Evangelism without dogma?

Picture the scene: it's 1993 and a fresh faced art student sits on the floor of his painting studio next to a cross-legged Buddhist. For the last half-hour they've been talking 'God'. To the outside listener the conversation seems an incoherent ramble. Yet the student knows better. There's method in his glibness. Unknown to his 'enlightened' subject he's carefully preparing the ground for an evangelistic piéce de resistance.

Then, like a spiritual Stealth Bomber, he moves in on his target: "But without Jesus in your life you'll never find lasting peace." Ha ha! What will she say to that!? Then comes the mystical rebuttal: "But I have invited him into my life. I feel His presence every night when I meditate." What now? The student's mind is reeling. "But you still need Jesus in your life!" he repeats mindlessly like an exhausted mantra. Yet inside his morale is crumbling. For the next five minutes he lurches from one increasingly lame exhortation to another as the crushing reality hits him: he's run out of things to say and can feel a headache developing – like the one he had after failing his mocks.

Confession time

In case you're wondering, that art student was me. Years later, as I reflect on what went wrong, I have now come to see that one vital thing was missing from my evangelistic repertoire: doctrine. And, like many, my lack of theological flex was embarrassingly apparent when applied to an evangelistic conversation with a real, three dimensional, person. Shallow platitudes and skin-deep exhortations barely made a dent on this person's consciousness. It wasn't that I didn't 'know my Bible' – I did (compared to other CU members anyway). The problem was that all I could do was quote proof texts. Yet, if I had been more theologically aware things might have fared differently. She said she believed in Jesus – but which Jesus? She said she had peace – peace in what sense?

Of course I'm not saying my Buddhist friend would inevitably have been converted if my doctrinal prowess had been sharper: only a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit can convert sinners. Yet, if I had been more theologically informed at least my vacuous pleading would have been filled with more substantial challenges. Instead I gave up, went home, and nursed my self-incurred bad karma over a mug of strong coffee.

A common problem

My experience, I suspect, highlights a growing problem among many evangelicals today: doctrinal shallowness. Increasingly in our churches theological awareness is limited, and budding theologians few. Frequently, concern for doctrinal precision is seen as intellectual dithering designed to shield cowards from getting their hands dirty at the coal face of evangelism. So mission is designated a practical enterprise reserved for real men with hair on their chests; theology the preserve of old men with hair in their ears. Even after conversion theological study is not a habit encouraged among young disciples. It is seen as something that risks hardening fresh faith into stale dogmatism. Consequently many discipleship programs substitute doctrinal depth for mere spiritual affirmation.

But is this loss of doctrinal articulation something to be concerned about? After all a doctrine-less gospel seems less cumbersome and more user-friendly. It appeals to the 'me generation' who, so experts say, only relate to belief-systems packaged as the satisfier of felt needs. Further to this, a theologically lean message doesn't straight-jacket the preacher with heavy jargon. Such ministry is intellectually undemanding, emotionally appealing, and often seems to 'get results' more easily. So, do we need doctrine? Despite what some might say I believe the answer is yes, and below are my reasons why.

Knowing God

First of all, without doctrine it is actually impossible to know God. The sinful human heart has an inbuilt tendency to re-imagine the Divine according to earthly agendas. Because of this, theology is essential for spiritual understanding. Jesus said '"My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me."' (John 7:16). Biblical doctrine is God sharing His mind with us. It acts as an objective standard bringing spiritual clarity amid our confusion. It then enables us to engage with our Maker respectfully and meaningfully. Without doctrine all of our attempts to understand God are spiritual lunges in the dark. Invariably we either drift into intellectualism or emotionalism as what we know and feel are our sole authorities for assessing reality. But with doctrine we are lifted beyond our own limitations by the truth of heaven itself.

Therefore doctrine is indispensable for encounter with God. That's why John reminds us that 'He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son.' (2 John 9). While Christians should never see theology as an end in itself, neither should they write it off as irrelevant: without it we cannot know God.

Evangelising the world

Doctrine is also critical to evangelism. In 1 Peter 3:15 the apostle exhorts believers to always be ready to give a defence to everyone who asks a reason for the hope that is in you.' This reminds us that people are rational creatures who need reasons to believe. Unless these reasons are substantial then true repentance and faith will not be forthcoming. The church's calling, therefore, is to present the facts of the gospel in such a way as to portray Jesus as a credible Lord and a powerful Saviour. By being doctrinally articulate we make ourselves effective in this ministry.

So, far from theology being a hindrance to evangelism, it is an aid to it. Paul himself described the conversion of the Roman believers occurring as they 'obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.' (Romans 6:17). Perhaps in our desire to rightly stress Christian commitment as a relational experience we sometimes miss an important balance. Conversion is also a reasonable event. It involves not just 'inviting Jesus into our hearts' but accepting facts about who He is and what He claims for Himself.

If we miss this balance, outreach runs the risk of becoming crypto-evangelism: the promotion of an indecipherable message upon which listeners may project any meaning they wish. The consequence of this is truly harrowing: converts with distended souls claiming to have 'felt Jesus' yet spending their days, like spiritual junkies, hopping from church to church for a bigger 'fix' of God. If only the gospel they had first heard was doctrinally substantial their discipleship might be more stable.

Building the Church

Following on from this, doctrine builds the people of God. The early church sustained its body life by being devoted to, among other things, 'the apostles' doctrine' (Acts 2:42). This teaching nourished them in the faith and enabled them to live Christianly in a pagan world. It did this by outlining the core beliefs and values that distinguished followers of God from followers of gods. It then highlighted how these should impact daily living. No wonder that the New Testament views sound theology as essential for healthy spirituality (1 Timothy 6:3; Titus 1:1). Doctrine is the indispensable parent that delivers the baby of belief into the adulthood of godliness. Without it discipleship is thinned down into a therapeutic adventure so generalised as to be almost New Age in texture.

Doctrinal awareness also protects the people of God. It is fashionable today to talk of a 'church without walls'. Usually the intention behind this phrase is healthy: the desire to reach, rather than alienate, the lost. And yet the term can create a false inclusiveness. Perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of a mission without walls' performed by a church within boundaries - these boundaries being essentially doctrinal in nature. Such theological lines in the sand are not meant to create alienation but enable wise discrimination. They highlight the real differences between believer and unbeliever clearly. With them the church keeps its spiritual edge. Without them the church loses it spiritual distinctiveness and purity. As a consequence it becomes salt that has lost its flavour and is 'good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men' (Matthew 5:13).

Time for reflection

We started this article with a question: do we need doctrine? Perhaps a better question would be 'dare we do without it?'. Shallow theological understanding leaves Christians at the beck and call of whatever post-modern fantasy, or emergent fad, is currently hogging the Christian scene. What is more, with the rise of the Internet, false teaching is only a couple of mouse clicks away for the spiritually impressionable. Therefore it is important to promote the study of sound doctrine so as to boost the spiritual immune system of the church. Believers are then equipped to test the spirits, whether they are of God' (1 John 4:1). In turn they are no longer 'tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine' (Ephesians 4:14). Surely doctrine is important.