Listening to how people speak, how they think and whether a word choice carries with it a positive or negative connotation can quickly suggest some impressions about doctrine. Recently a candid meeting confirmed my suspicions. Apparently some regard doctrine as a dirty word. How did we arrived here?
Consider the following stereotypes from history. For many, such story snippets exist in mere memory, nevertheless I suspect they resonate and wield determinative power over current perspectives. Once we understand something about the journey, what might the next steps be?
Perhaps as a young person they witnessed it or maybe this is just an old story they have heard. A salvo of verses were launched from a thundering pulpit about the need to guard and protect sound doctrine. And then one day a realization struck in the form of a generalization. “Whenever somebody insists on sound doctrine, the real message is I must conform to his opinions.” Doctrine became a dirty word.
Furthermore, whether one actually remembers attending religious debates or has only heard about them, the lingering perception is that both sides insisted that their viewpoint aligned with sound doctrine. Some people concluded that when people value doctrine it leads to fights and rancor. The solution? Allow doctrine to fade into the background. Doctrine became a dirty word.
Let’s not overlook or forget the wider cultural influences. While philosophic culture possesses a long history of bickering over what is ultimately real and true, John Dewey and William James changed the focus and discussion. No longer would truth be the main concern, rather whatever works best would be what matters.
As the pragmatic mindset permeated spiritual culture accompanied by an emphasis upon grace and love, doctrine began to appear antiquated and misdirected. Those behind the pulpit and within the pew felt liberated from the need to discover and conform themselves to truth. Instead they were empowered to implement the most efficient means for pursuing their notions of spiritual ideals.
Time does not permit recapping how the American psyche has also embraced relativism in every area of life. Since doctrine depends upon statements being true, relativism eroded the foundation from under its feet.
What is the bottom line? For some people the word doctrine and especially the phrase sound doctrine are repulsive. For them, the D word stands for a set of narrow-minded opinions which are not justifiable nor sustainable today.
Where do we go from here? For starters, when the New Testament refers to doctrine (1 Timothy 1:10; 4:16; 2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1) it is not referring to someone’s parochial opinions. Doctrine describes what God has revealed regarding himself, the reality of humanity’s plight, what God has accomplished through his Son, the community of people which God is creating, how they are to live as his workmanship and so many more aspects of genuine healthy Christian teaching.
So how can we rescue doctrine from negative connotations? We need to distinguish between our strongly held opinions and those truths God has revealed, reserving the term doctrine for the latter.
Furthermore when speaking with others regarding the Bible’s message, instead of avoiding the terminology of sound doctrine or healthy doctrine, we can make sure to identify as doctrine, those biblical ideas which they already recognize as being true.
In a world filled with the transitory sloshing of human ideas that can hardly be compelling, we can point to the stability and reliability of doctrine. Doctrine replaces uncertainty. Doctrine provides God’s people with a perspective about reality and informs them regarding what is reliable, an understanding anchored in God’s word.
As for those who have imbibed deeply from relativism, we might offer a few seed thoughts. Everything is not relative. Perhaps they will accept that two always means two. Also, if someone were to claim that everything is relative, that very statement is self-defeating because it claims to be absolute. If truth can exist and if God has spoken, then discovering God’s message would certainly be valuable.
“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).