The Quest for Doctrinal Purity

September 14, 2011

In the current climate of the PCUSA, sadly, some conservative church members approach their pastors with the news that they are leaving for someplace where they can feel more at home theologically. They may not put it in quite those words, but they express dismay over the church’s apparent departure from biblical norms (referring to the outcomes of adoption of Amendment 10-A, the new Form of Government, and the August judicial commission ruling confirming changes in ordination standards). Their resolution of the personal, internal dissonance these actions cause is to search for a church home that is untainted by questionable biblical interpretations and errant practices.

Others in the church protest when someone like me raises questions through remedial cases, accusing complainants of being Pharisees on an unbridled quest for doctrinal purity.

These two examples of the distress experienced among us raise a question that must be unpacked and sorted. Ultimately, the question becomes: “Did Jesus raise the expectation that the fellowship of his followers would be doctrinally pure, and did he require it?” If Jesus required doctrinal purity, we would all be obligated to find it and cherish it as essential to the Christian life.

“Purity” is an interesting word, and its meaning is somewhat lost on us. I chuckle when I read ingredients labels in the grocery story. A jug of orange juice promotes itself as containing 100% pure orange juice, but the first ingredient on the label says “water.” What does “pure” really mean, in that context?

Jesus did not use the term. The Pharisees used the term in reference to ritual practices, but not, as far as I can see, to doctrine. The Apostle Paul affirmed the quest for sound doctrine, but our exercise today limits us to the gospel record and what Jesus expects of his followers. Did Jesus demand or expect doctrinal purity? The short answer is, “No.” Did Jesus expect or teach behavioral purity? Yes.

“Purity” is a strong, absolute word. It is an eschatologically significant word, that is, it is a word whose meaning we will fully appreciate only when Jesus comes again and all has been made right in the new heaven and new earth. In the scene painted in Revelation 19:7 and 21:2ff, the climax of all history, we see the spotless (pure) Bride of Christ (the New Jerusalem) presented to the Groom in all her splendor. The Church will finally have been purified, so purity is certainly a feature of the Kingdom of God. But as in many aspects of that Kingdom, the expectation of purity resides in the not yet.

This is an important distinction meant not to demoralize Christ’s followers with impossibility, but to point to what is to come. Though we cannot achieve it now or in our own strength, purity necessarily will characterize our being then as a condition for dwelling in God’s presence. God’s goodness, light, and Christ’s redemption will have purified us so that we can withstand the Lord’s glory and live in unhindered fellowship with him. Our “doctrine” will be completely shaped by the reality we then live; all will be made clear and every person present in the City of God will know and experience God in all his fullness.

But back down to earth: as Paul will later say, we see now only through a clouded glass, but then we shall see Reality face to face. The fact that the glass is cloudy now does not mean purity is a false value. It just means that we must be patient with the process God has undertaken in us, to conform us to his image and bring us to maturity in Christ.

Among all the sects and political parties comprising first-century Judaism, the Pharisees taught the doctrine most closely consistent with Jesus. Believe it or not! Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees was not the content of their beliefs but their failure to live them out. As hypocrites (Matthew 23), they taught the right stuff and held other people to it, but they themselves did not practice what they preached. The problem here was not primarily doctrine, but practice.

And so it is with us. Let us hold fast to Jesus’ teaching, which points us in the direction of perfection; but as we fail, let our lives be characterized by repentance and reformation according to the Word of God, until God completes the work he started in us. If changing from one church or denomination to another is required for a person to make progress on this journey, then change one must. But frankly, what exercises the spiritual mettle of a person more than to be confronted by the temptations of this world, found even in the PCUSA, and to persevere in Christ’s strength?

Tomorrow’s question: What did the Apostle Paul have to say about association with persons espousing errant belief and sinful practice within the Body?

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11 Responses to “The Quest for Doctrinal Purity”

  1. Derek Simmons Says:

    Mary:
    I’m delighted you pointed me to your blog, and apparently recent undertaking. It shines a light on ashes even where I see or feel no ember quickening wind. The ashes for me as you well know from my earlier brief email are the remains of the day I once knew in the PCUSA. By way of context for the following question, I am one who demitted as an elder and subsequently renounced jurisdiction as I “dis-membered” myself NOT from the body of Christ but from that portion that holds itself out as the PCUSA. My question prompted by your post is this:
    Did the actions of the denomination lead toward or away from doctrinal purity? Did the actions of the denomination make it more likely or less likely that behaviors once more widely believed to be sinful will be practiced? Whatever your answer to these questions, if any, is your answer more or less likely to be God Glorifying than your answer would have been without the recent denominational changes?
    Your Brother in Christ,
    Derek Simmons

    • revmary Says:

      Hello Derek! 1) Recent PCUSA actions went in the wrong direction, away from orthodox doctrine. 2) Certainly those actions make it more likely that sinful practices will be acceptable in the church. 3) My answers are God-glorifying because they are coming from a heart given to Jesus, seeking truth, and spoken in love. Is the church more? or less? God-glorifying as a result of the changes? As a Body, I daresay less so, if for no other reason but that its witness is confusing and conforming to the world; but many faithful individuals within that Body are just as God-glorifying as they have every been, so I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Best regards, we miss you.


