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Recently, Jeanie Shaw published her doctoral dissertation in edited book format, “Re-Examining Our Lenses,” and I have published my book, “The Bible and Women: How Did I Miss So Much.” These books both deal with similar topics, topics which are both complex and controversial. Thus, they are sure to provoke interest and discussion. In the midst of these discussions, you are likely to hear the term, “sound doctrine.” Of course, many Bible translations use this term, but for reasons I will note in a few moments, I think the translation is misfortunate and misleading.

Throughout my years in ministry, I have heard the term “sound doctrine” assigned to a category all its own, distinguishing it from “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1, NIV), called matters of “opinion” in the NASB, and also from what we often call “salvation issues.” One may assign “sound doctrine” to its own separate category, but a closer examination will show that such cannot be substantiated logically. The implication is that items in this category are far too important to be viewed as mere opinion matters and yet, not quite certain enough to demand that they fall into the area of salvation issues which could cause you to lose your soul. However, in my decades of experience in churches with a Restoration background, areas designated as sound doctrine are often applied in ways that strongly imply that such teachings could be salvation issues.

Romans 14 Examined Contextually

Let’s start by taking a closer look at what Paul placed into the area of disputable or opinion matters in Romans 14. These are not incidental matters of their day that we might compare to matters in our day such as movies with ratings our conscience allows or disallows us to watch, or whether we feel that we can or cannot drink alcohol. Far from it.  He is discussing areas that fall within Jewish practices, notably eating meat which might have been sacrificed to idols and observing special days of the Jewish religion. That is the context of the entire book of Romans, how the Mosaic Law related to the new covenant for both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul is certainly not addressing nor condoning any  activities or customs in pagan religions. Romans 14 addressed issues that could have divided the first century church into two separate churches, Jew and Gentile. These issues, like some of ours, were both complex and controversial.

Acts 2 ushered in the beginning of the new covenant of Christ. The Christian Age had begun. The Law of Moses had been fulfilled and was no longer the standard of authority for anyone, Jew or Gentile. But Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians had a different relationship to the Law. It was ingrained into the Jewish culture. The moral laws of the Old Testament were restated in the New Testament. The ceremonial laws could be observed as customs by the Jews but could not be viewed as necessary for their salvation. Although that must have been a thin line to walk, passages like Acts 18 and 21 show its reality among Christian Jews. For example, Paul took a vow and cut off his hair as noted in Acts 18:18 (similar to the Nazarite vow found in Numbers 6). When he reached Jerusalem, he met with James and the elders, and rather shockingly, James had this to say:

20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come,

While these passages show that Jewish Christians were observing Mosiac laws as customs, many other passages could be cited showing that trusting observance of the Law for salvation or binding it on others, Jew or Gentile, was strictly forbidden. Regarding Gentiles, Acts 15 shows that they were never to be burdened with any aspect of Judaism, customs or otherwise.

This Acts 15 setting described a meeting of apostles and elders, along with the church at some points, which carried huge implications. Paul and Barnabas had done battle in Antioch with Jewish Christians who were binding the Law on Gentiles as a matter of salvation (circumcision in particular). During the discussion in the Jerusalem council, Peter could not have been clearer when he said: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:10-11).

Soon after the apostles’ testimonies, James brought the discussion to a decision regarding Gentiles with these words: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” Any attempt in that day or ours to bind any aspect of Judaism on Gentiles necessitates a denial of the obvious. Any claim that those early Jewish Christians were to rely on keeping the OT Law for salvation is in direct conflict with the entire books of Galatians and Romans and many other passages in the epistles.

That said, Jewish Christians had the option of continuing to observe as customs certain aspects of the Law. My opinion is that a total rejection of all aspects of their historical culture would have been too much to bear all at once, and so God provided a transitionary period for continuing to practice at least some of their more entrenched cultural traditions. I believe Hebrews 8:13 refers to this transition period which was about to end. “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” The Jewish religion was at its foundation a sacrificial system. Once the temple was destroyed in AD70, forever ending those sacrifices and other temple practices, the whole obsolete and outdated system was nearing its God ordained disappearance.

