. They can be distinguished from one another but they cannot be separated from one another.
This is very important. It is not just that doctrine and practice should not be separated, they cannot be separated.
Every practice is connected to some doctrine, true or false. Doctrine is the source of practice. Doctrine is the content of practice. Doctrine is the goal of practice. If the doctrine is false, then the practice will also be false.
Ceremonies, Idolatry & Degeneration
The Old Testament ceremonial law is a case study in the inseparable relationship between doctrine and practice. It is commonly understood that God gave the ceremonial law to ancient Israel to set it apart from other nations. This is correct. The practices required by the ceremonial law distinguished ancient Israel from other nations. Israel stood out. Israel appeared peculiar.
But the ceremonial law was not an arbitrary set of rules. Contrary to popular belief, the source, content and goal of those laws were doctrinal. The doctrine?
You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eaglesí wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:4-6; see also Deuteronomy 14:2; 26:18; Psalm 135:4)
From the food they ate to the clothes they wore, from the way they dealt with sickness to the way they gathered their crops, every ceremonial law had as its source, content and goal this one doctrine. The practices required by the ceremonial law had their source in the doctrinal truth that Israel had been declared holy and set apart by God himself. The people were made to appear peculiar by the practices of the ceremonial law because the people were peculiar by virtue of Godís act of salvation.
Scripture also teaches the inseparability of doctrine and practice in Godís condemnation of Israelís lapses into idolatrous practices. A critical passage is Amos 5:21-26.
I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. ÖDid you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel? You also lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your godówhich you made for yourselves.
Notice that God rejected not just their idolatry as false. God also rejected their sacrifices and offerings to Him. The sacrifices and offerings to the true God were rendered false because Israel was also worshipping false gods at the same time.
In fact, this was Israelís perennial problem in the Old Testament: the mixture of true and false doctrines and the subsequent mixture of true and false worship practices.
The New Testament also teaches the inseparability of doctrine and practice. The most dramatic example is in 1 Corinthians 11:20-22 where Paul rebukes the Corinthian Christians for their false practice of the Lordís Supper:
When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lordís supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
Apparently, their practice had degenerated to the point that their behavior constituted a denial of the doctrine of the Lordís Supper.
Scripture is quite clear: Doctrine and practice cannot be separated. Practice is not doctrinally neutral.
Unchurches, Those Crazy Episcopalians & Fill-In-the-Blank
For those who would still argue for the doctrinal neutrality of practice I site a few contemporary examples.
Many evangelical and non-denominational churches, in a misguided effort to increase their appeal with the "unchurched" have marketed themselves as "Unchurches". They have abandoned any and every practice (with the conspicuous exception of the gathering of the offering) that even hints at the historic Church or doctrinal distinctiveness. The result? Doctrinal chaos.
Nature abhors a vacuum. And so into the vacuum of practice of these Unchurches has rushed all sorts new practices, and with them, their attendant doctrines. Worship in many an Unchurch is now little more than a combination of sing-a-long and self-help seminar.
At the other end of the spectrum, but in the same predicament of doctrine and practice, stands the Episcopal Church. Historically the Episcopal Church has had the most entrenched practices in American Christendom. The Book of Common Prayer used to be harder to change than the transmission on your car. And yet the Episcopal Church was among the first of the main-line denominations to ordain women and homosexuals to the pastoral office. How did this happen? First the practice changed. Once it was accepted that such things could be practiced in the Church, a change in doctrine was quick to follow. Today, Episcopalian faithful find themselves considering same-sex union ceremonies for inclusion in their book of occasional services. To no oneís surprise, they are also debating the nature of marriage and the sinfulness of homosexuality.
Finally there is what I like to call "Fill-in-the-blank" practices. Every Church has a few of these. A fill-in-the-blank practice is any practice (true or false) for which no doctrinal reason has been presented. Be it candles on the altar or the raising of hands in prayer, any practice that is unexplained and disconnected from doctrine invites people to make up their own explanation and their own doctrine. Are there three candles on the altar to signify the Trinity? What if there are five of them? Are raised hands a gesture of passive reception or are they Holy-Spirit antennae?
Left unexplained, even the best practice can be misconstrued. Many Fill-in-the-blank practices are not false per se, but need careful explanation. This simply means that the doctrinal source, content and goal of said practice needs to be made clear.
Doctrine Is as Practice Does
As these Scriptural and contemporary examples clearly show, false doctrine can result in false practice. But false practice can also result in false doctrine. Remember, doctrine is not only the source and content of practice. Doctrine is also the goal of practice. And make no mistake, the goal of false practice is false doctrine.
