A transformational church maintains doctrinal integrity.
Doctrine can be a polarizing word. It sounds dry and boring to some, divisive and legalistic to others. Churches sometimes soften their doctrinal positions, or at least mute their intensity, to lessen this tension and become more attractive to unbelievers. That effort, though well intended, is a misapplication of Paul’s example of becoming “all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Flexibility in missionary lifestyle doesn’t equal and must not include compromising doctrinal integrity, especially truth about the gospel. In Antioch, Paul broke new ground in contextualizing the gospel’s presentation but without compromising its message. On the contrary, he undertook extreme measures to defend its purity. Jesus taught a clear gospel. Paul and other New Testament writers articulated its theological nuances as well as its implications for daily living. Healthy churches uphold the gospel and its discipleship demands for believers. Transformational churches stand for truth rather than dilute the message and explain away its requirements for holy living.
Not only is a dilution strategy biblically irresponsible; it’s also practically ineffective. Churches with strong doctrinal convictions grow faster and attract the unchurched in greater numbers than compromising churches. Unbelievers, including those with little or no church background, intuitively know a church is supposed to stand for something. When starting a church in Oregon, we considered dropping the denominational label from our name. We postulated it might be a barrier for some who were prejudiced against our particular brand of Christianity. What we discovered was the opposite. As we met unbelievers and told them we were starting a church, their inevitable question was, “What kind of church?” Initially, we gave a general answer like, “A church for the community,” or, “A church that follows Jesus.” The unchurched then usually asked, “But what kind of church—Methodist, Lutheran, Mormon?” When we told them, “Baptist,” their response was usually positive, sometimes followed by the question, “Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?” It often seemed we were more put off by the label than the people we were trying to reach. And worse, it seemed to them we were duplicitous in our answer, raising questions about our credibility.
This chapter isn’t about advocating for or against using a denominational label in your church’s name. There are denominationally labeled churches without doctrinal convictions and generically named churches standing strong on biblical principles. My story only contrasts our reluctance to take a doctrinal position for fear of offending outsiders with their expectation a church will naturally advocate biblical convictions. Most unchurched people expect churches to stand for certain beliefs and practices. If we claim to be Christian believers, their expectation is we believe in Someone (Jesus) and in something (His teachings, expanded to include the entire New Testament). Anything less seems out of character for genuine Christians.
A transformational church holds doctrinal convictions without malice or rancor but with confidence and certainty. Their leaders aren’t afraid to declare truth as revealed in Scripture and call people to submit to its authority. What is unappealing to unbelievers (and most Christians) is a church declaring its dogma with anger, legalistic overtones, or a judgmental spirit. Unfortunately, some believers (and their leaders) equate maintaining doctrinal integrity with mean-spirited, aggressive, arrogant behavior. Sound doctrine can be, and should be, declared and defended while still showing the fruit of the Spirit. Holding doctrinal convictions, intensely yet without compromise, is possible, while practicing the humility produced by quiet confidence in the truth of Scripture. The Antioch church and its leaders modeled this balance. We must learn to do the same.
Jeff Iorg, The Case for Antioch (Nashville: B&H, 2011).
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