Last week I was talking about doctrinal distinctives, and today Scot McKnight has a post very close to that topic. He’s more specific, talking about pastors who shift theology. I think he would have done better to illustrate this post with something other than pastors who have become secret atheists, though I know such things happen.
The interesting question I would have is just how much can a pastor shift, and on what issues. From there I’d be wondering how much a leader can shift, for example, a Sunday School teacher. Finally, where might the standard be for members?
Having grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, where I had to affirm a large number of doctrines before baptism, I have experienced the very tight option. After I had left the SDA church, I received a call from someone who wanted to complain about my parents’ positions. They were debating about very minor points and were completely shocked when I pointed out that I didn’t accept either of the positions they were comparing. (The topic was the SDA doctrine of the investigative judgment, which I reject.) To me the issues they raised, and which were critical to them, sounded silly.
In an earlier, Unity, Diversity, and Confusion, I argue that it’s important to have some essential doctrines, but it’s also important both to know what they are and to keep them limited to actual essentials. A church denomination (as opposed to belonging to the universal church), has limited impact, in my opinion. If one finds that one is drifting from the essentials, as understood by that organization, one should cross the street openly and honestly.
Let’s say that a local congregation regards tithing as essential. I think it is just as much a lack of integrity to pastor or lead that church if you don’t accept that essential from their point of view, as it would be to pastor a church after you have lost your faith. (I use this example, because I do not believe tithing applies to Christians.) I would make an exception for those cases in which the congregation is aware of the difference, but accepts the leader in spite of it. In that case, however, I would question whether that doctrine was truly an essential in that particular congregation.
In addition, what precisely is essential? That is not an easy decision either. Are your differences actually on doctrines that are essential? Most congregations have more stated doctrines than are actually essential. Perhaps your shift is one on which you should teach and preach.
I always like to add a caveat here. I’m a publisher, not a pastor. I work for myself. I teach Sunday School, but I’m not on the church board. Thus I speak from the cheap seats. A pastor who has committed his or her life to a calling and to a particular church group has a much more difficult decision to make than I will experience.