The apostle Paul wrote the letters we know as 1 and 2 Timothy to his young colleague Timothy, who had been tasked with organizing house churches into functioning congregations. Paul hoped to assist Timothy in person, but just in case, he wrote: "Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:14-15).
These directions apply to us today—indeed, to all churches in general. And one of the first topics Paul instructs Timothy about is to "command certain people not to teach false doctrines . . . and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel" (1 Tim. 1:3, 11).
We live in an age in which the very word doctrine, or worse, dogma, is a negative term. And yet it is simply impossible to live without doctrinal beliefs. While many do not want to use the term, all people—secular as well as religious—treat some views as horrific heresies. I've encountered churches that claim, "We don't teach doctrine, we just preach Jesus." But the moment you ask, "Well, who is Jesus, and what did he do?" they can only answer by beginning to lay out doctrine.
But Paul doesn't simply say that right doctrine is necessary; it's also "sound." The Greek word he uses here means healthy rather than diseased. This is Paul's way of saying wrong doctrine eats away at your spiritual health. Or, to put it another way, if you lack spiritual vitality and fruit, if you're not courageous enough, or joyful enough, or filled with love and hope, it may be because your grasp of biblical doctrine is shallow and thin, or distorted and mistaken.
Practical or Doctrinal?
This point came home forcibly to me years ago when I spent a number of weeks working through a Bible study on the attributes of God by Warren and Ruth Myers. A couple application questions were particularly revealing:
- What specific false thoughts or disturbing emotions hinder me when I don't trust (fully grasp) that God has this particular attribute?
- Although my conscious mind may agree that God has this attribute, does my outward life demonstrate that he is like this?
Try these questions out on the glory and majesty of God, the wisdom and sovereignty of God, the love and mercy of God. Spend time thinking and you will begin to see that many of our most personal and practical problems are doctrinal ones. Either we don't grasp the truth or we don't connect it to our lives so that it creates "soundness," or spiritual health, in us.
I've always been impressed by the contrast between contemporary strategies for coping with stress and Paul's counsel for how to get inner peace. Modern approaches tell you to take time off, to get a better work-leisure balance, to block negative and guilty thoughts, to exercise and to learn relaxation techniques. Modern books never tell stressed people: "Think about the big questions of life. Where are we from? Where are we going? What is the meaning of life?"
But Paul says, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable . . . think about such things. . . . And the God of peace will be with you" (Phil. 4:8-9). In effect he is saying: "Think! God made the world and we turned from him—but he's come back to save us at infinite cost to himself. And some day he will put everything right and we will live with him forever. If you really understood and believed that, nothing could get you down for long. So think. If you are discouraged, think about and take hold of Christian doctrine until it puts some health and peace into you."
In short, the world tells you to get peace by not thinking too hard; Christianity tells you that you get peace by thinking very hard—learning, grasping, rejoicing, and resting in the truths of the Word of God.
So learn biblical doctrine—for your health.
Editors' note: This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church's monthly Redeemer Report.