In a recent discussion with a Christian minister and fellow servant of Jesus the Messiah, we exchanged some thoughts on the importance of doctrine, the definition of a false teacher, and the need for Bible study. I’ve had similar conversations with good friends and acquaintances on social media, people who love God with all their heart. These dialogues have often ended in disagreement about the importance of doctrine. Specifically, these fellow believers wanted to know my thoughts on how much or how little correct doctrine a person needs to be saved.
My answer to them was based out of 1 John 3:
This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.1 John 3:23–24
This has been typically met with a list of “whatabouts.” What about instrumental music? What about head coverings? What about baptism? What about correct teaching on the coming of Jesus? What about marriage, divorce, and remarriage? What about lying? What about false teaching?
These questions can be divided into three major categories: methods, morality, and doctrine. Issues like instrumental music, baptism, and head coverings fit under the “methods” category. Whereas anything that begins with “correct teaching” fits under the “doctrine” category. Finally, divorce, lying, etc. fall under issues of “morality.”
First, I’ll show how these three categories relate to my above proposition about what is “essential.” Faith in Jesus falls under doctrine. When John talked about those who were liars, such as in 1 John 2:4, he was speaking of those who denied Jesus: “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). Remember that denying Jesus is the same as denying the Father according to Jesus (John 14:7). For John, correct teaching about Jesus, that He is the Christ, is essential for Christian faith.
The other part of my proposition covers issues of morality. Lying, murder, flippant divorce, etc. all break the command to “love one another.” Paul agreed with this summation when he wrote,
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.Romans 13:8–10
Notice that he says “if there is any other commandment…” All commandments are summed up in the expression “love one another.”
Methods and understanding other areas of doctrine, such as the work of the Holy Spirit, do not inherently effect whether or not one “abides in Him,” but they can cause one to stumble under certain situations: offending one’s conscience and blatantly disregarding one’s own conclusions about the word of God. Allow me to give a few examples:
- Someone believes that using an instrument in worship is sin. For them to use it would be sinful on the basis of Romans 14: “But the one who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
- Another changes their view on how the Holy Spirit works in the life of a believer, but when asked about their views, they lie as if they hold their church’s standard view in order to maintain the status quo or even a paycheck. This happened to Peter in Galatians 2 when he refused to eat with the Gentiles in the presence of some from Jerusalem.
Now, what of those who are ignorant of a specific doctrine or method? Are they condemned for their ignorance, and, if they aren’t, why would we try to teach them if that meant putting them into a situation where they would fall under one of the above examples? Wouldn’t it be better to allow them to remain in their ignorance?
Since I covered this in a recent article, which you can read that by clicking here, I’ll answer this question using a concept from a parable of Jesus found in Luke 19:
And then another came, saying, ‘Master, here is your mina, which I kept tucked away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a demanding man; you take up what you did not lay down, and reap what you did not sow.’ He said to him, ‘From your own lips I will judge you, you worthless slave. Did you know that I am a demanding man, taking up what I did not lay down, and reaping what I did not sow? And so why did you not put my money in the bank, and when I came back, I would have collected it with interest?’Luke 19:20–23
René Girard provides an interesting perspective on the last servant in this parable:
The servant who is content to bury the talent that was entrusted to him, instead of making it bear interest, also has the most frightening picture of his master. He sees in him a demanding overseer who ‘reaps where he has not sown’. What happens to this servant is, in the last analysis, in exact conformity with his expectations, with the image he has constructed of his master… In taking away from the bad servant the one talent left with him, the master is not saying, ‘I am indeed as you imagined me to be’, but ‘since you saw in me the one who reaps where he has not sown, etc., why did you not make the talent that I left with you bear interest?’“Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” (p.189)
God deals with people “by their own lips.” If someone believes, for example, that they need perfect knowledge to please God, then Bible study isn’t fun, enlightening, and an exercise to mature one’s faith; it’s a matter of life and death. In a system like that, one has no freedom to be the fallible human that they are, for every time they learn something new about God’s word, they must believe that they were “in error” up to that point in time.
Correct doctrine, or at least striving for it, means striving to know God as He really is. Our perception of God changes how we live, how we worship, and even how we study the Bible. If we truly believe that this world would be a better place if the world knew Jesus as He is, then doesn’t loving our neighbor include discussing the nature of God, the Bible, and everything in between so that we can grow together in the grace and knowledge of God?
Suppose a friend of yours goes into a coma. During his prolonged period of unconsciousness, a wealthy distant relative of his dies leaving behind several million dollars in his name. When your friend wakes up and realizes he is in a hospital room, he begins to panic: he doesn’t have the best insurance and he lives paycheck to paycheck. Though he is conscious once more, he is in a state of terror because, while grateful for his life, he is worried that he will be in financial ruin.
Your friend’s perception of his reality doesn’t line up with his actual reality. Or, as Jesus prayed, what is done “in Heaven” is not revealed “on earth.”
Your friend’s misery can be taken away by relaying to him the news of his deceased distant relative. In other words, helping him to align his perception of reality with reality itself, you give him peace that he would not otherwise have.
The same is true for blessings we have in Christ. While it is true that we have all spiritual blessings, it is also true that our perceptions of these blessing may be strengthened or weakend by certain views we may have of God, Jesus, the Spirit, or the Bible. Discussing, debating, and working through these issues together can help us to come to a greater understanding of what is, in reality, already ours.
Is doctrine important? Yes. Are methods important? Absolutely. We are saved, however, by our life-transforming faith in Jesus, not our intellectual ability.
In my next article, I’ll offer a few comments on what a “false teacher” is.