Is a Doctrinal Statement a Basis for
Most Church organizations spend a great deal of man-hours & money preparing a statement of beliefs. It is usually their best attempt to summarize the important doctrines of the Bible. The manner in which organizations attempt to enforce these beliefs varies from quietly teaching them to members, to claiming they are essential for salvation to punishments given for disobedience of "the statement of beliefs."
What are your personal beliefs? Why do you have them? Have you adopted an organizationís Statement of beliefs as your own? Are there a few points that you see differently than your organization? Do you fellowship with people only if they have beliefs identical to your own? The answers to these questions are important. We will discuss them as we go on.
Most people probably realize that some beliefs are more important than others. Some roughly separate them into dogmasthings that must be believed for salvation and membership, doctrinesthings they hold to be true, but not necessarily essential for salvation, and personal understandingsthings that one holds to be true, but cannot necessarily be completely proven from Scripture.
Use of Doctrinal Statements
Dogmatic doctrinal statements (beliefs required for Salvation) only make sense for Church organizations that teach they are the "one and only true church." If a church teaches that some people in other groups with different doctrinal statements also have salvation, then how can they teach that their own doctrinal statement is required for Salvation?
Servantsí News has printed many articles showing that the Bible does not establish one human organization as the "true church." Furthermore, history shows that there is no Sabbath-teaching organization that has continually taught the same doctrines since the time of Christ. We believe that the Church (the body of true believers) has been composed of individuals with the Holy Spiritsome attend services sponsored by organizations, some attend non-aligned services. Please see our literature list to obtain some of these articles.
Please think for a moment. Do the doctrinal statements of the various organizations serve to unify the brethren in one True Church or do such statements divide them? Unfortunately, these statements usually work to divide brethren. We have often observed groups that could not fellowship with each other because of some minor point of disagreement in their doctrinal statements. Such statements usually do not contain a detailed explanation of each doctrine from the Bible, but usually list only a summary and the most relevant scriptures. Doctrinal statements almost never deal with the "difficult scriptures" that appear to refute a given doctrine. People debating doctrinal statements often do not have the necessary information to evaluate exactly why the organization has that doctrine. In order to understand the teaching in detail, a person must obtain a booklet or sermon from the relevant organizationif such a thing exists.
In a world where church organizations often split and regroup, doctrinal statements are almost never the work of an individual or committee studying the Bible to see what it says. They are usually a revision of some previous groupís statement. The people writing them are often not even aware of other common teachings about similar subjects.
Furthermore, firm doctrinal statements tend to limit Bible study, rather than encourage it. Many members of church organizations know very little about the content of their organizationís statement. Officially, the organization might encourage their members to study their statement, but in practice, the member who never studies the doctrinal statement will have far less difficulty with the church leadership than the one who diligently studies all of the doctrines, but has serious questions about one or two of them.
If we really believe that our Savior is training humans to reign with him (Rev 20:4), what does He want? Does He want people who have accepted a man-made statement? Or does He want people who do not accept a doctrine until they have studied it in the Bible and understand it themselves?
While it is not an inherently evil thing to publish a summary of Bible teaching, it would seem to be a mistake for an organization to ask anyone to believe such a summary unless its principles are clearly expounded and common questions are answered by other literature. Anyone who is ministering to a congregation must know that the Eternalís laws are to be written on peopleís hearts (Heb 8:10;10:16). Convincing "church members" to accept doctrines that are written on paper and not understood from the Living Word is little different than ancient Israelites trying to follow laws written on tables of stone.
If the members of an organization believe that they are still growing and learning new truth, then it seems like a complete mistake to insist that they all believe a fixed doctrinal statement. The Bible shows that truth was not always revealed to "the man at the top," but that the Eternal spoke through a variety of prophets, apostles, teachers, etc.
This article is not an effort to "water down" doctrine or to get people to change beliefs they have learned from the Bible. It is an effort to point out where unity of practice and belief is necessary for us to fellowship and cooperate with other groups. It is an effort to encourage people to expand the group of people with which they learn and teach biblical subjects. We are asking you to realize that if you continue to limit your fellowship to only those who believe exactly like you do, you may soon find yourself alone.
Think of your children or the children of other believers. Whom will they marry? Only someone from your group? (Is there anyone?) If time goes on twenty more years, who will be the Bible teachers then? Who will train them? Who will accept them as teachers?
As this article continues, we offer a same classification of beliefs and practicesclassifying those things that are most important for ongoing fellowship. We realize that most of our readers may have different opinions as to how doctrines should be classified. That is good. The main point is that as groups form, break up, and form again, It is much more important that we have our own personal standards of practice and doctrine which we understand and keep. From there, we can find a subset which we feel is necessary to hold in common with the people with whom we fellowship. If we hold as our belief the doctrinal statement of whatever organization we are attending at a particular time, we will indeed be "blown about by every wind of doctrine."
