Truth, Doctrine, and Policy

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Along with the marvelous teachings of Jesus, we often pick up some very bad ideas from our churches and organizations. One of the worst of these ideas, all too common in churches, is that our church is the sole repository of “God’s Truth.” When you think about it, this is obviously an arrogant assumption. And even when we begin to grow out of the idea, we still become easily confused because of the legacy it leaves behind.

Over the years, many of us have failed to make a distinction between three very important things: Truth, doctrine and policy. We thought our policies were doctrine, and we thought our doctrines were the truth. Unfortunately, this simple misunderstanding lingers and is confusing the work of the church at the end of the second millennium.

What is the difference between truth, doctrine and policy? We can start with Pilate’s question: What is truth?

God’s Word is truth. Truth is, and always will be. Truth is a great monolith, impervious and harder than diamond. We cannot create truth or modify it. It is that stone cut out without hands that breaks everything else in pieces. To consider yourself a defender of the truth is the ultimate conceit. The truth needs no defense, but rather is our defender, our Rock. Truth is the way things are, not the way we think they are or wish they could be. All of us stand humbled in the presence of truth.

Doctrine, on the other hand, is not “the Truth.” Doctrine is our best approximation of the truth. It is what we have decided to teach and therefore doctrine is man made. No human being, nor any church, can claim to have discovered perfect truth. As long as we are human, we can make mistakes, and it is patently wrong not to acknowledge our fallibility in our doctrines. The number of changes we have had to make in our teachings over time is witness to our imperfection and fallibility in doctrine.

Then there is policy. Policy is not even doctrine, but is defined as “A definite course of action adopted for the sake of expediency or facility.” Policy includes the rules by which we govern ourselves and carry on our business. It is good that we use biblical precedence for our policy, but it is crucial that we not confuse policy with doctrine. Take church governance, for example. There is simply not enough hard biblical teaching on church government to make good doctrine. What we do, then, is make policy based on biblical precedent. We should never make the mistake of assuming that these policies are doctrines, much less “the Truth.” Jesus seems to have left His disciples wide latitude in their policies–including the much vexed topic of church government. We believe the Sabbath and the festivals are truth. Church governance is policy.

If the churches could just get this one distinction straight, it would go a long way toward reducing the tensions and even enmities that seem to grow up like weeds in the fellowship of God’s people. If a man disagrees with you on doctrine or policy, you do not have to think of him as an heretic or a rebel. If you do think of him that way, it is mute evidence that you have elevated your policies and doctrines to the level of truth.

A church, be it large or small, has every right to establish its doctrinal and policy structure. Without agreement on the basics, confusion is sure to result. If the church in question is clear on its published doctrines and policies, a person may differ but still decide to work within those doctrines and policies for the greater good. But the church should be patient enough to embrace those who, while disagreeing in some aspects, still are willing to work responsibly within the framework the church has spelled out (see Romans 14).

The question is whether or not a congregation will allow freedom of conscience. In other words, if I am not persuaded by one of your twenty four published doctrines, can we work together? Can we discuss and work around our differences while we grow together into a better understanding of the truth. Maybe, you just have too many doctrines.

When it comes to the question of policy, any organized effort has to have policies that are understood and agreed upon or the work will dissolve. But if your policies are too many and too inflexible, then the organization will be too brittle to adapt. If your policies are seen as doctrine and your doctrine as truth, then you turn your brethren into rebels and heretics.

Years ago when forming another church organization, we fretted over questions of church government while we were forming our constitution and bylaws. We had not yet made the break with the old line of thought that our policies had to be doctrine and our doctrine had to be the truth. What slowly became clear to us was that our constitution and bylaws were not an attempt to govern the church of God, but to govern a Texas nonprofit corporation. Then our policies were merely our rules, not God’s laws. Since we were not all there was to the church, a person could be a member of God’s church and not observe our rules. It seems simple enough now, but it was a major shift in thinking at the time.

Church organizations, that are even now struggling over their rules, would benefit by declaring that they are not attempting to rule the church, but merely to govern the organization. Then a person who disagrees with policy can still be a member of the church as long as he works within the policy. Since no claim of divine privilege is made for policy, one is not deemed to be rebellious because he disagrees with policy and tries to change it. Since no claim of Eternal Truth is made for our doctrines, then a person who disagrees with one or more of them need not be considered a heretic. Who knows, he may be the harbinger of a better understanding. It is the arrogance of assuming your doctrines are “the Truth” that is the greatest barrier to growth in understanding.

We may also have failed to grasp one of the most important aspects of church policy. Policy comes from the same root as politics. Just as the church is a divine organism, it is also a political organism. The failure to recognize that simple fact has led to a lot of mischief in the church. The reason is that, while some of us hold ourselves aloof from politics, and look with disdain on those who “politic” in the church, those who practice politics can and will take the church away from us. We have seen, in recent memory, a shocking illustration of how true that is.

Politics is nothing more than the art of persuasion. It involves communication with people, persuading them as to the right courses of policy and action. It involves pointing out the errors and the results of bad policies.

We tend to shy away from this because it involves confrontation and the airing of disagreements. So we allow the noisemakers among us to set the agenda. The people who are willing to make a stink to get their way end up controlling the church. It is far better to confront attitudes than to let them fester. It is better to air disagreements than to paper them over and let them tear the church apart later on. It falls strangely on the ears, but when Jesus told the disciples: “Go to your brother,” He was giving instructions on how church politics should work.

All this tends to be a little noisy and uncomfortable, but it forms a part of what I call “the background noise of freedom.” Jesus Christ has granted to His church a great degree of liberty. We must not use this liberty for an occasion to the flesh, nor must we crush it in the name of uniformity. Growth is a noisy, sometimes messy, business. But we will either grow or we will perish.


Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart (1934–2016) — People around the world have come to appreciate his easy style, non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

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