However, until that happened, issues especially among Jewish Christians (which likely included proselytes and God Fearers – Gentiles who had followed the Jewish faith without becoming full proselytes, likely more men than women for obvious reasons) had differences in how they observed those continuing customs. Romans 14 addresses two issues that had come to the forefront – observance of Jewish holy days and eating meat that might have been sacrificed to idols. Paul begins by addressing the latter. Those whose faith was weak ate only vegetables, evidently fearing that meat bought in public markets may have been sacrificed to idols first. Paul addresses this issue in more detail in 1 Corinthians 8-10, which shows it was a big issue in the early church. He ends up by saying something similar to, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” If you didn’t know where the meat came from, just eat it. If you do find out its origin was from an idol sacrifice, avoid it and let the issues of example and influence on others carry the day.

My point with this rather lengthy explanation is to show that the issues addressed in Romans 14, matters of opinion, were not minor ones by any means. Yet, as serious as they were, they could not be bound as matters of salvation. Differences in consciences and choices were to be accepted without passing judgment on one another. Do you really believe that women’s role issues are more significant in our day than those issues were in Paul’s day? That is my bottom-line application here. So-called doctrinal issues don’t become salvation issues unless they affect our view of, and allegiance to, Jesus as Lord and Savior, with our lives demonstrating that devotion to him.

So where did the idea of sound doctrine come from? In short, a pattern theology approach to hermeneutics, faulty translations of two Greek terms and our traditions of having too many focuses on theological issues rather than on Jesus. If all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Jesus (Colossians 2:3), don’t you think most of our study and teaching should be centered on him rather than on so-called issues of “sound doctrine?” Even feeling the need to ask the question hurts my heart. Maybe the following excerpt from my recent book will help us begin to focus on a better path and free up our women to fully join us on it.

Translations of the New Testament Didn’t Help

In what we call the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), Paul addresses numerous false teachings. He informed his younger proteges how to handle these teachings and those who taught them. One of the unfortunate translations of terminology found often in these three letters to evangelists paved the way to an increasing emphasis on what we often call “doctrinal matters” or “theological matters.” I refer to the term sound doctrine. This very theologically sounding term became one of the most used when debating what should and shouldn’t be a part of the pattern to follow. Debates in print and in person were in vogue as leaders argued about various aspects of the so-called “pattern,” hence the term “pattern theology.”

If one sees sound doctrine as strict adherence to all theological doctrines in the New Testament, matters of interpretation become more of a focus than Jesus or the Christian life. Here are a few passages from the Pastoral letters using this term, taken here from the New American Standard Bible, one of the most accurate translations from Greek to English (with emphases added).

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.

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,

Titus 1:9 — holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.

Why is this translation both inaccurate and misleading? The word translated “sound,” hugiainô, is translated every time in the Pastorals this way in the NASB, and yet the word itself means “healthy.” Hence, sound teaching is teaching that makes one spiritually healthy. It is translated better in other passages. For example, here are two, also from the NASB.

Luke 5:31 — And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.”

3 John 1:2 — Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.

The word “doctrine,” didaskalia, is translated as such 9 of 15 times in the Pastorals in the NASB. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines doctrine as “a belief or set of beliefs, especially political or religious ones, that are taught and accepted by a particular group.” When you are indoctrinated with an approach to interpretation with its foundation in pattern theology, sound doctrine will come to mean a type of important or essential theological doctrines, and much will fall into the category of salvation essentials. When doctrine is exalted to such a status, it can be shocking to see what will be included under the banner of salvation matters. It is, in fact, quite shocking when you study the history of the Restoration Movement. But this word “doctrine” in the Greek is simply the normal word for teaching. Sound doctrine is healthy teaching, no more and no less.

Matters of Opinion

I have defined this phrase for years in ways like this, for I know no other way to practically define it. “When good brothers and sisters who believe the Scriptures to be God’s inspired word and have studied a topic in detail, yet come to different conclusions and applications, that alone puts it squarely into the realm of disputable or opinion matters.” Obviously, women and their church roles (and maybe home roles) cannot fit elsewhere. Inventing a category called sound doctrine solves nothing. For those in our movement prior to 1994, sound doctrine involving women issues dictated that in church assemblies, they could sing and nothing more. Then in the mid-1990s, sound doctrine included women part-singing in front of the church, serving as ushers, sharing publicly in various settings (as long as they were accompanied and “led” by a man), and baptizing other women with whom they had studied.

