Does Doctrine Matter to God?

Recently, the leaders of a congregation in Oklahoma that had previously identified as a church of Christ handed over their building to a multi-campus denominational entity and encouraged their members to become a part of it. Following the centralized leadership of this entity, the people who continue to assemble at this location will among other things be worshipping with instrumental music, be led in worship by women, and be guided to participate in baptisms en masse every quarter rather than be baptized individually as needed. When questioned if ad hoc baptisms or acapella singing would be allowed, a senior leader said they would be if people preferred, explaining, “I’ve never been a guy who thought God is wrapped up in doctrine — we’re not doctrine-driven. You focus on core principles that are not debated.”[1] Rather than considering the innovations this denomination has brought to this body of believers, let’s reflect for a bit on doctrine and its relationship to God.

Given the recent trends in Bible translation, it’s not surprising that some people would struggle with understanding the term “doctrine” and seeing its connection to God. The fact is that as people update their Bibles, they are seeing the term less and less. While “doctrine” appears 56 times in the King James Version of the Bible and 40 times in the New King James Version, it appears only 13 times in the English Standard Version, 14-18 times in the New American Standard Version (depending on which revision you consult), and only 6 times in the most recent update of the New International Version. In those Bibles with fewer occurrences, the term doctrine is for the most part either used negatively or confined to the epistles whose first recipients were preachers (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). This may subconsciously leave people with the impression that doctrine is something that is in the realm of church leaders and teachers and not something central to the Christian faith.

So, what exactly is doctrine? In the New Testament, the term “doctrine” is simply one way of translating a couple of Greek words, both of which are related to the Greek verb “to teach.” These words could also be (and in the newer versions are) translated as either “teaching” or “instruction.” Modern translators and theologians have repurposed the term “doctrine” though and turned it into sort of a jargon word meaning something like “a body of teaching arising from Scripture.” As we will see, envisioning “doctrine” as a “body of teaching” seems to be consistent with its use in some passages. In the minds of some though, this body of teaching is separate from Scripture and doesn’t carry the weight of Scripture. This may explain why some people see God as not being “wrapped up in doctrine” and why they have no desire to be “doctrine-driven” while at the same time believe they should focus on “core principles.”

The Bible doesn’t actually make a distinction between “doctrine” and “core principles”; in fact, it connects “doctrine” with the very heart of the Christian message: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Paul states that the Romans were “set free from sin” by obeying “from the heart that form of doctrine to which [they] were delivered” (Romans 6:17). Paul says literally that the Romans had been “handed over” to “a type/pattern of teaching.” Elsewhere, he uses the same verb but makes it active instead of passive; instead of handing the Corinthians over to a pattern of teaching, he says “he delivered” it to them (1 Corinthians 15:3). The type or pattern of teaching he handed over in 1 Corinthians is none other than “the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), the same Gospel to which the Romans “were delivered” (Romans 1:16; 6:3-4, 17). Putting Romans 6 and 1 Corinthians 15 together, we’re left with the conclusion that “doctrine” in Romans is synonymous with “Gospel” in 1 Corinthians and that it therefore plays an integral role in our salvation and deliverance from sin.

We’ve seen the importance of doctrine to us; what is its importance to God? Paul said that if anyone proclaimed a different Gospel he would be “accursed,” separated from God and lost (Galatians 1:8-9). Similar warnings surround the attempt to declare a different doctrine. John warned that the person who “does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God,” and then stated positively, “He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 9). Even if your Bible says “teaching” instead of “doctrine,” the idea is clear: our doctrine, what we teach, matters just as much as our adherence to the “core principles” of the Gospel. It may have been first said to a preacher, but it could be said to any Christian: “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16).

While the Bible joins together “doctrine” and “Gospel” both in terms of the benefit they offer and the curse they bring to those who attempt to alter them, it doesn’t divide either thing into core and non-core topics. You might be tempted to think that the false teachers of Galatia were denying the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus or maybe something like His Deity if you only read Galatians 1:6-9. Reading the rest of the epistle though, it doesn’t seem like those truths were challenged at all. Those false teachers taught another Gospel not by what they changed, but by what they added. Even the seemingly small act of adding religious circumcision for male Christians to the Gospel message had big implications and would cause the Galatian Christians to be “estranged from Christ” and “fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4).

No, God is not “wrapped up in doctrine,” but really, that’s the wrong way of thinking about it. Doctrine is not something that confines or defines God, but instead, it’s the teaching given by inspiration of God that reveals what God wants us to know about Him and about life as well as what He wants us to do or to avoid (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:3). To borrow from Paul, as Christians, we need to think of ourselves as having been delivered to a type or pattern or teaching. That pattern of teaching tells us about a God who once said, “see that you make all things according to the pattern” (Hebrews 8:5; cf. Exodus 25:9, 40; 26:30; Numbers 8:4; Acts 7:44). That pattern of teaching actually tells us to “so walk, as you have us [Paul and the apostles] for a pattern” (Philippians 3:17). That pattern of teaching reveals that the church “devoted” (ESV) itself to “the apostles’ doctrine,” clearly treating that teaching as a pattern (Acts 2:42). On and on we could go. Doctrine matters to God, and it should matter to us.  
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org
[1] This news as well as this quote were derived from an article available here: https://christianchronicle.org/dwindling-church-of-christ-seeks-new-future-as-community-church-campus/

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