Chapter One.
Is Doctrine Really That Important?

When my grandsons, then ages ten and six, learned that their aunt was going to have a baby girl, their immediate response was a loud and disgusted "Yuck."

When the beautiful baby girl was born, their mother brought them to the hospital to see their new cousin. Both of them could hardly wait to hold the baby, and each took several turns at doing just that. Indeed, neither wanted to give her up.

Upon leaving the hospital on the way to the car, they both said to their mother, "We sure like that baby girl."

What happened to yuck?

Too many Christians have the yuck reaction to doctrine because they have never experienced the wonder and thrill of understanding, interacting, and embracing the doctrines (teachings) of God's wonderful Word.

Regrettably doctrine has fallen on hard times. Though true, this is not something new or unique to our day. Consider this lament from a prominent nineteenth-century churchman. He said, "Wherein do evangelical Churchmen fall short of their great predecessors in the eighteenth century? They fall short in doctrine. They are neither so full nor so distinct nor so uncompromising. They are afraid of strong statements. They are too ready to fence, and guard, and qualify all their teaching."

More than a century later, a noted theologian evaluated (quite correctly in my judgment) the modern scene this way. "The new quest for contemporary practicality has transformed the nature of the Christian ministry, the work of seminaries, and the inner workings of denominational headquarters, and in each case the transformation has sounded the death knell of theology.... Resources have been steadily withdrawn from the publishing houses that have supported theological publication." One has only to skim contemporary book catalogs to see how true that observation is. The proportion of doctrinal books in relation to plethora of other categories of books is small.

Some Excuses (Cop-outs!) for Neglecting Doctrine

Probably the most-often-heard objection to exposing people to doctrine is that it is not relevant. Experience is more important. Or to put it another way: doctrine is not practical. I have sat through hundreds of chapel periods in my lifetime. Hardly anything bothered me more than to hear a speaker say, "Now today I'm just going to be practical. I'll leave the teaching (doctrine) to your faculty." What a shallow statement. That speaker (and many others) forget that all practice must be based on sound Bible doctrine, and all Bible doctrine is expected to result in proper practice. Sound doctrine and biblical experiences have to be wedded. You must not have one without the other.

Relevant means "to have significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand." Practical means "to relate to practice." Accusing doctrine of irrelevance or impracticality misuses both terms and assumes the Bible itself (from which our doctrine comes) is irrelevant and impractical. Of course, no one would want to make such a charge against the Word of God—at least not out loud.

Never forget what the Bible claims for itself. "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching [very doctrinal], for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness [very relevant]; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work [very practical]" (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The word translated adequate means "proficient and able to meet all demands which are placed upon one's life." Putting the emphases of these two verses together, they clearly teach that biblical doctrine is not only relevant and practical but also provides the necessary proficiency for the believer's life and activities. There's nothing irrelevant or impractical about that.

Remember how the apostle Paul used doctrine as the basis for correct lifestyle. In Romans, a letter written to a church he had no prior involvement with, the first eleven chapters are loaded with basic Christian doctrine (sin, salvation, sanctification, eschatology). Then beginning in chapter 12, he exhorts and commands particulars necessary for godly living. We see the same order clearly in Ephesians (doctrine in chapters 1-3 and practice in 4-6) and Colossians (doctrine in chapters 1-2 and practice in 3-4) and to a less marked extent in his other letters (e.g., 1 Cor.; Phil.; 1 Thess.; 2 Thess.).

A second excuse for neglecting doctrine says that since it is difficult to understand doctrinal teaching we should not press it on people. We are admonished to "put the cookies on the lower shelf." That is good advice for some occasions and for some audiences. But think what would happen if we always followed that advice. We would produce hunchbacked Christians! Remember how babies grow. They push up on their hands and knees, then they crawl, then they try to stand up with help, and then on their own. To be on their own, they have to exercise, stretch, and reach up. So it is with Christians. To be strong we have to exercise and stretch. And to promote that process, we who teach should not always put the cookies on the lower shelf.

To be sure, some doctrines involve difficulties in understanding them. But that shouldn't keep us from trying to delve in as far as the Scriptures speak on these more complex areas. Should we soft-pedal teaching the virgin birth because we do not fully understand how it was accomplished? Or shall we ignore the summary statement of the doctrine of Christ in 1 Timothy 3:16, which includes references to his incarnation, resurrection, and ascension? If, as seems likely, this was part of an early Christian hymn, then this was a part of early Christian worship. Too, other facets of the God-man, the death of Christ, and the bodily resurrection of Christ include mysteries we will never fully comprehend, but to avoid these doctrines is to starve people who need sound doctrine to feed on in order to mature.

In the area of prophecy, the perception sometimes given is that prophecy is too complicated and debated to expose people to it. Therefore, we should avoid it. But many aspects of prophecy are plain and clear. For example, Revelation 6:4 contains thirty-one words (in one English translation). Of those thirty-one words only four are two-syllable words, and one has three syllables. The other twenty-six are single-syllable words, and all of them are easily understood. The word "only begotten" in John 3:16 is much more difficult to explain than most words in prophetic passages.

