THE importance of sound doctrine
“Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine …” (1 Timothy 4:13)
Due to the influence of the so-called Ecumenical movement, it is increasingly common in religious circles to minimize those things that set the various sects of Christendom apart from each other. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the terms “Ecumenical” “comes from the Greek οἰκουμένη (oikoumene), which means “the whole inhabited world”, and was historically used with specific reference to the Roman Empire. The ecumenical vision comprises both the search for the visible unity of the Church (Ephesians 4:3) and the “whole inhabited earth” (Matthew 24:14) as the concern of all Christians.” The link with the Roman Empire is particularly interesting, as the roman catholic position is for all churches to unite together under the authority of the Pope.
Since the elements that divide churches and denominations are almost always to do with matters of belief and doctrine, there is a notable trend towards minimizing the importance of doctrinal differences. Differences of belief are styled “different points of view,” each equally valid and each worthy of mutual respect and tolerance. That is, of course, except the point of view that there is such a thing as “absolute truth” which men and women must believe in order to be saved from their sins. This is seen as “rigid, “inflexible”, “intolerant”, and even “arrogant”. To claim there is such a thing as Absolute Truth is severely frowned upon at the very least. A popular illustration of this principle is seen in Lillian Quigley’s book “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, which we considered in a previous article back in 2008. She retells the ancient Buddhist fable of six blind men who visit the palace of the Rajah and encounter an elephant for the first time. As each touches the animal with his hands, he announces his discoveries:
“The first blind man put out his hand and touched the side of the elephant. “How smooth! An elephant is like a wall. “The second blind man put out his hand and touched the trunk of the elephant. “How round! An elephant is like a snake. “The third blind man put out his hand and touched the tusk of the elephant. “How sharp! An elephant is like a spear. “The fourth blind man put out his hand and touched the leg of the elephant.” How tall! An elephant is like a tree.” The fifth blind man reached out his hand and touched the ear of the elephant. “How wide! An elephant is like a fan. “The sixth blind man put out his hand and touched the tail of the elephant. “How thin! An elephant is like a rope.”
An argument ensued, each blind man thinking his own perception of the elephant was the correct one. The Rajah, awakened by the commotion, called out from the balcony. “The elephant is a big animal,” he said. “Each man touched only one part. You must put all the parts together to find out what an elephant is like.”
Enlightened by the Rajah’s wisdom, the blind men reached agreement. “Each one of us knows only a part. To find out the whole truth we must put all the parts together.”
However attractive the logic of this story may seem to some, it’s flaws when applied to matters of religious instruction are clear:
- If at best we each only know one part of the Elephant, who can see the whole animal to tell us we are only looking at a part, and not the whole thing?
- The logic only works in this story if each individual examines his or her part in isolation from the whole. Whereas in religious circles, the various parties draw different conclusions regarding the same parts of the ‘elephant’. Take for example the Atoning work of Christ: churches teach he died as a substitute for us, whereas we teach that he was a representative man. So in this single issue, it is not the case that the church is validly viewing a different part of the elephant, rather the disagreement is regarding the particulars of the same part.
- In the story, each man is assumed to be correct in his opinion of the part he touches – whereas in reality, such correctness is highly questionable – it is by Revelation, not by searching that God is found.
- The characters examining the Elephant are solely left to their own devices to determine the truth of the part they examine, and each man is assumed to be correct in his understanding of that part he touches. The facts of the case, however, are that rather than being left to our own abilities to find the Truth about the Deity (Job 11:7), we have been provided with instruction in Scripture. The Bible claim is to be the immutable Word of the Living God, “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). So then, the story of a man solely using his abilities to learn an isolated, single, and small aspect of the truth concerning the Elephant breaks down: a closer analogy would be for men to instead listen to one who has seen all the pieces describe the whole to them.
Several times, the present writer has heard this story of “The Blind Men and the Elephant” from the platform, to describe how men come to God with “different points of view,” all equally valid and acceptable. The questions arise therefore: Does it matter what we believe? Is doctrine important? And if it is, is it so important that it should divide sincere believers who hold to different doctrinal principles from each other? What does the Bible say?
