Does Doctrine Matter?
Fr. John Whiteford · April 1, 2013
Fr. John shares his homily from the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. As we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy and we hear so much in the service about the purity of the faith and the triumph of Orthodoxy, one question we have to ask in our time is: Does doctrine really matter? Because to so many people, it doesn’t, but to even those who are in the Church, one could get the impression that doctrine doesn’t matter much to them because they don’t take the time to learn it. If something matters to you, you take time with it.
People also tend to think of doctrine as sort of an abstract set of beliefs that are separate and apart from the question of how we live our lives as Christians, and also our spirituality. See, you’ve got doctrine in one corner, our spirituality in another corner, and our Christian life in an other corner, but the fact is that doctrine is what tells us how to live that Christian life, and it’s what guides us on that spiritual path of our salvation.
What is doctrine? The word itself means “teaching,” and when we speak of Orthodox Christian doctrine, we’re speaking specifically about those teachings which originate with Christ, what he taught his apostles and his apostles have passed on down through their successors, the Fathers of the Church and the saints of the Church, to us, to this very day. St. Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:3ff.:
If any man teach otherwise and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself.
But what I want to highlight there is the fact that he says this teaching that he’s talking about comes from Christ: “even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Doctrine can either be sound, or it can be strange or it can be false. When we talk about sound doctrine, what we mean is healthy teaching or whole teaching, the whole truth: “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” as we say in court. When we say “sound,” we use that word in the same sense that we use when we talk about someone arriving after a trip “safe and sound.” They come from that trip healthy, unharmed. They’re a whole person; they’ve not been damaged by the trip.
Doctrine is sound when it’s the whole truth. It’s the faith that’s been passed down from Christ to his apostles, and there’s not been anything lost, and there’s also not been anything untrue that’s been added.
But we also read in Scripture about false doctrine. St. Paul, in the epistle to the Hebrews 13:9, says, “Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrine.” Also, there are behaviors that are contrary to sound doctrine. St. Paul, when he was writing to St. Timothy, talks quite a bit about doctrine, and he begins his epistle by urging St. Timothy to “charge some, that they teach no other doctrine,” and then he gives a list of things that are contrary to sound doctrine.
Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for homosexuals, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.
So Christian morality is not something that’s separate and apart from Christian doctrine. It’s a key part of it, and the way we live our lives as Christians is either according to sound doctrine or it’s contrary to sound doctrine. The things that St. Paul cites as contrary to sound doctrine are basically violations of the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself, or the second table of the Law as we have talked about many times. It’s a very practical aspect of doctrine.
In Romans 16:17, St. Paul writes, “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.” So unsound doctrine causes divisions and offenses that are harmful to the Church, not only to the individual, but also to those that are around them. This is the reason why the Church is so concerned about doctrine, because doctrine not only can lead to the damnation of the individual that falls into false doctrine, but it can also divide the Church.
We care about doctrine because we have a well-worn path that Christ and the apostles and the saints have laid out for us that guides us to our salvation if we follow it. But when we have people who are saying, “Turn here” and “Turn there,” and they’re taking you off the path, they’re actually trying to lead you astray, even if they’re doing so innocently. So the Church has to guard against that.
Some of you may have read an essay I wrote recently about how I came to be Orthodox, and in there I told the story about when I first became aware or came to appreciate the significance of doctrine. This was when I was getting as far away from any semblance of doctrinal stability as I ever did as a Christian, when I joined a non-denominational church. I had just finished two years as a theology student, and this pastor, who actually had a Masters of Divinity in Theology, but actually managed to learn not very much about theology in the course of that education, asked me to write the doctrinal statement for the church, because they didn’t have one. Being young and probably lacking in much humility, I decided to go ahead and take up the task and write it, but at least I had enough sense to look at some other doctrinal statements rather than just pull it out of thin air.
So, coming from a Nazarene background, and also most of the people in this church having come from a Nazarene background, because this was from an area where it’s a historic Nazarene town, I got out the Nazarene manual and used the articles of faith that were there, supplemented it from a few things from the Salvation Army handbook of doctrine, and threw in a few things about the gifts of the Spirit, because this church was a charismatic church. Then I presented it to the pastor, and his response was, “Man! This is so negative! There’s all this stuff about sin!” Then he said, “It sounds like the Nazarene manual!” I said, “Well, yeah, a lot of it is from the Nazarene manual.”
