We talk about sound doctrine a lot – how important it is, how significant it is, how much it is emphasized by God in the Bible. But just what does sound doctrine do for us? How does it benefit us, and is it true that sound doctrine will help build up a strong church? It is interesting that Mike Wilson makes this very point in the July/August, 2002 edition of Focus Magazine, noting some of the signs of a strong church. He lists some qualities of a church that is growing:
· When we evangelize the lost.
· When saints are convicted.
· When leaders lead.
· When preaching is strong.
· When parents instill biblical virtues.
· When sound teaching is welcomed and embraced.
· When corrective discipline is practiced.
· When brotherly love exists.
· When sacrifice replaces complacency.
Unfortunately, people have been shying away from sound teaching since the days of the Israelites. “For this is a rebellious people, false sons, sons who refuse to listen to the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, ‘You must not see visions’; and to the prophets, ‘You must not prophesy to us what is right. Speak to us pleasant words, prophesy illusions’” (Isaiah 30:9-10). People love this kind of preaching. It tickles their ears (2 Timothy 4:3). It pleases them, and makes them feel good even though their sins might be abundant. And even though pleasant words and delusions might be exactly what sinners want to hear, it ultimately leads to their undoing, just as it says in Hosea 4:6, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” We see the same importance placed on sound doctrine in the New Testament also. Paul writes to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:13, “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me. . .” He also writes to Titus in Titus 1:9, “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able to both exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” And there are a dozen other New Testament verses that say the same thing!
So what is so important about sound doctrine? What is so valuable about knowledge? Why is it that one who does not have knowledge will be destroyed? The importance of knowledge is that it empowers, it purifies, and it sanctifies! Knowing God’s word is knowing God Himself, and following God’s word is living like God. And if we do not have the knowledge of God, then we will end up exactly how the verse says we will. An interesting fact to note is that, historically, the most conservative approach to religion – conservative defined as absolutist, zealous, and stubbornly confident in truth – has not produced decline, but growth. Those who practice the most liberal forms of religion – liberal being tolerant of change and new ideas, morally relative, and interested in dialogue and cooperation with other religions – experience sharp declines after short periods of popularity. “In 1972 Dean Kelly published a remarkable book entitled Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. In it he documented a striking shift in the fortunes of America’s oldest and largest Protestant denominations. After two centuries of growth that culminated in the 1950’s, virtually all mainline Protestant denominations had begun losing members. The losses, however, were far from uniform. Liberal denominations were declining much more rapidly than conservative denominations, and the most conservative were growing” (“Why Strict Churches Are Strong”, Laurence R. Iannaccone, Santa Clara University, AJS Volume 99 Number 5 (March 1994): p. 1180). Although liberal churches seem popular at first, the truth is that the kind of people who are attracted to them get bored easily. When the inconsistency and constant change become tiresome, many members of liberal churches find a return to sound doctrine refreshing. A consistent congregation of Christians attracts others seeking the same ends by demanding a distinctive lifestyle, morality, and faith.
As has already been mentioned, many liberal Christian groups seek a dialogue with the broad religious world. They want to open themselves up to everybody with whom they differ and “discuss” matters. Today, this is most often manifested in large-scale conventions that offer an environment of tolerance for all denominations. And while Christians are told to have a dialogue with the world of some kind – or else we would never have any interaction with the people of the world (1 Corinthians 5:10) – liberal groups often stress the kind of dialogue that never accomplishes anything. They leave things unsettled so that nobody’s views are obstructed, and nobody’s feelings are hurt. Many religious groups are more like the people in Athens than anything else. They like to listen to new ideas, and debate their significance (Acts 17:21), but they never make a decision. They listen to everything and commit to nothing. As one writer puts it, “For them biblical doctrine is ‘interesting’ but not ‘compelling’; ‘directive’, perhaps, but not ‘deciding’” (The Cultural Church, F. Lagard Smith, 29).
This idea provides a striking contrast between conservative and liberal mentalities, and why sound, consistent doctrine produces a stronger church. While weak doctrine, based more on opinion than scripture, helps a person grow into an undecided, wishy-washy individual, sound doctrine nurtures a respect for consistency and honesty. It forces us to draw a line in the sand and stand up for something we believe. Weak doctrine figures out nothing. Sound doctrine leads us to know all truth (John 16:13). Weak doctrine rejoices in diversity of thought, openness to interpretation, and adaptability. Sound doctrine leads us to rejoice in the truth through love (1 Corinthians 13:6). Weak doctrine makes us hesitant about taking a stand and helping someone come closer to God. Sound doctrine has us go into all the world, making disciples of all people through baptism and education in the Word (Matthew 28:18-20).
