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  • Writer's pictureKrista Bontrager

5 Tools for Doctrinal Discernment

"In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity." But who decides what's essential and what's non-essential?!

This post is based on a livestream I did on my YouTube channel.

I receive a lot of inquiries from people wanting to know my opinion on various theological issues. They send me links to videos, articles and web sites asking me whether such-and-such idea is valid or heretical. And to be honest, some of these things are...really odd. The rise of "discernment blogs" whose authors are ready to call out heretics and name names shows me that doctrinal discernment is actually big business.

You may have heard the common cliche: "In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity." But it's not always that straightforward. After all, who decides what's essential and what's non-essential?! Simply saying, “It’s not a salvation issue” is not enough! It’s WAY more complicated than that. In fact, I had a little rant about that issue a few weeks ago on the show.

I'm not really the kind of person who wants to be in the "calling out heretics" business. I'd rather teach people HOW to think about doctrinal challenges for themselves so they don't have to be dependent on others. So I thought it might be useful to share a rubric of sorts that I've developed over the last 2 1/2 decades for how I think through various theological challenges.

#1. De-Americanize your faith.

In my experience, the vast majority of Christians haven't given much thought to how Americanized their faith is. We just sort of imitate the beliefs and practices that we grew up with and think that's the "right" way to go about our faith. But I have found it to be a very useful exercise to try and stand back and get some distance and understanding for the flow of Christian history and how various streams of Christianity fit together within the larger narrative.

One practical way to get yourself out of Americanized Christianity and into historical theology is to study the Nicene Creed. It offers a good summary of some key essentials of our faith, including the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Now, that said, let's be honest. Protestants have a complicated relationships with creeds. Some fundamentalists would immediately respond with some version of, “I believe no creed but Christ." And I get the sentiment behind that statement. But it's important to also be aware that creeds are in the Bible. My friend Ken Samples gives a fine discussion about this issue on his blog. Rightly understood, creeds are simply helpful summary statements of what we believe.

Even most Protestants see the Nicene Creed as somewhat authoritative. If someone comes along with an aberrant view on the Trinity or the Incarnation of Jesus, many Christian apologists will point them back to the Nicene creed as providing important boundaries. Protestants also accept our canon of Scripture from tradition. Creeds provide helpful insights into how the early church thought and practiced their faith.

Which brings me to my second point...

#2. Ask, What did the early church fathers say?

Careful interpretation of Scripture should include several components, including word study, historical context, and an understanding of literary genre. Healthy exegesis should also include a check on how Christians have historically interpreted a particular passage. Grant Osborne discusses this in his classic textbook, The Hermeneutical Spiral.

I like to follow the example of Methodist theologian, Tom Oden, and focus on the first 300–400 years of the church. What did these early Christians believe? What were the beliefs that united them?

Now, why is this step useful? Let's say I get to a verse and I get stuck. So, I do all my homework and come up with 2 or 3 interpretive options about what it means. Then what? Do I flip a coin? Draw straws?

That's where I find it very useful to ask: What have Christians historically believed about how to interpret this verse? Was there a universal teaching of the church?

For example, recently our family was reading John 13 together. My husband asked about Jesus washing the disciples' feet. "What is happening here? Is Jesus instituting a third ordinance in addition to the Lord's Supper and Baptism?" Looking at the context or original language doesn't help me answer this question. So I had to do some digging. Come to find out, there is a rich tradition in ancient churches where the priest will wash the feet of the parishioners on Maunday Thursday each year, following in the example of our Savior.

So, what are some good sources to give insight into what early Christians believed? I asked some friends of mine who know a lot more about historical theology than I do for some recommendations. Here are their suggestions:

Now, we need to acknowledge that many American versions of Christianity have eliminated some beliefs and practices of the earliest church. So it might be a bit disturbing to find out that the earliest Christians didn’t really believe in the rapture or that they universally baptized babies. So you may need to wrestle through some of those issues. But doing so will help your faith grow, and become less American and more like historic Christianity. If nothing else, look at this as an educational exercise.

#3. Avoid “New” teaching.

This guideline has served me well over the years. If someone says they have a “fresh new” teaching or that they are going to give me "new wine," then that might a sign that it’s time to find a new church or stop listening to that speaker. Because often what follows after the word "new" is some kind of aberrant or heretical doctrine.

The reality is, there is no such thing as a "new" teaching. We are part of a 2000 year old faith. As my old theology professor used to say, "there are no new ideas. Just old heresies dressed up in space suits."

#4. Be wary of churches who are trying to “restore” the church to Acts.

Protestants are constantly trying to "restore" the church of the book of Acts. In fact, this is the source of a lot of new denominations. Now, my ancient faith friends are generally quick to tell me, “Why do you need to restore the church of Acts? We never left it!”

But there is some truth to this. We want to take Jesus' command to preserve unity seriously and not just constantly going off and starting our own churches. The importance of staying grounded in what has happened previously in church history can be a really good way to protect yourself from not getting carried off into unhealthy sects.

#5. Avoid churches who talk about grace and love, but whose leaders don’t actually live it.

I’m all for doctrinal faithfulness. But not at the expense of treating people abusively or disrespect. I have talked previously about my experience in the Reformed tradition. There was lots of talk about the doctrines of grace, but the churches we were involved with practiced the least gracious culture I’ve ever experienced.

We need BOTH sound doctrine and faithful Christianity. Sound doctrine should never be used as a cover story for treating people badly.


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