  2. Mary,

    Good piece. But I would make a couple of observations.

    First, as was said in the old Book of Order, “there is an inseperable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover the truth or to embrace it.”

    Second, this is not just a personal struggle to conform ourselves to Christ, important as it is. For church leaders, it is also a struggle to help others learn truth and practice purity.

    And third, the fracture of the PCUSA is not just over a few isolated issues, such as sexual morality. There is no agreement even over such essential matters as salvation by Grace through Faith in Christ – a matter which can have eternal consequences.

    • revmary Says:

      Right on all counts, Whit! Any quest for doctrinal “purity” is a “truth unto goodness” sort of endeavor, and even though behaviorly we may not ever be “perfect” in this life, good doctrine will point us in the right direction. In Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard makes the point that right thinking precedes right action. Unfortunately, right thinking does not guarantee right action (as illustrated by the Pharisees, who had the seed of right thinking but stubborness that led to wrong action). Jesus desires right thinking AND right action.


  3. Mary, it almost sounds like your following a popular error in reasoning.

    x can’t be perfectly purely x, so x must be untrue. I think if you read Westminster’s treatment of glory, you would find it is closer to your understanding of doctrine or revealed truth. We are being conformed ever so slowly to the image and likeness of Jesus – that is his glory is being made manifest in us. That is not finished till God brings us Home.

    That which is partially fallible is not utterly false. Yes, we know somethings in part, but the part of them we know, we know completely and certainly. If you ask me which one of our Lord’s feet first stepped out of the tomb, I would say “I don’t know” from that do we conclude the resurrection is false?

    We must be willing to give a defense for that which we know to be true. Amen?

    • revmary Says:

      Gary, your logic points are true but are misplaced. I did not say that because we cannot be “100% pure” in this life the doctrines and commandments of God are not true. Far from it! In our doctrine and in our practice, we are incomplete simply because we are human. You are quite right, though: what we know to be true remains true and binding, even if we might be confused or ignorant about all the rest. One of the criticisms I have attracted from members of my presbytery is this one: Mary, you are so certain of what you believe! [Meant as a criticism, but I take it as a compliment!] But certainty is not the same thing as purity. And not knowing everything does not mean that our knowledge is insufficient; God has invested quite a lot in making sure we know enough to have a relationship with him and to live a healthy, holy, and blessed life. And not knowing everything does not take us off the hook for obeying what we do know.
      On a related topic, I have a vested interest in being right about things that are important. I mean, why would a person intentionally go about collecting information or knowledge they doubt is true? My purpose is “rightness” is not to feed my ego, not to exert power over others; no, I want to think rightly because I want to act rightly. God has called me to this, and it is being obedient to seek what is right, true, beautiful, excellent (Philippians). I can even go so far (as I have–often!) as to recognize when someone else is wrong. But not to feed my ego, not to exert power, but to teach accurately and to help a person find Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
      And finally, I am reminded of Mark Twain’s witty quotation: ““Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do
      understand.” That leaves lots to work on, as I know you recognize, too. Best regards, Mary

  4. L. Lee Says:

    Could we say that the only “purity of doctrine”
    is from God who reveals his plan and purpose
    to us, and gives us the Word. Certainly a God who is organized, onipotent and soverign must have some doctrineal requirements. In the past the word used was holliness and there were big movements toward being pure of heart and behavior too. Jesus said Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God –

    There is a book that is helpful in understanding the work of the holy spirit in emparting and transforming God’s people toward his “way”
    as in Psalm 119. It is:
    Paul the Spirit, and the People of God
    by Gordon D. Fee.


  5. Sorry, for my confusion from misunderstanding your point. I get the same argument. I guess, over the years, I have become hypersensitive to anything that evens sounds like a biblical agnosticism.

  6. Jake Horner Says:

    The holiness we have is not ours. We are holy, and the church is holy, because through our union with Christ in the Holy Spirit we participate in His holiness. That hasn’t changed just because the PCUSA affirmed error or heresy. Her holiness was never hers to begin with. The best anyone, even those in Christ can hope for is, as Augustine put it, “splendid sins.” It’s not right to discuss my ‘holiness’ and the Holiness of the Triune God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the same sentence; there is no basis for comparison, and the gulf is unbridgeable. Yet in the freedom of the love of the Triune God and the wondrous grace and mystery of Jesus Christ I, you, and the Church are indeed a Holy people because He is Holy. We are righteous because He is righteous. We are pure because He is pure. Our denominational affiliation can’t change that reality, because the ground and origin of that reality is not in us, but in Christ.

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