Many pastors and leaders attempting to faithfully preach and teach the Word of God frequently hear others in Christian ministry demand that they stop being so dogmatic about their beliefs and refrain from making bold statements supporting particular Bible doctrines. These detractors often claim that to affirm certain biblical teachings or to insist on a particular hermeneutic is unnecessary for one’s spiritual growth and that doing so invites the scorn of those who espouse other religious systems or interpretations of Scripture. Others claim that since “good and godly people” disagree about specific doctrines, all views are therefore allowable or even acceptable. Still others point out that both sides “use the same Scriptures,” implying that this legitimatizes both claims, so determining which view is correct is impossible. Yet another popular approach to doctrinal disagreement is to present all sides of an issue or teaching and allow the listeners to arrive at their own conclusions rather than taking the time to explain how one comes to a proper conclusion. This approach requires that we must make room for disagreement on doctrinal matters and accommodate all viewpoints; it esteems working together in Christian ministry of utmost importance and deems insistence upon theological precision as “unchristlike”—we must embrace everyone who “loves Jesus.”
The Dilemma We Face
Why are so many professing Christians today unsure concerning what the Scriptures teach? Can we truly determine if varying views are factual or false? In deciding whether to accept or reject some doctrines, do we have a mechanism available to help us? Does the compromise of one doctrine have a ripple effect upon other doctrines? Can we have genuine confidence that the Bible actually teaches objective truth? These are important questions that affect a multitude of issues arising within Christendom today. It is evident that the wrong responses to these questions have led to the multiplication of moral and ethical failures among church leaders and laypeople alike and the lack of spiritual maturity so prevalent among believers today (Heb. 5:12-14).
Clarifying Four Points
First, it is indeed necessary to be precise when explaining Bible doctrines. Many churches and individual believers alike can trace their problems to doctrinal ambiguity, which always leads to confusion and turmoil. Understanding and embracing biblical truth provides the Christian with deep spiritual roots essential for godly living in this present world. Paul illustrates this fact in his letter to the Ephesians. In the first three chapters, the apostle expresses the wonderful doctrinal realities that are true of every believer in this dispensation (Eph. 1:1-3:21). After describing the believer’s position in Christ’s body, the church, Paul then explains the practical outworking of these truths as we live in light of those doctrines (4:1-6:24). We see the connection between one’s creed and one’s conduct through the word “therefore” (4:1), which urges godly living now that one understands the doctrines expounded upon in the previous three chapters. Knowing and implementing the truths of God’s Word provides the spiritual foundation and weapons necessary for believers to stand firm and steadfast as we face the onslaught of this world, the flesh, and the devil (1 Cor. 15:58; 1 Jn. 2:15-17; Eph. 4:14; 6:10-18).
It is important to understand that doctrine (a word that is much maligned today) simply means teaching. The necessity for church leaders to provide doctrinal instruction is a command that the New Testament writers insist upon continually (Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9; 2:1; etc.). Therefore, believers who desire to see local churches serving as Christ intends ought to be perpetually growing in their comprehension of God’s Word and its specific teachings (doctrines). Additionally, the believer who desires to mature spiritually must live out those doctrines.
Scripture provides mankind with all the necessary information about God and His plans, programs, and purposes. The doctrines we find in the Bible furnish the foundation for our comprehension of our Creator and His works in our world—past, present, and future. Bible doctrine is fundamentally a study of God (“theology”), and its purpose is for God’s people to “know Him” (Phil. 3:10 cf. Jn. 17:3). The goal of teaching and learning the Scriptures should be to know the Lord better and, thus, to live faithfully for Him. Vague or shallow Bible teaching will not produce mature, godly believers.
Second, the statement that “good and godly people disagree” is irrelevant to our personal responsibility to know and embrace the truth. On a human level, determining the character of another individual is almost impossible. Whether or not a person is “good” is something that not even one’s behavior can accurately reveal. For instance, Ananias and Sapphira’s offering in Acts 5:1-11, from a human perspective, looked good and quite generous. But Peter explicitly said they both were lying to the Holy Spirit about the gift, and, thus, their “good” deed was unacceptable. Evaluating someone else’s goodness or godliness is impossible on a human level (1 Sam. 16:7; Jer. 17:9), and even if it were, this is not the litmus test for biblical truth.
Nonetheless, true godliness is impossible apart from holding to certain doctrinal truths. Those who are “godly” cannot deny the content of the gospel message, which is crystal clear (1 Cor. 15:1-4); they cannot express an unbiblical understanding of Christ’s deity or humanity, His substitutionary atonement, or His bodily resurrection—all of which are absolutely essential to Christianity. Fellowship is impossible with those who believe that Christ did not actually die or that His death was merely a moral example and not the substitutionary atoning sacrifice for our sins (Eph. 5:1-11). Doctrinal boundaries necessarily limit one’s associations in ministry.
Third, how are we to address differing perspectives that all use the Scriptures to “prove” their own particular teachings? To determine the correct view, the proper method of interpretation as well as expositing the passage in its biblical context are the means necessary to validate the accurate position. This necessitates that we learn and consistently apply the rules of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). When studying the Bible, one must consistently use a normal, literal, historical-grammatical interpretation. If communication (from God to us) is to occur, we must first ascertain the meaning of the words of Scripture as they are written by determining the intent of the authors through the purpose, style, and context of their writings. While words can often have a range of meanings, the word only means exactly what the author is trying to express in that specific context (the use of puns and double entendres are obvious exceptions, and their context shows that they are to be understood as such).