THE BIBLE SPEAKS
The inspired writer to the Hebrews describes pleasing God in these terms:
“without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those that diligently seek him.” (Heb. 11:6)
Faith or Belief, then, is an essential prerequisite for pleasing God. But faith in what? Here, it is in two particulars: that God exists, and that it is necessary to “diligently seek him” in order to be rewarded.
In his prayer recorded in John chapter 17, Messiah speaks likewise concerning belief:
“this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (Jno. 17:3).
Eternal life then, is bound up with knowing both God himself, and Jesus Christ as one sent by Him. Life eternal being the “reward,” those who would wish to avail themselves of it must give all due “diligence” in seeking to know the things testified concerning God and His Son.
Interestingly, in this same prayer, Messiah describes the Word of God itself:
“Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” (Jno. 17:17)
There are a number of logical outcomes from this statement: firstly, there is such a thing as ‘Absolute Truth’. God’s Word “is Truth”—and absolutely so. Secondly, if anything deviates from that Word of Truth, by definition it cannot therefore itself be ‘truth’. And if it is not truth, it is a lie: a deception or delusion which therefore cannot save. This may fly in the face of the “politically correct” society that is forming around us, but the principle holds true in our age just as much as in ages gone by. The world around us changes in its form and government, but its underlying principles remain the same: “all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 Jno. 2:16-17).
Those who desire to join themselves to the One who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jno. 14:6), must themselves be lovers of Truth. It is the Truth that saves: those things that are not Truth cannot save. Hence, the Apostle refers to those who “received not the love of the Truth, that they might be saved …” (2 Thes. 2:10). And again, he continues: “… And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the Truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thes. 2:11-12).
This last passage is most instructive, for it indicates that those who disbelieve the Truth will be “damned”, rather than be saved. It follows therefore that it does matter what we believe: if we do not wish to be “damned”, we must believe that which is True, and become lovers of that Truth.
From what we have seen so far, we should be able to readily grasp the principle that the pursuit of Truth is a primary focus for the faithful. True doctrine (or teaching as the word means) is important, for it contains the Truth that saves. Accordingly (as per our opening quotation), the Apostle exhorts Timothy: “Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:13). And again: “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim. 4:16). To give attention to, and to take heed to doctrine, will “save” both the teachers and the hearers, and is something we should vigorously pursue. By contrast, the Apostle also describes those things which are not truth: “… any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine …” (1 Tim. 1:10).
The testimony of Scripture is very plain: Believers in Messiah should “be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in weight to deceive, But speaking the Truth in love, may grow up unto him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:14-15). Notice the expression here: “speaking the Truth in love.” There are two aspects of the matter for us to grasp. Firstly, we must speak the Truth—which by definition means that we do not speak error—but also, we must do so “in love”. Sometimes the two are set against each other: those who insist on maintaining true doctrine are said to be “hardline”, or “unloving”. To practice the love of Christ is seen as a separate thing to maintaining sound doctrine. As the present writer was told recently, “I’d rather live the principles of Christ than to study them”. But the situation is not either/or. We must do both, for how can we know what the principles are unless we search the Scriptures to find them out? We must “speak the Truth in Love”. Both aspects come together in the walk of the disciple. As the apostle expressed it again: “wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17). This is the “full assurance of understanding” (Col. 2:2) which gives wisdom, confidence, and peace of mind to those who walk in it.
THE TESTIMONY OF ACTS
The book of Acts recounts the preaching of the Apostles, largely to the Gentiles, but also to the Jews. We would expect therefore, to see an emphasis on the importance of making sure that what we preach is right, and this is something we should give attention to. Interestingly, early on a situation arose amongst the new converts, that the Grecians believers became neglected in the provisions made for them. The situation became serious, to the extent that the Apostles had to take control of the situation, and provide a remedy. But what was to be the solution? The attitude of many towards this situation in our own day, would be to say that living the Truth, and providing for the poor is more important than ‘doctrinal correctness,’ and so this should be given priority. However, the Apostles would disagree:
“Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the Word of God and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit, and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude …” (Acts 6:2-4).