How Can People Work Together if They Have Different Doctrines?
Working together with people who hold doctrines different than yours is much easier than you might expect. If a house is in a forest where there are many fires, it is much easier to make the outside of the house able to withstand fire, than it is to try to stop numerous forest fires from reaching the house. Similarly, it is much easier to work together with a person who is strong enough to withstand doctrinal diversity than it is to try to stop every doctrinal idea from reaching him or her.
Of all the things that you believe, only a small part of them are really essential to hold in common with those with whom you fellowship.
Let us examine the difference between beliefs, teachings, and practices.
Beliefs are things that people hold within themselves. In a sense, we never really know what anyone believes because we cannot see into their mind. We only know what they claim or appear to believe. If you believe that Christ eternally existed, but the person next to you believes He was created, how will you ever know if he does not talk about it? While our personal beliefs are most important, as they are the basis for our teachings and practices, other peopleís beliefs are irrelevant to you unless they teach or practice them in a way that will influence you.
Teachings are beliefs that a person expounds. Teaching may occur in an organized group or in informal conversation. Teachings should be based solidly on Scripture and history, and done in a loving, non-confrontational manner. A person should be able to listen to a teaching that is different from his belief without becoming upset and leaving a group. When you hear a teaching that you disagree with, it is a chance to review the basis for your own belief on the subjectand, if the situation is right, to show others where they may be wrong. Some fundamental teachings are very important to everyone. It would be difficult to fellowship with a group where you were in disagreement on many fundamental teachings. On the other hand, groups can have great differences in their peripheral teachings.
Practices are things that people do based on their beliefs. There are both personal practices and group practices. Personal practices include things like the way a person gives and helps others, the way a person dresses for services, how a person keeps the Sabbath at home, etc. Group practices include the writings that they regard as Scripture, the days that they worship, the format of their worship service, the songs they sing, etc. Sometimes personal practices can affect the entire group: for example, people should not bring unclean food to a potluck when the others there do not want to eat it. Romans 14 shows how brethren should cooperate with the personal practices of others in a group. Even if someone believes they must be a vegetarian, others should not belittle or try to stop their practice.
Clearly, it is more important for brethren that meet together to agree on group practices than it is for them to agree on teachings. If they cannot agree on major group practices, they probably cannot work together. It is important to agree on fundamental teachings and nice to agree on individual practices and peripheral teachingsbut some disagreement is quite acceptable. We do not all learn everything at the same time. People will learn far more in an environment where they are responsible for evaluating teachings from the scripture than they will in an environment where they only hear teachings. Diverse beliefs, if people do not try to push them on others, should not create any trouble in a fellowship.
How Do We Classify Doctrines as Practices, Teachings or Beliefs?
So how do we go about deciding which practices, teachings, and beliefs we must hold in common in order to fellowship. Below, we give a sample of the way we understand it.
We included items that commonly appear in doctrinal statements, but classified them in regard to people fellowshipping together. We have made these classifications with long-time fellowship in mind (years). Obviously, it would be possible to visit a congregation or even fellowship for a few weeks without agreement on some of the items listed below.
Doctrines which we feel are not exceptionally clear in the Bible are toward the end of the list. Other doctrines, which we feel are very clear, may also appear near the end of the list because they do not have much bearing on the functioning of a congregation. Therefore, these doctrines are not listed in order of importance to a personís life or in the best order for preaching to othersthey are classified for importance for being able to conduct group fellowship.
1. The Old and New Testaments are inspired Scripture, show the way to Salvation, give the basis for living a righteous life, and are the truths used for judging other teaching believed to be of the Holy Spirit. If people do not accept both Old and New Testaments or if they regard other menís writings or sayings as equal to Scripture, little can be accomplished together.
2. Worship services are conducted on the Sabbath day, which is from evening Friday to evening Saturday.
3. Form of worship services. (What types of speaking, music, and other activities are a part of services?) Are questions permitted? Who is permitted to do which functions? What kinds of leaders are recognized, etc.?) The Bible says a lot about these subjects, but does not give specifics such as how many minutes various events should take or what hymnal(s) to use. A group committed to study the Bible in this area and modify their services as they learn can probably work together. Individuals committed to using only a format of services from a previous church organization probably cannot meet with individuals committed to following the Scripture in this area.
4. Immersion baptism and the laying on of hands are performed for people who have repented from dead works (turned from sinthe transgression of the law) and have faith toward God. (First four doctrines from list in Hebrews 6:1-2) This is a vital step on the road to salvation, which will be given to those that continue to yield themselves to the Eternal until the end.
5. Salvation is available to mature individuals of all races and genders. No one will be excluded from attending a service based on their race or gender.
