Traditionally, the basis of religious community is allegiance to a set of doctrines, both theoretical and practical. This isn’t true of every religion internationally, but it is true of most. The irony is that to formalize religious doctrine is to kill the spirit of what you are trying to capture. As many theologians have noted, religion is a deeply existential and subject experience. Therefore creating a one-size-fits-all set of beliefs and practices, while wildly popular, is generally destructive.
Rigid doctrine is particularly prevalent in Christian circles. For many congregations, church is nothing more than gathering together with people you agree with, to reinforce doctrine you already believe. Perhaps that is why most church services are dreadfully boring.
But there is another view of the utility of religious community. Dialogue. A diversity of opinion, shaping and reshaping one another, built on respectful discussion about the principles that drive us.
To be sure, neither approach is without fault. Doctrine-centric church is nothing more than gathering together to celebrate our own piety and solidify ourselves as “us” and those we disagree with as “them”. It is one-dimensional, petty, and ultimately divisive. At a point, the more narrowly you define yourself the closer you are to creating a church that consists of the only person you agree with 100%: yourself.
Conversely, the idea of church as a dialogue of ideals is far from perfect. Discussion is time-consuming. Communities can become protracted in discourse, and dialogue can be every bit as divisive as doctrine if done incorrectly. If you are looking for efficiency, discussion on principled living is probably not for you. Democracy is always messy.
While imperfect, I think the dialogue-focused approach has more value. The differences between doctrine-driven and dialogue-driven religious communities are somewhat nuanced, but vitally important.
Doctrine is inherently concrete, where as dialogue is, by and large, abstract. Without question, doctrine is easier and less unsettling. Being clearly told what to do, and what to believe makes life much more peaceful. But the cost of harmony is high. Inevitably you will alienate good people who can contribute to your church in powerful ways if you can’t allow differing perspectives.
Dialogue, in it’s abstraction, is inclusive if handled in an environment of mutual respect. When a church holds loosely to principles it empowers a diverse body of people to reach the needs of others with a breadth that is impossible in a system built on rigid doctrine.
An example; Church A says “our stance on sex is that it should only be a man and a woman who are married. period. no exceptions”. Considering over 90% of people in America have at least one sexual relationship before they are married, this automatically narrows your audience considerably. People in monogamous but unmarried relationships, gays, widows/widowers in love who choose not to remarry for financial reasons, are all sanctimoniously written off.
Church B says “our stance is that people should strive for sexual lifestyles that are healthy, edifying, and rooted in love and commitment.” Now you have invited the vast majority of people to the table for a discussion.
A common criticism is that being open-ended allows people to say “anything goes”. I would argue that allowing people some autonomy in determining what sexual responsibility means creates longer lasting moral infrastructure in a person than simply following a rule. Reading the biblical text, studying the culture and language, and discussing with others who are concerned with ethical living engenders a stronger affinity for principles because the individual has taken part in shaping them.
Another criticism is “people will justify whatever they feel like doing”. It’s true, some will. But if a group of people are willing to gather in their free time to discuss ethics, they are obviously concerned with doing what is right, and are much more likely to arrive at a principled existence than what they are being given credit for.
Secondly, doctrine, by it’s nature, puts rules ahead of people. Dialogue, however, is uniquely human.
In Mark 2 Jesus and his disciples are walking in a wheat field, picking the grain and eating it as they pass through. The Pharisees see what they are doing and criticize them for working on the Sabbath (as they are technically harvesting grain). Jesus rebukes the rigid interpretation of Sabbath adherence, going on to state that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. This story is demonstrative of the problem with putting rules first; it can harm the people it is intended to help. Moral codes are created for the sole purpose of helping people live healthy, productive lives. They are not objectively good devoid of people. If enforced inflexibly, morality becomes a hindrance to goodness.
Open-ended principles, always subject to reexamination, allow for exceptions. It also creates a setting where proper prioritization can take place. In the example of Mark 2 the principle of charity for the hungry would take priority over the principle of resting on the Sabbath, because it is the most beneficial to the people involved in that particular situation.
Religious community can be an empowering experience for almost anyone, but to allow fellowship to reach it’s full potential we must be willing to sacrifice. We have to give up the power, and control that allows us to feel superior others. If we can let go of the comfort of lifeless doctrine and embrace the living, breathing and yes, changing, nature of ethical dialogue, the waters of grace will flow, invasive and irresistible, over all things.