So we had this long discussion about whether we should care about what people in the past have said, because he said, “God has a now word from the church. That’s that old stuff. That’s what people used to say, but God’s doing a new work in the church today, so we don’t need that old stuff.” Then, finally, when I left that denomination after a doctrinal issue actually flared up and I had reached the end of my tether, he told me I needed to “get off that doctrine stuff, ‘cause doctrine divides.”
Well, what I didn’t mention in my essay is what happened to that church after I left it. After I left it, maybe a year or so later, he left that church, and this church wound up being taken over by people who ascribe to what’s known as the “word of faith” movement, which is something kind of like Christian Science, if you know anything about that, but it’s basically having faith in your words and believing that you can speak things into existence and, for example, if you’re sick, you can just say, “I’m healthy, I’m healthy, I’m healthy,” because the Bible says that God wants to heal [you], so therefore you can be healed if you keep telling yourself that often enough.
There was a man in that church whose wife left him, and this man was obviously broken up by it and was seeking some spiritual solace from the leaders of this church. They told him, “Just stand in faith, because if you stand in faith, then she’s going to come back. All you have to do is believe is that God’s going to do it, and it’ll happen.” This guy, for months, was just praying, “God, bring her back. Please believe I’m standing in faith. My wife is coming back.” But finally there comes a day when he comes to the realization: his wife is not coming back, and he stops standing in faith and hoping that she’s going to come back.
What do they say to him, “We’re sorry that we misled you with our false and erroneous doctrine?” No! “The problem is with you. If you’d have just stood in faith maybe a little bit longer… God was just testing you. Maybe your wife would have come back, but you’ve given up. You didn’t have faith, so it’s your fault that your wife didn’t come back.” Imagine being that man and believing what these guys had to say, and how damaging that would be. You might even lose your faith in God, because none of it would make any sense because of the nonsense that these people had taught you.
This is how false doctrine hurts people. False doctrine damages people. It leads people astray. It divides the Church. The reason why the Orthodox Church is now a minority and we have this plethora of denominations in the United States is because people got off that path, began making stuff up, and everybody did what seemed right in their own eyes, as it said in the Book of Judges. You could name any doctrine you want, and you’ll find someone who’ll believe it. You can find thousands of different beliefs that will all claim that they’re tracing their beliefs to the Bible in this very city that we live in, because of false of doctrine, because they were misled by the Protestant Reformation and came to believe that they could read the Bible themselves and that God would show them the truth and they didn’t need to consult with Church tradition or see what the Church had always believed.
Another thing about doctrine is that sound doctrine is often not very popular. St. Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:1ff.
I charge thee, therefore, before God and the Lord Jesus Christ who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing in his kingdom: Preach the word, be it in season or out of season. Reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears, and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
The fact that the truth is often not the majority opinion does not make it any less the truth. If you want to find out what the truth is, you need to study Church history and study the Scriptures, and you can discover it. But the truth is not very popular, because it’s hard. It goes against human passions and human nature, so people don’t want to believe it. But that doesn’t make it any less true. People could choose not to believe in gravity, but if they jump off a building, then gravity is going to win that argument, because gravity is a reality whether you believe it or not.
What’s the purpose of doctrine? Again, St. Paul in 1 Timothy 1:5 says:
Now, the purpose of the commandment (and this is in the context of him discussing doctrine) is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk.
And in [1 Timothy] 4:16, he says:
Take heed unto thyself and unto the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee.
It’s not abstract. It’s at the core of what it means to be a Christian. It’s about having the right understanding about the faith, but not just that, but also to live it out. Our doctrine is not only what we say we believe, but it’s also what we show that we believe by how we live our lives.
Our doctrine comes from Christ. It is to guide us on the path of salvation. False doctrine leads people astray from that path, and it is for that reason that we oppose it. We don’t do it out of pride or arrogance. It’s not because we want to be the one people who are right. It’s because we want to be saved ourselves, and we want to save those around us.
It’s true that doctrine divides, but it divides in the way that a doctor will cut out a cancerous tumor to preserve the life and health of the patient. So take heed to doctrine. Learn what it is that we Orthodox Christians believe, and then live out that doctrine. Proclaim it to the world, for as St. Paul said, “In doing this, thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee.” Amen.