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When Christian leaders and teachers throw around big words like doctrine, theology, and heresy, they can sound both smart and intimidating if you don’t personally understand what those terms mean. Since we don’t want you to feel intimidated by us or by any other human teachers, we’re now going to explain what these big words mean so that the next time you hear them, they’ll make sense to you.
WHAT IS A DOCTRINE?
Let’s start with the term doctrine. A doctrine is simply a belief. “God is good,” is a doctrine. “God lies,” is a doctrine. “The Bible is infallible, inerrant and Divinely inspired,” is actually three doctrines listed together in one sentence. Every time we make a statement in our material about who God is or how He operates, we’re putting out a doctrine. Our website is like an ocean of doctrines that you can choose to either wade into or totally ignore. When you to go church and listen to a pastor preach, he is showering you with a bunch of doctrines. So when you think of the term doctrine, think of a belief.
HERESY VS. ORTHODOX
Now doctrines can be wrong or right, true or false. Christians like to use the fancy word heresy to refer to false doctrines. A heretic is someone who teaches heresy—or false beliefs. Some Christians say our site is heretical, which is their way of saying that we’re pumping out a whole bunch of lies about God. If you really want to emphasize how evil someone is being, then you say that they’re teaching satanic heresy, which is your way of saying that that person is being Satan’s little stooge by passing on lies that he taught them.
If we’re going to have a fancy word for false beliefs we might as well have a fancy word for true beliefs as well. Here’s where we whip out the very long word orthodox. In certain Christian circles, being called orthodox is a compliment and the opposite of being called heretical. If you’re being orthodox, then you’re saying whatever the people in power want you to say. You’re being a team player. You’re obeying the rules. You’re conforming to the standard. Another way of saying this is that you’re being canonical.
Okay, so now we’ve learned that doctrine is just a fancy term for a belief, and that a belief can be right or wrong. We’ve learned that heresy is a fancy term for a false doctrine, while orthodox and canonical are fancy terms for true doctrines. But now things get complicated, because there are tons of people calling themselves Christians in this world and they have very different ideas about what is right or wrong. So now we have to talk about a very important point: where truth comes from.
THE SOURCE OF TRUTH
When you say that something is right or wrong, you’re casting a judgment. How accurate your judgments are depends on how much wisdom you have. Only God is truly wise. If God’s wisdom is like the sand on a beach, then the most wisdom we humans ever have is just a few kernels of that sand. What this means is that you shouldn’t trust any judgment except the ones that come from God. Just because a human says that a teaching about God is wrong or right, doesn’t mean that it is. In the Church today, many lies are being promoted as truth and vice versa.
Now does God speak through people sometimes? Certainly, and when God is the One speaking, then what He says will be trustworthy. But how do you know when God is speaking through someone? Today many people claim to be speaking for God when in reality they’re just speaking their own thoughts. Today Christians treat Jesus like a popular brand that makes things sell better. If you claim to be speaking a “word” from God, you’ll immediately get more attention than those who aren’t making that claim. If you claim to be a prophet or if you call yourself anointed, then you are essentially claiming to be speaking constant “words” from God, and this will get you even more attention. So this is what many people do: they just use special words and titles to promote themselves and build their own fan clubs. They’re not really interested in teaching you truth, because they don’t really care about the health of your soul. They just want your money and your worship. If you listen to such people, are you going to end up in a good place? No, you’re going to end up swallowing a bunch of harmful lies. So for you, the challenge is to not misplace your trust. Since you can’t tell good teachers from bad ones on your own, you shouldn’t be trusting any human with something as serious as your spiritual development. Instead, you should only trust God, and this means that you always ask Him for His feedback whenever you come across human teachings about God. Maybe something those humans say is actually from God and therefore correct. But then again, maybe it’s not. Only God knows, so you need to depend on Him alone to guide you in life.
WHAT IS A THEOLOGY?
Now let’s move on to another big word: theology. The term theo means god, while you should think of logy as meaning a subject of interest. So if you’re talking about bio-logy, the subject of interest is bio or life. When we talk theo-logy then our subject of interest is god—any god. If you take a class on theology, you won’t just be learning about Christianity. Instead, you’ll be learning about a wide variety of religious beliefs from all throughout human history. Since all of our material is focused on the true Gods (Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit), when we refer to theology, we always mean Christian theology. But if you’re talking to a non-Christian, then you need to be specific about what kind of theology you’re talking about, because the term itself is very general.
Let’s now use a metaphor to understand how a theology is formed. Let’s dump a box of wooden toy blocks onto the floor. Each block represents a specific belief about who the Christian Gods are and how They operate. When we pile a bunch of individual beliefs on top of each other, we end up with a theology. A theology is just a big collection of beliefs about God. Theologies come in a wide range of sizes. When you’re just starting to learn about who God is, your theology is very limited—meaning that it is a very small pile of beliefs because you don’t have very many individual blocks or doctrines to stack together. The more you learn about God, the more blocks you collect, and the bigger and more complex your theology becomes. But here’s where we get to a very important question: how correct is your theology? Is your collection of beliefs about God mostly right or mostly wrong? If we were to go through every individual block or doctrine in your pile, how many lies would we find?
