In my online forays, I’ve observed it’s increasingly common for people to explicitly reject a doctrine, or the notion of orthodox teaching in general, on the basis of its abuse. You’ll often read something along these lines: “I grew up in a church that had a heavy emphasis on doctrine X (depravity, judgment, sola scriptura, etc.). My pastors and elders used that doctrine to berate people, cow them into submission, or excuse horrible evils.” So now, whenever they hear doctrine X, they can’t accept it because they know (feel) it’s a tool being used to control them or bring about another harmful result. In fact, some will go further and elevate this reaction into a principle of theological methodology: if a doctrine could be or has been used to hurt or damage, it must be rejected out of hand.
I understand the impulse. For those who have been beat down with the Bible like it’s a weapon, or doctrines like they’re billy clubs, when they see someone pick them up—even as agents of healing—some post-traumatic stress makes sense. It can be hard to distance or differentiate a doctrine from its uses, especially if that’s all you’ve ever known. It doesn’t matter if someone’s trying to offer you an oxygen mask; if someone used one to choke you out in the first place, you’re going to flinch when you see it.
Everything Gets Twisted
Any doctrine can be distorted or misused to harm others. Tim Keller makes this point in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism when speaking about the way Christianity has been distorted throughout church history. Many would look at the way Christianity has been used to justify horrible evils as evidence of its inherently flawed character. Keller points out, however, that even universally praised values like reason, freedom, and equality have been the battle-cry of unjust regimes like the reign of terror in revolutionary France. Instead of providing evidence of Christianity’s falsehood, maybe these abuses point to the (Christian) fact that something is so wrong with the human heart that we can take anything, no matter how good and true, and use it for wicked ends. This is true not only of doctrines we’re more culturally apt to reject (like judgment, original sin, or inerrancy), but also of those we typically find appealing.
For instance, we tend to like the idea of a gracious, nonjudgmental God. After all, a deity who loves and affirms us unconditionally, mess and all, seems kind and gentle, almost impossible to imagine as a tool of oppression or power. Yet criminals also use this doctrine to justify themselves. If God doesn’t judge, then how dare we? If God would never punish, then how can we punish oppressors? In the same vein, I’ve seen people excuse glaring character defects like pride, narcissism, harshness, and insensitivity on this premise: “It’s just my personality; God made me the way I am.” Well, your “personality” stinks because you’re a jerk.
Or take the classic teaching on forgiveness. Christians are told God is a forgiving God, having forgiven all our sins in Christ at the cross. We’re then told to forgive those who sin against us as Christ has commanded. Unfortunately some have taken this teaching on forgiveness and used it to force victims to “forgive” their abusers in ways that essentially brush over sin and ignore the reality of justice.
Pick almost any doctrine (creation, fall, grace, and so on) and you’ll find some way it has been abused and applied improperly. Given this reality, if our main criterion for accepting or rejecting a doctrine is whether it can be used to harm others, we’ll be left with a mere two-word creed: “I believe.”
Abusus Non Tollit Usum
One of the most important rules I’ve learned in my theological studies is abusus non tollit usum—“abuse does not take away use.” Basically, fire can destroy, but it’s also good for cooking or keeping your home warm; an oxygen mask can still save your life, even if someone choked you with one; scalpels still cut out cancer, even if someone got injured with one. In the same way, doctrines can still be good, true, beautiful, and helpful despite the ways they’ve been abused or misconstrued in the past.
As always, Jesus points the way forward. When correcting the Pharisees and Sadducees’ distortions of scriptural teaching, he didn’t do it by throwing away God’s Word. He quoted it and pointed to its true meaning (Matt. 9:12-13; 12:1-8; 19:4; 22:29, 41-45). In the Sabbath controversy, he didn’t deny the Sabbath command but brought relief with a renewed, deeper understanding of what the command was always about—human flourishing. Or take Paul, who didn’t reject Torah when he corrected the Judaizers who said Gentiles weren’t full members of the covenant by faith alone but needed the practice of Torah as well. Paul didn’t discard Torah; he went back to Torah to make his argument (Gal. 3-5).
Though difficult, Jesus teaches us that we must strive to distinguish true doctrines of the Christian faith from their distorted applications and expositions. You may end up rejecting some some bad theology as you hold firmly to precious truths. I’d encourage you to search the Scriptures, though, before rejecting something only on the basis of your negative experience. It may take some years of books, conversations, good churches, and perhaps a good biblical counselor, but it’s worth it not to reject some key truth of the gospel just because some wicked teacher ruined it for you.