Let us begin by making it clear that doctrine is very important to God. The basic Greek term for doctrine is didaskalia, and is translated in the more modern versions simply as “teaching.” With either translation, the word most often refers to God’s teaching, to teaching or doctrine that is inspired by the Holy Spirit. For our purposes, several quotes from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) will make the point well that doctrine is indeed important to God and following it as written is necessary to pleasing him:
Matthew 15:9 – “But In Vain Do They Worship Me, Teaching As Doctrines The Precepts Of Men.”
Ephesians 4:14 – “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming…”
1 Timothy 4:6 – “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.”
1 Timothy 6:3-4a – “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing…”
2 Timothy 4:3 – “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires…”
But What About Holding Differing Beliefs?
In spite of the Bible’s emphasis on holding to sound (healthy) doctrine or teaching, men have always had differences in interpretation. How should we view that phenomenon? The best answer is perhaps, “It all depends.”
It Depends on the Teaching Itself
The Bible itself makes it clear that we will have variations in areas of beliefs, convictions and conscience. Romans 14:1 speaks of “disputable matters” and mentions two such matters, the observance of certain days as special and avoiding certain foods out of convictions (likely based almost entirely on one’s pre-conversion background practices). Paul’s bottom line directives regarding these differences are that we shouldn’t condemn those who differ with us in such matters and we shouldn’t violate our own consciences in what we believe and decide to practice regarding them.
Moses made a remark in Deuteronomy 29:29 that has application to our present discussion. He wrote: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” In other words, God did not address some things at all, while he revealed other things that are important for us to know and to guide our relationship with him and others. In-between these two ends of the spectrum are things that are mentioned but not fully explained. Among these topics would be the exact nature of heaven and hell, for example. When topics are not fully clarified, differences in how we view them will obviously occur.
The church has always been striving to find the balance between which topics are essential to pleasing God, thus demanding unity in both belief and practice, and which are among those disputable matters or incompletely explained ones. On a personal and practical note, I have always thought that when good brothers who believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures disagree on a given topic, then that topic was thereby shown to be a matter of judgment or opinion.
Often these areas are simply matters of preference, such as the choice of music types in our church assemblies. Sometimes they are strongly held beliefs, and yet others do not hold the same beliefs. For example, we have among us those who are non-resistant in terms of the military (conscientious objectors or total pacifists), based on Jesus’ command to love our enemies, and others who see using force as an obligation to protect the innocent. It is a complex subject to be sure.
When it comes down to deciding what essential beliefs are, the ones necessary to salvation that thus demand absolute unity among disciples, certain teachings have historically found their way onto lists. With no attempt to be exhaustive, some things consistently on lists of orthodox beliefs would include the following: the virgin birth of Christ; his literal death, burial and bodily resurrection from the dead; the Deity of Christ; his substitutionary death for mankind; salvation by grace accepted by our faith response to that substitutionary death; the reality of a final Judgment and eternal salvation for the saved; and many more. Failure to accept such essential beliefs would result in a failure to please God and would bring one’s salvation into serious question.
Although these fundamentals have been accepted for centuries by most groups and individuals claiming to be Christian, we now live in an age where liberalism has disavowed many of them as being necessary to pleasing God. One of my high school friends was once among those who accepted the Bible as the inspired Word of God, and was very dedicated to those truths as a teenager. He later attended a liberal theological Seminary (one I would call a “cemetery,” a place where faith is buried). In talking to him as an ordained minister in the Methodist fellowship, he explained away not only the truths of the Bible, but the very existence of absolute spiritual truth. When I questioned him about the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead, his answer went something like this: “It really doesn’t matter if Jesus was raised literally from the dead; what matters is the resurrection spirit.” Although 1 Corinthians 15 flatly denies any such fanciful interpretation, to those like my friend who don’t accept the Bible as God’s inspired Word in the first place, they think nothing of rejecting its truths. That conversation produced one of the saddest memories stored in my memory banks.
