By Marcelo Tolopilo
About a year ago a young man came to our home to install an additional phone line in my office. We struck up a conversation and as I began to talk to him about spiritual issues he enthusiastically informed me that he was a Christian. “Great!” I remarked and asked “Where do you fellowship?” He then proceeded to tell me that he had left his old church because they were in a “rut”. It seems all his former church ever did was “Teach the Bible, line-by-line” and he found this approach to be “tedious and impractical”. I gasped inwardly.
Without waiting for my commentary the young man explained that he had found a new church that kept the teaching “light, and practical” and the worship “Jumpin’!” Happily, he confessed that he found this new format “fun” when compared to the old burdensome approach of his previous church. I know of his former church, and it is one of the most faithful and dynamic churches in our valley.
Interestingly, this young man also confessed to me that he was feeling “kinda guilty” about listening to secular fringe rock groups. These bands apparently saturate their lyrics with the most vulgar of profanities. Consequently, he was seeking for “Christian” alternative rock bands, but he hadn’t found any that carried the same punch as the secular bands. So, guilt and all, he continued to listen to lyrical pornography because he “enjoyed” the sound.
I affirmed to him that such “guilt” was a good thing because it was the work of the Holy Spirit working through his conscience. I encouraged him to pay attention to his conscience and to regard the words of David when he said, “I will give heed to the blameless way . . . I will walk within my house in the integrity of my heart. I will set no worthless thing before my eyes (or ears); I hate the work of those that fall away; It shall not fasten its grip on me,” (Psalm 101:2,3 emphasis added).
My heart goes out to this young man because his attitude and struggles betray an infantile Christianity. What this brother needs is a steady diet of good, biblical, expository instruction if he hopes to grow into spiritual health and maturity. If there is one reality this young man’s experience illustrates, it is our need for biblical instruction and the resulting wholeness it brings. Biblical doctrine (teaching) is essential to our well being. Without its nourishment and protection we become spiritually weak and susceptible to the world’s diseases (the thinking and practices of this age). With that reality in mind, I submit to you the following article, the second in our series entitled, Does Doctrine Really Matter? (If you would like to review the first article in this series you may do so by clicking on the previous article, Does Doctrine Really Matter? ~ Part 1
Can’t we just be Christians without getting bogged down in “doctrine” and “theology”? I often hear that sentiment expressed by people in the church. It assumes that Christianity has little to do with believing truth and mostly to do with feeling and experience. Christianity has everything to do with feeling and experience . . . as it is shaped and guided by the truth! God desires to fully engage our emotions and direct our behavior as He informs our minds. Without the guidance of sound doctrine, we would be emotionally and practically adrift at best and in danger of venturing into the sub-Christian realm at worst.
Everyone has a belief system, but for Christians it is biblical truth, doctrine, that gives shape to our faith, empowers us to grow, and protects us from error. The last thing we need to do as believers is to lay aside truth (see previous article). Quite the contrary, we need to continually deepen our biblical understanding.
Consider the words of Paul to his beloved disciple, a young pastor by the name of Timothy. Paul encourages Timothy to pursue a lifestyle where he can be “…constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of sound doctrine.” (1 Timothy 4:6). A few verses later, he admonishes Timothy, “Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture (the reading of God’s word that took place every week when believers met to worship followed by its explanation), to exhortation (the application of doctrine) and teaching (the consistent, orderly presentation of biblical truth)… Take pains with these things, be absorbed in them… Pay close attention to yourself and your teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13, 15, 16).
Rather than treating doctrine as a perfunctory issue, a thing of little importance, Timothy was admonished in a most serious way to preoccupy himself with it. Two years later, death crouched at the door of the great Apostle’s life. Paul was about to spill his blood in the cause of the Gospel, but shortly before his life was cut short by the executioner’s sword, he wrote a swan song letter to his beloved “child in the faith.” In it he solemnly charged Timothy in the presence of God Almighty to persevere in teaching God’s Word.
Paul was blood earnest about doctrine because he knew it to be the source of spiritual health (healing and prevention of spiritual disease) and growth for Timothy and his flock. Calling upon God and Jesus Christ as divine witnesses, Paul bid farewell to Timothy with these words, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His Kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season (i.e., all the time); reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction,” (2 Timothy 4:1-2, emphasis added). Timothy was never instructed to put his doctrinal guard down, but instead to keep his theological vigilance keen so as to guard his people from the pernicious error of the enemy (2 Timothy 4:3-5). Timothy was the Pastor at Ephesus when Paul gave him these instructions. Sometime on your own consider the similar serious warning Paul gave the Ephesian elders many years earlier in Acts 20:28-32.
It is essential that we continually feed on God’s word. If the perfect Son of God believed that the words of His Father were more necessary than His daily food (Matthew 4:4), whatever gives us the idea that they are optional for us. And yet. I frequently hear this sentiment echoing throughout the church. It takes several forms and it is evident in all traditions of Evangelical Christianity.
The voices often sound something like this…’I’m not interested in doctrine, theology, and all that divisive mumbo jumbo. I want a church that is primarily accepting of people, where no one judges others and we all live under grace.’ . . . or . . .’When I go to church I want to be moved. I want to experience the free flowing presence of the Holy Spirit as I worship. I want my worship to be unhindered by the dead letter of doctrine. Don’t squelch experience with theology. I want to feel my Christianity.’. . . or . . .’We need to be more practical, encouraging, and relational in our churches. Ditch that line-by-line stuff. Just give me general ideas from the Bible and make it work for my life and relationships. Don’t bother me with antiquated ideas based on details from dead languages. Life is about 9 to 5 and relationships. We don’t need forceful teachers in the pulpit. We need helpful facilitators with fresh ideas.’
Do such concerns have any merit to them? Yes! There are many legitimate concerns expressed in the propositions I have just laid out. For example, do we need to be more gracious with one another and daily experience the liberating reality of God’s grace? Absolutely! Is it legitimate to long for the Spirit’s ministry in our worship? Why would a Christian settle for anything else? Is it correct to want practical advice about how to live our lives, or to desire for healthy relationships with one another, and to want encouragement when we fellowship with other believers? Without question!
None of these propositions are illicit or wrong, but the one fatal flaw people often make is assuming that practical experience is incompatible with the pursuit of doctrinal purity. True grace, the genuine ministry of the Spirit, helpful encouragement for life and relationships find their source and definition in the Bible and unless we understand how Scripture defines grace, et. al., we are in real danger of embracing counterfeit virtues, or settling for soda crackers and water when we could have a divine and sumptuous feast ~ A banquet that God has provided in His Word.
It is perfectly good to long to taste the goodness of God’s grace, God’s enabling through His Spirit, God’s wisdom for living and relationships. However, we are never free to divorce virtue and experience from truth. Just as doctrinal purity must find fruition in purity of life and continual joy in the Lord, so must our Christian experience find its source and definition in an unshakable biblical theology. The compartmentalization (Ooh, but that’s a big word!) of truth and living is a man-made, synthetic distinction that finds no place in the glossary of God’s wisdom, the Bible.
In our next article, we will take the propositions presented above and show how each finds its substance and life in God’s Word.