by Josh Liu
What is “doctrine” and why is it important? There are many misunderstandings about doctrine and its relationship to believers and the church. Someone who says that doctrine isn’t practical may not understand what doctrine actually is. Many think of doctrine as dry, artificially organized information that is divisive, and something that removes worship and intimate relationship with God. Far from the truth, doctrine simply means “teaching,” and is inherently practical. It is a false dichotomy to separate doctrine from application.
Doctrine in the NT Church
Doctrine itself is a biblical term and concept. In Scripture, “doctrine” (also “teaching,” “instruction”) is given particular emphasis in the role of the pastor or elder. Concerning qualifications and responsibilities of pastoral ministry, Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13, “Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.” The word “teaching” is from the same Greek word for “doctrine” (didaskalias). Paul also tells Titus, another young pastor, to appoint elders characterized as “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able to both exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). The example of teaching God’s truth, or doctrine, is also seen in the Old Testament. The Lord gave Moses instruction to teach the nation of Israel (cf. Ex. 24:12); the prophet Ezra read from God’s Word, which was then translated and explained to the people (cf. Neh. 8:1, 8). So, pastors and teachers are commanded to teach doctrine (see also 1 Tim. 4:6, 16; 5:17; 6:1, 3; 2 Tim. 3:16; Titus 2:1, 7, 10).
Doctrine and Life
To remove doctrine from Christianity is impossible. Everyone has doctrine; everyone holds a belief about Christ and what His Word says. It is a matter of whether or not one has biblical (or true) doctrine. Christ and other NT writers often condemned unbiblical, false, and demonic doctrine (cf. Matt. 15:9; Mark 7:7; Eph. 4:14; Col. 2:22; 1 Tim. 4:1). Without a proper understanding of doctrine, or a biblical, faithful commitment to doctrine, one may be believing or teaching heresy, and may be committing sin. The opposite of pure, unadulterated doctrine is immorality (cf. 1 Tim. 1:10).
Since doctrine is the teaching of Scripture, it impacts all areas of life and is inherently practical and immediately applicable. The Book of Proverbs is full of maxims, truth principles, for how to live life in a manner that honors God. It is full of doctrine that can be readily applied in various areas of life. It is impossible to apply biblical wisdom or truth principles without doctrine. Again, to not commit oneself to the study of biblical doctrine is to be vulnerable to sin.
But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted. (1 Tim. 1:8-11)
Egregious sins and the like are what oppose sound, biblical doctrine.
The Breadth of Doctrine
Doctrine impacts our understanding of the person and work of God, of Christ; it impacts our understanding of man, work, life, death, salvation, relationships, church, worship, discipleship, and so on. I’ll provide some examples of doctrines and demonstrate how they are immediately put into practice.
Let’s take the doctrine of creation for example. The Bible states that God has created all things (Gen. 1:1). Thus, you can immediately reject anything contrary to that truth (i.e., evolutionary theory; existential existence). God as creator gives purpose to everyday life. Though life is short, fleeting, and ultimately unfulfilling, God has given you life and this creation to enjoy for His glory (cf. Ecc. 12:1). God as creator encourages believers to persevere through trials knowing that He is sovereign over their lives (cf. 1 Pet. 4:19). God as creator defines men’s and women’s intended roles (cf. 1 Tim. 2:12-13). God as creator directly impacts ethical issues such as eugenics, abortion, and racism.
For another example, a biblical doctrine of work may be informed by Genesis 1:28 where God commands man to subdue and rule over the earth. Ruling (or work) is further understood in the context of God’s curses (Gen. 3:17-19). Still, we see that work is a pre-Fall commandment, not as a result of sin. Thus, work is a good thing. Thus, the NT can exhort believers to work well (cf. Col. 3:23; Eph. 6:5-9).
The Practice of Doctrine
For an example of immediate application of doctrine, let us use the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and suffering as a case study. When one sees that God is in absolute control over all creation, history, circumstances, trials, nature, and so on (cf. Gen. 50:20; Ex. 4:11; Acts 17:24-25; Job 38:1ff), then one can trust God in all circumstances (cf. Phil. 4:6), give thanks to Him (cf. James 1:2), seek to be faithful to His commands, and persevere through all things (cf. Phil. 4:13; 2 Cor. 12:9).
Doctrine, the teachings of Scripture, demands a response. One cannot simply hear the truth and do nothing. James 1:23-25 says,
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.
In this brief examination of doctrine, we see that it is synonymous with the teachings of God’s revelation given to His people. Doctrine was a central responsibility of church leaders. Doctrine was a priority and practice in worship and life for all believers. Doctrine necessarily leads to devotion and action.
Doctrine is not some sterile study of the Bible (or man-made theological categories) by a disconnected philosopher-theologian in an ivory tower. It is not something reserved for a “super” Christian. It is merely the sum of biblical teachings on any given subject in Scripture that exalts the person and work of God, and informs us how to worship and live faithfully in response. I encourage you to devote yourself to studying doctrine so that you would deepen your knowledge of and intimacy with Christ.