6. Worship services are available to people no matter how they are dressed, richly or poorly (Jms 2).
7. Only biblically "clean food" will be served at social occasions. Individuals are free to reject the food laws of the Bible as long as they respect those who do accept them.
1. There is one supreme Eternal Creator, the Father of all that exists. He is perfect in love, justice, knowledge, power, authority, and any other good thing of which we might think. Our perception of Him is based on how He reveals Himself in Scripture, not on human logic attempting to define what an all-powerful being must be like.
2. Jesus (Yeshua, Yashua, etc.) of Nazareth was born of the virgin Mary, is the "only begotten Son" of the Father, lived a perfect life as a human, died as a sacrifice for the sins of all people, rose from the dead, and now serves as our high priest. (This statement intentionally emphasizes Jesusí redemptive role and avoids questions about His existence before he was born and his future return.)
3. The Holy Spirit is the power used by the Father and the Son to do their will. This power is capable of communicating words, thoughts, emotions, and character. However, the Holy Spirit is not a separate "person" as it is not a separate cognitive entity (John 16:13), nor is it ever seen in a physical form as are the Father and the Son (Acts 7:55, etc.). The Holy Spirit is every memberís link to the Eternal for comfort, teaching, and power to do good works.
4. Biblical law is the expression of the Eternalís mind in teaching people how to get along with each other. Some of the laws given ancient Israel, such as the 10 commandments and the "golden rule," are spiritual principles and should be followed directly by believers today. Other Biblical law, such as laws governing temple sacrifices and the physical nation of Israel have spiritual implications and lessons for us today, but can no longer be used directly. Following the Eternalís law is a fruit of the Holy Spirit in us, not a requirement for salvation.
5. All people who die will be raised from the dead in the future and eternally judged for their actions. (Last 2 doctrines in Hebrews 6:2.) The Eternalís way will be taught to those who have not known it. Those who accept the forgiveness of our Savior and strive to obey Him with their whole being will be given Eternal life as His sons. Those who reject His way will be destroyed forever.
6. The one true Church of God is a spiritual entity composed of all people with the Holy Spirit. As human beings, we cannot be absolutely sure who all of these people are. We endeavor to have a special love for all of the brethren and are willing to fellowship with those who are willing to fellowship with us. However, sometimes true believers have honest differences which cause them to separate, but still remain brethren (Acts 15:37-39). A person can be barred from attending with a group only by following the procedure outlined in Matthew 18:15-17. The true Church is not a corporation or an organization of men.
Personal Practices with Significant Impact on a Group
1. Holy Day observance. This includes whether holy days should be observed at all, the calendar by which to observe them, the counting of Pentecost, the timing of Passover, the observing of new moons, and the non-observance of Pagan days (Christmas, Easter, Valentines Day, Halloween, etc.). Obviously, it is easiest for a group of people if they observe the same days, but it is not hard to make allowance for people who have sincere convictions about keeping a day at a different time
2. Use of divine names. There are many different beliefs about how the Hebrew divine name should be pronounced and when it should be used. (The Hebrew YHVH is variously pronounced as Yahweh, Jehova, Yehova, Ee-ow-ah, etc. Others prefer to use a replacement such as "Lord," Adonai, HaShem, etc. There are also various pronunciations of our Saviorís name: Jesus, Yashuah, Yeshua, etc.) It is easier to sing together and write literature if brethren are of like mind on this point, but it is very possible to work together when people differ, but are content to do what they believe rather than try to get others to do what they believe.
3. Personal Sabbath-keeping practices that may affect the group. One issue is the exact time when people should start and stop observing the Sabbath (sunset as observed, sunset as calculated, dusk, dark, when candles are lit, when they are ready, etc.). Whether or not the Eternal would want us to eat at a restaurant on the Sabbath can be a major difficulty in a congregation if a significant amount of their fellowship tends to take place at a restaurant before or after services. Finally, if brethren are spending a significant part of their Sabbath together, questions of which activities are appropriate for adults and children often surface.
Beliefs with a Major Impact
on a Groupís Teaching
(If groups disagree on the points below, they can still work together, but they will experience much conflicting teaching.)
1. Christ will return to Earth for a literal 1000 year reign over the kingdoms of this worldshowing what is possible to do on the Earth with righteous leadership. A related teaching is that mankind has had 6000 years to live his wayand obviously made quite a mess.
2. The English-speaking countries and other northwest European nations are the descendants of the 10 "lost tribes" of Israel. The historical evidence for this teaching is very strong, but deciding which tribes have descended to which countries today is open to interpretation. Also, some groups misuse this teaching to claim some peoples are inferior. Obviously, this teaching is less significant when working with non-Israelite nations.
