Years ago, I visited the web site of Gil Moegerle, who worked for many years with Dr. James Dobson in Focus on the Family. Due to a variety of factors, Moegerle became embittered with Dr. Dobson, and he wrote a book with the subtle title, James Dobson’s War on America.
One thing that Moegerle claimed on his web site was that Dobson is a sinless perfectionist. In Moegerle’s eyes, that’s why Dobson is so judgmental and self-righteous. It’s part of his Nazarene heritage.
I first heard about the Nazarene doctrine of sinless perfection from a high school English teacher. She was a Baptist, and she and I disagreed on eternal security. One day, we were discussing salvation issues and comparing denominational notes, and she told me that the Nazarenes believe a Christian can arrive at a state of sinlessness. I had a math teacher who was a Nazarene, but I didn’t ask him if that was true.
But what Moegerle was saying about Dobson did not sit well with my spirit. Dobson did not strike me as a person who considered himself sinless. In the 1990′s, I heard him say about his wife, Shirley: “You know, the wonderful thing about marriage is that your spouse accepts you, while knowing about all of your flaws. That’s the way Shirley is with me.” In that statement, he admitted he had flaws. On a program about a couple that was doing good, Dr. Dobson said: “You know, we’re saved by grace, and so you don’t have to do any of this to earn God’s favor. And yet it’s wonderful when people like you choose to make an investment in the lives of others.” He kind of sounded like a free gracer there–like a Zane Hodges and Charles Ryrie type, as opposed to a John MacArthur “Lordship salvation” advocate. And so he did not strike me as a sinless perfectionist.
Dale Buss’ book, Family Man: The Biography of Dr. James Dobson, presents some of Dobson’s religious beliefs–in his own words. Here are some quotes, and I’ve emboldened the parts that I want to stand out:
“[A] notion that has shaped much of Dobson’s philosophy and life is…complex, and its complications come largely from the particulars of Nazarene theology. Because of its emphasis on individual free will, explains [H.B.] London (himself a former Nazarene pastor), his denomination believes in a ‘theology of standing’ in many ways: ‘It means you can lose your salvation. You’re constantly striving to measure up. [Our] definition of sin is that it’s a willful transgression of God’s law. And salvation isn’t automatic as in the Calvinist viewpoint. As a result, not only is there guilt but also pressure to measure up.’
“Dobson stresses that salvation is a gift of God and can’t be deserved by anyone. ‘If we could have earned our salvation, we wouldn’t have needed a Savior,’ he says. Nevertheless, Dobson believes that the Christian’s part of the ‘contract’ also calls for heartfelt repentance and right living after embracing salvation. The doctrine was strongly developed in the eighteenth century by John Wesley, the British founder of Methodism, and later further shaped by the Nazarenes. ‘There is a call on our lives to be as clean as possible with the help of Jesus Christ,’ Dobson says. ‘We fall short; we sin. But we seek forgiveness for sin, and it’s very much a part of our theology that we’re obligated to live as holy a life as we can.’
“‘I do believe someday I’ll kneel before the Lord, and I want to hear him say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ What I do and how I live is important. In Matthew 7, Jesus said there will be those on [Judgment Day] who confess him but whom he never knew. Why? Because they didn’t do–D-O–the work of his Father. It’s an emphasis on attempting to walk the talk.’
“Dobson is hesitant to discuss this aspect of his beliefs in public because some people misinterpret his holiness doctrine as an assertion that, with enough effort, a person can lead a truly sinless life. Nobody, he affirms, can avoid sinning in the sense of having shortcomings, faults, and other flaws that display our mere humanity. ‘But from the Wesleyan perspective, sin is a willful disobedience or defiance to a known law. When you refuse to do what God tells you, you know it and understand it. The apostle Paul writes that we have a conscience within us, so that none of us has an excuse. The concept of sanctification is that God gives humans the ability, through the Holy Spirit, to live without deliberately defying God.
“‘Just look at Hebrews 10:26,’ which promises God’s vengeance on those who insist on sinning after learning the truth of the gospel, Dobson says. ‘That’s interpreted very differently from my Calvinist friends. But I don’t believe you can disobey God deliberately, do all kinds of heinous things, and then just go sweeping into [God's] kingdom.
