The word ‘doctrine’ seems to carry a negative connotation when used by many who claim to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Often, we hear that it is not so much what a person believes that matters, but how he or she acts – a personal relationship with Christ is heavily emphasized while understanding and agreement over doctrine are minimized. There is an adage floating around that says, “Christ unites; doctrine divides,” and while that may make sense to some, it is incongruous with God’s own view of His doctrine:
· According to the Word, doctrine and sound teaching are absolutely essential in the formation of a complete and functional Christian. It is doctrine, after all, that “ensures salvation for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16);
· Doctrine nourishes our souls (1 Timothy 4:6);
· It is to be like a garment that adorns the most pious individuals (Titus 2:1, 7, 10);
· It is our standard (2 Timothy 1:13);
· And even Christ Himself makes it clear that the truth has the power to make us free (John 8:32). Rather than be a burden on our souls or some oppressive force, doctrine and truthful teaching release us from the anxieties of sin and the waywardness of falsehood.
In a recent World Magazine article (“The Doctrine Difference,” World Magazine, March 5, 2005) John Piper outlines some of the findings in a recent survey of American evangelical Christians. The study, conducted by George Barna, was done to find out if that sect of people actually practices what they preach – just how important is sound doctrine to them? Surprisingly, Barna found that evangelicals actually divorce at about the same rate as the rest of the country; only 9 percent of them tithe; of 12,000 teenagers who took the pledge to wait for marriage, 80 percent committed fornication within seven years of that vow; 26 percent of traditional evangelicals do not think premarital sex is wrong; finally, white evangelicals are more likely than Catholics and mainline Protestants to object to having black neighbors.
Is “Doctrine” Really That Important?
A lot of religious people live the same way – even members of the Lord’s church. We sometimes preach one thing, but relax in the issue when pressed by friends, family, and even doctrinal opponents. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to ignore differences and focus on similarities when dealing with people who we know are doctrinally divergent to us. We rationalize this mentality by claiming, “We have more in common than not,” or, “We can have unity in our diversity.” In the end, though, so much vital doctrine has to be thrown out the window to come to any consensus that there is not much of anything on which we all truly agree. What parts of the Bible are less important than others? Which doctrines can we ignore so as to welcome those with whom we disagree? At what point do we become like the false teachers of 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine… and they will turn away their ears from the truth?”
Doctrine does matter. In fact, those who hold themselves to a higher standard of doctrinal obedience actually end up living more pious lives, according to Ronald Snider, who wrote a book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. In the work, Snider explains the difference between ‘Christians’ who are more conservative in their doctrinal approach and those who more interested in compromise and diversity. He writes of more conservative Christians, “They are 9 times more likely than all others to avoid ‘adult-only’ material on the Internet. They are 4 times more likely than other Christians to boycott objectionable companies and products and twice as likely to choose not to watch a movie specifically because of its bad content. They are 3 times more likely than other adults not to use tobacco products and twice as likely to volunteer time to help needy people.”
When we stop following the Bible, we leave morality behind. We become relaxed, nonchalant, and more permissive in our attitudes toward sin and temptation. We have an obligation follow sound teaching because every doctrine in the Bible is important – every rule and regulation is meant to protect us and lead us to a higher standard of excellence (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).
“Some doctrinal issues are just too complicated…”
How often do we hear that an issue or doctrine is just too complicated to ever be resolved? While it is true that many things are difficult to understand – even Peter spoke that way regarding the writing of Paul (2 Peter 3:16) – there is no question, comment, or contention so convoluted or confusing that it does not have a Biblically appropriate answer. One example of this, which had daily bombarded every home in American via the evening news a few years ago, was the Terri Schiavo trial. Joel Belz writes, “If I heard the ‘complexity’ response once, I think I heard it a hundred times. Worst of all, I probably even thought it a few times myself. But the Terri Schiavo case is ‘complex’ only in the sense that any of our sinful behavior is complicated. Sometimes, it is true, we weave such contorted patterns that solutions seem hard to find. That’s precisely when we ought to look for God’s simple answers” (World Magazine, April 2, 2005). Sin is what confuses simple situations and turns them into debates. Sin makes us believe that our personal experience is more authoritative than scripture, or that our opinions should be forced on others as church doctrine. Sin leads us to “agree to disagree” on matters that our Lord Jesus Christ would never disagree! He pleaded, in fact, for ultimate unity amongst the brethren (John 17:21). Why would Christ pray for unity if “unity in diversity” is what He meant?
When brethren disagree over issues, pride and arrogance sometimes creep in, driving a wedge between normally loving men and women. There is only space to discuss a few of these ‘debates’ in this lesson, but it is important for all of us to spend time every day reflecting on our own convictions and beliefs, comparing that set of ideals to the Bible.
