Navigating through Doctrinal Change: A Guide for the Perplexed, Pt. 1

An Exciting and Awkward Time

This is an exciting time to be teaching theology, but it can be a bit awkward when teaching doctrine. Let me explain.

I’ve been teaching theology for about 17 years at a Pentecostal denominational Bible College (Master’s College and Seminary [MCS]). I’m noticing a significant difference in the theological ideas and debates that our current students are exposed to compared with what I faced during my time as a Bible College student in the late 80s and early 90s.

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Back then we didn’t spend a lot of time exploring theological perspectives that differed much from denominational doctrine. Alternative views were not immediately relevant to the average churchgoer, and so there was less need to train students in how to understand, assess, and even possibly utilize elements from differing theological perspectives. And if we really wanted to explore divergent views, we would need to access an actual library with actual hardcopy theological books and journals.

Skip ahead twenty-five years. The situation has changed radically.

Change in Information Access

During the past two+ decades theological debates within evangelicalism and Pentecostalism have risen sharply.

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Alternative perspectives in areas that were once considered closed matters, were suddenly being discussed as viable options (think atonement theories [penal substitution was the winner] or biological evolution [not the winner] or biblical hermeneutics [author intent is THE only correct way to interpret the Bible]). And to make matters more interesting, these ideas were now being disseminated not in dusty libraries but over the internet, from a cacophony of voices, and through a variety of media. Want to be updated on the latest theological idea? No need for a hardcopy book, or even to know how to read.

One radical difference between students now and students twenty-five years ago (in basically any educational institution) is that contemporary students no longer rely on teachers to be conduits (or censors) of information. Information is everywhere, in multiple formats, and incredibly easy to access. Just ask Google.

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Tim Elmore, educational expert on Millennials and Gen Z, states,

“May I remind you—today’s young people are the first generation that don’t need adults to get information. It’s coming at them twenty-four hours a day. What they need from us is interpretation. Their knowledge has no context. Adults must help them make sense of all that they know; to help them interpret experiences, relationships, work and faith via a wise, balanced lens…. Teach them how to think.” (Marching Off the Map 53).

Needing Guides for the Theological Maze

The issue, then, is not access to information. The issue is what to do with information, including theological information. Students, and churchgoers today need teachers and pastors who are able to understand and practically evaluate (pros and cons) all sorts of theological matters.

This is indeed a fun time to be teaching theology. Options abound for discussion and debate, and teachers get to help students navigate the alternatives, and hopefully chart a course toward what is truest, wisest, and most biblical. Helping students traverse this perplexing theological landscape is not optional. Remember, they are already exposed to

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ideas and positions that might support, challenge, or even contradict what is being taught by their pastor or denomination. Social media makes this a daily reality. So, we do not have the luxury of avoiding current theological and societal discussions if we want to pass on our beliefs to subsequent generations. The good news is that the theology teachers I know (at MCS and elsewhere) love to help students navigate these complex issues. Teaching theology these days is exciting.

But as mentioned at the outset, teaching doctrine can be a little more awkward at times.

Doctrine vs. Theology

By “doctrine” here I am referring narrowly to denominational statements of faith (as opposed to more universally held creeds). I take “theology” to be the ongoing exploration of understanding God and what he desires of human beings. Doctrine, however, is a set of articulated beliefs intended to serve and define a particular Christian community. Theology continues to develop and grow in the knowledge of God; doctrine attempts to identify the confession of a group of believers in a given time and place.

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At MCS our mandate is to train students for leadership within a denomination (in this case the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada [PAOC]). This means ensuring that students understand the particular and distinctive beliefs that the denomination holds, and as much as possible help them see why these beliefs are supportable biblically and theologically. But with the multiplicity of theological options that are publicly available today, it should come as no surprise that from time to time denominational doctrine will be challenged by new theological thinking. And this is when, for teachers, and pastors, things sometimes get a little awkward.

