true vs false doctrines?

We’ve had Jacques Ellul saying that this author has a concern for “correct” church doctrine because a church needs “an exact doctrine that permits having an exact practice.” It doesn’t come down to the notion that “God won’t love you if you believe bad things,” nor is it about “faith (confessed in a formula)”; it’s merely something that a church needs to accomplish its purpose.

“The theological formulation is essential.” Why? Because “we find ourselves confronted by the difficult duty of excluding from the Church those who have a theology of compromise with the world.”

Why is that a duty? Because compromise with that ‘world’ is easy, unavoidable, and wrong. Because that world is a smiling liar that sucks the life out of everything it can.

It is the very same world that God made, and “saw that it was good.” We are dealing with truths in tension with one another; we really have to use both eyes to see the whole paradoxical depth of it all.

There is nothing wrong with living in a womb; a womb is the proper place for an embryo. This world is the proper place for our development.

One odd visitor to my old bookstore said he was “the Nonprophet”, and handed me a vanilla envelope of his writings; I most loved his doctrine that the world is God’s manure pile. We grow roses in manure; God grows saints here. Even us; we’re still growing.

There used to be boarding schools that promised to “build character” in their charges. Everything I’ve read about such schools suggests that the characters they built were bullies, victims–and occasionally, despite everything they could do, real heroes. (They hated it, when they got one of those!)

We would like to be real heroes; we would hate to have to become one.

One vital message of the Christian tradition, I think, is the discovery that who we are doesn’t matter. It matters, of course, crucially, and yet we “can not by taking thought add one inch to our height,” nor one second to our lives, nor one watt to our halos. Nor, if we could do that against God’s will, would things be better. God provides the virtues and grows us to fit–but doing whatever small thing he calls for at the time is more important than any of them.

The structures of this world provide stories for us to fit into. At first we let ourselves fit in; we do horrible things or wonderful things, anguish (or not) over what we can be proud (or ashamed) of, and it’s all just drama. It’s expensive, painful drama, and if we can rescue anyone from his role in it, we should.

And then there’s another story: what God is really doing in this world. Both stories happen in the same place, contain the same people in the same events, but one is “this world” and the other is the Kingdom of Heaven.

A church’s job, by this model, is to free people from “this world” and guide them toward the Kingdom. (To some extent, a church is also called to the remedial work we call “charity,” doing whatever task we’re given to mitigate the suffering of this world. This is literally “God’s work” or it becomes mere vanity, so that too requires finding the Kingdom.)

The gospel, or “good news”, then is that the Kingdom exists, and we live here. This is our natural home; we have to be traveling constantly to get here but God is constantly leading us this way. Those other things, all that we’ve been taught were important–They’re too heavy to carry with us. They aren’t necessarily evil–though some truly are–but the point is to put them down, to carry instead whatever God gives us to carry now.

I wrote a short piece last month at yearly meeting–a slightly different take on “What is ‘the gospel’ that Jesus told the church to spread?” You might think of this as another way of saying something too obvious to easily understand (a “Quaker dharma talk”):


The gospel, we are told, is the saving power of God.

This is not to say that the saving power of God is dependent on our belief in some doctrine called “the gospel,” rather that the gospel that must be announced is that God can and will save us. This gospel needs to be announced, not because God needs it to save us, but because we need to believe in God’s power rather than in false remedies that can only worsen our condition.

Faith saves us because it enables us to act in accord with God’s will.

So far as we lack faith, we know of no choice but to conform ourselves to the ways of the world, and hence to struggle futilely with false hopes and fears.

We can turn to faith, it appears, only when we recognize that our misplaced trust in the world and our false selves threatens not only our own lives but all we hold dear.


Did that sound like 12 steps for egoholics? Hmmm. “Hello, I am an ego. I am proud of how well I write what God has so patiently explained to me through many long years of wonderful, awe-ful life. It gives me something to do, and I hope the results will help someone.”

I’ve drifted far from my intended theme: “Has Friends’ lack of an explicit doctrine been an obstacle to carrying out our God-given mission?” My answer: Yes!

Our lack of doctrine has also been useful. My “gospel”, either version, is essentially from Jesus’ teachings, but it isn’t what the general run of Christians call “the gospel.” When such Christians try to say what they do mean, they (like me) get statements which only make sense to someone who already understands in those terms. It’s good that Friends are not diverting our attention from the Truth to our various ways of putting it.

We do have one implicit doctrine: that God’s love and teaching are freely available, and we have found sitting together silently helps prepare us to receive it.

But since we have failed to explain this well even to our own members, we now have ‘Friends’ who think “it’s a dangerous mistake to think God is trying to communicate with us.”

And we should be wary of doctrines that lead anyone toward “compromise with the world;” we need to struggle to understand what that means. This, especially, is where we’ve been insufficiently vigilant.


3 responses

  1. Hi, Forrest!Sorry for butting in.I do like your first definition of the Gospel.As to your second definition, though, I would like to suggest an alternate reading: the Gospel, according to early Friends, is not a message about the saving power of God, i.e. a message declaring that God can and will save us. The Gospel, according to their understanding, is the saving power itself.That is what Fox said, after all. He didn’t say, “the Gospel is a declaration about the saving power of God”; he said, “the Gospel is the saving power of God.”So what that means, it seems to me, is that when we truly preach the Gospel, we do not merely say, “God can save you”; we allow that saving Power to manifest itself. Our speech and/or behavior and/or presence become themselves the Power through which others are brought around to repentance and reconciliation.This is a tremendous assertion, and it is no wonder that non-Friends were afraid to embrace it. But a whole lot of early Friends could testify, from their own experience, that it was true. And even some modern Friends could do so. And some modern non-Friends.It requires total loss of self to preach the Gospel, in this sense.

  2. Much agreement, but ways of putting things…I can’t say to anyone: “Here is the Saving Power of God: (ZAP!)” What I might usefully accomplish is to suggest that they “Stop wiggling so much!” so that God can work with less distraction.I can’t even do that, successfully, by repeating some particular poetic phrase, or by sitting there with my Quakerly expression, but only by attention to what God is making available, and if that seems to be “nothing,” reminding myself that all things are, after all, in God’s hands, including whether I can convince anyone of that. The Bible might come into it; there’s a lot of inspiration there if we look for it–and so might some seemingly trivial product of God’s imagination.I both agree about “total loss of self”, and consider it bad theology. It’s one side of a paradox, that God loves us and is not trying to suppress us–but everything we mistake for our “self” can trip us up.When we talk about our adolescence, the phrase “self-consciousness” may come to mind. It’s a state that renders us entirely unconscious of what we’re trying to do, while we wrestle with concepts of ourselves. We might eventually learn to dance anyway, but still be carrying that “self” on our shoulders–and that’s a heavy burden.

  3. Marshall, you are not an intrusion. we’re an open meeting.And to the rest — apologies for my inconstant presence. My computer is behaving with less than mechanical efficiency. Not to mention some personal matters.

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