QUESTION: Doctrine only divides people. Why can't we just forget about doctrine and all love Jesus?
ANSWER: It was an evangelical pastor who voiced the question, adding as a supposed clincher, "After all, could Jesus catch a cold?" Apparently that was the level to which he felt doctrinal controversies inevitably descended. Did he also expect me to debate with him how many angels could dance on the head of a pin? This is foolishness.
Doctrine (didache in Greek) is a word often used (KJV/NKJV)for the truth of God shared by the apostles after the ascension of Christ. Those first won to Christ "continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine" (Acts 2:42).
In contrast, Paul lists a number of sins in his first letter to Timothy, characterizing them as "contrary to sound doctrine" (I Tim. 1:9-10), urging the young man, "Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine" (I Tim. 4:13).
"All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine" (II Tim. 3:16). But the apostle warned, "The time will come when they [Timothy's hearers] will not endure [not tolerate, put up with] sound doctrine" (II Tim. 4:3-4).
Clearly, that day has come in many churches. "Give us something to tickle our ears. Let's talk about love. Don't get all doctrinal on us!" How sad. "But as for you [to Titus, this time], speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine" (Tit. 2:1).
Is our goal to draw a crowd? If so, announce that the pastor will ride a horse down the main aisle next Sunday, or perhaps stand on his head and whistle "Just as I Am." But if we are committed to honouring God and His Word the clear proclamation the Scriptures, in a context of sound doctrine, will be our aim.
Sad to say, in order to make God more acceptable to the unregenerate, and broaden the appeal of the gospel, too many are tempted to bring the teachings of God's Word down to some kind of lowest common denominator, something all can agree to, and feel comfortable with. But such compromise eventually brings weakness, and breeds confusion.
Will we abandon a belief in a God-breathed, verbally inspired, infallible and trustworthy Bible? If so, almost anything goes after that. What of Christ? Was He just a wise teacher, or was He God incarnate? Will we strike from our doctrinal statements a belief in the deity and virgin birth of Christ, His blood atonement, His bodily resurrection, and His soon return?
"Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son" (II Jn. 1:9).
How far are we willing to go with our compromises? The answer to that is often, "Just a little farther." And later, the next step down doesn't really seem so far as it once did. The frog in the kettle is content to be boiled alive if the water temperature is raised slowly enough. And this incremental apostasy has spelled the end for churches and denominations, and for Bible colleges too.
Is doctrine narrow? Certainly it is. There is only one Holy Bible, only one Saviour, and only one way of salvation (cf. Eph. 4:4-6). We follow a narrow way (Matt. 7:13-14), and the majority will refuse to accompany us. The Lord Jesus not only spoke of love, but of how the truth was bound to create divisions. He said:
"Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;' and ‘a man's enemies will be those of his own household.' He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me" (Matt. 10:34-37).
An unwillingness to take a firm stand on God's infallible Word has led to the decline of many once vibrant churches and denominations. I can think of one in Canada that was formed from severak other groups, a century ago, in response to a call for compromise. It is now in the grip of a dead liberalism.
I talked with one of its pastors and he told me, "I don't know what to believe, and this is the only denomination that would have me on those terms." He later was asked by a gentleman, in my hearing, whether he was a born again Christian. "Some people need that," he said, "but not me." He seemed to think the new birth was a kind of new start for down-and-outers, but not necessary for decent, good-living folk. (He needs to take a closer look at Nicodemus and Christ's message to him!)
This kind of vague doctrinal confusion brings to mind a cartoon published years ago. It shows a discouraged pastor at his desk. Behind him is a graph revealing a steady decline in attendance at his church. A deacon has come to offer a suggestion. He says to the pastor, "Maybe you shouldn't end every sermon by saying, ‘But then, what do I know?'"
It's funny–but it isn't. Even though those words aren't spoken, many sermons and Bible studies seem to have an air of befogged uncertainty that is both disturbing and discouraging.
The preacher, or study leader will say, "People differ on what this means"–and leave it at that, implying we have no hope of ever knowing with certainty what God intended. Or he'll say, "What do you think it means?"–giving the uninformed an opportunity to become blind leaders of the blind.
Sound exegesis, rooted in consistent literal interpretation, will almost always lead to a satisfying conclusion. The Bible is God's revelation, after all, of things He wants us to know. "God has revealed them to us through His Spirit." (I Cor. 2:10). That there are some things beyond our full understanding is to be expected. But it makes no sense for God to give us His Word, and preserve it down through the centuries, if we can't know what it means.
If we are truly people of the Book, we'll take our stand unashamedly on the fundamentals of the faith. That is not to say that Christian love is unimportant. A loveless fight against error in the church at Ephesus is condemned by the Lord (Rev. 2:2-4). We are to "adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour" (Tit. 2:10), enhancing and ornamenting the truth with the Christlike character that befits it. But that is not incompatible with an insistence on sound of doctrine.