Dogmatism – an insistence that some certain interpretation of scripture must be exactly and exclusively The Truth – appeals to those who need certainty for their own comfort. But it also creates the conditions for intelligent and thoughtful people to leave their faith boundaries – by creating a structure where any wavering or uncertainty must snowball. This is because if the leader or the system is found to be wrong about any one of the points of the dogma, the entire edifice is at risk. The person who has uncovered the nakedness of that dogma – or the untruthfulness of the leader or system – is stigmatized and inevitably will willingly leave (or be forced to leave) the entire structure. So dogmatism creates a social structure that harshly discourages any admission of doubt about any and every doctrinal point.
In other words, dogmatism only continues to build community for those who refuse to listen to the Holy Spirit tugging at their hearts about the weaknesses of their doctrines. For anyone willing to repent of false beliefs, it destroys community.
Consider, by contrast, an explicit admission by a religious leader that they don’t, in fact, have ALL the answers, but is simply doing their best and their ultimate goal is Being Like Jesus instead of just Believing Right Doctrine. Admitting uncertainty inherently allows a lot of room for questions, for negotiating with the raw complexities of the Bible, for approaching God without fear of being imperfect or insufficient. It’s inherently a “sticky” faith, in the sense that it isn’t easily shed and doesn’t utterly collapse upon one small flaw.
Dogmatism, on the other hand, is incredibly fragile and brittle.
Very importantly, when leaders are willing to readily admit the imperfection and uncertainty of their doctrine, it encourages repentance, rather than rejecting it, by allowing people to wrestle with God over matters of doctrine, instead of forcing them to abide by the entire package of community beliefs as self-inerrant. It provides a safe haven for seasons of uncertainty and doubt.
The alternative for someone in an unsafe dogmatic place is wrestling with human dogmatists (not God), under threat of hellfire for believing the wrong thing – or for not dogmatically believing the supposed Right Thing.
The difference between these two approaches, interestingly, is NOT a matter of doctrine. Two congregations may hold the exact same set of doctrines. But the dogmatic congregation, where the leaders explicitly or even implicitly assert that THIS is THE TRUTH, and this understanding of God is The Only Authorized View, will result in weak Christians whose faith collapses outright when they can no longer admit to 100 percent of the doctrines. By contrast, the non-dogmatic congregation will create strong and flexible Christians who are comfortable with repentance, and comfortable with uncertainty. A Christian trained this way may someday need to leave that congregation over matters of conscience, but will almost certainly find another community of faith (even if it is unconventional) and continue their journey towards God.
The difference between the two is centered-set versus bounded-set thinking: the dogmatic group insists that This Set of Doctrines defines themselves, and excludes those who do not conform. The non-dogmatic group includes whoever wishes to participate, and is happy to see members come and go in their pursuit of the Lord.
The dogmatic group builds its fiefdom. The other builds the Kingdom.
So in light of these failings, why is dogmatism so prevalent?
Because it’s attractive.
And why is it attractive?
Dogmatism offers easy and predictable power and control over people. If a group’s organizational goal is to hold on to people at all costs, the last thing that group wants is people questioning their commitment to the group or to the foundational beliefs and practices that bind them to their membership in the group.
Dogmatists will usually assert that their dogma serves to protect the integrity of their faith and community from evil outside influence. But fences and boundaries and iron-fisted control do not just keep bad things out. They also serve as painful chains to keep people in. Consider post-WWII East Germany. The government’s propaganda told the citizens that the walls and barbed wire and the armed guards were to keep them safe from evil capitalists, but in reality they were just a really good way to keep unhappy citizens from leaving. So it is with boundary-focused churches, where dogmatic walls are erected to define who’s part of the tribe, and who’s not. And the gatekeepers with their weapons of ridicule and shame stand watch, ready to metaphorically gun down anyone who dissents. True, anyone can choose to leave such a church at any time, but it comes at a shockingly high cost. Anyone who managed to scale the Berlin Wall and get away knew that they were leaving behind all family and friends and job and everything else that mattered to them. Similarly, anyone leaving a high-control church, especially one that they have long attended, leaves behind family and friends and positions of honor and authority – and also like leaving a Communist state, that comes with shunning and denunciation for being a traitor to the “fatherland.”
So dogmatism offers an easy way to control people, by hanging this shunning and loss over their heads as a threat. Everyone implicitly understands: if one does not fully (at least externally) pay homage to and comply with all the dogma, it’s a very short trip to losing everything.