It Depends on the Stage of the Believer
All believers must begin their journey of faith at the beginning. This means that they have to learn many spiritual truths one step at a time. It also means that they will be ignorant of vast amounts of truths while they are learning, and will in fact hold some beliefs in the earlier stages of their faith development that they will later reject as they continue to learn. That being true, hearing someone state a belief that is contrary to the Bible’s teaching is not overly concerning if they are simply growing, learning and open to being mistaken about some things in the process.
The real concern comes when they have spent much time studying a given subject, but have come to an erroneous conclusion about it and are no longer open to considering alternatives. The very definition of a disciple includes being a continual learner. All of us, even long term serious students of the Bible, will find ourselves altering our beliefs as we continue to learn and grow.
Some subjects, as we have already established, are within the realm of disputable matters. Other subjects are not discussed in detail in Scripture and any conclusion we reach is an opinion, which we should just accept and state as such. But dogmatism and close-mindedness, particularly when dealing with subjects that would be included on those fundamental, essential lists, is yet another matter. Those fall into the area of salvation issues. When we reach unorthodox conclusions in these areas and are unyielding in our conclusions, we have ceased to demonstrate the attitude of disciples and have entered dangerous territory indeed.
It Depends on What the Believer Does With Variant Beliefs
Even if our beliefs are questionable or unorthodox, what we do with them is a fundamental issue regarding church membership. In any church fellowship, some members will have beliefs that vary from those held by the majority of members and even by the leaders. If these beliefs are simply held privately, the issue is between them and God. On the other hand, if they attempt to spread these variant beliefs, then the possibility of divisiveness enters the picture and poses a threat to church unity. This would certainly be true if the beliefs were in the essential, orthodox category. But even if they weren’t, making any teaching an issue or “hobby” could affect the unity of the church. Romans 14 addresses that possibility quite clearly.
Years ago when I was a ministry staff member in Boston, a man who had been studying with some of our members asked to meet with me. He explained that although he had learned much in the studies and agreed with almost all of it regarding the plan of salvation, he had a different view of Revelation and the “end times” than he had heard me teach to the whole church. He asked if he could be baptized and be a member of our congregation if he didn’t agree with our generally accepted view of this subject. My answer was, “It all depends on what you do with your differing beliefs. Can you hold them in private, or will you feel compelled to share them with others in an attempt to convince them of your views?”
By the way, although I have written many articles and even a book on this subject, I do not view it as a salvation issue. But I was concerned about the possibility of him being divisive with his views, since for many, the “end times” teaching becomes an obsession. His answer was that he would not share his views in an attempt to persuade others, and I was fully satisfied with the answer. He was baptized into Christ and has been a very faithful and outstanding member of that congregation for decades. Plus he has been a very good friend of mine during almost all of those years, until this very day. I have no idea if he has changed his views of this subject during the intervening years or not, nor do I care.
On the other hand, I have seen church members make some peripheral issues matters of discussion and debate, thus producing disharmony and disunity. That is another matter entirely and must be dealt with directly. Turning any disputable matter into a “hobby” simply cannot be tolerated because of the disunity it produces. Keeping what might well be viewed as variant and generally unaccepted beliefs between us and God is our personal choice. He will judge us in this regard. Making those same beliefs issues that affect relationships within the church is where the problem comes in. Thus the question of what someone intends to do with their variant belief is the ultimate issue.
The Bottom Line
Doctrine is important to God, to us as individuals and to us collectively as a fellowship. In Paul’s letters to evangelists (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), he speaks of “sound” doctrine. That term in Greek means simply “healthy.” Correct doctrine or teaching makes us healthy spiritually and false doctrine makes us unhealthy. Sound teaching is about helping us go to heaven, not helping us major in intellectual discussions and debates. Being truly disciples will keep us on track in our teaching and in our living. We are followers of Christ and we are learners, both of which qualities demand copious amounts of humility. Humble people stay on track as they learn about Christ and follow his example.