3. Satan and the spirit world. Some people do not believe in a literal devil or demons. They can get along with those who do, but will have trouble understanding people with demon problems. They may also have a hard time realizing it when they are deceived by Satan and his demons.
4. Prophetic interpretation. There are numerous interpretations of the prophecies of the Bible. Numerous groups have attempted to explain them and have been wrong. Groups need to learn to teach prophecy as "possible understandings" and allow differing points of view. Many groups feel they need to preach prophecy strongly in order to get and keep members. Unfortunately, they forget that when they preach erroneous prophecy, many of those people who came because of prophecy often leave when the prophecies fail.
5. Preaching the Gospel to unbelievers. Most brethren agree that this should be done, but there are often questions about how it should be done, and what should be preached. A group will need to come to some agreement about which of the above and below doctrines they will preach. It is quite possible to agree to teach more than one understanding of an issue and ask the "new convert" to exercise their Bible and the Holy Spirit to come to a decision as to what they should do.
Beliefs and Practices that Should have Less Impact on Fellowship
(Some of these doctrines may seem foundationalsome of them are. Some may seem ridiculouswe think some of them are. But we ask you to ask yourself, "How would I be affected if the person in services next to me believes differently on this point?" As long as you believe you understand it from the Bible, is not your relationship with the Eternal secure? We list these doctrines in alphabetical order, without numbers, for convenience. We have added brief comments where it may be helpful.)
Baptism of fire.
Born again. (This was probably never intended as a doctrine by the New Testament writers. They used analogies to illustrate particular points and were not always consistentnew believers are compared both to fetuses and already born babies in different scriptures.)
Church eras. (Seven times in Revelation 2 & 3, every person is told to listen to every message to every church. There is no specific indication that these are seven sequential time periods. It is possible that they have a sequential fulfillment as well as a fulfillment in every age, but it is hard to see basing a major doctrine, or even the name of a church organization, on this subjective interpretation.)
Divorce and remarriage. (People can find a group that will permit almost any divorce or remarriage. Individual commitment to the Bible is all that really can restrain people.)
Ezekiel warning message. (If the Eternal inspires someone to preach Ezekielís warning, then he should do it, but the Bible does not assign this commission to every believer.)
Faithyour precise definition.
Family of God. (This is a semantic difference from believers becoming "children of God." Since the expression "family of God" does not appear in most Bibles, why make an issue about it?)
Giving (There is no Bible example of any preaching or ministry that did not begin or complete due to lack of money. Brethren should not become upset over this less significant issue.)
Gospelyour precise definition.
Graceyour precise definition.
Herbert ArmstrongWas he the Elijah, a villain, or a Solomon-like figure that did some things good and some bad? (Our relationship with the Eternal should not depend on what Armstrong said. His "18 restored truths" contained much truth, but some errornearly all of them were taught by at least one other Bible teacher before him.)
History of the Church of God. (Hopefully, church groups will not get in the business of blessing certain versions of history.)
Jesusí nature before he was born of Mary.
Justificationyour precise definition.
Kingdom of Godyour precise definition.
Laying on of handsExactly when is this done in addition to baptism and healing?
Man becomes God. (Men were made in Godís image and when changed we shall be like Him1Jn 3:2. Avoid expressions not in the Bible.)
Manís natureWhat was it before and after Adam & Eve sinned.
Mystery of the AgesIs this book recognized as a doctrinal statement?
Not everyone is being called now.
Place of safety.
Prophetic symbol interpretation.
ResurrectionsExactly how many are there, who is in them, and when do they occur?
Sabbath being a sign.
Sanctificationyour precise definition.
Spirit in Man.
Tithes, three kinds. (See note under "Giving".)
We realize that the above list does not specifically spell out many things that people hold as doctrine (There are numerous things that this writer practices and believes that are not listed here). We realize that many of our readers would feel uncomfortable going to a service where people have different beliefs on some of these "less impact" subjects. But we ask you this question, "If we are sure that nearly all that we believe is Biblical, then why arenít we happy to accept people with different beliefs into our services or attend their services so that we can help teach them the truth where they are wrong?" Is it possible that associating with kind, sincere, loving people who study the Bible and form difference conclusions makes us uncomfortable? Are we afraid that we will not be able to answer them from Scripture or that we might even find that we have been wrong at times?
What do you think our Father in heaven wants? Does He want a group of people who all believe the same thing to get together so they can spend their study time assuring themselves how much they know? Or would He want a group come humbly together with some differing options, earnestly searching the Scriptures and praying to Him to understand the truth?
This article is not about "watering down doctrine." It is about strengthening personal doctrine to the point where we can walk among others with different doctrine, and still come out unscathed. It is about doctrine that can live in your heart, no matter what may happen to your family, friends, or church organizations.
Norman S. Edwards
return to Sept-Oct 97 index