What Is Christian Doctrine?
Doctrine is a body of teaching. Christian doctrine is the teaching found in the Bible—about who God is, who we are, why the world exists, and so on. The subject merits careful thought because it plays a vital part in every Christian’s life.
“Doctrine” sometimes has the reputation of being just a cold set of propositions debated by scholars. On the contrary, every believer every day is full of doctrine that makes all the difference in the world. Just to say we believe in God implies a set of assumptions about what it means to believe, and about who God is and what he is like: that’s doctrine. Devotional study of the word, therefore, cannot exist without healthy doctrine. Doctrine is important because it summarizes God’s word, guarantees the health of God’s church, and bears fruit in the lives of God’s people.
Doctrine Summarizes God’s Word
First, doctrine summarizes the truths of the Bible—synthesizing and condensing its teaching. For example, the doctrine of the atonement pulls together many biblical passages that deal with God’s forgiveness of sin—from the Old Testament animal sacrifices all the way to the death of Christ on the cross, bearing our sins and suffering God’s wrath in our place. Since it is based on the Scriptures, doctrine bears the weighty responsibility of rightly reflecting the words God breathed out through the biblical writers who were “carried along” by his Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21). To summarize these living and active words is an awesome task, one to be embraced only with humble and prayerful reliance on the God who inspired them.
The ESV Women’s Study Bible features study and devotional content along with elegant artwork from artist Dana Tanamachi to help women in all seasons of life pursue a transformational understanding of Scripture.
How are doctrines derived from the Scriptures? Most importantly, believers read and study the word of God itself—like the Bereans, who examined the Scriptures eagerly and daily in order to see everything else clearly in their light (Acts 17:11). Such biblical reading and study requires the best possible access to the words God inspired—ideally, access to a version of the Bible that translates the original Hebrew and Greek texts accurately and well. Beyond this, all kinds of study helps are available to aid readers in their growing understanding of God’s word. There is nothing more important than rightly hearing the voice of the God of the universe.
Doctrine Guarantees the Health of God’s Church
Christians, however, do not develop doctrine simply as individual students of Scripture. Those who believe in Christ live as members of his body, the church. As part of that church we have the benefit of doctrine handed down through generations of faithful believers, in clear statements like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, and in faithful bodies of teaching such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, the London Baptist Confession, or the Church of England’s Thirty-nine Articles. Such doctrine has been passed on for centuries within the church and within local church congregations, from one generation to the next. New applications of doctrine occur, in various contexts and different cultures and even in each new sermon preached, but God’s people always create and receive these new applications in submission to God’s word first, and also in light of trustworthy teachings hammered out and handed down by those of God’s people who have gone before.
Ongoing responsibility to guard doctrine is given by Scripture to the living leaders of the church—and specifically to the leaders of local church congregations. As the final and climactic requirement in the list of qualifications for a church elder (or overseer), Paul tells Titus that this man must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9). “Sound” means “healthy.” Sound doctrine, rooted clearly in the trustworthy word of God, makes for a healthy church. It is the job of church leaders to know and teach sound doctrine, for the health of the church.
But we left out the final phrase: an overseer must be able both to teach sound doctrine “and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). To grow healthy doctrine involves combating unhealthy doctrine. Interestingly, the huge majority of New Testament references to doctrine emphasize guarding against unsound doctrine, and refuting doctrine contrary to the teaching that has been faithfully passed on. Jesus condemned the Jewish scribes and Pharisees in Isaiah’s words, accusing them of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9; Mark 7:7). Paul tells the Roman Christians to “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught” (Rom. 16:17). When Paul warns the church in Ephesus not to be carried about by “every wind of doctrine,” he is talking about false teaching that mature believers must reject (Eph. 4:14). Paul gives the young pastor Timothy strong instruction about purifying the church from false doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3, 10). Like doctors, church leaders must fight disease in order to foster health.
In short, we must be actively involved in a local church that cares about healthy doctrine, led by elders who have carefully studied the word and can shepherd us and answer our questions.
Doctrine Bears Fruit in the Lives of God’s People
Sound Christian doctrine not only summarizes the very word of God and guarantees the health of the church; it also bears fruit in the lives of God’s people. Doctrine is supremely practical. Your doctrine will determine how you live your life. Paul’s instruction about qualifications for elders involves both what they teach and how they live; they go together (Titus 1:5–9). The false teachers these elders must rebuke “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works”; their ungodly lives expose their unsound doctrine (Titus 1:16).
Your doctrine will determine how you live your life.
Paul goes on to tell Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). That command is followed by a series of practical instructions to various segments of the church membership (Titus 2:2–10). It is so crucial for us to put all these instructions, including the much-discussed words to older and younger women, in the context of Paul’s teaching about doctrine. These instructions tell us what kind of living accords with sound doctrine. Those who follow Paul’s instructions are showing the fruit of their biblical beliefs—which means that God’s people need to learn the doctrine from which this fruit grows. Sound doctrine is clearly at the heart of “what is good”—such as, for example, that the older women should teach the younger, training them in godly behavior (Titus 2:3–4).
It is the slaves—the servants, the lowest and last societal segment Paul addresses—who are given the most exalted instruction in relation to doctrine. The goal of their humble, trustworthy service is that “in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10). Such godly service is what accords with sound doctrine: it adorns sound doctrine, like beautiful fruit growing on a tree. The doctrine Paul names here is the essence of the gospel: it is the doctrine of the God who saves us in Christ. This gospel truth is the most fundamental doctrine all believers have the privilege of adorning with godly lives. It is this gospel truth that “accords with godliness” (Titus 1:1). The whole letter of Paul to Titus expounds upon “truth, which accords with godliness”—that is, sound doctrine, which bears godly fruit.
That sound doctrine should bear such fruit makes sense, for sound doctrine summarizes the living and active word of God, which comes down like the rain and the snow from heaven and makes the earth bring forth and sprout (Isa. 55:10–11). Sound doctrine guarantees the health of the church, and the members of a healthy church will grow and bear fruit, spreading and multiplying the good seed of the word far and wide. Healthy doctrine, far from being a cold set of propositions, is actually God’s gracious means of letting his people learn and live and share his gospel truth.
This article is by Kathleen Nielson and is adapted from the ESV Women’s Study Bible.
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