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What Is Doctrine?
by Friends in Christ (Plain Quakers)
[Webservant's Note: There are three places in this essay in which a Greek word is used. The Greek characters are created in different ways in different browsers. Each word is presented twice in this essay, with a "/" between the two. With most browsers, one will render properly as the intended Greek word and one won't (what you see will vary). Just ignore whichever one doesn't for you. In Opera, both will render properly. There may be some older versions of browsers in which neither renders properly.]
[Friends in Christ (Plain Quakers) is a group of Friends based in the United Kingdom. This essay is reprinted from Issue No. 3 for 2002 of their quarterly newsletter, The Call, by permission.]
And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
We are sometimes asked what we mean by doctrine. Indeed it is a word which, in the world, is fraught with accreted meanings and implications - giving the impression of a diktat handed down by grim-faced clerics and elders!
The word used in the Greek of the New Testament for the verb "to teach" is "didaskw/διδασκω" (the root from which we get our word "didactic", which again has negative accretions these days). The word "doctrine" in the quotation above from Matthew 7:28 - the words at the close of the sermon on the mount - is "didach/διδαχη". Not only does "doctrine" appear almost fifty times, but the various parts of the verb "to teach" occur over and over again, in the context of words spoken to others, for them to hear, know, believe, and assent to, not only by the apostles but most often by Christ himself who, during his mortal ministry, spent most of his time directly engaged in teaching people, face-to-face. Christ himself saith, "I am the Truth".
So truly Christ is to be known, believed, assented to, and attended to as the Teacher, who says, "I am the Truth". Furthermore, he says of the Holy Spirit, that "he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall show it unto you." (John 16:13-15), showing that the Holy Spirit will instruct in truth those who follow Him.
And the Apostle Paul writes that by this Holy Spirit several people in the Church were given gifts and duties: "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love." (Ephesians 4:11-16)
What is clear from all this, is that there was to be no lack of teaching in the Church, so that we would be no more children (though we had first to know ourselves to be no more than children!) carried about with every wind of the world's doctrine. Moreover, the teaching was to be a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and a gift bestowed by God, for the unifying of the Church. But it takes a great act of humility to come to know those whom the Lord has given this gift, and to listen to their words, and to appreciate why the Lord has put them there for us - hence our recognition of the gifts of ministry and eldership, and our not detracting from them. There is indeed a tendency to go one's own way, and to rejoice in an imagined freedom, to suspend the teaching of Christ (inwardly or by any outward instrument), when things get difficult. As the apostle wrote: "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables." (2 Timothy 4:3,4)
Some bodies claiming our Society's name have no doctrine except for the "Do what thou wilt"! Into that easy vacuum, the author of confusion pours the words and writings of every facile guru, and the itching ears lap up the stuff, preferring anything than to sit in humility under the entirety of the teaching of Christ. The churches of the world have beliefs and practices which may well be based upon their reading of scripture, or upon their centuries-long traditions, but these things are cracked cisterns that hold no water.
Friends (which term is to be taken as nothing other than those people who are of one faith, one Lord, and one baptism, and one heart and one mind, with Friends of old and with the primitive Church) know doctrine to be, first of all, a gift from heaven. It is given to those who are to be nursing fathers and mothers in Israel, to help and guide those in their care - but not exclusively to them, for even the teachers have to be learners under Christ. And yes, it leads to statements about things, and to things regarded as being true; but they are nothing if they can be seen to be other than fruits of the Power that gives them forth, because teaching is at the same time one of its gifts and its fruits. They can be rigid, as in statements to the effect that the Spirit of Christ would not lead us from something as evil, and again to it - there is nothing more didactic than that! They can be binding - but only as binding on earth as the person feels bound in heaven! In the end, doctrine is not imposed by man, but is nonetheless clear and strong; and the One who gives forth the doctrine gives the ability to obey it.
The enlightenment of Christ is truly universal. That being so, why did George Fox write so much that was collected together as his "Doctrinal" works? Why did Robert Barclay codify Friends' doctrines, in Latin, in his Apologia? Why did Friends read the scriptures to the Indians of North America? Why not simply leave each man to his own, if what he could experience inwardly was enough? Because what one man experiences is part of a bigger whole. Because it is neither private nor privatised, but is for the building-up of the Body of Christ. Because teaching (doctrine) is one of its gifts and fruits. Because these things are to reflect the unity of the Church. Because, in the end, it does matter, and there comes a point in which a person can go no further as, say, a Mormon or a Buddhist, because the Mormon or Buddhist culture will restrict any further progress into Christ.
This is what Friends know by "doctrine" - a blessing, not a curse!
It may help to consider some of the Biblical references. In the following passages, mention is made of the amazement at hearing Christ's doctrine: Matthew 7:28, 22:33; Mark 1:22, 11:18; Luke 4:32; Acts 13:12 (with Paul as instrument). In Matthew 15:9 the words "teaching" and "doctrines" both appear, and both are from the "didaskw/διδασκω" root in Greek. In John 7:16 onwards come the Lord's words: "My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him." In John 18:20, Jesus says of his own doctrine: "I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing." In 2 Timothy 3:16,17 comes Paul's famous words about scripture: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." Many churches and preachers in their own strength neglect the second half of that passage, verse 17, "....that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works". In the passage before the mention of "itching ears", Paul exhorts Timothy thus: "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine", with no mention of letting each have his own doctrine, or lack of it. John writes, showing the necessity of possession rather than profession: "Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son" (2 John:9). And there are so many references to teaching, in a similar context.
Two other citations may help to explain Friends' attitude to "doctrine" compared to that of the world's. Firstly, in the Brief Statement of Doctrines & Principles, are the introductory words:
We would have people convinced of these principles, not by human authority, but from the conviction of the Holy Spirit of Christ only, that the true knowledge of God, and all things spiritual can be revealed, according to the declaration of the Scriptures, 'The things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God;' and we believe that it is this Spirit alone that giveth life, and that can guide into all truth.
Secondly, the postscript to the Queries composed by the Elders at Balby in 1656 runs thus:
Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the Light which is pure and holy, may be guided; and so in the Light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.
Properly read, it can be seen that there was the earnest and faithful expectation that these things would be fulfilled, in the Spirit, by those who would learn at the feet of the Master. There was no hint that these things were dispensable, in favour of a private doctrine without progress, or that they were an obligatory pre-requisite.
What it boils down to is this: "Christ is come to teach His people Himself!" This is no less true today than it was when George Fox declared it. And that, Friends, is the whole truth of doctrine.
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