3 doctrines to which we assent in word but not always in practice

There are several key doctrines to which confessional evangelical churches subscribe and to which the entirety of the membership assent upon joining the church. Yet, very often, though the membership claim assent to what is written in the doctrinal basis/statement of faith, it is apparent many do not in practice really believe such things. Here are three doctrines to which we often assent but in practice do not always hold:

The sufficiency of scripture
Most evangelical church members would confess a high view of scripture and have no problem assenting to it as the final authority in matters of faith and practice. Yet, it seems to be one of those doctrines that is most commonly ignored in practice. It never ceases to amaze me when people sign up to such a doctrine in a statement of faith but fail to seek to conform their church practice, or more commonly, their own lives to scriptural principles.

I have had more than few conversations with people, over many years, who claim assent to this doctrine. Yet when it comes to matters of church practice or personal holiness, the Bible suddenly becomes subservient to whatever they happen to feel is right or what their reason tells them is appropriate. In either case, scripture is not the final authority in matters of faith and practice, one’s logic or feelings on a matter become the arbiter of right and wrong. 

I was staggered when I first had a conversation with somebody about a matter of personal sin. They agreed with my interpretation of scripture; that what it said was precisely what it meant. It was equally obvious that interpretation didn’t tally with their ongoing choice of action. Nevertheless, they were going to continue in their sin nonetheless because they felt it was OK – they had peace about it. That sort of action is not submitting to scripture as one’s final authority in matters of faith and practice.

The work of the Holy Spirit
There is obviously some debate about the nature and extent of the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not my intention here to rehash all those arguments or even make a case for any particular view. It is not the issue of gifts and the empowerment of the Spirit for service and mission that is in view here.

Rather, on pretty much all evangelical views of the Holy Spirit – irrespective of the scope and nature of all his work – most agree that one aspect of the Spirit’s work is proper understanding of scripture, conviction of sin and regeneration of true believers. This is a standard article of faith in most confessional evangelical churches. Most members are happy to assent to this position.

However, in concert with the non-practice of the sufficiency of scripture, the Holy Spirit – far from giving proper understanding of the Bible – is often reduced to a feeling which simultaneously manages to contradict scripture. The Spirit becomes a tool, not for the conviction of sin, but to press the particular desires the individual claiming the Spirit’s guidance happens to hold already. The Spirit unerringly agrees with the predisposition of the person claiming his guidance, irrespective of whether it contradicts scripture or not (which the individual usually agrees was written under the inspiration of the same Spirit they now claim contradicts portions of God’s word). When we don’t accept the sufficiency of scripture, the work of the Spirit normally extends to guiding us in all sorts of ways that readily contradict God’s word.

The doctrine of the Church
Most are happy to assent to the concept of the universal church made up of all true believers. The outworking of this for personal practice has very few implications. Members will also assent to the idea of the universal church being expressed in the local church. They will even go further and assent to local church being – as the FIEC statement of faith puts it – “congregations of believers who are committed to each other for the worship of God, the preaching of the Word, the administering of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; for pastoral care and discipline, and for evangelism.”

Yet, in practice, many members are dumbfounded when the church is not keen to admit to membership those who actively refuse to commit in any meaningful way to the local body. Likewise, it is often not well received when an individual is refused membership for ignoring scriptural commands. They are similarly perturbed when the church enacts biblical discipline against members in unrepentant sin.

I was amazed when I first heard somebody insist a church at which I was a member must admit an individual who gave no credible testimony and refused to follow basic scriptural criteria (despite agreeing scripture demanded them) on the basis “their heart is right”. There was no concern for the heart of the individual to follow scripture nor for the individual to give a clear testimony of how they came into a relationship with Christ. On another occasion, I recall an individual seeking membership despite stating outright they didn’t always fancy coming to church, attending Sunday or midweek meetings and often didn’t really want to spend time with other believers in the church. They were flabbergasted – despite assenting to the view of local church above – this view didn’t really fit.