Are dogma, doctrine, and orthodoxy really central to the message Jesus wanted to get across? If not, what major historical events or figures or other reasons have caused the church to emphasize and become so distracted by such issues?
Jesus' ethics are grounded in truth regarding God and God's provisions for God's people. He not only taught what human relations are to be, but also what the purpose of his coming is. This means that truth and conduct are interrelated for him. Neither doctrine without ethical application nor ethics without grounding in an understanding of who God is and of what God's provisions for us to be faithful to God's will are in accord with Jesus' message.
For example, the reason why we are to love our enemies is based on a teaching regarding God: God sends God's sun and God's rain to all no matter what their conduct is (Matt. 5.44-45). Why we live a life of self-denial and taking up our cross is because we are followers of the one who went to the cross (Matt. 16.21-24; Mark 8.31-34). We serve others because the purpose of Jesus' coming was to serve and give his life as a ransom. We are faithful to our marriage vows because in creation God made men and women to be one flesh when they marry (Matt. 19.3-6; Mark 10.2-8). Doctrine connected to life is not a distraction but gives direction and power.
I think that the observation underneath this question probably goes something like this: “look, all Christian believe in Jesus—why can’t we focus on that and not get caught up in technical questions that tend to divide Christians from one another?” Any smart reader of Church history will recognize, for example, that the East-West schism had more to do with doctrine (Latin doctrina, teaching) or dogma (Greek dogma, ordinance or public decree) or orthodoxy (Greek orthos, right; doxa, glory, i.e. the right way to worship God). And something similar might be said about the Reformation in the West—doctrine, not the person of Christ. So what gives?
There’s a point there; all Christians do well to recall that our faith is primarily an encounter with the risen Christ. It’s an encounter with a person, not primarily an encounter with a teaching or a way of worshipping. And there is ambiguity in any encounter with a person.
On the other hand, it’s not helpful to dismiss teaching as irrelevant. Consider the many references to “false prophets” in the New Testament (examples include Mt 24:11 and 24; Mk 13:22; 2 Peter 2:1). The disciples were aware that there was power in claiming to know God through God’s son, and the misuse of that power could tear the early church apart. Consider too the thrust of Paul’s letter to the Galatians: he was very concerned that there was developing a kind of anti-gentile movement among Jewish Christians, and he called them to task for ignoring Christ’s invitation to all people. In short, Paul thought that the disciples (and even Peter) got Jesus’ teaching wrong, at least in practice. The council at Jerusalem was supposed to address the question of right teaching and right preaching.
Centuries later, there were pitched political battles over the right teaching about Jesus. The seven ecumenical councils between the fourth and eighth centuries clarified what the church believed about Jesus and his relationship to the Father, and their relationship to the Holy Spirit. What if they got the teaching wrong? I see the implications as enormous. What if we didn’t believe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, some truncated version of either? That teaching affects the way we think about prayer, about ethics, about what to hope for. Big picture stuff. Imagine I didn’t believe Christ was really human and followed the so-called “docetists”—Christ “appeared” (Greek dokesis, appearance) human but wasn’t. Would I take as seriously the idea that all human experience is capable of being the place where God self-reveals? Would I take as seriously the idea that Christ is present in the human face of the stranger, the outcast?
What I think all this means is that we can’t treat doctrine as though it’s unimportant. It’s not as important as the encounter with Christ, but it does reflect the need to take Christ’s teaching seriously. I fall back on the wisdom of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who wrote an interesting letter to the Jesuit delegates to the Council of Trent. In it, he advised being slow to speak and, in a word, trying to understand the person speaking in the best possible way. There is Christian doctrine, but what Ignatius reminds us is that there is also a Christian way of proceeding in coming to express the truth about faith: slow, cooperative work. Our ecumenical dialogues can learn much by meditating on his ideas.
Jesus did not emphasize dogma or doctrine because, for one thing, he didn't have to. The people he addressed pretty much already knew the traditions of Israel, its history, its laws, its prophets, its Psalms etc., in short the contents and teachings of what we call the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament.
What Jesus preached was something new, viz. the Kingdom of God, not just as some far-off future event or state of affairs, but as something that was starting to break into his life and their lives here and now. Of course his preaching not only drew sick and needy people who came to him to be healed, but also aroused opposition (sound familiar?) to which he had to respond, and which eventually got him crucified.
"Doctrine" and eventually "dogma" arose a century or two later, when Christianity had to define itself over against other religious or spiritual movements, such as Gnosticism (a kind of "New-Age" movement of that time), which some people might mistake for Christianity, but which Christians regarded as downright poisonous in what it taught and believed. Thus "doctrine" became a kind of necessary unifying force in the Church; for if Christians were going to be prepared to die for their faith, they certainly had to know the basic principles of what they believed and what they didn't believe.
Today what we believe may be somewhat different from what the earliest Christians believed, e.g. about when we think the world will end, etc. But just like them, we have to be ready to defend what we believe as true Christianity, viz. true to the spirit of Christianity. For if we don't know what we believe and why we believe it, how can we avoid being blown about by "every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14) and ending up in a worse place than where we started?
This is a thoughtful question, and of course one that defies a short answer. But let me try, at least to mark the main points.
