A Closer Look:
#17 Uniformity of Doctrine

By Joel Heller

Christian sects tend to divide over doctrine: How many Persons are there in the Godhead? Do we have free will, or is God in charge of everything? Should babies be baptized or only those old enough to believe? Does the afterlife come immediately after death or do the dead sleep until the resurrection? 

Some will even anathematize each other over the proper shape of the Cross. Historically, the Romans used several different shapes. In Judea, they couldn’t be too picky about it, since lumber was scarce. None of the Evangelists included a description in his Gospel.

Jewish sects, on the other hand, tend to divide over practice. How kosher is kosher enough? What activities are allowed or prohibited on the Sabbath? How far may a man walk with his head uncovered? Jews have never thought that a uniform doctrine is necessary. It is probably not even possible. Though a shared way of doing things helps community cohesion. 

One of the strengths of Judaism is Jews’ ability to disagree without being disagreeable. Debates might get heated. This is OK, if the intent is to discover God’s meaning. This is called “an argument for the sake of Heaven.” When disputants debate to win or to impose an interpretation, this is called “an argument not for the sake of heaven.”

Around the end of the first century, Ignatius of Antioch made some changes to church polity. He centralized authority of the several assemblies in his diocese under the single bishop, overriding the authority of the elders of each local community. His stated reason for gathering power into his hands alone was to insure that doctrine would be uniform throughout the region.

The hazard, of course, is that there is no guarantee that the Bishop’s doctrine is correct, only that it will be mandatory. This short-circuits any would-be Berean who might search the Scriptures and hold the Bishop’s feet to the fire. Mandatory articles of faith can canonize error as well as truth. Truth does not need an inquisition to defend it; error does.

British novelist Anthony Trollope gives us a scene. When the Reverend Mr. Arabin is asked whether bickerings over points of doctrine do not “bring scandal on the church,” the clergyman replies,

What you say is partly true: our contentions do bring on us some scandal. The outer world, though it constantly reviles us for our human infirmities and throws in our teeth the fact that being clergymen we are still no more than men, demands of us that we should do our work with godlike perfection. There is nothing god-like about us: we differ from each other with the acerbity common to man; we triumph over each other with human frailty; we allow differences on subjects of divine origin to produce among us antipathies and enmities which are anything but divine. This is all true. But what would you have in place of it? There is no infallible head for a church on earth. This dream of believing man has been tried, and we see in Italy and in Spain what has come of it. Grant that there are and have been no bickerings within the pale of the Pope's Church. Such an assumption would be utterly untrue, but let us grant it, and then let us say which church has incurred the heavier scandals.1

No mortal human, nor committee of humans can attain such infallibility as to guarantee purity of doctrine. Some denominations submit doctrinal questions to a bishop. Some charge their elders with insuring “sound doctrine.” What if the certified experts are wrong? An error backed by more than a millennium of tradition is still an error. Falsehood does not become true by majority vote.

As a practical matter, once doctrine is carved in stone, all learning ends. If we are enjoined by our experts to believe a certain dogma, even though we can never possibly understand it, we have no incentive to study the Scriptures. On the contrary, we have every incentive to abandon understanding and rely exclusively on those who hold themselves out as fully initiated into the “mysteries.” This is especially the case where reading the Bible for ourselves and believing what is written can result in being burnt at the stake as a “heretic.”

It is the duty of the whole membership to keep leaders honest. This is why Luke praises the believers in the synagogue in Berea. “[T]hey received the word with great willingness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see if these things were so.”2 We must each immerse ourselves in the Word. Our teachers may or may not be correct. It is no more useful to describe ourselves as “I am of Luther,” or “I am of Calvin,” than it was to say “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos.”3

Of course there will be differences of opinion. We are human. The question is how do we resolve our differences? Do we submit to duly constituted, unquestioned authority? Or, do we open the Scriptures together and learn together. It may well be that both sides of a dispute are partly correct and partly in error. By learning together in humility, in what the Rabbis call an “argument for the sake of Heaven,” both disputants come to a more perfect understanding of God’s Word.

There are times when it is reasonable to rely on certified experts. Plumbers, electricians, computer technicians have expertise that the rest of us do not. When they make mistakes, as must certainly happen occasionally, since they are human, we can rely on their warranties to make good on their services. If we rely too much on certified experts in eternal matters, once Judgment Day comes, it will be too late to make a claim on the expert’s warranty.

We all have a duty to search the Scriptures for ourselves to see whether our experts are leading us correctly. This is not to deny whatever spiritual authority there may be. The truth of God’s Word takes precedence over any authority residing in a human. In eternal matters, the doctrine of Caveat Emptor4 has its greatest importance. 


1  Trollope, Anthony; Barchester Towers, chapter 21; Gutenberg Project 2013; https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3409/3409-h/3409-h.htm#c39; first published 1857.  
Acts 17:11, REV.  
3 1 Cor 1:12, 3:4.  

4 Latin: “Let the buyer beware.” A buyer is obligated to do due diligence to protect himself against charlatans, fraudsters and even innocent misrepresentations.

Joel Heller Profile Picture

Joel Heller is the author of Neither Yavne nor Antioch: Recovering Nazarean Judaism. He is a retired member of the Kansas Bar. In place of traditional Protestant presuppositions, he brings the common-law principles of legal interpretation to the interpretation of God’s Law, called the Torah or Nomos. You can reach him by email.