Aileen and I were once members of a church that, after a few years of existence, began to de-emphasize doctrine. Some of the pastors seemed to reach the conclusion that “doctrine divides” and that the church really just needed to focus on evangelism and on “action.” They seemed to determine that a sound theological foundation held in common was unattainable and unrealistic. Therefore, doctrine should be laid aside and the church should rally around the things we had in common—a desire to reach others with the gospel and a desire to serve other people. It was a bit of a naive strategy, of course, and one that was bound to cause problems. Soon the church began to fracture into camps—those with backgrounds in one Christian tradition began doing things in one way while people from a different Christian background began doing them a different way. For a time chaos reigned. In some small groups members of the church would serve the Lord’s Supper, in others they wouldn’t; in some small groups people were baptizing each other and serving Lord’s Supper to children. There was no standard and eventually the pastors had to step in and intervene. By then, though, it was too late and many of these small groups “defected.” Having created their own theological identity and one that was at odds with that of the pastors, some of these groups left en masse. It was an inevitable result, I think, and one that proved to me that critical importance of doctrine being held in common by members of a church.
I found myself thinking about that church this weekend. I spent a good bit of my time reading the manuscript for Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists, a book that is set to released sometime in the spring. The book discusses some of the resurgence of Reformed theology in our day and does so, in large part, through interviews with some of the pivotal figures in this resurgence. There was one quote by Josh Harris that caught my attention: “Once you’re exposed to [doctrine], you see the richness in it for your own soul, and you’re ruined for anything else.”
This is something I’ve experienced in my own life and something I’ve seen in the lives of other Christians. I once went on a weekend men’s retreat that featured teaching from several local pastors. We heard some interesting messages about serving our wives, about being men of integrity and so on. We had joyful times of worship and lots of time to blow each other away with paintball guns. The thing that has remained in my mind, though, was one of the sermons delivered that weekend. While we had received a steady diet of fairly typical evangelical sermons, one of the pastors stood and delivered what was, in effect, a biblically-grounded expository message. He simply opened up the Bible and explained to us what it meant and how we could apply it to our lives. He gave us real doctrine—true meat instead of mere milk. As we walked from the meeting room to our cabins I could tell there was a buzz running through the crowd of men. They had enjoyed the sermon and had been electrified by it. But they had no category for it. I heard comments like, “I don’t know what that was, but it was amazing! I wish we could hear more teaching like that!” I sat with a small group of men a few minutes later and introduced to them the concept of expositional preaching. Most had never heard of any such thing; neither had they ever enjoyed a sermon like it.
It was a pivotal moment for me. I drove home to me something that the Bible teaches but something I had never really seen before—that true believers want and eventually need to move from milk to meat. Though they may not have a category to describe what is missing from their lives they will feel a restlessness. The Spirit works in them to give them a craving for solid food. And when they take a bite of that food, their eyes light up and they know that they are experiencing something that they were meant to enjoy.
I saw this time and time again. The church was so good at bringing people in through the front doors. They would come in and very often would be saved. Many people were drawn in, became believers, and were baptized. But often they would not last at the church too long. Within a few months or a couple of years they would often step right out the back door. Few left the church and left the faith altogether. Rather, they would leave and head for churches where there was teaching that was more biblical. They would head for churches where the Word was the main thing. They would be drawn to stronger, more biblical teaching, even when they did not know how to express what they needed or what they longed for. Eventually they would find it. Needless to say, Aileen and I felt the same call. Though we stayed some time for the sake of our friends, eventually we, too, had to leave to find a place where the Word was central. And we could never go back.
This takes me back to Josh Harris. Once you’ve been exposed to doctrine you see the richness in it for your own soul and you truly are ruined for anything else. Just as a young child craves solid food, Christians will and must crave the meat of the Word. And once you’ve tasted it, there is no going back.