Doctrine and Clutter
Over the past few years, millions of people have tuned in to a Netflix show about cleaning up. Tidying Up has become a massive hit, and its Japanese star Marie Kondo has ascended to the heights of influencer culture. In addition to a feverishly popular Netflix program, Kondo now boasts a bestselling book, a highly sought-after online course, and a huge social media following of millions. What’s all the rage?
The secret to Kondo’s fame is her “KonMari” method, which is all about organizing one’s possessions and getting rid of lots of stuff. Kondo’s exhortation to those who feel overwhelmed by clutter is simple: Get rid of anything that does not “spark joy.” For Kondo, this is not a flippant or casual standard. Over the course of her show, she urges her clients to be ruthless in only keeping what actively provides happiness. Beloved but unworn clothes must be tossed. Books should only be kept to a strict minimum. Sentimental items? Only keep whatever provokes the strongest continual emotional reaction. Everything else needs to go, everything that does not “spark joy.”
It’s not hard to imagine why such a message might be appealing to many who feel messy or disorganized. Thousands of people have found Kondo’s message liberating. Who among us does not need the occasional reminder that material possessions should serve a greater good than mere existence? Down with clutter!
What’s fascinating (and saddening) is that there seem to be many Christians, particularly in the affluent West, who think of theology, or doctrine, the way Marie Kondo thinks of clutter. It’s not uncommon to hear people in the church talk about the discipline of theology like a pair of shoes or stack of paperbacks taking up too much room. “It’s just not helpful,” they say, “to talk about election, or justification, or the inerrancy of Scripture. Sure, these things might be good for preachers or scholars to think about, but they just cause arguments among everyone else.” This attitude is reflected many places, like sermons that spend two minutes talking about a passage of Scripture and twenty minutes about finances, marriage, or self-esteem or like small group Bible studies where hard questions about Scripture are quickly brushed aside in favor of asking everyone present, “What does this verse mean to you?”
To be sure, it’s pretty rare for someone in a church to actually come out and say that talking about or studying theology is bad (though this does happen!). What seems to be the case is not that many American Christians actively think of doctrine as bad or harmful but that many believe it is unnecessary. In other words, for many evangelicals, biblical doctrine—the teaching of all Scripture in its fullness, beyond the bare essentials for salvation—is not like poison but like clutter. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it does not “spark joy.”
And what do we do with things that don’t spark joy?
Which Beliefs Matter
The truth is that we know that what we believe matters. Our instincts may downplay the importance of doctrine, but how often do we turn around and fill up our Facebook and Twitter profiles with all kinds of beliefs about politics, news, etc.? Indeed, many of the people who put up the fiercest resistance against holding Christians accountable to orthodoxy simultaneously talk about their political or social convictions with all the passion of a lifelong theologian.
Our behavior in other areas of life betrays that it matters what we and others believe. So the question is not really, “Do our beliefs matter?” but, “Which beliefs matter?”
Doctrine vs. Pragmatism
It’s tempting to act as if political beliefs matter but theological beliefs do not because it’s often easier to see the real-world implications of politics than theology. If someone has what we consider to be an incorrect view on a political candidate or a law, our instincts are often to engage in discussion because the stakes feel greater. If the wrong candidate gets elected, he or she will enact policies that promote injustice or immorality. We can clearly imagine the consequences of wrong political views on our communities and that motivates our desire to speak up, vote, and take a stand.
By contrast, many people think of doctrine as having little effect on everyday life. Theology seems purely intellectual. While a massive issue such as the divinity of Jesus may seem selfevidently important, topics like the inerrancy of Scripture, the depravity of man, or justification by faith alone can feel remote, theoretical, or even antiquated. How does believing that the book of Job is divinely inspired make you better in your job or marriage? What does it really matter in a world of poverty, hunger, and loneliness if you don’t think Jesus is the only way to heaven? Doesn’t this world have more pressing problems than trying to “police” people’s views on sexuality or gender?
To not know the truth that our Creator reveals is to be less than fully human.
In the life of a Christian and of a church, the absence of doctrine is often the presence of pragmatism. We can struggle to see the relevance of doctrine for everyday life because we measure our everyday lives in terms of efficiency, ease, and minimizing stress. But the Bible calls us to a much richer perspective: it calls us to know the truth. What we believe matters because we were created by a real, triune God who revealed the truth about himself and about us. To not know the truth that our Creator reveals is to be less than fully human.
One person who saw this very clearly was C. S. Lewis. In his essay “Man or Rabbit,” Lewis addressed whether a person can live a good life without being a Christian. At the beginning of the essay, Lewis admits that the very question is misleading because it implies that knowing what’s really true is separate from a “good” life.
One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe any of you have really lost that desire. More probably, foolish preachers, by always telling you how much Christianity will help you and how good it is for society, have actually led you to forget that Christianity is not a patent medicine. Christianity claims to give an account of facts—to tell you what the real universe is like. Its account of the universe may be true, or it may not, and once the question is really before you, then your natural inquisitiveness must make you want to know the answer. If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be: if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all.1
This is crucial to understand. What we believe about God, the Bible, salvation, and our world matters not primarily because it might make us happier or better at what we do but because of God. There are right and wrong answers to the biggest questions in the universe because there is a real God who really is sovereign and really has revealed himself and his truth. We need to know what he has said.
That doesn’t mean that we will fully understand every doctrine perfectly, or that every single theological conversation is equally important, or that there will never be room for disagreement or gray areas. God is a perfect speaker, but we are imperfect hearers. Nevertheless, we really can know him and his revealed truth. We really can study his word and his world and think more like him. This is part of why we exist.
Our temptation is to think of doctrine as clutter that needs to be put away if it doesn’t spark joy. But this isn’t true. Doctrine isn’t the clutter that makes the house stuffy, it’s the furniture that makes a house a home: the table where we share meals with loved ones, the seats where we tell and hear stories, the warm bed where we sleep safe and sound. We think of doctrine as clutter only because we don’t know it well enough. When we truly dive into biblical doctrine, the truths it reveals become precious and necessary.
- C. S. Lewis, “Man or Rabbit,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 108.
This article is adapted from Does It Matter What I Believe? by Samuel D. James.
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