If every belief in your personal pile of beliefs is wrong, then you’re in a whole mess of trouble. But in reality, no one’s pile of beliefs is 100% right. Everyone has some bad blocks in the pile—some false beliefs about who God is and how He operates. One of the goals of spiritual maturity is to have God add more good blocks to your personal pile of beliefs and remove some of the bad ones for you. Is God going to give you a perfect pile of beliefs before you die? No, He’s not. In this world no one has a perfect understanding of truth. In eternity, the learning will continue. But the more progress you make in this life, the better off you’ll be in the next, so this is why you need to always be open to God teaching you new things. One of the worst things you can do is decide that you know everything and that your personal theology has no more errors in it. This is arrogance, and once you go down this path, God responds by taking away whatever good blocks you might have had and replacing them with bad ones until you’re totally steeped in lies.
WHAT IS A RELIGION?
If you want to get an accurate understanding of what a religion is, you have to forget about right and wrong for a moment and instead focus on the issue of size. Earlier we formed a theology by dumping one box of toy blocks onto the floor, with each block representing an individual doctrine about God. Well, now let’s fill a massive dump truck with toy blocks and have that truck dump that huge load of blocks into the middle of a park. That is what a religion is: it is a huge, messy pile of beliefs. What makes religions messy is that many of their individual beliefs conflict with each other. For example, some Christians say that Jesus is “fully God and fully Man,” while others say that Jesus is 100% God. Some Christians say that the Bible is without error, others say it is full of errors. A religion doesn’t have to do with right or wrong, it has to do with size. A religion like Islam, Christianity or Judaism is a huge mountain of beliefs. Many religions have individual doctrines in common—such as the belief that a supernatural being created the world and that whoever that being is wants humans to be nice to each other. But what separates religions from each other are their end goals and the kinds of supernatural beings that they revolve around. Islam revolves around a being named Allah. Hinduism has a huge collection of gods, none of which are Allah. Christianity rejects both Allah and all of the Hindu gods while it promotes the Gods Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Now remember, we’re not talking about truth here, we’re just talking about how humans define the concept of a religion. Because Jesus is a Christian God, once you start talking about what kind of God Jesus is, you’re talking about Christian doctrines and all Christian doctrines end up getting dumped into that huge mess of beliefs which is called Christianity.
Think of it like this. Joe says that pine trees are purple and round, while Marsha says that pine trees are green and triangular. Regardless of who is right or wrong, everyone is talking about trees. In the same way, Christians fiercely debate about the Nature of their Gods. Some say that Jesus is all loving. Others say that He is very wrathful. Some say that Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are one mysterious Being (this is the doctrine of the Trinity). Others say that the Trinity doctrine is a bunch of baloney because Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are really three separate and distinct Deities. Regardless of who is right or wrong, everyone is talking about Christian issues, which is why all of these different theories end up becoming part of the big messy pile that is the Christian religion.
Once you understand that the Christian religion is just a dumping ground for everyone’s personal theories about who the Christian Gods are and how They operate, you will understand why much of what passes for Christianity bothers you. The reality is that many Christian doctrines are complete lies, and if you are a thinking person, then you start getting frustrated by constantly bumping up against Christian teaching that sounds wrong to you. This leads you to want to start picking and choosing which Christian teachings you will accept and which you will reject. And as you pick up your basket and head over to that huge mess of Christianity in order to select out a few blocks that feel right to you personally, we are ready to move on to the concept of a denomination.
WHAT IS A DENOMINATION?
Because religions always turn into massive piles of conflicting doctrines, no single individual personally accepts every doctrine that is included in his religion’s pile. Instead, individuals select just a few blocks out of that huge pile and they use those blocks to form their own personal piles. Then they go out and find other people who have chosen pretty much the same blocks that they have. When Christians with similar personal piles of beliefs group up together, a denomination is formed.
