In his final epistle, the apostle Paul advised Timothy of a day when Christians would not endure sound doctrine, or teaching (II Timothy 4:3-4). Fleshly motives would cause them to “turn away their ears from the truth”, and the result would be that they would wander off into myths or fables. With the diversity of teaching in the various denominations in Christendom today, and with many of these doctrines in contradiction to each other, a fair mind must come to the conclusion that there are plenty of fables mingled with truth. Sadly, it seems that tolerance of false or contradicting doctrines is becoming more common in Christian churches, and emphasis on sound (healthy) teaching is becoming less common.
Sound doctrine, also characterized as “good doctrine” in I Timothy 4:6, is that which honors God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no room for man’s pride or lusts in the “doctrine of God” (Titus 2:10), and any “wind of doctrine” by which Christians are “tossed and carried about” (Ephesians 4:14) will always cater to and glorify man in one way or another. Sound doctrine glorifies God in Christ, period.
There are churches and Christian leaders who may be well-intentioned in their emphasis on Christian living and practical brotherhood at the expense of an insistence on doctrinal integrity and truth, and they have their reward. The Lord can use any effort of true faith, any desire for His glory, no matter the compromise or mixture He finds in a group of Christians. “The Lord knoweth them that are His”, we are thankfully assured of, but on the other hand, the responsibility of everyone who names His name is to “depart from iniquity” (II Timothy 2:16-21). It is clear from the context of that warning that false doctrine is a manifestation of iniquity.
Now someone might ask: “Is there a list of Bible teachings that are so important they should be defended even to the extent of separating from others who contradict them?” Another person might wonder: “Is there a danger of sectarianism when we insist on doctrinal purity at the expense of fellowship with other sincere Christians?” Rather than answering those questions directly, I suggest we look at several principles that are key in the preservation of sound doctrine to the glory of God.
- Doctrinal integrity is eminently important to Christianity. It is even more critical than any amount of good teaching on practical Christian living. Sound teaching as to the glorious person and the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ must be maintained in the house of God, the church, the pillar and base of the truth (I Timothy 3:15). Any compromise here brings dishonor to God, and for that reason alone, a heart that seeks His glory should separate from and shun false teachings that detract from the person and work of Christ.
For example, one should not tolerate teaching that speculates that Jesus could have sinned, extrapolating that error from the fact that He was tempted while on earth. He went through those tests to prove that He was “pure gold” as to His sinless nature, and not because there was any question about it! Those temptations proved He was “without [innate] sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Furthermore, He “knew no sin” (II Cor. 5:21), for “in Him is no sin” (I John 3:5). If the assembly does not jealously guard Christ’s glory here, and in other similar points of doctrinal contention, they give up the true Christ for “another Jesus” (II Cor. 11:4), and further corruption is sure to follow.
- The apostles’ censures and arguments tell us much about the teachings they insisted upon. Many Christian leaders and groups promote unity, relationships, godly living, and other good and noble values over doctrinal soundness, and some even go so far as to admit their belief that “doctrine divides”, because they lament sectarianism in Christendom. But sectarian strife is very often the result of pride and worldliness, not doctrine, and in those cases where Christians have separated from each other because of false doctrine being brought in, the Lord has allowed it in His discipline of His household.¹
Paul and John were very clear in their censures of teachers of false doctrines.² Were these heretical teachers allowed to continue on in fellowship in the church for the sake of unity, or for fear of division? Should anyone have pleaded for tolerance so that long-established personal relationships could remain intact? It almost goes without saying that the answer to both questions is a resounding “No”!
Paul’s arguments in defense of doctrinal truth are evidence of a brilliant mind, but we know they are according the mind of God, who inspired Paul’s writing. When Paul sets forth the truth of imputed righteous without works, when he declares the believer to have been predestinated by God and therefore eternally secure, when he defends the central truth of the resurrection, and in several other cases,³ he proceeds logically through an argument and reaches a conclusion that the spiritual man readily receives. Those who argue for a type of works-righteousness, or who promote a conditional security, or who superimpose humanistic reasoning on fundamental Christian doctrine, must do so by taking verses or even phrases out of their contexts, setting them against the truth that Paul so eloquently and methodically presents.
- There is scriptural guidance on how the truth is to be taught and passed down to future generations. The truth was not intended to be learned in a sectarian seminary and taught exclusively by an ordained clergy or ministry. When human arrangements are employed to designate teachers in Christian assemblies, it interferes with the line of accountability from the servant directly to his Lord, and opens the door for unsound teaching.* It may take years or generations for these human expediencies to have their deleterious effects.The pattern outlined in the scriptures is that men who learn the apostles’ doctrine among many witnesses (in an assembly setting) should pass along that truth to faithful men, who will be able to teach others in turn (II Timothy 2:2). Ministry ought to be “as every man has received the gift”, and that gift cannot be given or constrained by men or their systems. Moreover, “if any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability that God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever” (I Peter 4:10-11). Sound doctrine is best preserved through methods that do not interfere with the work of the Spirit in using whomsoever He will to minister the truth.
Maintaining sound doctrine was never presented to the church of God as an optional exercise, but always as an imperative, if saints are by any means to be “rooted and built up” in Christ, and established in the faith (Colossians 2:7). It is true that sound doctrine may be held with a legal spirit among Christians, and this is much to be guarded against. Only if Christ is the object of the heart will this pitfall be avoided. May He be the source of our enjoyment and our motive for contending for the “faith once delivered to the saints”.
¹ I Cor. 11:19; I Peter 4:17; I John 2:19; I Kings 12:24
² Galatians 5:12; I Timothy 1:19-20; II Timothy 2:14-26; Titus 3:10; II John 10
³ Romans 4; Romans 8:28-39; I Corinthians 15; for other examples see Romans 9 & 11; I Corinthians 11:1-16; Galatians 3-5
* See II Timothy 4:3-4, contrasted with Ephesians 4:7-16