A friend related an amusing (?!) anecdote from his childhood: As a very small boy he had heard his father complain about the expense of having to gas up the car. So his parents were really tickled when he later came into the house and proudly announced that he had put ‘gas’ into Daddy’s car. “Aww! What a cute imagination!” they thought, and his dad soberly thanked him while suppressing a smile. This became a daily ritual, and his parents delighted in his proud announcements that: “I put more gas in your car Daddy!” Then came the day when the car’s engine conked out: the little guy had been spooning sand from his sand-pile into the gas filler!
Now an interesting thing is that had the tyke done this just once, it might not have been that much of a problem – most of the sand would settle to the bottom of the tank and the engine could probably have tolerated the small amount of fine grit that made its way through the gas line. Though some damage would have been done, it might have been minor enough to be insignificant. But would any sensible person argue that it would be fine to have “just a little sand” introduced into their own gas tank?
This isn’t too different from questions about correct doctrine in the church. In point of fact, a lot of theological disputes that appear both within and between denominations basically boil down to the same question: “How much ‘sand’ (error) can we tolerate?” Just as for engines, however, the sensible answer is: “We really don’t want ANY!”
This gets complicated, of course, by the reality that there isn’t always a theological consensus on what represents truth and what represents error: it’s really quite easy to distinguish sand and gasoline, but error in doctrine can be a matter of hot dispute! Part of the problem is that some church bodies place considerable faith in having access to non-Biblical truths via church authority (e.g., the Pope), specially-revealed ‘scriptures’ (the Book of Mormon), or “prophetic utterances” (some charismatic groups). Lutherans and other Protestants have traditionally adhered to Luther’s principle of “Sola Scriptura” (Latin for “scripture alone”) by which he meant that the Bible is the only standard for discerning God’s truth.
Now, this still leaves a lot of room for debate! First of all, there are a lot of questions that aren’t specifically addressed by scripture, so it becomes necessary to apply the principles taught in the Bible to other situations. For example, it’s presumably obvious that though pornography isn’t specifically prohibited by the Bible, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:28-30 certainly address the issue! Also troublesome for the church are questions of adiaphora (ah-dee-oph-oh-rah) which is a Greek word meaning “neither right nor wrong” and refers to things (like liturgical customs) that Christians may be very attached to, but really aren’t mandated one way or the other.
It’s because of such challenges that arguments about truth and error have been an issue from the earliest days of Christianity. Some see this as needless nit-picking: “If it doesn’t directly contradict the Gospel, why worry about it?” In fact, we can be pretty confident that NO individual or group has a perfect grasp of every aspect of God’s truth, and we’re thankful that God’s grace also applies to our errors of understanding. So if possession of “perfect doctrine” isn’t actually God’s criterion for our salvation, why make a big deal about it? Some denominations today take pride in the fact that they are like a “big tent” which shelters many diverse doctrinal viewpoints and interpretations. Unfortunately, this makes room for things that distort Biblical truth and violate the Church’s historic beliefs.
Well, just as for foreign contaminants in our gas tank, though we know that we can’t really achieve perfect purity, that IS the ideal that we want to strive for! Just as the damage induced by a little sand may not be immediately obvious, there comes a point where the buildup of error does become fatal. Thus this congregation and our NALC denomination (North American Lutheran Church) believe that it is our responsibility to strive for pure Biblical truth. Though we humbly acknowledge that our understandings will always be imperfect, we trust in God’s grace and guidance.
“But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” (Titus 2:1)