“The characterization that is made by people who don’t misunderstand it is that Wesleyans think they’re perfect or that they think they can live without any shortcomings. That’s crazy. But I try real hard not to shake my fist in God’s fist and defy him, and God gives me the encouragement and the strength through the Holy Spirit not to violate a known law. And that’s very important to me.’
“It’s clear, London says, that ‘a large part of the pressure that [Dobson] puts on himself to be such a perfectionist and to achieve may come out of his theology, or at least out of the inward pressure that we Nazarenes put on ourselves to be loved and appreciated–to be the best at what we do.’
“This also helps explain the high expectations that Dobson places on others in work, in relationships, and in life. And if the heresy of fist-shaking at God sounds familiar to his fans, that’s because Wesleyan theology also, as Dobson puts it, ‘influences my approach to child rearing. I’ve talked about having a three-year-old son, and if you tell him to go open the door and he misunderstands it and he closes it instead, he’ll never be aware that he’s done the opposite of what you just asked him to do,’ Dobson explains. ‘But when he stomps his foot and says, ‘I won’t do it,’ that’s when he’s most likely to face the consequences.’
“This worldview has influenced ‘nearly everything about me,’ Dobson says. ‘My teaching all comes out of my theology’” (23-25).
According to Dobson, Christians can arrive at a state where they do not commit deliberate and willful sins, even though they may still have flaws. But what is a “willful sin,” and what is a “flaw”? For example, are shyness and introversion “sins”? I know that God wants me to reach out to others and not be self-centered. But I have a lot of social anxiety, so I often don’t follow that command. Am I deliberately sinning? I doubt that Dobson would think so, for he has stated that some people are just naturally quiet, and he has tried to teach us quiet types how to have a conversation. And, yet, aren’t I violating a known law?
How about lust? I know that Jesus equates lust with adultery in Matthew 5:27-28. But I have it anyway, and I enjoy it. I don’t understand how Jesus can command us not to have sexual desire (if that indeed is what he’s doing), since it’s such an integral part of the human condition. Of course, Dr. Dobson has a looser attitude on this than many evangelicals, for he says that parents shouldn’t try to stop their kids from masturbating. In a book of his that I read many years ago, Dobson says that his dad told him not to worry about masturbation. “You can masturbate, and that won’t hurt your Christian walk,” he said. Dobson said that his dad was a conservative Nazarene, yet he was willing to make concessions to human nature. I can understand Dobson being real here, but how’s that mesh with his view that Christians shouldn’t deliberately sin?
There are some sins that I don’t want to do, but I can’t exactly shake them. I know that God equates hatred with murder (Matthew 5:22), for example, yet there are still people I hate. I don’t want to see them dead, mind you, but I just have a lot of anger towards them. I would prefer to have inner peace, but I can’t shake my ego, or my disappointment, or my sense of having been wronged, or my jealousy. At times, God’s known will appears unattainable.
And there are times when Dobson appears more compassionate and pastoral than the above quotes seem to indicate. From the above quotes, you’d think that a Christian puts himself on dangerous ground whenever he deliberately opposes God. But, in When God Doesn’t Make Sense, Dobson acknowledges that people may have legitimate reasons to be mad at God, for horrible things happen in life. But he says that we should bring ourselves to forgive God, which is not to say that God has done anything wrong. It just means that we should let go of our anger towards him. Here, Dobson recognizes that even Christians are human–with all of the imperfections that humanity entails. But how’s he reconcile that with his belief that Christians should be perfect, in the sense of avoiding deliberate disobedience or bad attitudes about God?
I agree with Dobson that being a Christian should make a difference in one’s life. The non-Lordship types act as if Christians are God’s children even if they live in sin, whereas Dobson seems to think that deliberate sin can disqualify a Christian from salvation. I wonder if there can be a middle ground between the two positions, one that stresses the need for holiness while preserving a God of unconditional love.
Personally, I assume that God is patient with me. He wants me to be better than I am right now, but that doesn’t mean that I have to stress out in an attempt to be morally sinless, all to preserve my salvation. In the words of the promises of Alcoholics Anonymous, “We seek spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.” I still think that the goal is some form of perfection, however, but that’s the result of growth, not me deciding to do everything right at the present moment. And God is with me on this journey of growth.