Doctrine and Mission: What’s the Relationship?

My penultimate post Without People the Vision Perishes provoked quite a lot of interest, with hundreds of people reading its argument that traditional denominations need to ‘get real’, and work with smaller and non-denominational churches if they are to stand any chance of surviving, growing and – most importantly of all – reaching Scotland with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

A few folk got in touch with me, however, to push back a little against my argument, and to question how realistic or desirable the sharing of personnel or other resources would be. Some people thought it would be wrong for evangelical and charismatic Christians to work with denominations perceived to be heretical or ‘progressive’, while others just thought it was unlikely, and doomed to failure. I promised that I would follow up these points with the current post, which asks: what is the connection between mission and doctrine?

After surveying a number of studies from both Europe and America, in I argue in Mission in Contemporary Scotland that:

There seems to be evidence on both sides of the Atlantic, then, that the numerical health of churches – at least Protestant ones – is in some way related to a more conservative theological position. This was also the conclusion of Scottish priest and sociologist of religion Duncan MacLaren. At the end of his analysis of how different forms of Christianity might fare in our contemporary context, MacLaren argued that the type of Christianity most likely to survive is what he calls ‘benign sectarianism’. Benign sectarianism refers to churches that have strong beliefs, committed and motivated members and robust bulwarks against the social forces that lead to secularisation. Such churches cannot be too sectarian, however, as this – much like the case of Exclusive Brethren – hinders evangelism and growth. For that reason, evangelical Protestants and certain kinds of traditional Roman Catholic are the most likely to resist the forces of secularisation, and perhaps enjoy modest growth.

I explore the reasons for this fact further in the book, but, in short, the causal relationship between doctrine, congregational health, and mission appears to be something like this:

  • Clear presentation of orthodox theology + strong encouragement from church leaders and members to accept this theology = greater commitment to and enthusiasm about Christ 
  • Greater commitment to and enthusiasm about Christ = greater willingness to share faith and invite people to worship or Church events = greater number of converts

There is quite a lot here, so let’s unpack it a little.

“Orthodox theology”: there is no evidence that I am aware of that suggests that congregational health is dependent on every single member following every part of Scripture at all times. Indeed, no person can follow every part of Scripture’s teaching at all times, because we are all sinners. Yet it is possible to believe in, and build your life upon, the following orthodox truths, which in Chapter Ten of Mission in Contemporary Scotland I argue to be of the essence of the faith:

  • That Jesus is Lord
  • That Jesus is God incarnate
  • That Jesus was raised from the dead by the Father in the power of the Spirit
  • That God is Father, Son and Spirit
  • That God is perfect, and – among other things – is all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful and all-just
  • That God is present to every person, place and time by the Holy Spirit
  • That Christ lived, and died and rose again to take away our sin
  • That if we are in Christ we are also part of his Body, and are spiritually united with all other Christians
  • That by entering into the relationship he has with the Father, we can become children of God, and inherit eternal life
  • That Scripture is the authoritative account of these doctrines, and of God’s self-revelation in Christ

This is the fundamental, or catholic faith of the whole Church of Christ, whether we be Reformed, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist or anything else. 

“Strong encouragement from church leaders and members”: One of the things that Steve Bruce (a non-Christian) has drawn our attention to is that one of the main reasons why churches fail to hold onto their young or reach the unchurched is because their church leaders do not teach church members to accept orthodox theology. According to Bruce’s research, substantial numbers of church leaders treat Christianity as an unknowable mystery, or that – if we can know some religious truths –it would be wrong to interfere with people’s personal, subjective faiths. Needless to say, if you are taught that faith is a total – as opposed to a relative – mystery, or that faith is purely personal and private, you are unlikely to talk about Christ, invite people to worship or church events, or witness in any explicit way. This is not to set up any strict separation between witnessing through speech and witnessing through actions (both, of course, are necessary), but we need to at least occasionally witness through speech, even if that is simply to extend an invitation to an event so that someone can hear another person witness.

“Greater commitment to and enthusiasm about Christ”: If you truly believe in Jesus Christ as described by orthodox belief, not simply holding your faith as a set of abstract beliefs but as the foundation for your life, then, dear reader, you cannot help but be committed to and enthusiastic about Christ! He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the beginning and the end, the Saviour of our world and our beloved brother and friend. A post by John Hayward recently argued that the decline of the traditional denominations was directly related to what he calls their ‘limited enthusiasm’. While I am not qualified to comment on Hayward’s statistical methods, his argument certainly parallels the studies I mentioned above, and also tallies with scientific research from neurobiology and group psychology that shows that enthusiastic speech and movements can aid the plausibility of religious belief. In short, a failure to teach orthodox doctrine and to encourage others to believe produces Christians who are not sure if Jesus is who he says he is, don’t think it’s important, or don’t believe it’s anyone else’s business but their own. While Christians of varying stripes will all find it easy to participate in service-based forms of mission such as food banks and fundraising, it is primarily Christians who sincerely hold to the basic orthodoxy of the church who will find it easier to engage in evangelistic mission, as well as retaining their young people. 