Another key to interpreting the Bible is keeping in mind that the text of Scripture has both a human author and a divine Author (2 Pet. 1:20-21). The two worked in tandem, or confluence, with each other during the penning of Scripture; thus, both had the same intent—the human authors did not mean one thing while the Holy Spirit meant something else. The very words of Scripture express the exact message God wanted the authors to communicate and the readers to know; no hidden or deeper meanings lie behind the text. While other verses may help to explain a passage or provide further revelation, the specific text under consideration has a particular doctrine, issue, narrative, etc., as its objective for the reader to understand. These rules of interpretation are essential if we are to correctly comprehend what God’s Word says. If we do not adhere to these basic principles, we cannot “rightly [divide]” the Scriptures (2 Tim. 2:15).
Finally, the idea of “teaching all sides” of an issue and leaving it up to the hearers to decide what option is best for them is not really teaching at all. While presenting various perspectives may be beneficial in certain settings, doing so necessitates that the instructor explain how to arrive at the correct view. Simply listing possible options and providing a proof text here or there is inadequate instruction that can have detrimental consequences, especially for new or immature Christians.
Many doctrines deemed “peripheral” are actually interrelated to other doctrines. Pertaining to the doctrine of recent creation, consider its connection to man’s fall into sin and the spread of human depravity (Gen. 3:1-15; Rom. 5:12-21). In the account of God’s creation and Adam’s fall we find the doctrines of sin and salvation rooted therein. One man brought sin and its consequences upon all of his offspring; one Man (the Messiah) would provide salvation (the remedy) for sin (Gen. 3:15).
Pertaining to the doctrine of the rapture (and specifically its timing), it is directly interrelated to the biblical demarcation between God’s plan for Israel and His plan for the church. The nature, character, purpose, features, and destiny of the New Testament church are distinct from those same elements that God has expressed for national Israel (Gen. 12:1-Mal. 4:6). The Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants all promise that an earthly kingdom awaits God’s chosen people Israel, while the church, in contrast, possesses “all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). This is but one reason why the removal of the church by the rapture (1 Thess. 4:13-18) precedes “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7). Incorrect positions pertaining to end-time events (or choosing to take no position on pretribulationism and/or premillennialism) leaves churches and ministries ill-equipped to deal with the false doctrine of replacement theology, which denigrates or denies Israel’s future role in the kingdom age. Equating the nature and purpose of the church with the future kingdom causes confusion concerning the magnificence of the church as Christ’s bride. A failure to understand the timing of the rapture leads to a failure to grasp God’s ultimate purpose for the tribulation: the repentance and restoration of Israel so that they may finally receive the promise of the millennial kingdom.
Pertaining to the doctrine of sign-gifts, one’s view as to whether they are continuing or have ceased impacts one’s understanding of the doctrine of the Bible and whether the canon of Scripture is open or closed. We must consider the intent and nature of sign gifts: They were to validate God’s spokesman and his divinely given authority in God’s new program, the church (Acts 2:1-44). They were also a “sign” to unbelieving national Israel that she was temporarily being set aside while God worked through His church. The revelatory, miraculous gifts of “tongues,” “prophecy,” and “knowledge” would cease once the Scriptures were completed (1 Cor. 13:8-13). So, are we receiving new, extrabiblical revelation from God today? We believe that God has declared His Word to be finished (Rev. 22:18) and that Scripture presents all God intends for us to know at this point in time; it contains all that is necessary for the believer to live a godly life (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Thus, the sign-gifts are no longer valid for this age.
Proclaiming doctrinal truth is not about winning arguments or debates with those who disagree with our position; it is not about proving who is right or wrong or attempting to display one’s intellectual superiority. It is about teaching the truth so that God’s people will be stable and mature in the faith (Eph. 4:11-16). In Acts 4:1-31, the religious intellectuals confronted the apostles of Jesus Christ. The Jewish leaders were amazed at the level of doctrine that the disciples knew and noted the great amount of personal time they had spent with Jesus. The apostles did not receive their knowledge of the Word from Pharisee or Sadducee-approved institutions; their powerful, persuasive teaching astounded these leaders who, biblically, had no answer. Instead, they gave the apostles a simple choice: Refrain from teaching in Jesus’ name, or be beaten and face imprisonment. The apostles refused to capitulate, knowing the urgency of the divine mandate to proclaim God’s message to a lost world (Acts 4:12).
Holding and expressing doctrinal convictions with confidence is important and necessary, but doing so graciously is essential. We should never be rude or obnoxious, argumentative or pugnacious; rather, we should always be courteous and compassionate (Jude 20-23). Expressing doctrinal truth with certainty is not arrogance; it is showing love for the Lord, His Word, and the church for which He shed His blood (Acts 20:28). Impressing others with one’s theological knowledge should never be the motivation for proclaiming doctrine; biblical teaching is first and foremost about who God is and what His plans and purposes are as revealed in His Word. May we strive to be teachers of the truth as He intends us to be. p
— Gary Freel serves with the Fundamental Evangelistic Association and as a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Fresno, California.