It is easy to imagine that all we need is the simple message of Jesus, and can and should disregard complicated doctrinal debates, dogmatic formulations, etc. Unless, of course, we are serious about engaging the culture in which Jesus' witness lives. And this is exactly what led early theologians to wrestle with the great questions of incarnation, salvation, etc., precisely in order to engage the wider culture and its questions, assumptions, and concerns.
In other words, it is true that Jesus' message was not centrally concerned with dogma. But he did engage the Jewish culture on many fronts -- "You have heard. . .but I say to you. . ." His method, of course, was the short contrasting statement, the parable, the radical act.
Later Christians faced different issues, and lived in quite different cultures than his, so of course their answer to "preaching" Jesus' message would be different. This is to say that one should not presume that the later church's interest in doctrine was a "distraction." It might well be viewed as a faithful responsibility to "proclaim" Jesus and his message to "the nations" -- i.e., the Gentile cultures into which Christianity moved and took unexpected shape and new form.
This is not a story of distraction and unfaithfulness, but one of enormous creativity, intellectual dexterity, and cultural engagement. And, yes, all of this moved far beyond the relatively simple message of Jesus.
Dogma, doctrine and orthodoxy" now have a bad press, and are all subject to a lot of prejudice and distortion. Let's always presume that people, even ancient people, were neither stupid nor knaves, unless they give us good reason to think otherwise!
Jesus was known, perhaps primarily, as a "teacher" (just check the number of uses of "teacher" and the verb "teach" in the Gospels), and teachers deliver ideas, "teaching" (which, by the way, is what "doctrine" means), truths, etc. So, of course Jesus taught "doctrine", e.g., that the kingdom of God was coming not through Israel's obedience but through God's sovereign will to bring it, and so all, even sinners, could jump on board.
The volcanic explosion of Jesus-devotion from the very first years of the Christian movement, and the need to explain how Christians could be monotheists and also include Jesus as well as God in their worship, this and other things about early Christianity required people to think, debate, and formulate answers. So, across the first few centuries, various types of answers were developed, by "proto-orthodox" believers, "gnostic" Christians, Marcion, Valentinus, and lots of others. As some of these ideas were completely incommensurate with others, this required people to argue and decide what could be reconciled with the tradition that stemmed from apostolic sources and tradition. This couldn't be avoided. Yes, in the process there were sometimes uncharitable attitudes expressed, but for all concerned it was a matter of what represented the truth and what represented serious error that could have everlasting consequences.
Is part of the reason that moderns are so intolerant of ancient doctrine-formation that we tend to be simply insensitive to what was at stake for them (and may still be for us!)? Let's not confuse apathy with tolerance! True tolerance requires one to be vitally concerned with the issues and yet willing to grant other points of view the chance to speak. Yes, in the history of Christian doctrine there have been stupid nit-picking controversies, and even violence (always a moral failure in such situations), and to this day arrogant and stupid attitudes (e.g., the idea that because Christians differ over how they interpret the presence of Christ in the Eucharist they can't share Eucharist . . . this is nothing but turf-fighting and not the exercise of Christian faith). But the formation of doctrine, the debate and discussion, all these things are unavoidably vital if people are to serve God with their minds as well as their emotions.
The important thing is that the debate/discussion be handled in terms of Ephesians 4:1-16, "maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (v. 3) while we await the "unity of the faith" (v. 13), so "speaking the truth in love" (v. 15).
You suggest correctly that dogma, doctrine and orthodoxy, as you put it, were not really central to the message of Jesus. As far as we can telling by reading through and behind the Gospels, Jesus powerfully proclaimed the in-breaking presence of God's kindgom and challenged his listeners to live by the radical demands of the righteousness of this kingdom according to the Sermon on the Mount.
But doctrine in the form of affirmations about the truth of the gospel came into play from the earliest years of the Christian Church. Must Gentile Christians be ritually circumcised and follow the tenets of the Mosaic Law? Did Jesus truly rise from the dead? Is the speaking of tongues necessary by all Christians? If Christ is the Son of God, how is he related to God the Father and the Holy Spirit? Should there be a Gentile Church and a Jewish Church with their independent traditions or should there be one Church in agreement on the basics of the Christian faith?
These and many other questions were involved in the development of Christian doctrine as an intellectual contour of Christian truth. Granted that theologians have engaged in too many of useless debates, that fact remains that issues of truth about God, the gospel, and the right way to live as Christians will not soon go away. It is perhaps the best part of wisdom not to dismiss the questions but nevertheless to focus on the spirit, love and way of Christ.
The short answer is that whenever humans organize in groups a number of rather unpleasant phenomena occur:
1. A division of labor leads to a power structure, and the powerful develop different interests than the rest of the group (the "iron law of oligarchy").
2. Humans in groups carry their fears of the Other, and look for tests to make sure other folks are on their side.
3. The perception of religious truth always carries elements from local culture, including local political arrangements (the oppression of women, the local economy, etc.).
These three factors, and surely there are others, lead to a variety of tendencies to doctrine (which guarantees the power of those who define it, and excludes the unorthodox) and the perpetuation of institutions to the detriment of religious life. However, since any human creation of any validity always gives rise to institutions and orthodoxy, this is a universal tendency to be recognized and reformed, but not something we can do without, since we need institutions to carry human culture, including religion.