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When Dogma’s Bark is Worse Than its Bite

There are far more nuances to consider and interpretive traps to avoid when I read the Bible than I realized were there when I was younger.

For example, when I was younger in the faith, I used to think that the “lost” parables in Luke 15 were only about how God loves us and rejoices when we return home or are found if we have wandered off.

Now that really is a big theme in the parables, but Jesus actually told them in response to some religious know-it-alls who were grumbling about the “wrong” sort of people Jesus was welcoming.

The older brother’s grumpy indignation at the party being thrown in honor of his returned younger brother in the third parable is a thinly disguised parody of their attitude.

When I was younger in the faith, I relied on dogma – the series of principles drawn from the Bible about life and faith that are proclaimed as true. It’s a shorthand to understanding what’s in the Bible.

The nice thing about dogma is that you don’t have to think too much because the answers have been provided for you.

It’s an easy way to learn and get to understand some of the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

But just as when learning a language, you learn the basics and then learn the advanced stuff (including the exceptions to the rules you learned at first), which enhances your ability to express yourself, so there should be a phase beyond basic dogma that enhances our ability to understand God and express ourselves about him.

Let me try to illustrate: “‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’” is dogma. But later on, we learn that there are exceptions to this rule.

I have to confess that some of my struggles come when Christians insist on applying dogma dogmatically without understanding that there are nuances.

And, of course, there is also the problem that comes when there are competing dogmas – what happens when the dogma that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves competes with a dogma about religious purity?

If you’re wondering, that’s part of what’s going on when Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.

Do we ever turn dogma, which was intended to help us as the scaffolding for building our understanding of our faith, into the structure itself?

I started wondering recently what 1 Corinthians 13 might look like if it was about un-nuanced dogma. Perhaps something like this:

Dogma is impatient, dogma is impartial. It does not feel, it does not react, it is not reflective. It does not leave space for others, it is not self-effacing, it is not easily altered, it keeps a long record of wrong interpretations.

Dogma does not delight in people but claims to embody the truth. It always rejects, always seeks its own way, always hopes people will conform, always perseveres regardless of the impact.

Dogma never wants to fail. But where there are statements in the Bible about food, they will cease; where there are verses that say that a deacon’s job is waiting at tables, we will change their roles; where there is slavery, it will pass away.

For we know which dogmas can be changed and which can’t, and we are dogmatic about it. But when challenges to dogma come with which we disagree, what is dogmatic becomes intolerant.

When I was a child in the faith, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child and needed dogma to help me learn. When I became an adult in the faith, I put the ways of childhood behind me except for my reliance on dogma.

For now, we see dogma as a safety blanket; then we shall see dogma is not all there is. Now I know some dogma; then I shall know it all fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and dogma. But the least loving of these can be dogma.

Please forgive me if you are offended. It’s intended as a piece of fun.

But maybe it also makes us think about how we apply dogma and whether we should be less dogmatic sometimes. After all, haven’t we been willing to change our minds about some big issues in the past that people supported with dogma?

And hopefully we may discover that dogma doesn’t bite at all.

Editor’s note: A version of this column first appeared on Lear’s blog, Nukelear Fishing, and is used with permission.

Nick Lear

Nick Lear is a regional minister of the Eastern Baptist Association in the United Kingdom.