Titus 2:1: But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. (ESV)
Last week's post focused on a fact that appears to be often missed -that right beliefs about God, while essential to Christianity, are insufficient to make a person a Christian. A Christian is a person who has been reconciled to God through Christ by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5). The emphasis of last week's post is intended to guard people from the self-deception that can occur when sound doctrine is held. This post seeks to correct another imbalance.
The imbalance this post seeks to correct is the idea that right beliefs do not matter. As long as a person is saved, who cares what he or she believes? The idea sometimes goes that if a person is saved, as long as a person is saved, that is the important thing. Doctrine, teaching, beliefs about God, are secondary. After all, doctrine divides, doesn't it?
Of course doctrine divides. That may be a jarring response, but it is an unavoidable consequence of holding to any doctrine at all. It is a core function of doctrine (teaching, instruction) to classify and organize ideas into the right categories. Doctrine will divide as long as people have different ideas about what is right and wrong, good and bad, true and false. That is not the fault of doctrine. The division that arises from doctrine is a function of the differing ideas that people hold. Doctrine is not a malevolent actor which seeks to divide us, but is simply a name given to describe a phenomenon that occurs within us. It is an expression and articulation of that which already divides us. In this sense, the phrase, "doctrine divides" is itself doctrine. And that is why, as an argument against its importance, the phrase, "doctrine divides" is asinine.
But there is another issue with the idea that right beliefs do not matter as much as a right relationship with God. At a basic level, this position sets right beliefs against a right relationship, as though they are somehow opposed to one another. But this is flatly wrong. Right beliefs are not opposed, cannot be opposed, to a right relationship with God. Sound doctrine will never keep you from God. But false doctrine will.
The idea that right beliefs do not matter as much as a right relationship makes the mistake of removing right beliefs as essential to Christianity, and therefore emptying the term of any meaning. If right beliefs do not matter, then what is a Christian? If right beliefs do not matter, then a Christian may be whatever the person identifying as a Christian thinks it is. That, perhaps ironically, is not too far from Critical Theory, which holds that objective realities such as gender and human sexuality are nothing more than social constructs. They mean whatever enough people to determine society's direction agree that they mean. A person could say, "I identify as a Christian, and no one can tell me I'm wrong." Yet there are those who say this despite presenting every evidence to the contrary. The fruit of their lives is not of the Spirit, but from the flesh. But their claim reflects a doctrinal stance. They believe that the claim to be a Christian works by fiat. If they identify as a Christian, then they are a Christian, and who can tell them they aren't? Well, Jesus can. Christianity is defined by God's word, not ours, and we do well not to pit our word against his.
We can state the matter this way. A person can have sound doctrine and still not live for God through Christ. That is the point of last week's article. But here is the point for this week. A person cannot have false doctrine and still live for God through Christ.
Someone reading last week's post might make the mistake of concluding that all that matters is that a person lives for God through Christ, whatever their beliefs. But a life lived for God through Christ is not lived in a vacuum of belief. God does not save people despite holding ideas opposed to what he has revealed. God saves people through the right understanding of what he has revealed, which the Spirit causes unbelievers dead in sin to believe and then come alive to God (cf. Eph. 2:1-10).
Of course, the church, and even the Bible itself, has recognized that not all right beliefs are essential to being a Christian. Church history is in large part a record of the church's attempt to sort out what is essential from what is indifferent. For instance, I believe that it is sound doctrine to only baptize professing believers and not infants. But I do not believe that those who believe that it is sound doctrine to baptize infants have no relationship with God because of that belief. The records of church councils throughout the centuries are replete with discussion of what is essential and what is not. And as new ideas, or fresh articulations of old ideas, emerge, renewed thought must be given to discerning whether the ideas represent sound or false doctrine, and how important the differences are.
This is in fact part of what doctrine is about. Not all ideas are equal. There is sound or healthy doctrine, and there is unsound or unhealthy doctrine. And part of what makes doctrine unsound or unhealthy is the disproportionate elevation of some ideas over against others. One of the marks of unsound doctrine is that it makes minor issues of major ones and major issues of minor ones.
For instance, if a person holds to a false doctrine such as the idea that Christ did not rise from the dead that person cannot have a right relationship with God. How could he? He or she believes that Christ is still dead. And if he is still dead, then our faith is futile and we are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17)! How can a person live for God through a dead Christ? It makes no sense.
These things can be difficult to discern. The Bible says many things about many issues. It is easy to get lost in the weeds, to argue about things that are of relatively little value or importance. And the Bible itself speaks against it (Tit. 3:9). But it is not acceptable to go to the opposite of extreme by refusing to engage in any real thought about what the Bible says to be true.
We cannot worship God better than we know him. There seems to be a strain of people in the church who want all the benefit of sound doctrine without any of the work. Sound doctrine is hard. It takes time to study it, to teach it, and to learn it. But it is worth it, so worth it, as long as it terminates in worship of God and a life lived for him through Christ.
The fact is that our relationship with God is directly dependent on our doctrine. The less sound and more shallow our doctrine, the less sound and more shallow will be our relationship to God. And this includes those who are content with holding the right beliefs without every applying it in worship of God and love of God and neighbor. Doctrine that does not lead to living for God through Christ is incomplete.
So we must understand that sound doctrine is essential to be saved, even if it is not sufficient to make someone saved. And there seems to always have been a strain in the church which belittles sound doctrine, just as there is always a strain which promotes it from essential but insufficient to essential and sufficient. We must avoid both extremes.
Thankfully, we can do just that, by teaching what accords with sound doctrine. It is no mistake that the context of this command by Paul is flanked on either side by an emphasis on right belief paired with right practice. This is the relationship between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice). Sound doctrine holds the ideas together and exhorts people to conceptualize them in the right way.
One way of putting this is to say that sound doctrine is the only path to sound living. "Sound" may also be translated as "healthy". What person would expect a healthy body despite an unhealthy diet? The two are mutually opposed, because the one is designed to lead to the other. So it is with sound doctrine. It is not to be belittled, nor is it to be treated as the end in itself. We want healthy doctrine for the sake of healthy living. And in this way, we can be increasingly confident that when we say we are living for God through Christ, we say what we mean and we mean what we say, and we also live it out.