What happens when…

What happens when a fixed doctrinal articulation simply becomes difficult to understand in the present culture? Even if a denomination determines that it fully endorses its long-held faith statement, words and expressions change their meaning over time. This means that not changing the wording in doctrinal statement can actually result in the loss of its comprehensibility and value for subsequent generations.

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Further, what happens when certain doctrines appear to have less support biblically or theologically than was previously thought? After all, it is not as if human knowledge—including theological knowledge—has not increased over the past decades. Of course, new information does not immediately mean that old doctrines are wrong. But it might (yikes!). And if the latter, how is a denomination supposed to integrate possible updates on truth into old doctrinal systems in a way that does not appear to be unfaithful to God and disloyal to previous generations?

My Motivation – PAOC SOFET Refresh

What motivated this blog is that currently my denomination, the PAOC, is in the midst of a refresh of its doctrines, its Statement of Fundamental and Essential Truths (SOFET). I believe this is a healthy and necessary step. But this process makes it a strange time for denominational theology teachers (and pastors). My students also know that the PAOC is rewriting its doctrines. And they ask questions about what they are supposed to subscribe to—what the PAOC affirms today, or what it will affirm in a few years from now? (I always say “today” :-)).

Pastors have also approached me with similar questions. What are we supposed to teach about “doctrine X” at this time, when we know we are in doctrinal transition? It’s one thing to help students and congregants navigate the various theological beliefs that are out there. It’s an added challenge to help them understand how and why a denomination might find itself in a place where it needs to refresh its faith statement.

So, this initial blog was simply intended to set the context for my next one. Information, theological and otherwise, is everywhere. Students, teachers, pastors, and congregation members need to know how to interpret this information—what to hold tightly, what to let go, what to consider more deeply—and we all need help to do it. And in my case, this needs to be done during a time when my denomination, with wise trepidation, is slowly and carefully walking through a doctrinal refresh.

Are there ways of thinking that will help us navigate this process? I believe so. In part 2 of this topic I want to provide some tips for navigating the landscape of doctrinal change.

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In the meantime, some questions for refection or response.

How have you been affected by the explosion of theological options in the past number of years (through social media and traditional books)? Overwhelmed? Excited? Confused? Other?

What are some ways of thinking that help you navigate through the many options? Has any particular person been a help to you? How?

20 thoughts on “Navigating through Doctrinal Change: A Guide for the Perplexed, Pt. 1

  1. I like the idea of evaluating different ideas. I definitely agree there. Often you get one of two extremes; a person will dogmatically affirm what they’ve always held, or, the person will hear a new and culturally pleasing idea and run with it. Instead, let’s evaluate ideas, seeing where they have worth, and where they don’t stand up.

  2. First off, glad you’re back at blogging Peter! You write well. Second, you articulate the current context quite well. There is a lot of info out there, and there is a need to help navigate through those waters. Look forward to the upcoming blogs.

  3. Hi Peter, I love reading what you write. Give me part II NOW! I am pretty content with towing the party line but I appreciate learning what the other parties are saying. I feel as though as a former student of yours, you do an excellent job of helping students learn how to think.
    This explosion of information can be overwhelming for me so having a SOFET is a helpful lens. Having a process to evaluate and tweak SOFET is huge. Knowing we have some incredible minds working on it in our fellowship adds a sufficient level of confidence because each has a relationship with our pastors and even some congregations.

  4. Hey Peter, loved reading this and it feels like an accurate description of the current landscape. I am both excited and challenged by it. The abundance of information is real and in my experience it feels like the average church goer (or even more serious christian) who does not have formal education, are ill equipped to discern everything that is coming at them. I am finding that I am spending more time teaching worldview and how to think about and approach the Bible rather than simple easy informational messages about the answers to specific topics.

    Anyone can create a youtube channel, facebook or instagram page and it feels like when an average christian decides they want to begin to study something they are just playing russian roulette when they search the topic. I can’t blame them if the youtube channel or website they find lead them down a rabbit trail.