Milk truth is appropriate for the infant stage of Christian growth, but solid food is necessary for maturity (Heb. 5:12-14). In that passage the writer makes clear that solid food enables the believer to use the Word to discern between good and evil. By knowing the deeper truths of the Bible, we can practice righteousness. Biblical truth—all of it—is both relevant and practical for the Christian life.

A third excuse made for not emphasizing doctrine is that doctrines divide believers. That's true, but it is not a legitimate reason to avoid studying and understanding Bible doctrine. A lot of things divide churches and believers. A hot topic these days concerns different styles of worship—music, praise bands, etc. Why are there different denominations? Simply because groups understand certain teachings of the Bible differently and consider those differences significant enough to form a denomination. For example, different views of baptism, or understanding what spiritual gifts are operative today, or different types of church government reflect different interpretations of various doctrines. If divisions are wrong, then logically we should all make haste back to the Roman Catholic Church. Or actually we should try to return to the church of New Testament times. But even back then there were divisions. Immediately one thinks of the church at Corinth, which was plagued with divisions over styles of ministry (1 Cor. 1:12-13), over the basic teaching concerning bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15), and over proper use of church discipline (2 Cor. 2:5-11). And yet the apostle Paul told the church that "there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you" (1 Cor. 11:19). Factions means "parties who choose particular views," which will cause those who are approved by choosing the correct view to stand out from others.

Remember, too, the sharp dispute and division between Paul and Silas over whether they should take John Mark along with them on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-40). This resulted from a difference of opinion over the qualifications or maturity of Mark, and each "side" thought he was right. In this case God used this dispute to send out two missionary groups instead of only one.

It is not necessarily wrong to have divisions among believers. It can be but not always. And we need to remember that doctrinal differences also unite, and often that is a good thing. Our responsibility is to study, learn, teach, and preach Bible doctrine thoroughly.

Learn it and live it.

Some Reasons Doctrine Is Important (and Practical)

Doctrine serves as the foundation for the Christian life and the motivation for Christian activity. On the doctrine of our co-crucifixion with Christ rests the call for total dedication of our lives (Rom. 6:1-13). Knowing that God does not show partiality, neither should we in respect to how we relate to rich and poor who come into the church (James 2:1-4). The hope of our Lord's return ought to purify our lives (1 John 3:3). Because of the love of Christ (his love for me and my love for him), we let our lives be controlled by him (2 Cor. 5:14). Knowing the doctrine of our future judgment, we are motivated to persuade people to receive the Lord (2 Cor. 5:10). All of these important Christian responsibilities are based on doctrinal truths.

Only by knowing the truth can we know and counter false teaching and errant living. The thirteen plus lifestyles and actions listed in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 (e.g., rebelliousness, ungodliness, lying, homosexuality) are "contrary to sound teaching."

As we approach the end of the age, it becomes increasingly important to know sound doctrine so that we do not give people what they want to hear to have their ears tickled instead of what they need to hear so that they won't be carried away from the truth of God's Word (2 Tim. 4:1-4).

To teach (indoctrinate or doctrinize) converts is a necessary component in obeying the Great Commission (Matt. 28:20).

Sound doctrine is, literally, healthy doctrine; therefore, to learn, teach, and preach doctrine brings spiritual wellness and wholeness to believers. The same word used in 3 John 2 for physical health is used in the pastoral letters for spiritually healthy doctrine (1 Tim. 4:13, 16; 5:17; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:1, 7). In light of these verses, who can dare to suggest that doctrine is not practical? Notice also that some of these verses are addressed particularly to Timothy and therefore apply especially to ministers and leaders (1 Tim. 4:13, 16; Titus 2:1, 7).

Some significant and practical ramifications stem from the importance of doctrine. First, realize that everyone has a doctrinal system, even though the individual may not realize or acknowledge this to be true. It may be systematic or unorganized, even sloppy, but we all operate on the basis of some doctrinal scheme. Obviously the "free thinking" atheist and agnostic do, as well as the more structured Calvinist and Arminian. Therefore, the preacher and teacher, professional and layman, need to read theology regardless of his type or place or level of service.

Second, never demean the importance of semantics. How often I have heard a student attempt to rationalize a poor or imprecise statement by saying, "It's just a matter of semantics." Such a response is supposed to excuse fuzzy or sloppy, if not wrong, choice of words. That student is more on target than he realizes when he says it's a matter of semantics since everything we say or write or even think concerns semantics. Semantics involves the study of meanings of words; therefore, the words we use affect the meaning we are trying to convey. So as we study, think about, teach, preach, and live the Word of God, we must pay careful attention to the words we use in communicating that they are precise, clear, and exact.

A concluding and sobering thought: what I teach today will be a part of shaping people, churches, and missions tomorrow.

Since doctrine is so important and relevant, how then can I communicate the doctrines of Scripture so that they may become implanted in our minds and hearts and displayed in our lives?

Read on.

—Ryrie's Practical Guide to Communicating Bible Doctrine