The Benefits Of Sound Teaching
It is easy enough for us to say this or that about sound doctrine and how important it is. The problem that a lot of Christians run in to, however, is that we do not always know why sound doctrine is so important. We know it is commanded by God, and expected by Him, but what are the practical benefits of remaining true to the Bible, and striving daily to understand it to the utmost?
It increases the level of commitment
Sound doctrine demands complete loyalty and unwavering belief, so it naturally leads to a more developed sense of commitment. People find it easy to commit to something that requires no change of heart or action, so it should come as no surprise to leader of liberal religious bodies that their members are not very committed. Sound doctrine, however, is much more difficult to commit to, so it attracts more dedicated individuals. It leads us into a distinctive lifestyle (Matthew 6:33, Luke 14:26-35, 1 Peter 2:12), raising the level of participation by all the members (Ephesians 4:16). “If commitment is required than sound churches will attract committed people; if something less is acceptable, then that is what a group will get” (“A Strong Church”, Mark Dunagan, www.beavertonchurchofchrist.net).
It enhances worship
“The pleasure and edification that I derive from a Sunday service does not depend solely on what I bring to the service (through my presence, attentiveness, public singing, etc.), it also depends on how many others attend, how warmly they greet me, how enthusiastically they read and pray, and how deep their commitments are” (Iannaccone, 1184). If the pattern is that sound teaching produces devoted members, then we can only assume that those members will attend all the time, sing with intensity and passion, participate in Bible classes, listen during the sermon, and truly edify the others in attendance. I find it interesting that we single out some members and laud them for their commitment to the worship service. Just imagine how much more edifying it would be if we all aspired to the level of the most dedicated members!
A church member who does everything that is expected of him, and then exceeds expectations, not only enriches his own life, but the lives of everybody else around him. His fellow members enjoy the service more and more, and their spiritual energy then rubs off on others. On the other hand, those who contribute very little to the group (through time, energy, and other resources) can threaten the health of a church. Just as much as one enthusiastic person can change the dynamic of a congregation, one “laze about”, one depressed sulker, one bitter man, one mouth full of sarcasm – can destroy the good work being done and turn a church into a graveyard. The benefit of sound teaching is that it will confront this individual and either convict him to change, or make him look for a less demanding environment. This is one reason why Jesus was continually weeding out the half-hearted from His followers (John 6:26, 6:60-66, Luke 14:26).
It reduces free-rider problems
Like other collective activities, such as a sports team, a boy scout troop, or a class at school, religion is susceptible to the “free-riders” of the word. There are really two types of free-rider problems out there, according to one writer. “In any group, people with low levels of religious commitment tend to free ride off those with higher levels; they tend to take more than they give. They may do so unintentionally. Nevertheless, if only because their lower commitment inclines them to participate and contribute less than others, their mere presence dilutes a group’s resources, reducing the average level of participation, enthusiasm, energy… One need not look very far to find an anemic congregation plagued by free-rider problems – a visit to the nearest liberal, mainline Protestant church usually will suffice” (Iannaccone, 1184-1185). Get rid of the free meals, the easy access to resources, and the environment of non-committal attitudes, and the moochers will go away. Some people think that getting to heaven should be easy for them, as if they are more special than others and deserve a break. But it’s hard to accomplish anything with the dead weight of worthless individuals pulling a group down.
Many have believed that the church is just a good place for exploitation. “they will exploit you with false words” (2 Peter 2:3). “Who suppose that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:5). The Shakers had problems with transient members who would join the group in late fall, according to Mark Dunagan. They would get their fill of food and shelter throughout the cold winters, and then leave in the spring when employment opportunities would arise. “The Salvation Army will readily attest that the promise of free meals guarantees an audience of less than average commitment” (Iannaccone, 1186). Jesus Himself realized at various points in His ministry that many of His listeners only came for the free food.
It keeps things a little smaller
Truth by its very nature (Matthew 7:13-14) will keep a group relatively small, which has its own surprising benefits. While this does not mean a sound congregation has to be tiny, or weak, it does generally mean the group will be smaller than other churches that offer a “potluck” version of religion. Even though a more modestly sized congregation cannot afford the nicest building, or the most modern audio/visual equipment, it does help foster a more intimate environment. Each and every member is noticed and appreciated. The expectations for participation and attendance are higher – and it becomes more glaring when some members are absent regularly. All of this makes it harder to live a life of deception.