Over a holiday dinner once, I heard one family member tell another that drinking wine was forbidden by Jesus.
"Forbidden?" the first person asked.
Here we go, I thought.
"Forbidden," the second person said.
"Wasn't Jesus' first miracle turning water into wine?" the first asked.
"Oh yes," said the second person. "But it was weak wine and anyway they drank it because back then the water was so bad."
"Interesting," said the first. "But let me get this straight—just to be clear—Jesus didn't turn that water into better water."
Like it or not, Christians are in this thing together (1 Peter 2:9-10), but that togetherness can get thorny when differentiating between truthful doctrine and personal dogmas.
Dogma is not supposed to be a bad word. Most simply, according to theologian Charles Cardinal Journet, dogma is doctrine. However, today's Wiktionary refers to dogmatic phrases like arrogant and based on presumption rather than analysis.
Wiktionary aside, back in the day, the apostles knew dogma when they saw it. For instance, dogmatic people were harping at Apostle Paul about circumcision and he ripped into them, saying, "I just wish that those troublemakers who want to mutilate you by circumcision would mutilate themselves" (Galatians 5:12).
Perhaps we should think of dogma as doctrine plus a little something extra called what-God-did-not-add. Which, FYI, God does not like.
Just ask Moses.
Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, and after a lot of ups and downs on the way to the promised land, the Israelites were complaining again—this time because the community had no water (Numbers 20:2). So God told Moses to "Speak to the rock over there, and it will pour out its water…to satisfy the whole community" (Numbers 20:8).
Moses gathered the assembly and said, "Listen, you rebels! Must we bring you water from this rock?" Then he raised his arm and hit the rock with his staff two times, and water gushed out (Numbers 20:10-11).
Wait. Hitting? No hitting. God did not mention hitting. Using a staff was so Exodus 17:6, Moses! A new day brings new enlightenments, pal. And P.S. self-important much? Must we bring water from the rock?
If Charles Spurgeon was correct in saying, "Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right," then we can imagine Moses was about to have a bad day.
And if Moses, even after the split Red Sea (Exodus 14:21), the manna he'd never seen before (Exodus 16:15), and the tablet do-over (Exodus 34:1), still fell prey to adding his own ego to God's Word, then that, my friend, is a red flag of warning. We are going to need nerves of steel to avoid this nasty habit.
God told Moses, "You did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel…" and as a result, no promised land for you, Moses (Numbers 20:12).
Moses didn't trust God enough. Is that why we get dogmatic too?
When I hear myself cajoling, pushing, emphasizing in a (teeny, tiny, just a little bit) dogmatic way, I only mean to be helpful. Because I see the situation right in front of me and let me tell you all my add-ons are necessary because GOD'S WORD IS NOT GETTING THROUGH.
Or is it?
Look at the Egyptians. At the time of Moses' dealings with Pharaoh to get the Israelites out of Egypt, there are a few seldom-mentioned sentences that give me pause.
"All Egypt will see my glory and know that I am the LORD!" (Exodus 14:18)
The Egyptians had not been groomed to call out to God. And yet God was using his signs and wonders to demonstrate himself to them too.
A dogmatic attitude from us might reword an otherwise edifying witness just when someone is on the brink of knowing God—someone we didn't even think would be listening.
That would be sad. Because God promises that he is pursuing "…not wanting anyone to perish" (, NIV)
Just as he pursued us. He uses encouragement and "great patience and careful instruction" (, NIV) from others to draw us in from being so very alone and so very lost into being…found.
The elusive one-way ticket to freedom from bad dogma is otherwise known as good doctrine. Instruction. But as Paul put it to Timothy, "careful instruction." The King James word for that is longsuffering.
Longsuffering. A feminine Greek noun for constancy, steadfastness, patience, endurance. Does that set a tone for our witness?
Manhattan pastor Tim Keller made a point during a 2012 New Canaan Society interview that the attitude and tone of our witness count. He said he does not like the kind of "gleefulness" found in preaching a message with a tone like "If you disbelieve, you're gonna get it and you're gonna be so sorry." However, he likewise pointed out that we must tell the truth. He said, "You don't have to do doctrinal reengineering to get the spirit and tone you want."
His recommendation? "If a person senses that you love them…"
Do they? When we speak. How we live. Do they know that we love them? They should.
The apostle Paul agreed, "What is important is faith expressing itself in love" (Galatians 5:6).
And then he castigated the agitators.
So. Our mouths should still have muscle. But where dogma may have teeth, doctrine comes with kindness, grounded in love, not to crush, but to strengthen.
Holiday dinners will never be the same.
Janelle Alberts is a freelance writer and has managed marketing and media relations needs for clients such as Microsoft, Wells Fargo and UPS.