Here, the pressing need for the distribution of temporal things to the rapidly growing ecclesia was dealt with in a way that is most instructive for us. The most important thing was “the ministry of the Word,” and that was not to be hindered by the distraction of material things. Certain men were selected to ensure that the practicalities of distributing goods to meet cases of need were met, leaving the others to work in the more important ministry of the Word. The Apostolic remedy was the very reverse to that recommended today!
There are a number of other passages in Acts which demonstrate the importance of ensuring that what we preach is right, which we shall consider as follows:
Acts chapter 11 recounts the calling of Cornelius, who was instructed to send for Peter “who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved” (Acts 11:14). The plain teaching here, is that “words” can “save”. They are not simply ink upon the page: words are the vehicles of meaning, and the words of the Gospel provide the means by which Divine things are communicated to man. Secondly, it is evident that there was a saving message that Peter was going to give. If it doesn’t matter what we believe, there would have been no advantage in sending for Peter, as his message would have no purpose, for salvation would be given anyway.
Acts chapter 16 recounts the words of Paul and Silas to the Philippian jailor, who asked the question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house” (Acts 16:30-32). The importance of belief is again expressed: it is necessary to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” in order to be saved. And it logically follows, that it is the Bible New Testament “Lord Jesus Christ” who saves, not the trinitarian myth set forth by the churches. His is the only Name whereby we “must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The false Christ taught by the churches cannot save: only the Truth can save.
Acts chapter 17 describes the response of the men and women of Berea to the Word preached to them: “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed …” (Acts 17:11-12). Notice this, by contrast to those who dispute the importance of doctrine, the Berean were very keen to ensure that what was being preached to them was indeed the truth. They searched the Scriptures every day “with all readiness of mind” to make sure that what the Apostles were teaching them was correct. If doctrine, or teaching, is not important, the Bereans were wasting their time.
Acts chapter 20 recounts the final words of Paul to the elders at Ephesus, regarding what he had taught them: “Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27). Notice here, the Apostle was not selective in what he taught. He did not leave out some of the more unpalatable aspects of the Truth, such as judgment to come, and the need to be on guard against apostasy. He taught “the whole counsel of God” – and so should we, if we are to do our duty correctly. To teach that which is not truth by definition is not the “counsel of God”, and we need therefore to take heed what we say.
Acts chapter 24 records Paul’s confession of what he taught: “this I confess unto thee, that after the way that they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and the prophets” (Act 24:14). Hence, a superficial glance at the New Testament is not enough, we also need to believe “all things which are written…” which we cannot do without studying both Testaments.
Acts chapter 28 describes the teaching of Paul, how that he “expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening” (Acts 28:23). And again: “Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him” (Acts 28:30-31). From these words, we gather that the things to do with the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ were important aspects to learn, understand, and believe. We ought also preach those things “with all confidence” to those who might receive them, and so be saved from their sins.
Sometimes it is claimed that to make the assertion that doctrine is important, is tantamount to “salvation by doctrinal correctness”, with our position being caricatured as saying we can only be saved with “100% doctrinal correctness”. And this contrasted with the doing of good works towards the poor etc, which is seen as “practical Christianity”. But this is a distortion of the case and a caricature of our position. According to the Apostle, the Gospel is something to be understood and obeyed: “God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (Rom. 6:17 see also Jas. 2:18). It is true that we must manifest our faith through the performance of works in our everyday lives. But it is also true that unless we know the teaching of Scripture, we will be unable to follow it as we will not know what is required of us. To live a live of sin is said by the Apostle to be “contrary to the doctrine that ye have learned” (Rom. 16:17). Like the Bereans of old, we must therefore seek out the wisdom that can only come from a fervent study of the revealed Word. Only by doing this can we benefit from Scripture, and be “throughly furnished unto all good works” as it is written:
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).