For the past few years, lists of Christian bestsellers have been topped by a book claiming fresh revelation from Jesus Christ. Before that, they were overrun by books describing people’s purported visits to heaven. And before the heaven tourism fad, there was the best-selling novel that reframed the doctrine of the Trinity. Meanwhile, the largest church in America is led by a man whose platitudes are indistinguishable from fortune cookies. But it’s not just authors and church leaders who are swerving away from the truth. Theologians and laypersons alike are abandoning traditional understandings of manhood and womanhood, of marriage and sexuality. Never has it been more important for Christians to commit themselves to rejecting false doctrine and pursuing sound doctrine, to ensure they are following teachers of truth, not peddlers of error.
In a new series of articles, we will consider false doctrine, sound doctrine, and how to train ourselves to distinguish between them. We will see how God calls us to respond to false and sound doctrine, as well as false and sound teachers. In this opening article, we will briefly define the term “doctrine,” examine the two different kinds of doctrine, and then suggest eight terrible consequences of false doctrine.
Doctrine simply means “teaching.” Doctrine describes what Christians believe based on the entirety of the Bible. Because God has given us a completed revelation of himself in the Scriptures, we can search this revelation and arrive at confident conclusions about his nature and works.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word that parallels the English word “doctrine” typically refers to truth revealed by God, and it is most often rendered as “teaching,” “learning,” or “instruction.” The word translated from the New Testament Greek has a wider range of possibilities. It can refer to either the content of the teaching or the act of teaching. Titus 1:9 captures both of these uses when it describes a qualification and task of the elder: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught [“as doctrined”], so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” It is most often translated as “doctrine(s)” or “teaching(s)” and is frequently modified by adjectives such as “sound,” “false,” “good,” or “different.”
Doctrine should be distinguished from theology, though they are closely related and often used interchangeably. In the strictest sense, theology is the study of God—his existence, his knowability, his attributes, and so on. But generally, when people refer to “theology,” they have in mind systematic theology, the logical ordering of the doctrines derived from the Bible. Doctrine, then, is the broader term that refers to the Bible’s teaching regardless of how it is categorized.
Two Kinds of Doctrine
Doctrines can be categorized in many different ways. Theologians arrange them systematically, thematically, biblically, and historically, to name just a few. Each of these arrangements presents a distinct way to collect and summarize what Christians believe to be true. From such summaries, we have derived some complicated terms like prolegomena, pneumatology, hamartiology, and soteriology.
Yet doctrine can also be categorized in the simplest terms: It is either true or false. To determine if a doctrine is true or false in its content, we can use biblical terminology to ask several questions. In origin, is it from God the Creator or from God’s creation? In authority, is it biblical or unbiblical? In consistency, is it familiar or unfamiliar? In quality, is it sound or unsound? In benefit, is it healthy or unhealthy? In value, is it profitable or unprofitable? When we have properly evaluated the doctrine, we ascertain our responsibility toward it: we must either hold to it or reject it.
Perhaps it is helpful to lay this out in a table:
True doctrine (content) originates with God (origin), comes from the Bible (authority), and agrees with the whole of Scripture (consistency). Because such doctrine is sound (quality), it is healthy (benefit), and profitable (value) for us, and we are responsible for holding it (responsibility).
False doctrine (content) originates with man (origin), does not come from the Bible (authority), and contradicts portions of Scripture (consistency). Because such doctrine is unsound (quality), it is unhealthy (benefit) and unprofitable (value) for us, and we are responsible for rejecting it (responsibility).*
The Christian’s responsibility is clear: We are to learn God’s truth by searching God’s Word. We must carefully evaluate every teaching according to God’s unfailing standard. What passes the test is sound doctrine, and what fails the test is false doctrine.
Eight Terrible Consequences of False Doctrine
As we conclude this opening article, let’s consider both the high cost of false doctrine and the great gain of sound doctrine.
