Doctrine as the “constitution for a community”

So if doctrine is not to be seen as a “technique”, providing an effective means to achieve a desired outcome (see previous post), then what is the purpose of doctrine?

When I talk about rejecting “doctrine as technique”, and agree with Josh that “the stories in the Gospels themselves are far more important” than doctrines about Jesus, I’m not advocating the approach which denigrates doctrine altogether (“Jesus unites, doctrine divides!”). It is also worth mentioning here that by “doctrine” I mean what is believed, taught and confessed by the church (i.e. “dogma”), as distinct from “theology”, which operates at a more individual and “unofficial” level.

So what is doctrine for? A quote I heard recently from Eben Moglen (the Free Software Foundation’s lawyer, and chief architect of the GNU General Public License) provides a helpful perspective for answering this question. In a talk last year, Moglen argued that the value of free software licences such as the GPL was not that they created enforceable legal rights, but that they provided “a constitution for a community”.

In other words, what matters about a licence like the GPL is not that it creates legal rights that someone could then use as a basis for suing someone, but that it constitutes a community of those who develop and use software within the GPL ecosystem (in particular, the software making up the various GNU/Linux systems). Other software licences (such as the BSD licence) take a different approach to licensing software, and as a consequence form distinct communities of their own.

It seems to me that this is a useful analogy for the purpose of doctrine. The key point about doctrine is not that every Christian should know and understand its every detail, but that it operates as “a constitution for a community”, the community of those who acknowledge and are shaped by that doctrine. It is no accident, for example, that the book which collects the doctrinal statements of the Lutheran church is called the Book of Concord.

The analogy then goes further. One benefit of free software is that those who merely use the software have no need to understand all the ins and outs of how it is licensed. In the same way, it is a mistake to treat doctrine as something that must be known in great detail by all Christians.

However, problems arise in free software communities when large numbers of users are poorly “catechized” in the principles of software freedom. In the name of “pragmatism”, many users will advocate the adoption of non-free software in order to make the software easier to use and to achieve functionality that is currently only available in non-free form. Thus groups arise within the community who, being ignorant of the principles on which the community is constituted, start to reject and work against those principles. They do not mean to undermine the community – quite the opposite; they consider they are strengthening it – but by undermining that community’s constitution it is inevitable that they will end up damaging the community itself.

This is a phenomenon with which the church is all-too familiar, and it shows why there is a need to teach people the faith. Not because people need to know doctrine inside-out in order to be good Christians; not because it is a useful technique that is effective in building up individuals and the church; but because poorly-taught Christians may find themselves inadvertently undermining the constitution on which the church is built, by coming to reject doctrines they have never even known or understood in the first place. (See Michael Spencer’s recent post considering this from a Southern Baptist perspective.)

In addition, the free software movement and the church are both faced by numerous external opponents (variously, the world, the flesh, the devil, and Microsoft ;-)), and ignorance of the constitution on which each community is founded makes it easier for those external opponents to damage that community and the individuals within it.

However, the key point is that these uses of doctrine (whether of the Christian or Stallmanian variety) are merely secondary. What is of primary importance is not that an individual understands those doctrines, but that they are a member of the community which is constituted by those doctrines.

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2 Responses to Doctrine as the “constitution for a community”

  1. Scott says:


    Just came across your blog yesterday; great to meet, at least virtually, a Lutheran from across the pond!

    Great analogy between doctrine and GPL! I love this description of doctrine, as opposed to one I heard awhile back where doctrine was developed out of fear, e.g. to build a fence around something (see “close” vs. “closed” communion). And I agree on the Book of Concord being a “community” of faith; if you look at it in historical context those princes who “signed on” were those who made a conscious choice to join a group.

    I think your analogy makes a lot of sense, especially when it comes to education. Too often churches, esp. some of us in the LCMS, fail to educate new members on all of the “licenses” that our community ascribes to and end up undermining the community. Thanks for a great explanation!

  2. Rick Ritchie says:

    This is a rich analogy.

    I was talking to a Christian attorney here who claimed that most licenses are really nonsense. The copyright laws as understood from the U.S. Constitution are there for the purpose of creating greater incentive to develop works. Many license schemes work in the opposite direction. And they assume the law is on their side. This attorney claimed that the law sometimes comes down on their side, but usually only when the judge is misinformed.

    For the sake of argument, let’s assume this is right and see what analogies we can draw.

    Here we have a written Constitution guaranteeing a certain arrangement. But some people want to have a tighter level of control than that Constitutional arrangement was written to guarantee. So the licenses drawn up scare people into thinking that they are backed up by the larger community, when in fact they are not.

    This would be analogous to Christian communities that wish to police their borders at a level that is not warranted from the Scriptures. Those who end up harmed by this may imagine that God supports such actions, when if fact He does not.

    At some level I am even bothered when I read the Constitution and by-laws of a Lutheran congregation. (As a congregational President, I saw these given a weight beyond the Scriptures on account of their legal form.) Worse yet, if they have a “Mission statement” that is something other than the Great Commission, which itself began Christian missions. We often imagine that God was lax in how he constituted his church. That we need to fill in the gap with machinery of our own devising. God seemed to know what He was doing when He inspired the book of Leviticus, but when it came to the New Testament, He was in a rush and forgot to include such instructions.

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