Last Wednesday night I had the honor of teaching Bible study at my church. My pastor has asked me to do a series on essential doctrines, but before moving into specific doctrines such as the Trinity, or salvation, or Scripture, I spent the first two classes simply talking about the importance of doctrine in general.
In the first class I highlighted that Jesus’ ministry was a teaching ministry. Jesus was a teacher, plain and simple. Teaching set the stage for the signs/miracles/wonders that followed. Jesus corrected bad teaching; warned against false doctrine; and included teaching as part of the great commission; so on and so forth. The Christian life is one of being conformed into the image of Christ; and if doctrine was important to him then it should be important to us.
In the second class we went through Paul’s first letter to Timothy, which is a letter all about doctrine. Paul’s concern is with the false doctrine that’s being preached in Ephesus and the remedy to such false doctrine is sound (or healthy) doctrine. But I kept emphasizing that a bare intellectualism isn’t what Paul was getting at. It does us no good to know sound doctrine and then not follow it (cf. Jas. 1:22; Rom. 2:13). But rather sound doctrine should lead us to godliness. 1 Timothy 4:6-9 is instructive here:
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.
Here Paul puts training in the words of faith and good doctrine (which clearly aid in the task of being a good servant of Christ) in tandem with training in godliness. The two fit together hand in hand. But even more fundamental is something that Paul said in the beginning of the letter. He told Timothy to charge certain persons not to teach different doctrine or devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship that is from God by faith (1 Tim. 1:3-4).
Paul continues by saying that the aim of this charge (i.e., the charge not teach such false doctrines) is love! He makes a connection between love and sound (or healthy) doctrine! That’s huge! We teach sound doctrine because we have love for the body of Christ! Conversely, to teach false doctrine is to exhibit the opposite of love. Read through the NT some time and see how false teachers are described (I assure you, it’s not a flattering portrayal!).
So how does this emphasis on sound doctrine with the aim of love fit with things Paul says elsewhere, like in 1 Corinthians 13, for example? I’ve heard some use this text to say that all that matters is love and that sound doctrine is really just a drop in the bucket compared to the oceanic importance of love. I think this misses the point of the so-called “love chapter,” which does indeed tell us that all is nothing without love. But read in the wider context of chapters 12-14 we can see that Paul’s point is that love is directed toward others with the purpose of their being built up.
The purpose of sound doctrine is the building up of the body, and that’s precisely Paul’s point in the Pastoral Epistles! That’s precisely his point in 1 Corinthians 12-14, which is a loving rebuke of selfish church politics and practices. That’s precisely his point in Ephesians 4:8-16:
Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
God gave ministers of all sorts (to include teachers) as gifts to the church in order that the body of Christ would be built up in love through the various ministries and attain a level of maturity, which is exhibited partly in not being led astray by bad doctrine. Doctrine is of the utmost importance, but we must never lose sight of the fact that the ultimate goal of doctrine is love, and that love is expressed through action.