Do we recognise false doctrine when we come across it? It could be in that sermon that you heard last weekend. Or on the podcast that you listen to on the way to work. Or in a book by that bestselling Christian author. Are we able to recognise false teaching?
Put another way, do we know what sound doctrine is? If we don’t, chances are we may not be able to tell what false doctrine is either. And if this is so, false teaching can easily find its way into our Christian lives and either draw us away from God or lead us into false worship.
How then can we guard against false doctrine? In order to answer this, we must first ask how we can identify it.
What is Doctrine?
Doctrine can be defined simply as a belief or set of beliefs that is held and taught to be true. The root word (Lat. Docere) from which we get the word ‘doctrine’ means ‘to teach’. In other words, doctrine can be understood as teaching that is imparted by an authoritative source.
In the Christian context, doctrine is therefore a set of beliefs about God that is held and taught by those in authority. First and foremost, doctrine was taught by Jesus Christ himself, who was God, but also by the Prophets (e.g. Moses), Apostles (e.g. Paul), early Christians (e.g. Augustine), Churches throughout the centuries (e.g. Roman Catholic, Orthodox), and also the Protestant Reformers (e.g. Luther, Calvin). Doctrine is still taught in seminaries and churches today across a wide theological spectrum.
It follows that not all doctrine that claims to be Christian is necessarily sound or biblical. The apostle Peter warns us that false prophets will arise among the people, and that there will be false teachers among us (2 Pet 2:1). These teachers will secretly bring in destructive heresies, some even denying the Lord Jesus Christ, and many will follow their sensual and seductive words. This means that the threat of false doctrine does not just come from the world, but from within the church!
Not all doctrinal differences between Christian denominations are necessarily false doctrine. But there are more falsehoods than we think and we should remain alert to the truth. Some falsehoods are devious and clearly intended to lead people away from God, while others suffer from misplaced emphases on the wisdom of man (Mark 7:6-8) or the material things of this earth. The core of all false teaching is usually an opposition to fundamental truths about God or that which is necessary for our salvation.
One of the reasons why false teaching can arise is because the Word of God is not always the foundation upon which people or churches build their doctrine. Sadly, the Bible is not always central to the life of the church. Philosophy, tradition, or even church history can sometimes influence our doctrine without us knowing or understanding why.
Yet even at other times, in our sinfulness, we place ourselves above the truth of God’s word. We pick and choose the parts of the Bible that we find encouraging, or that we like being told, that promise us freedom and abundance, and that don’t cause us discomfort, and we dismiss the rest of the counsel of God as ‘irrelevant’, ‘outdated’, ‘legalistic’, not ‘seeker-friendly’, etc. Writing over 1,900 years ago, the Apostle Paul warned us against such promiscuity, and against selective hearing that gravitates towards false teaching that strokes our ego and suits our own desires (2 Tim 4:3).
What is Sound Doctrine?
Sound biblical doctrine, on the other hand, is made up of observable truths about the nature of God, the character of God, the will of God, and the work of God in salvation, in as much as God has revealed those truths to us in the Bible. It helps us understand the nature and the character of God (Ex 34:6, Ps 90:2), God’s will and standard of holiness for our lives (1 Pet 1:15-16, 1 Cor 6:18-20), the offer and the working of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:8-9, Rom 10:9-10), and instruction for the church and Christian living (Tit 2:1-10, Col 3:5).
In fact, elders and teachers are charged to “teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine” and to “Teach what is good…so that no one will malign the word of God…In your teaching show integrity, seriousness, and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned (Tit 2:1-8). That sounds simple enough – no Christian wants the word of God to be maligned. But as those who teach, are taught, or just simply as Christians, what effect does that have on our lives, our beliefs, our doctrine, and our theology? How do we distinguish truth from the many falsehoods in the church and in the world today? What does bible reading have to do with sound doctrine?
Sound Doctrine in Application
Here are 7 propositions for us to consider as we think through this issue in our Christian lives:
(1) God has revealed the truth in His word
The almighty God, who made the heavens and the earth and everything in all creation, has revealed Himself to us through His living word. The Bible is therefore the sole authority and primary source of our doctrine, or in other words, our faith and practice. Everything that God intended for us to know about Him can be found in the Bible (2 Tim 3:16).
(2) Bible reading sharpens our knowledge of the truth
Reading the Bible for ourselves draws us closer to God, helps us grow in our knowledge of Him, and sharpens our discernment of truth (Eph 4:14). The reverse is also true: if we do not study the word of God for ourselves, we become more susceptible to error.
(3) Test the spirits to see if they are from God
Do not simply absorb everything your pastor says on Sunday or whatever is said at Fellowship or everything your cell group leader says without reading your Bible for yourself and asking God to guide you in your understanding. The word of God commands us to test the spirits (1 John 4:1, Acts 17:11) to see if they are from God.
(4) Ask questions if you don’t understand
If you don’t understand a certain detail or some part of what you are reading, ask. Read the Bible and ask questions of the text. Ask other Christians. Ask the people at Fellowship. Ask your Pastor. Pray and ask God for the wisdom to receive and understand answers. God has promised that whatever we ask for in His name, we shall receive. So keep reading, keep asking, and keep praying.
(5) Beware of extra-biblical revelation
Beware of persons who claim extra-biblical revelation in their teaching (e.g. I heard God say to me, “ask the church for donations to buy a private jet and fly around the world”). God’s revelation to us is complete, having culminated in the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross, His resurrection and His ascension (Acts 20:27, Rev 22:18-19). Sound doctrine should be consistent with how God has revealed Himself to us in the Bible (Heb 13:8).
(6) Seek out the right interpretation of Scripture
Scripture, or doctrine for that matter, is not “open to interpretation” (2 Pet 1:20). There is a meaning to everything that God has said in the Bible, and it is our responsibility as Christians to seek out that meaning, not come up with loose interpretations to suit our tastes or to scratch our itching ears. See point (4)!
(7) Always point debate back to the word of God
It is important to remember that the word of God is fully capable of holding its own and dividing between truth and error (Heb 4:12). If there is any contention (among Christians or non-believers) about doctrine or faith and practice, arguing and attempting to out-reason the other party often gets us nowhere. Take the opportunity instead to (a) invite those in opposition to examine the word of God together (i.e. a form of Bible reading in itself!), (b) graciously explain why we believe in what we believe (1 Pet 3:15), and (c) pray and ask God for the wisdom and patience to embark on this endeavor for Him. Remember that we are to confront error in a spirit of gentleness (2 Tim 2:24).
When we accept the Bible as God’s Word and revelation to us (2 Tim 3:16, 2 Pet 1:20-21) and we spend time in it, we are building a solid foundation for our doctrine. Sound biblical doctrine incorporates the full counsel of God and arrives at conclusions based on what God has revealed about Himself in Scripture. Bible reading therefore helps us guard against false doctrine. The Lord Jesus Christ reminds us that Heaven and earth may pass away, but the word of the Lord endures forever (Matt 24:35). May our lives be so bound up in the word of God that through the simple act of bible reading, our faith may be strengthened for His glory.
Written by Isaac Lim for the Fellowship Bible Reading Retreat 2018