Now, sound doctrine has expanded to have women speaking alone in conference classes and similar settings – as long as it isn’t in a Sunday assembly. To me, making a difference in a Sunday assembly or an assembly on another day of the week is strange. All are assembled worship gatherings. But for now, some insist we must hold on to our present sound doctrine (which will continue to change)! Trust me, most of the issues surrounding what women can do in church services on any day of the week is quite comparable to the statement made by the writer of Hebrews in 8:13 – what is outdated and obsolete will soon disappear.

A Term of Intimidation?

From my own extensive background in three segments of the Restoration Movement, sound doctrine terminology is all too familiar to me. Sound doctrine, sound preachers, and sound churches were common nomenclature, usually presented in question format. (Is he a sound preacher; is that a sound church?) In my earliest church experience, it was taught that only one cup was to be used in communion, passed around to the whole assembly to drink from. After all, the gospels say that Jesus took the “cup,” not the “cups.” This was in the minds of some of our members clearly a salvation issue, as were many other components of agreed upon sound doctrine. Though all agreed that issues like this one and the use of instrumental music in worship were in the realm of sound doctrine, not all agreed that they were salvation issues, although many did. At best, they were said to not be biblically supported and thus “might” be salvation issues, putting our souls at possible risk.

So why was sound doctrine a term of intimidation? The items that fit into this category were highly important matters to those holding these views, and they were described in ways that introduced doubt about whether they fit into the salvation issues category. Thus, when asked if a given practice did fit into that category, responses often included those like the following:

“Well, I am going to take the infallibly safe way and not risk my soul by using multiple cups (or instrumental music, or whatever else the issue was).”

“Your church can do what the leaders decide, but I could never do that and take a chance on missing heaven. It’s just not that important to me.”

“God did warn us about becoming progressive and not taking the ancient paths. I’m going to stick with the old ways that I know are safe. That’s what I read in Jeremiah 6:16 – “This is what the                             LORD  says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’”

“All I know for sure it that Jesus described a narrow way and a broad way, saying that most end up on the broad way that leads to destruction. Why change from what we know is right?”

I found it quite interesting that in one presentation I heard addressing women’s roles, in which sound doctrine was declared to be a separate category from opinion matters and salvation matters, this  assumed category was introduced with this passage:

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).

How does this describe doctrinal issues and not salvation issues, based on its very wording? Since a number of passages use the term “sound doctrine,” was the choice to use this to describe the women’s role accidental? Perhaps. Bottom line, what a female does in a church service, on a Sunday or any other day, is by my definition an opinion issue. If it is not that, then at best it puts those who allow women broader participation in the church at risk spiritually. If this is the case, then those who oppose it dogmatically and forcefully use intimidation tactics, which constitutes a type of judging. Some reminders from Romans 14 seem most appropriate.

The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.

 13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. 14 I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.

Example, Influence, Stumbling and Grumbling

Paul does go on to elaborate on how we must be careful with our influence. It is a matter of great importance, no doubt. However, in my former background, the emphasis that we should not do anything that would cause our brothers and sisters to stumble through our example led to misapplications of these passages. The appeal to try something new or different was often met with the strong admonition that we mustn’t cause anyone to stumble. Many good ideas were thus blocked, usually by those in the older crowd more prone to keeping the traditions.

In the context of Romans 14, stumble means to fall away, to have one’s faith destroyed (Romans 14:15). He is talking about causing someone to stumble, not simply grumble. Notice also that it was the weak ones in danger of stumbling and not the strong ones, yet the latter were the ones  who were most apt to speak up strongly and often impose their will on others.

If we understand the historical and cultural contexts of Romans 14, we then realize how big these issues actually were. If we had adopted an erroneous application of Paul’s principle here to avoid causing the traditionalists to grumble, we would all still be drinking out of one cup and never hearing a guitar as we worshipped in song. As important as influence and example are, to restrict women’s participation in any way that Paul himself did not is traditionalism, pure and simple. The churches he spoke about had women exercising spiritual gifts, including speaking publicly on Sundays (1 Corinthians 11). The fact that local customs rightly affected what they wore while doing so didn’t affect the fact that they did it. Such was foretold in Joel 2 and Acts 2 and occurred as promised. Now that is what I call sound doctrine – healthy teaching indeed!