Now remember that a theology is just a pile of beliefs, and that pile can be of any size. An individual denomination’s pile of beliefs is much smaller than the main religion’s pile. For example, if the Christian religion is a pile of a million blocks, then the denomination of Catholicism might take 10,000 blocks from the main religion and declare that every other block is a false teaching. This is what happens in real life—each denomination claims to be a better, more accurate, truer form of Christianity. But then what happens over time is that those denominations keep breaking down into smaller and smaller chunks. Let’s use Ben as an example here. When Ben first became a Christian, he looked at that huge pile of beliefs in the Christian religion and decided that many of those beliefs sounded wrong. Then he was exposed to the smaller set of beliefs which is the Catholic denomination. The denomination trimmed that overwhelming pile of one million blocks down to just 10,000, and Ben finds this much easier to deal with. So Ben decides to become a Catholic Christian and he becomes a priest in that denomination. But as time goes on, Ben starts feeling bothered by some of those 10,000 beliefs that Catholicism is promoting as true and correct. Frustrated, Ben starts looking around for a better option. Here’s where he learns about Anglicans. The Anglican or Episcopal denomination was formed by folks who looked at the 10,000 blocks that Catholicism chose from that big messy pile of Christianity and they felt that the Catholics made some poor choices. So the Anglicans rejected some of the 10,000 blocks that the Catholics chose, and then they went back to the main pile and plucked out some blocks that the Catholics had rejected. Now the Anglicans have 8,000 blocks that they promote—many are the same as the Catholic blocks, some are different. But of course the Anglicans say that their version of Christianity is more correct, and Ben starts to think that they’re right so he joins them.
Well, now more time passes and some of the Anglican doctrines are troubling Ben. Once again, he can’t shake the feeling that there are too many lies being promoted as truth. Here’s where he discovers the Methodists. The Methodists broke away from the Anglicans so they could once again revise the pile of blocks that was being promoted as true Christianity. Ben feels better when he joins a Methodist church because they are rejecting some of the Anglican teachings that were really bothering him. But it doesn’t take long before he comes across Methodist doctrines that sound equally bad. Well, now Ben has changed denominations multiple times and none of them are feeling just right. Ben is frustrated. Why can’t he find a church that consistently teaches truth all of the time? Because there isn’t one.
Whenever humans start grouping together, each person brings their personal armload of blocks with them, and naturally they want their own theology to be promoted as correct by the larger group. Here is where endless fighting begins as individual Christians bicker on and on about what’s right and what’s wrong. Is this a total waste of time? Yes, because the end goal of these debates is to get other humans to agree with you. Are other humans going to be your judges in eternity? No. Do humans control who ends up in Heaven versus Hell? No. Human opinion is irrelevant, which is why you need to keep your focus on pleasing God. When He is the One you’re focusing on, then you will stop needing other people to agree with you.
So what’s the solution for frustrated Ben? How can he find peace in his search for truth? He needs to stop trying to surround himself with humans who think like he does and instead turn his focus onto pleasing God. He needs to ask God to educate him so that he can know God better and improve the way that he treats God. You see, life is about you and God: it’s not about trying to prove yourself to other Christians. Once you embrace the right priorities in life, you get freed up from this useless cycle of bickering with other Christians. Who cares if someone disagrees with you or thinks you’re some heretic? If you know that you’re where God wants you to be, that’s all that matters.
Let’s summarize what we’ve learned. From large to small, here’s how religious belief systems are organized:
First there’s the huge pile of beliefs that make up one master religion, such as Christianity. The longer a religion exists, the more people muse and debate about it, and the more individual doctrines become altered until the religion has grown into a huge, complex, messy collection of conflicting beliefs.
As religions grow too complicated, they get split into smaller, bickering factions. Each faction only accepts a limited number of the beliefs from the main religion’s massive pile. In Christianity, we call these smaller factions denominations. As time goes on, denominations continue to split as people continue to disagree with aspects of their denomination’s theology.
As an individual Christian, your personal theology or set of beliefs is smaller than that of a whole denomination, and it’s much smaller than the huge mess that is the Christian religion. Your personal theology is a mix of truth and lies. If you are maturing spiritually, then your theology will keep being revised and improved as God introduces you to new concepts and exposes old concepts as false.
Your theology can be broken down into individual doctrines. Just as the penny is the smallest unit of currency in American coinage, a doctrine is the smallest unit that we can break your theology down into.
So then, let’s go the other way. You start with a single belief and that’s a doctrine. Pile multiple doctrines together and you get a theology. Expand that theology to include many beliefs, both right and wrong, and you get a denomination. Pile all of the Christian denominations together and you get the religion of Christianity.
At any level in this system, you can ask, “Is this true or false?” Once you understand that the Christian Gods are the only real Gods, it’s easy to blow off other religions as false. But within the huge mess of Christianity, discerning truth gets more complicated as you find yourself surrounded by Christian teachers and denominations who are all fighting with each other and accusing each other of being heretics. Since we’re saying opposite things, clearly we can’t all be right. Clearly there is an absolute truth out there somewhere, but only the real Gods can lead us to it. So in your life, you need to ask the real Gods to lead you to the real truth. As for other Christians: you’re going to have to be content to let them find their own way. We can’t save each other, and we can’t make each other accept what is true. We can only encourage each other to keep seeking and to put our trust in God alone.
Practicing Discernment: The Structure of Beliefs
Why You Don’t Need Community Confirmation
When to Change Denominations: Help for Pastors & Priests
Fellowship In Perspective
Rethinking Your Christian Rituals
How to Tell When God is Speaking to You Through Someone Else