    Honestly, MCS helped me the most. The greatest gift I walked away with after 4 years at Master’s was the ability to think critically and research and evaluate all of this stuff. To me this is infinitely more valuable than being able to give clean tidy answers to questions about the SOFET as important as it is. Particularly Luc’s class God’s Humans and Creation in second year saved me from becoming a new reformed calvinist. It started the journey and and opened me up to really wrestle and learn from future theology classes.

    1. Shoot…can’t edit my comment…I feel like there is a real tension between giving good information/answers that are lacking because of the amount of noise AND helping teach how to think/process/discern/frame the information they are being given by myself and all of the other sources in social media channels.

  5. Peter, thanks for writing this. I agree that the SOFET refresh activity itself is creating challenges. However, what people may not appreciate is that *not* undertaking this activity presents challenges as well. You’ve identified some in the article. Regarding your question about theological options, I’ve found that much has been written online that supports a cessationalist view. I think that re-articulating our position on Spirit Baptism is a way to help us bring this contribution to the body of Christ as a whole. Personally, praying every day in tongues is very grounding and encouraging as I think knowing/experiencing God is necessary while we articulate our collective knowledge about God in the SOFET activity.

  6. Hey Peter! I am following this debate with much interest. I am glad to see that you’re from Peterborough (I’m from outside Kitchener) because I’m not sure that I can trust those those guys from the Prairies (just kidding). I attended a Pentecostal church for a long time. While I affirm that speaking in tongues can be a sign of Baptism in the Holy Spirit, I do believe that people can be Baptized in the Spirit without necessarily speaking in tongues. I do not speak in tongues. I’m born again, I’ve been slain in the spirit (the experience felt a lot like that described in the PAOC SOFET…) but I do not speak in tongues. And I have had a lot of negative experiences with regard to people trying to force me to speak in tongues. I also find it interesting that the SOFET uses Acts instead of Corinthians to justify the faith statements related to Baptism in the Spirit – that feels more experiential than theological. So I currently identify as an Evangelical rather than a Pentecostal due to the PAOC SOFET – I can’t believe that God wants to treat me like a second-rate Christian (I know that is not how you want me to feel but that is the truth of the matter). I am interested in watching this process from the outside and I hope that theologians like you and Andrew can provide leadership to the General Conference.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Jon. The reason that SOFET tends to rely on Acts is that traditionally Pentecostals have leaned on that book due to the theological patterns outlined in the narrative. I don’t think Paul is more theological than Luke. In fact, Luke is very intentional in the way he constructs his story in Acts, whereas Paul is responding to specific situations in the churches. In any case the current SOFET references not only Acts but Matt, John, and Paul. The proposed revision, by contrast, almost entirely relies on Lk-Acts. I’m sorry about your negative experiences concerning the pressure to speak in tongues. This Pentecostal zeal is well-intentioned, but tends to actually miss the primary point in Acts, which is Spirit empowerment for witness. The gift is Acts is not tongues, but SB. Tongues is closely tied to SB as a sign of it’s purpose, but tongues is not the experiential goal for Luke. Anyway, thanks for your comments.

  7. I’m grateful that we can have this conversation—both the SOFET refresh and blog posts like yours about the SOFET refresh.

    I still remember the interview to become a Licensed Minister with the PAOC in the late 90s. I nervously wrote the credential exam before entering the interview process with fear and trembling. Rumor was swirling that they were cracking down on rogue eschatological views at the time. In the end they only asked me about my calling.

    The SOFET refresh is a challenge to teachers of doctrine but also to new ministerial candidates who enter the fellowship from outside the Bible College stream. The credential exam will need to be updated accordingly and, until it is, new ministers will have to personally subscribe to views they recognize are in a process of reconsideration. Interesting times indeed.

    Thanks for writing about this. I look forward to Part 2!

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