Now, there may be some conservative Christians who wake up in the morning obsessed with beating the other side, but they must be gathering in some other denomination, because I don't meet them in the United Methodist circles I run in. Nor do I meet them among my friends in other bodies -- Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, what have you. The fact is, we have other things on our minds and only come to the argument we keep having with our liberal co-religionists when we are provoked to it.
From our point of view, it is the liberals -- or progressives, as we call them these days -- who misrepresent Christianity. They keep placing in the center those things which are peripheral. Specifically, they exalt ethos over dogma, which is a dangerous thing to do.
Take, for instance, the never-ending wrangle over homosexuality. They want the Church to change its values and practices; currently, that means they want us to recognize same-sex marriage, but it'll be something else tomorrow. When challenged to defend their desired course of action in light of Christian teaching, they edit the teaching to validate their desired course of action. This is, simply, wrong. It is the teaching that should challenge us to change our values and practices, not the other way around.
They think we are obsessed with sex. They are looking in a mirror: they're the ones who keep bringing it up. We are obsessed with doctrine. At least, I am. As G.K. Chesteron put it, "orthodoxy is my doxy." And I'm willing to be convinced by anyone who can make a case for whatever they're promoting on the basis of orthodox teaching, but if you waffle on that, your whole case is out of court and I'm not interested.
Now, note that I didn't say "the Scriptures" there. I have a very high view of the Scriptures, but I'm not, either culturally or theologically, an "evangelical." I understand that the Scripture has to be read within a community that understands it a certain way. I don't believe the Bible is a self-authenticating text; that is, I don't believe that you can just open the Bible and create the Church from scratch. That's been tried on a number of occasions, and what resulted, while certainly in each case a form of Christianity, was not in any case a recreation of the primitive Church. It certainly wasn't a recovery in any exclusive way of the "true Church."
So, I don't think you can just say, "The Bible says . . ." and settle the argument. But neither can you make the Bible say whatever you want it to say. And this is where dogma comes in. This is the point I want to make.
My wife and I were both church orphans. Shortly after our marriage, we said to each other, You know, we really need to figure this church thing out. We were tired of nobody inviting us. We figured we'd have to invite ourselves to somebody's party, but we didn't know where to start. My parents were at that time reconciling with The UMC (after having stomped out, literally, ten years before). Their pastor shared with their new member class the section on doctrine from The Book of Discipline. I borrowed their copy. And there, for the first time, I read The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Episcopal Church. This was the first comprehensive statement of doctrine I had ever read. I was captivated. "I'd like to belong to a Church that teaches that," I said. And so we found a UM church a block and a half from our first apartment and one Sunday crashed the doors cold. We joined that congregation by profession of faith. I may be the last, if not the only, person ever to join the UMC on the basis of our established standards of doctrine.
Later on, I attended Asbury Theological Seminary. I chose it, believe it or not, because it was close. I had never heard of it before, had no sense of its place in the history of Methodism. I had no idea that there was any long-standing struggle between one kind of church leaders and another, I had never heard the word "sanctification" in spoken modern English, and I had no experience with revivals. I am very grateful for the education I received at Asbury, but I was not, culturally, their kind of student, and I think the institution was kind of glad when I graduated and went on my way.
By the time I graduated, of course, I had learned a lot more about the controversies that disrupt the Church. And I didn't want to spend my career fighting a lot of battles that I didn't have to fight. "I don't want to be a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs," is how I put it. I decided that I would have to pick the ditch I was willing to die in, and not venture out to argue over every other thing. If I tried to engage over every crazy thing somebody was promoting, then I would be angry and distracted all the time and not be the kind of pastor and teacher that I wanted to be. For how can you bring others to Christ if you are always angry and distracted?
An explanation here for the title of this piece is perhaps warranted. When William of Orange was faced with an overwhelming French invasion of his homeland, he kept on fighting. There is one way to never see your country conquered, he said, and that was to die in the last ditch. By ditches, he meant the Netherlands' many canals, which he deliberately flooded to impede the French advance. "The last ditch" has come to mean that which is non-negotiable, the place where one will make a final stand and die before surrender.
My "last ditch" was dogma. In those days, the liberals weren't talking about homosexuality so much. It was all nuclear freezes and saving the whales. Nobody was talking dogma. Creeds were considered dull artifacts embodying nothing of much value. Nobody was disputing the nature of God. So that's where I parked myself. I figured I would defend Nicene christology and all the rest of it. Not only would that be a significant contribution to the Church (since nobody else was talking about it), it would keep me out of trouble, since nobody was likely to argue about it. How wrong I was. By the mid-1990s, the liberals had gotten around to positing a "re-imagined" God, and I've been in the thick of it ever since.
Here's my point. I think dogma is central to the definition of Christianity. And dogma is what I care about. But when you discard or fiddle with the dogma to advance your cause, it is you who are misrepresenting Christianity. And you must be resisted, even when I would much rather deal with other things, because you are pounding away at the pillar that supports the whole structure. But are you willing to split the Church over it? you ask. Yes, if I'm driven to it. This is the last ditch. There's nowhere else to go. I will not sacrifice the dogma to suit your ever-shifting ethos.
It's not about sex, just as it wasn't about nuclear freezes or saving the whales or feeding the poor. It's not about my values vs. your values. There's room for everybody in the Church, so long as we all affirm what is truly central. But if I can't trust you on that, then I can't trust you on these other things. And without trust, there is no way for us to achieve the unity we both want to have.