Right doctrine is so important. The word used in the New Testament for doctrine means “teaching,” or “that which is taught.” Right doctrine is therefore right “teaching” or “teaching which is correct or sound.”
Why is right doctrine so vital? We must understand that in the church we are responsible with teaching and proclaiming the truth about God. If our doctrine (the content of our teaching) is off, we can lead people astray in regard to how they think about, understand, and experience God—and that is a scary thing.
In his letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul writes a great deal about keeping and guarding sound (right) doctrine. In talking about the role of an Elder in a local church Paul says,
He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Paul says to Timothy:
1 Timothy 4:16
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
1 Timothy 1:3-4
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.
Right doctrine is vital.
We must have a firm grip on right doctrine. But I think what is often left out in discussions of right doctrine is the way in which we teach (and especially guard) right doctrine. We must have right doctrine, but I think we also must do right doctrine right. Our methods, attitudes, and character must line up with right doctrine as we seek to engage, teach, and guard it.
I’ve quoted 1 Timothy 1:3-4 above. It’s a pretty strong admonition from the Apostle Paul to Timothy: “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine…” That’s really straight-forward, and even seems like it may be kind of fun, in a power-tripping, bossy sort of way. But the full context of this verse completes Paul’s thought. Look at the next 3 verses:
1 Timothy 1:5-7
The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
Paul isn’t just saying, “Do right doctrine,” I think he’s also saying, “Do right doctrine right.” A later admonition to Timothy has a similar tone:
1 Timothy 6:3-5
If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
We need to do right doctrine, but we also need to do right doctrine right.
I think as we learn right doctrine and get fired up about communicating it, we face the danger of doing doctrine violently. I can remember professors in college and seminary warning young theological students (myself included) about communicating with care and humility. It’s commonplace to see young leaders who get a couple years of study under their belt develop a theological chip on their shoulder when they “gain just enough knowledge to be dangerous.” This is particularly evident in our culture today where we have amazing access to an abundance of sermons, blogs, and resources at little to no cost. I’m thankful for this, but it can also lead to those who lack maturity or context developing a laundry list of one-liners and theological talking points that have no real reflection in their life. By God’s grace, as time passes and maturity develops, the rough edges hopefully give way to more responsible engagement of right doctrine. Being in submission to spiritual authority is key in the developmental years (and beyond), because those who have made similar mistakes can give guidance.
I think we can guard right doctrine without using the Sword of the Spirit to slit the throats of those we think may be off.
Doing right doctrine right means guarding right doctrine with humility and grace. It means admitting:
1) I don’t have God figured out, but I know He has me figured out.
2) I don’t own Him and I don’t understand everything about Him.
3) I believe in Him, I trust Him, and I learn more about Him every day.
4) I’m going to communicate with grace, keep everthing in context, and remain a learner until I die.
5) I will approach each doctrinal issue and encounter with prayer.
6) I will not forget that unless I do right doctrine right, then I don’t really have right doctrine.