Pastoral care (17): Doctrinal developments—a problem area?

Always so many changes! There is hardly any other church that has developed so far in such a short time. For many, the reaction to this is: “I can’t even recognise my own Church any more!” And yet others are happy about the changes. How are we to deal with this?

Indeed it is true that there are worlds of development between the previous teaching manual, Questions and Answers Concerning the New Apostolic Faith, and today’s Catechism of the New Apostolic Church in Questions and Answers. In the past, the New Apostolic Church described itself as the church of Christ, and today it teaches that it is only part of this church. In past times, it was considered a grave sin to intentionally miss a divine service, but today regular divine service attendance is strongly recommended because it does the Christian good. One could list many such pairs of opposites. Our understanding of church, ministry, and the sacraments has undergone major developments—and all within the last 30 years, with increasing speed.

Not all of our members think of this as a good thing. In pastoral visits and discussions with them, ministers are often confronted with doubts and incomprehension, and sometimes find it difficult to provide a good answer tailored to individual needs.

There is only one truth

Occasionally, they even hear members express that they feel unable to fully support such doctrinal developments. In some cases, members may even go so far as to call the teaching authority of the apostolate into question. They express this, for example, by saying: “This isn’t my church any more!” The tense relationship between previous and present doctrinal statements and divine service content is too great for them. After all, the divine truth of previous years cannot simply be replaced by the truth we recognise as correct today, can it? Can there be a single truth that contradicts itself? Did the Apostles of earlier times proclaim a false doctrine? Our members had learned—and were convinced—that the sermon was the word of God, that it was the revealed will of God, and that it was therefore the truth! There cannot simply be two different truths. God does not change! Truth is truth, and it cannot be any different today than it used to be!

Such statements are not merely a reflection of discomfort with new things. They speak to a deeper internal conflict that has its source in a dogmatic conception of truth as it relates to doctrinal content.

Our knowledge is fragmentary

So how is the concept of “truth” to be understood in relationship to the activity of God through the Holy Spirit? A glance into Holy Scripture provides illumination:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you” (John 16: 12 –14).

In these words, the Lord was clearly telling his Apostles that they did not yet know the whole truth. It would only be revealed to them gradually, as they would not have been able to bear it at that time. In other words, new aspects of the one truth would be added in the future, as imparted by the Holy Spirit. He would gradually lead them into the whole truth.

This is passage is reminiscent of the words of Apostle Paul, when he wrote about the fragmentary nature of human knowledge:

“But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Corinthians 13: 10–12).

Human knowledge is piecemeal, and will remain so until the end. Believers are on their way from spiritual childhood to adulthood, from rudimentary knowledge to the full knowledge of God. Only once the Lord has returned will the piecemeal stop.

According to these statements in Holy Scripture, the doctrine cannot be understood in a static or dogmatic way, but rather requires further development under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In his sermon on 16 May 2021 in Wiesbaden, Germany, Chief Apostle Jean-Luc Schneider expressed a clear message on the subject: believers must learn to separate that which is essential from their own personal attitudes. Jesus Christ and His gospel are essential. Our own views are not relevant for salvation.

In the next issue of our series on pastoral care, we will deal with a concept that is often misunderstood: “Personal responsibility — a single term and many misunderstandings”.

Photo: Romolo Tavani

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Peter Johanning
Congregational life