In many ways, this loss of relationship and place is a far bigger threat than the future threat of hellfire. It’s a much more potent tool for a religious authority than anything doctrinal. Surveys of American Christian belief and practice (for example https://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1211&context=ecommonsatsdissertations or https://cfaith.com/index.php/videos/22-articles/christian-living/21210-six-megathemes-emerge-from-barna-group-research-in-2010-) have concluded that many otherwise strongly religious people are functionally far more interested in their life on earth than their eternal destiny, as shown by how they act compared to what they say they believe about religion (see “doxastic divergence”). They claim a belief in heaven and hell, and believe that how they act will determine where they go, but strangely don’t fully apply their religious beliefs to their lives. The surveys concluded that people do this because their personal convenience is more present and important to them than what they believe about their eternal destiny. So being part of the tribe, the in-group, the church family, is a far bigger carrot – and its loss a far bigger stick – to help control a group’s behavior than anything else in church systems or doctrines.
Put more succinctly, threatening people with excommunication is a far more effective tool for a pastor than any single Bible verse or religious concept that he could teach.
But just like Tolkien’s “One Ring,” dogmatism-based tribalism and threat of shunning is an incredibly dangerous tool that will ultimately corrupt and control every one of its users over time.
I experienced this kind of loss of tribe personally and quite painfully in 2021. After being awakened by the Holy Spirit in 2020 as a white man to the pain of my Black brothers in Christ, and beginning to talk about this openly, I was confronted by my pastor. At the time, I wasn’t even slightly in disagreement with the church doctrines. I was fully “bought in” there. But the BLM uproar caused the pastor – and about half of that church – to become dogmatic against social justice, and I was told I had to stop talking about it or step down from leadership. Within a matter of just a few months, I had to decide if my new awareness was worth the cost of losing positions of authority and honor in that church that I’d held for over 30 years: worship leader, deacon, trustee, marriage ministry leader, audiovisual team leader, and the respect of the half of the congregation that insisted that social justice was demonic. Ultimately, the pastor said “I don’t think this is the church for you.” I went from fully bought-in to completely gone in just a few months. And I’ve never been back for a single service or meeting since resigning in early 2022. Aside from the relationships I deliberately have maintained, nobody has reached out to me even once. It felt much like a good old-fashioned Amish Shunning.
But beyond my relationship with that church, the result of this choice (as described in terms used above) was a snowball rolling down the hill and rapidly growing so large as to demolish quite a few foundations of my belief and doctrine. Once I realized that my church’s dogma was deeply flawed in this one area, and that my former pastor could not be trusted in this area, it forced me to look far more closely at all the other doctrines that were dogmatic in that church. And I found them to be equally deeply flawed. Ultimately I discovered deep flaws in much of the doctrine and dogma in which I’d been raised.
In my case, it happened after I left that church. But for quite a few people, it happens while they’re still trying to stay faithful to their church. Ultimately, they have to decide between holding on to all those relationships, and being faithful to their new understanding of God and faith. And so it all falls apart at some point either way. And too many lose their faith coincident with losing their church home.
In retrospect, I’m quite glad this happened to me. While I still do, and probably always will, grieve what I lost in walking away from that group of people and an institution I loved and served for three decades, and while I will definitely grieve the simplicity of my faith from those decades, at the very same time I rejoice in what the Lord is doing in me after I left those spaces, even though my faith and religious life looks very little like it used to look.
I’m certainly not advocating that anyone else try to do what I had to suffer. Don’t tempt the Lord to upend your world. I would say that it’s a good thing to tell God you’re willing for that to happen if God believes that it’s necessary and that you can handle it; give God your “Yes,” but don’t force God’s hand on this matter.
But I am, however, strongly challenging dogmatism. It’s toxic, and I have seen that a great many people who go through things like I did will not just deconstruct, but “deconvert” from any faith at all. Far better for us to admit that we truly don’t know it all, and we are willing to walk with anyone through any questions they might have, without condemning or shaming them or abusing them into silence. People will stick around those situations, and the Lord will have time to gently walk with them through the necessary growing pains.
It won’t be an easy choice to make. It will feel like a loss of control. It will seem like a risk of having people leave. It will make it harder to ensure everyone agrees on the same doctrines. But the benefits will be worth it: people who become strong, flexible Christians, deeply committed to God even if they don’t understand God completely, and who can weather the ebb and flow of doctrine as they mature.
As I said already, dogmatism builds its fiefdom. But doctrinal humility and cheerfully welcoming uncertainty will ultimately build the Kingdom, and make it much stronger.