If one wishes to go on a road trip, it’s an understatement to say a map would be useful. C.S. Lewis described Christian theology, with its set of doctrines, as a map that charted God.
He says such a map “is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God.”
To navigate life, with its unexpected sinkholes and ravines, we need a map. Christians believe the Bible (and the doctrines derived from within) is the best map, for it’s been tested by centuries of scrutiny and criticism, and yet still remains reliable in its spiritual guidance for billions worldwide.
With the amount of Christians in the world, variations in doctrine are only natural. Yet most of these variations are based on minor theological differences; the core of our convictions remains the same. When the core is immovable, everything else that Christians disagree on becomes, ultimately, just something to talk about.
The immovable core of the Christian community is, of course, the Gospel: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Tim. 1:15b; see also John 3:16).
Although Christians carry around different “maps,” they all agree that the Gospel is the capitol and the major doctrines that stem from it are the interstates, highways and major cities–it’s the back-roads and small towns of the minor doctrines that tend to vary from map to map.
The beautiful thing about the Gospel is that it’s not some formula found in a textbook; it’s the means through which God transforms us into his likeness. This produces in us a life filled with the fruit that matters. Because of what God has done in Christ, we can live as if we truly are new creations.
For Christianity is not a hollow system of ideas, but the way to find the life that God intends for us.
We were made for good works (Eph. 2:10; James 2:14-26), and doctrines are meant to serve as guideposts that point us in the right direction as we conduct ourselves from day to day (for example, having a proper understanding of the doctrine of justification enables us to be more selfless because grace compels us to forgive ourselves in light of God’s forgiveness, which thus allows us to spend more energy attending to others instead of dwelling on our own shortcomings). Indeed, Paul himself says transformation is grounded in the “renewal of the mind” (Rom. 12:2). Such renewal is found in surrendering to the way the Lord wants us to think.
In writing to Timothy, Paul says Christians ought to cling to “healthy doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 1:13). Healthy doctrine is what motivates us towards good works. With the right mindset, we’re on our way to living the way God wants us to live.
Healthy doctrine is the foundation of a healthy spiritual life, and the unified life of the Church is the best evidence that its doctrine is healthy.
When we center our lives on the Gospel, we find no reason to get bogged down with the minor doctrines we disagree on. We live healthy spiritual lives when we’re unified and intentionally living the way God wants us to live. But alas, the Western World has grown accustomed to comfort, and with comfort comes the freedom to create mountains out of molehills. It’s far too common to make cults out of other Christians because they emphasize different theological nuances than we do.
Since comfort prevails, it would be wise to prepare ourselves for times of discomfort, for it is in those times when what we believe matters the most.
Death is one of those times. The last letter Paul wrote was to Timothy (2 Timothy), his “spiritual son.” He was awaiting execution–what was on his mind? Despair? Doubt? Doctrines?
“The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6b-7).
This is a man with purpose, a man whose vision is filled with the glory of God. Paul is the epitome of what humans look like when God gets a hold of them. Likewise, the Early Church was built by a small group of men and women who were compelled by what they had experienced when Christ got a hold of them. These men and women were the first to visit the uncharted territory of the Faith that the Church today calls its home.
For the next few hundred years, their successors worked together to decide on the doctrines that would govern the Christian community. But doctrines are limited. Like traditions, they have the tendency to lose their original impact after a few generations. Doctrines are merely a way to process the enormity of the story of God; they are not meant to encompass our faith. Signposts are meant to keep us on the right road, they are never mistaken for the road itself–the same is true for doctrines.
When Paul wrote to the Philippians church, he encouraged them to “have the same mind” (Phil. 2:4). What he meant was not to have the same set of opinions, but to have a unified purpose–a unified mission. What was their mission? To strive side by side for the sake of the Gospel (1:27).
Every Christian must ask, what really matters? Like Paul facing his death, will we rest in knowing we’ve lived out the Faith–or will we squirm because we’ve wasted too much time nitpicking about matters that don’t matter?
The Church is diverse and multifaceted, but that doesn’t permit us to break off and hide in our little denominations that share similar nuances. Instead of reinforcing the walls on our little towns, we must reinforce our Capitol. When other worldviews get torn up by their diversity, Christianity ought to show its power in the way it can unify in the midst of diversity.
The key is the Gospel. The only way to unify is to regroup at the Gospel whenever disagreements tempt us to reinforce the walls.
One last word from Paul solidifies the need for unity: “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:1-6).
Do we, as Christians, live like the Gospel is more important than the nuances of the Faith that we favor?
Fee, Gordon D. 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984, 1988.
——————. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan, 1960.
Liefeld, Walter L. 1 & 2 Timothy/Titus The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999.