The old theologians put it this way, Lex orandi, lex credendi, "the rule of prayer is the rule of faith." Conduct, customs, rituals, ceremonies or observances that have false doctrine as their source and content will also have as their goal a doctrine that is not true, but false.
True Adiaphora, True Christian Freedom
But arenít some practices really neither here nor there? Arenít some practices truly indifferent? Yes, we call those practices Adiaphora.
Yet even indifferent practices still have doctrine as their source, content and goal.
The fact that some practices are indifferent does not mean that they are doctrinally neutral. The fact that they are indifferent simply means that there is more than one true practice that one may follow in any given situation. But this does not rule out the possibility of false practices.
For example, whether or not a pastor wears vestments is a matter of indifference. But that doesnít mean that the pastor can read the lessons in a cocktail dress, or preside at the altar in his underwear or preach the sermon buck-naked.
The issue regarding adiaphora is not whether or not such practices are doctrinally neutral. They are not. The issue regarding adiaphora is whether or not the same doctrine can be communicated by a variety of practices.
A true adiaphoron is not an adiaphoron because it is doctrinally neutral, a true adiaphoron is an adiaphoron because it is one among several practices that communicates the same doctrine.
What does this mean? It means that Christian freedom in practice is not carte blanc to do as you please because doctrine isnít at issue. It means that Christian freedom in practice exists within the boundaries of true doctrine.
What Is at Stake?
It is telling, isnít it, that few who argue that practice is doctrinally neutral would apply their reasoning to the moral content of Christian doctrine? No, they say, when it comes to morality, what you believe determines what you do, and what you do shows what you really believe!
So, why doesnít that same reasoning apply the theological content of Christian doctrine? The fact is, it does, they just fail to see or to believe that it does.
This failure raises an important question. What is at stake when it comes to the relationship between doctrine and practice?
Another way of asking that question is, What single doctrine ought to be the source, content and goal of all Christian practice? What doctrine is put in jeopardy when practice is viewed as doctrinally neutral and Christian practice is reduced to mere style?
The answer is simple. The Gospel is that single doctrine ought to be the source, content and goal of all Christian practice. When practice is viewed as doctrinally neutral and Christian practice is reduced to mere style, the very Gospel is put in jeopardy.
How can this be? The good news of Jesusí perfect life lived for us sinners, his innocent death died for us sinners, and his victorious resurrection accomplished for us sinner is the heart and center of all Christian doctrine. This doctrine is the essence of Christian doctrine. This doctrine is the source, content and goal of all Christian doctrine.
To say that practice is doctrinally neutral is not only to deny the relationship between Christian practice and Christian doctrine, but also to deny the relationship between Christian practice and the Gospel.
Measure Twice, Cut Once
At the beginning of this essay I wrote that the only way to know whether a doctrine is true or false is to measure it against Scripture. So, how are we to know whether our practice is true or false? The answer is: measure it against true doctrine.
Why not measure our practice against Scripture? Because Scripture doesnít speak to all of these issues. But does Scriptureís silence on a practice mean that we canít say whether a practice is true or false? No. Scripture teaches that practice and doctrine are inseparably related. Scripture expects and requires that Christian practice conform to Christian doctrine. Scripture teaches that doctrine isnít only something that Christians believe, doctrine is something that Christians also practice.
How can we avoid engaging in false practice; false practice that would communicate false doctrine? In carpentry they say, measure twice, cut once. Before we institute, change or keep any practice we ought to measure it ótwice against true doctrine. If it does not measure up, if the source, content and goal of this practice cannot be shown to be true Christian doctrine, then that practice needs to be changed or abandoned. Itís that simple. Every practice must bow down before, and serve true doctrine without exception.
We ought to always ask: Why are we doing this? What is being taught by this practice? Does this practice conform to our doctrine? What does this change in practice mean? What of the Gospel is communicated by this practice? In short, itís the old Lutheran question: What does this mean?
Finally, our practice in the Church cannot be determined by utilitarianism or pragmatism. Utilitarianism says that the end justifies the means. In the Church, nothing is ever merely a means to an end. Pragmatism says that truth is to be found in what works. In the Church, the Truth is not true because is works, it works because its true. Doctrinal Truth, True Doctrine runs the show.
True Doctrine is our first and final consideration when it comes to practice. Why? Remember, doctrine is good, true doctrine that is. True doctrine is what the Church is built upon. True doctrine edifies and unifies the Church. True doctrine is saving doctrine. True practice does as true doctrine is.