There is, then, a clear (theo)logical and sociological connection between doctrine, its presentation, congregational health, and evangelism. While this fact has a strong sociological and psychological basis (i.e. believing extraordinary things will often lead to you being an extraordinary person and doing extraordinary things), I should point out that I do not view this as simply about sociology or psychology. For reasons that are too complex to elaborate here, I believe that when people believe orthodox doctrine, take it to heart, and allow its truth to shape their thinking and feelings, the Holy Spirit is active in a greater way in their lives. There is a relationship between believing who God says God is and God’s activity in a person’s life. Doctrine, then, is not primarily about ‘being right’ in some abstract way. It is about making space for God in your life. It is like the foundation of the temple that God is creating us to be, the bridgehead God makes into hostile territory before advancing. Over and above secular sociology and psychology, good theology is one of the ways in which God blesses us, and equips us to receive even more blessing.

This, then, is some of the connection between doctrine, congregational health, discipleship and mission. Yet what of ecumenical and inter-church cooperation? How can we achieve the kind of missional cooperation I argued for in Without People the Vision Perishes without unanimity on matters of doctrine?

I say a lot more about this in the book, but here is my response to those who think that greater ecumenical and inter-church cooperation is too difficult because of doctrinal differences:

  1. As outlined above, all orthodox Christians believe the same fundamentals. You are not a ‘heretic’ if you believe slightly different things about sacraments, church government, or other secondary matters. The early church only used this term for folk who actively and persistently denied the fundamentals of the catholic faith, and if Christians do not deny these things, then it is wrong to call them heretics or refuse to associate with them. They are just Christians who have a slightly different interpretation of Scripture from you
  2. If you really believe in orthodox doctrine – as opposed to using doctrine to exclude others for sub-Christian reasons – then you will quickly realise that we do not create Christian unity. Christian unity has already been accomplished by God when he called us, took away our sin, united us in Christ by the Spirit, and made us part of his Body. As Paul makes clear, anyone who is ‘in Christ’ is also part of each other, and it is a sin (!) to say of a fellow member ‘I have no need of you’ (1 Cor 12). As such, unity is not something we work towards, but something that Christ has already accomplished. We just need to stop putting obstacles – usually related to secular group psychology or politics – in the way, and accept what he and the Spirit have done!
  3. I have a good practical and theological knowledge of the differences between Scottish Christians, and apart from some extreme cases, the overwhelming majority of Scottish Christians have compatible beliefs. The only substantive exception is on matters of sexuality. I perfectly understand why Christians may find it hard to unite with, or – for example – work on a church plant together with a denomination or congregation that has different views from them on LGBT+ issues, but there is no reason why other forms of mission need be ruled out. How do different approaches to sexuality mean that you can’t run a foodbank together, or help support Ukrainian refugees, or even just pray together for your community? People should ponder more often the remarkable account of the ‘First Council of Jerusalem’ in Acts 15 and Galatians 2, where it is clear that the apostles did not agree on all points of doctrine, but that they all agreed on helping the poor. Why can’t we do the same?
  4. This leads to my final point, one regarding missional proportionality. This is a variant of the Lund Principle that “churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.” As such, the default position in the Church should be full missional cooperation, as this reflects the biblical and theological truth that all Christians are one Body, and share the same calling to serve and witness together in Christ’s name. Not cooperating in mission should only occur when it is practically impossible to do so, e.g. not starting a church plant together because a common position on marriage or church leadership cannot be reached. This lack of cooperation should not be the default, however, and should only be reached if there is no alternative.

To conclude then, doctrine is indeed important for mission – very important. Yet not because taking it seriously means we cannot work with Christians who believe slightly different things to us, but because doctrine is the foundation for commitment and enthusiasm, and commitment and enthusiasm are essential for congregational health and evangelism. Yet if we take our doctrine seriously, and really think through what it means to be incorporated into Christ and called to participate in his mission, we cannot help but be become committed to ecumenism, and be deeply saddened when disagreements over secondary matters make it difficult or impossible.  

2 thoughts on “Doctrine and Mission: What’s the Relationship?

  1. Whilst I broadly agree, one of the sticking points that often occurs between churches of differing theologies is whether or not there is a need – or even an imperative – to share the gospel with those who adhere to another faith. This can often overshadow other good works, including the foodbanks, refugee support and prayer than you mention, as there is a teleological tension.

    To paraphrase (outspoken atheist) Penn Jillette – “if you truly believe that without God I am doomed for eternity, how much must you hate me to *not* proselytise me?”


    1. Hi Ben

      Yes, if you have two congregations one of whom believe fervently in sharing faith in the context of service ministries and another that is resolutely against it then you will have a problem.

      In practice, however, it is usually a lot less extreme than that, and folk have space to focus more on evangelism our more on service. I know of quite a few food banks where some volunteers are fervently evangelical and who distribute non-denominational tracts along with food supplies, who work alongside very liberal folk who would – if it was only them involved – probably not do this. Day to day, however, most people are willing to give and take on these matters, and it doesn’t present any difficulties.

      As I say, apart from extremes, there is a lot more middle ground than is sometimes appreciated, which is why – despite it not being a complete picture of everything the church should be doing, and despite the way they are sometimes used – most folk could sign up to the 5 Marks of Mission than list both evangelism and service as crucial parts of mission. It’s the integration between these things that makes faith most plausible, however, and that is why personally I am comfortable with – appropriate – sharing of faith in the context of missional service.


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