When I started this series on “little doctrines”, the plan was to round it out with an article on the “Roles of Men and Women”. Then I realized I’ve really already written that article (Check out \”When Did God Lose His Rights?\” ). Instead, I think it’s worthwhile this week to discuss the importance of doctrine in general. And all of what I’m about to say might not be exactly what you’d expect.
Is sound Christian doctrine important? Absolutely. A brief survey of church history will clearly show that when true doctrine starts to be lost (even in seemingly “little doctrines”), the gospel itself (the good news of salvation through Jesus) can become clouded or even lost altogether quite quickly as well.
In Martin Luther’s day, something called “indulgences” were being sold by the church – pieces of paper that indicated that an individual, with his own hard-earned money, had purchased forgiveness for his sins from God! Talk about the complete loss of the gospel. And yet, was the Roman Catholic Church (THE church at the time, mind you) aware of what a ridiculously unscriptural doctrine this was? Not until a German monk had the God-given guts to stand up and say, “This is insane.” Finally, in 1567, Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving money, acknowledging error on the church’s part Catholic Encylopedia article on \”Indulgences\”.
A compounding of false doctrine had led to an absolute perversion of the basic message of the Bible. Today, questions about how someone comes to God, the natural state of mankind when they enter this world, the authenticity of Scripture, and the role of good works in someone’s salvation plan are all confused issues in mainstream Christianity. And when false doctrines are pursued to their logical conclusions, well, as seen, it can be devastating to faith.
Again….is sound doctrine important? Ask the Apostle Paul. When writing to his young ministry companion Timothy, he said, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16) The two things that Paul says Timothy should be very careful about are 1) sound doctrine, and 2) his Christian witness in his life. So make no mistake – doctrine is MASSIVELY important to Christian faith.
Having just said that, however, I want to make one disclaimer. Our sinful nature is so twisted, that it can even take doctrine (as taught in the Bible) and turn it into a god in itself. Is that really possible? I believe so. It comes whenever the Bible student simply desires “being right” more than a genuine concern for souls.
I don’t agree with the non-denominational movement of the past 50 years, which says that some doctrine (like the sacraments, or conversion, or the study of end times, or the roles of men and women) do not require agreement upon. But, I do understand why the non-denominational movement grew. It was, in part, a product of society’s postmodern spirit. It was also, in part, a reaction to Christian leaders at times throughout history debating doctrine (and occasionally peripheral ones at that) in an unloving fashion. Making a case for a doctrinal point DOES NOT give anyone the right to be a mean person. And hiding behind pious sounding notions of “respect for the truth of God’s Word” only makes it worse and more hypocritical. Using “respect for God” as an excuse to be unloving and unChrist-like fits the description of the religious elite of Jesus’ day to a T.
Now, of course, someone can respond to that argument by saying that the Pharisees and Sadducees and teachers of the law were not even true believers since their doctrine was so far off, so it’s not a fair comparison. True enough. But how did they get to the point of being non-believers? They got so wrapped up in manufacturing their own righteousness through their belief system. The spirit of the individual who is so obsessed with sound doctrine that he willfully is unloving (ugly in words, thoughts, & actions – i.e. “hateful”) toward another person (a confused child of God no less), is someone who I would suggest is perhaps trying to make himself close to God by means of his perfect understanding of doctrine – a self-righteousness in itself. I, nor any other human alive, is right with God because of my perfect systemization or explanation of the teachings of Christian faith. I am right with God on the basis of the saving work of the object of my faith – Jesus Christ. If I lose sight of that for a moment, I might just lose sight of something as core to Christianity as loving my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8).
Seeking to preserve sound doctrine is great. But fighting for truth to the extent that you’ve stopped loving others hurts the cause more than it helps. I fear for some who fight for the truth and for “sound theology” who do not resemble Christ in their behavior at all. And I’m reminded of a famous quote by Thomas Aquinas, who once said, “Lord, in my zeal for love of truth, let me not forget the truth about love.”
I’ll be the first to admit that doctrinal debates are interesting and engaging. They can keep you mentally sharp in logical thought and help you solidify concepts surrounding some of the big questions that life poses. As mentioned earlier, I’ll argue till I’m blue in the face as to the importance of sound doctrine with somebody who suggests otherwise. However, it’s easy to lose sight of why we want sound doctrine in the first place – to clearly communicate the love of God to us, because we clearly love those whom we’re communicating it to. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again because I believe it with all my heart: if you are not prepared to love someone like Christ, you have no business teaching someone about Christ.
The hardest thing about Bible study is not understanding complex doctrines. It’s certainly not always an easy thing for limited and sinful mankind, but it’s not MOST difficult. The hardest thing about Bible study is implementing in my life the doctrines that I DO understand. Living with a humility that says that my salvation is based on Jesus’ righteousness, not mine, is not always easy. Making God a top priority in my life is not always easy. Loving other people as Christ loved me is not always easy. So while I fight tooth and nail to understand precisely what God is proclaiming to me through his Word, I don’t want to fight with any less effort to live (and love) according to that truth. I don’t want to fall in love with the concept of doctrine, but with the Lord who proclaims truth to me, and who encourages me to lovingly share that truth with others.
Sound doctrine is a beautiful and important thing. If you think I’m suggesting otherwise here, you probably haven’t read what I’ve been writing for the past month :). But emphasizing the concept of doctrine ahead of the one who gave the doctrine can turn a Christian into more of a vicious inquisitor than a Christ-like, Christ-focused gospel messenger. May God help us love truth, and love others in the way that we share it with them.
“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)