The matter of baptism is not a confusing one, unless sin makes it that way. Mark 16:16 very clearly states that “he who believes and is baptized shall be saved,” yet for centuries, this simple sentence has been misunderstood and misinterpreted to accommodate a number of false doctrines. With such a great cloud of differing ideas, some students of the Bible simply dismiss the issue as too divisive – “It’s just too complicated of an issue to ever be resolved,” they conclude. Is the necessity of baptism for salvation really that mystifying? Was it so befuddling to Cornelius and his friends and family when they chose to be baptized (Acts 10:48)? What about Lydia in Acts 16:14-15? Was baptism such a puzzling doctrine in the minds of the Corinthians (Acts 18:8), or the Ephesians (19:5), or the Jews in Jerusalem (2:38)?
Other Christians with contentious motives will spend entire lifetimes trying to devise arguments to prove their beliefs on marriage/divorce/remarriage. While it may take a human mind an entire 200-page book to explain his idea on the doctrine, it takes God only a few verses to clearly, plainly, and authoritatively lay down His law. Jehovah makes the doctrine simple with verses like Malachi 2:16, “I hate divorce.” Is there any way to avoid the obvious ramifications of Mathew 19:9? Are a man and a woman bound in the eyes of God for lifetime? Romans 7:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39 should dispel any notion of an opposing assertion. For every complex argument devised by man to find a way out of God’s marriage law, one must always accept the simple truth that all people are held accountable to Jesus Christ and the Gospel, including what He spoke regarding marriage and divorce. “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day” (John 12:48).
It is the same with all contentious doctrinal issues. When we consider the Bible with an open mind, disregarding all of our prejudice and arrogance, it is only natural to conclude that all Christians will be unified and of the same mind. God did not design His Gospel to be bewildering, but sin does just that. Bible authority, the Lord’s supper, the abolition of the Old Law, fellowship, church autonomy, the role of elders and deacons – only sin makes these issues contentious. It mucks up our minds, it dirties the waters, it clouds our vision. Let us always strive to live in harmony with one another, accepting the Gospel for what it is – simple and pure – and not what we want it to be. “But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led stray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3-4.)
Avoiding Doctrine With Doubt
Another way to get around doctrine is to just doubt everything. Doubt is a way of life for some people. Many will swear by it, live by it, and argue by it. One man wrote, “Science is responsible for the building of railroads and bridges, of steamships, of telegraph lines, of cities, towns, large buildings and small, plumbing and sanitation, of the food supply… Without skepticism and doubt, none of these things could have been given to the world. The fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is the death of wisdom. Skepticism and doubt lead to study and investigation, and investigation is the beginning of wisdom. The modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry, as the ancient world was the child of fear and faith” (Why I Am An Agnostic, Clarence Darrow). One wonders, though, whether such grand statements are true!
First of all, it must be understood that doubt never accomplishes anything. It is, in fact, the doubters of this world who say that amazing feats cannot be done. The doubters and the skeptics said that a man would never walk on the moon. They also said that buildings could not reach into the clouds, or that the San Francisco Bay would never be spanned, or that no human would ever break the 10 second mark in a 100-meter foot race! Instead of opening up new possibilities, as the above quote would have us believe, doubt only leads us to perceive our limitations. Consider the story of Peter in Matthew 14:27-33. It was faith in Christ that led the apostle to walk on top of the water, and it was only when he “saw the wind and became afraid” that he started to sink. Peter’s doubts prevented him from fully realizing his potential, just as it does for all of us (James 1:6).
Unfortunately, most agnostics (and doctrinal fence riders), like Clarence Darrow, confuse doubt and honest investigation. Exploration (investigation) can be good, and there is nothing inappropriate about doubting “bad science” or fallacious claims. Paul told the young preacher, “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge” (1 Timothy 6:20.) The Bible further encourages inquiry (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, Acts 17:11), but even truly scientific investigation must involve some faith. A skeptical person may engage in a study, but his doubts will always cause him to feel insecure about his conclusions. In doctrinal debate, we hear phrases of insecurity like:
· “Well, I’m still thinking about that issue”
· “I need more time to study” (2 Timothy 3:7)
· “I’m very skeptical of that interpretation”
· “I like to let everybody hold their own doctrinal opinions”
· “I’ll let God judge on that matter”
· “Some doctrines are just too convoluted to know the answer”
What is most sobering, though, is to think about how doubt has caused so many people to miss life’s wonderful opportunities. In Matthew 28:17, we are told that many people worshipped Christ, “but some were doubtful.” How sad it is, friends, to live by doubt – even to the point that the opportunity to be saved is overlooked!