When writing a series of posts like this, it is difficult to determine what the correct order of topics should be. I’ll take my best shot at it, but I’m sure others would do it differently. Also, as we discuss these issues, I’m sure that we will find much overlap between topics.
In this post I’d like to address the issue of doctrine within the church. In the modern, American church, doctrine varies tremendously between different denominations and local bodies of believers. Therefore, I will have to deal with generalizations rather than specific instances.
For the most part, when Christians today hear the word "doctrine," they think that it refers to what they believe on subjects such as the trinity, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the atonement, the Holy Spirit, the church, etc. We face at least two problems with this. First, many Christians actually know very little doctrine beyond the bare basics of the gospel. Second, for those who do know quite a bit, their views often lead to arguments and division over minute doctrinal points. This is why we have multitudes of denominations in America.
When we look at the early church, what do we see? We know that doctrine was important, especially as it related to the purity of the gospel. Paul, in Galatians 1:8-9, wrote, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
In I Timothy 1:3, Paul wrote, “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.” Along those same lines, Paul told Titus (2:1), “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.”
It is clear that doctrine was important. While it seems reasonable to assume that not everyone was an expert in biblical knowledge, we do know that the church in Acts 2 devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching (see Acts 2:42). Because of this devotion, the people seem to have been well-versed in doctrine.
Despite their knowledge of doctrine, this does not seem to have led to disunity in the church (as we often see today). Acts 4:32 tells us that they were “of one heart and soul.” The unity appears to have been very strong. I don’t see any denominations in scripture.
Why was this? Why did their knowledge of doctrine not lead to disunity as we often see it do today? I believe the reason is that while we think of doctrine as a group of beliefs, the early church thought of doctrine as something to be both believed and acted upon. A quick glance at the church in Acts shows us people who lived out their faith in how they cared for one another.
In Acts 4:32-35, Luke tells us, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
Those four verses are amazing to me. I’ve certainly seen isolated acts of charity within the church, but I’ve never seen anything like what we see described by Luke. My guess is that when people live out their doctrine, this causes unity to thrive. This will, in turn, cause less division over doctrinal issues.
I’m not suggesting that what we believe is unimportant. I do believe, however, that based upon what we see in the bible, the line for division should be the gospel (click here for more on this). It should not be the ordinances, music style, eschatology, Calvinism, etc. that cause us to separate.
Regarding doctrine, three problems today stand out to me: First, many Christians do not know doctrine. Second, for those who do know doctrine, it often ends up being a point of division. Third, many Christians view doctrine as simply a set of beliefs rather than something to be actively lived out.
So what can we do about these problems? I have a few suggestions, but I would also like to hear from you. Here is what I propose:
1) Doctrine must be intentionally taught in the church.
-Teach through books of the bible.
-Teaching must be based on the bible, not tradition.
-Along with scripture, teach through a confession of faith (I like this one).
-Encourage personal bible study.
-Work through a basic catechism with children (encourage fathers to take the
initiative in this) and new believers.
2) Doctrine should not be divisive after the gospel.
-Teach from John 17 and I Cor. 1 about the importance of unity.
3) Doctrine must be lived out.
-Teach from James 2 about faith and works.