False doctrine confuses truth and error, while sound doctrine distinguishes truth and error. False doctrine fails to distinguish between what God has revealed in his Word and what has been fabricated by men or demons. In the book of Hebrews, we see a church that has backslidden, that has reverted to ungodly behavior. They have done so because of their failure to heed sound doctrine. Their pastor writes this: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food … solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:12,14). The sound doctrine they had received would have enabled them to distinguish truth from error, if only they had held to it. Their poor doctrine left them vulnerable in the face of error.
False doctrine prevents godliness, while sound doctrine promotes godliness. False doctrine undermines godliness by promoting what is novel or speculative in place of what is true. As Paul writes to Timothy, he says, “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different [strange] doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:3-4). Rather than continuing to act in love born out of a sincere, informed faith (5), those “certain persons” had wandered into ungodly vanity (6). Their false doctrine had led them to ungodliness.
False doctrine promotes sin, while sound doctrine prevents sin. False doctrine allows sin to take root in our hearts and minds and work its way out in our lives. Sound doctrine confronts our sinfulness and motivates us to repent. As Paul says to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The doctrine contained in Scripture teaches and reproves, it corrects and trains, purging sin and motivating righteousness.
False doctrine elevates ungodly leadership, while sound doctrine qualifies godly leadership. Positions of leadership within the church are reserved for those who know and teach sound doctrine. When Paul writes Titus, he instructs him to appoint elders in the churches of Crete. He reminds Titus of a key qualification he must look for before appointing such men: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Those who cannot give sound doctrine cannot lead the church.
False doctrine permits false teachers, while sound doctrine protects against false teachers. Propagated false doctrine weakens a church’s defense, providing an easy opening for more false teachers to spread through the congregation. The false teaching in Crete had weakened the church for the “empty talkers and deceivers” of the circumcision party (Titus 1:10). Such false teachers “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (16). But sound teaching equips leaders and laypersons alike to refute false teachers (9).
False doctrine removes God’s blessing, while sound doctrine ensures God’s blessing. Revelation is bookended by promises of God’s blessing upon those who hold to the doctrine it teaches. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it … And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (Revelation 1:3, 22:7). Yet it also solemnly warns of the dire consequences for those who fail to hold to its doctrine (2:14-16, 20-23). God blesses those who heed the precious truths of his Word and curses those who deny or reject them.
False doctrine debilitates the church for times of difficulty, while sound doctrine equips the church for times of difficulty. By the time Paul sends his second letter to Timothy, he is anticipating a time when churches will no longer tolerate truth. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). How should Timothy prepare his church for such a time? By preaching the Bible and teach ing the doctrine it contains. “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). Nothing better equips a church for times of trial than the Bible’s deep doctrines.
False doctrine weakens the future church, while sound doctrine strengthens the future church. Christians are responsible for both the present and the future of the faith. Jesus’s final commandment to his disciples included not only evangelizing and baptizing the nations, but also “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20a). In both letters to Timothy, Paul told his young protégé to “guard the deposit” that had been entrusted to him (1 Timothy 6:20, 2 Timothy 1:14). But it was not enough for Timothy to guard it personally. He was called by God to raise up the next generation of leaders who would hold to it and, in turn, entrust it to the generation after them. “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).
False doctrine confuses truth and error, prevents godliness, promotes sin, elevates ungodly leadership, permits false teachers, removes God’s blessing, debilitates the church for times of difficulty, and weakens her for the future. Sound doctrine distinguishes truth from error, promotes godliness, prevents sin, qualifies godly leadership, protects against false teachers, ensures God’s blessing, equips the church for times of difficulty, and strengthens her for the future.
With that stark contrast before you, I hope you will join me as we continue to consider false and sound doctrine. Tomorrow we will look at the seven false teachers you’re likely to encounter in the church today.
*The table is adapted from Biblical Doctrine by John MacArthur & Richard Mayhue.