Imagine a bustling church in the heart of the Midwest, led by a magnetic Pastor. He subscribes to the philosophy of "Relationships over Doctrine," diligently sidestepping theological disputes and nurturing a warm atmosphere. As his congregation grows and new faces appear each week, these members, seem happy. However, when asked about their faith's tenets, they struggle to articulate the church's core beliefs. The appealing sense of unity lacks a grounding force of theological clarity. They have pursued unity at all costs, and lost their doctrine.
In contrast, picture a small, whitewashed church nestled among the South's rolling green hills. This church firmly stands by "Doctrine over Relationships." Their insistence on theological precision transforms friends into debate opponents, and while the congregation dwindles, those remaining articulate their theology with scholarly precision. But their community impact wanes, and a cold intellectualism replaces the warm fellowship once characteristic of their gatherings. They have pursued accuracy at all costs and lost their people.
These scenarios depict the extreme ends of a sliding scale. It's a scale that churches, and even individual believers, all over the world are trying to navigate. It's easy to glide effortlessly toward one end or the other. It takes hard, intentional work to stay at the healthy middle.
Apostle Paul's wisdom provides guidance on how to avoid one extreme end of this spectrum. Paul warns in 2 Timothy 4:3-4 about some dangers that can arise for those who subscribe to "Relationships over Doctrine":
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
This stark warning cautions us against drifting from sound doctrine in the pursuit of harmony. Notice that in the verse there are relationships, but they are the kind of relationships where no hard truths are shared. Instead, people will be told what they want to hear. Conflicts over doctrine, it seems, are avoided at all costs. This is a flesh-driven outcome.
Conversely, 1 Corinthians 13:2 provides a counterbalance, highlighting the risk of "Doctrine above Relationships":
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
Here, Paul compellingly argues that even the most profound theological knowledge or faith is futile without love. What good is it if your theological knowledges abounds, if you have no friends to share that knowledge with?
Our flesh wants to slide toward one extreme or the other: Doctrine Over Relationship or Relationship Over Doctrine. This situation is something like parking a car in neutral on the peak of a hill. The car wants to roll down the hill in one direction or the other.
If it does, what can be done?
Well, the car has an engine doesn't it?
So do we.
We have been given mind, emotion, intellect, and relational capacity. More importantly, we've been given prayer, Scripture, and the Holy Spirit. We have everything we need to continually move toward that healthy middle. But remember, it's the flesh that wants us to live at one of those extremes. That's right, the flesh. An over fondness for accuracy that leads to division is fleshly. Often it's pride in disguise. An over fondness for avoiding all disagreements for the sake of unity is fleshly too. Often it's cowardice in disguise. The Spirit of God wants to drive us toward that healthy middle. Our flesh wants to roll down the hill.
So, don't chase Doctrine Over Relationship. Alternatively don't glide into Relationship Over Doctrine.
The healthy middle is: A constant balance of quality relationship and doctrinal accuracy. We can do it with God's help.
Let's commit to navigating this delicate tension wisely, honoring both the love that binds us and the truth that guides us. By doing so, we can create a community that is relationally strong, doctrinally sound, and truly reflective of Christ's love and truth.