Utter it in some churches and you’ll be damned (no, “damn” is not the word.) This is a word that causes many pastors, Sunday school teachers and deacons to cringe (no, “deacons” is not the word either.) It is such a catalytic word that it has triggered military action over the centuries and overthrown entire countries. This simple, two syllable word has caused churches to splinter and normally loving Christians to, well, cuss.
What is this controversial word that has separated the best of friends, divided the strongest of churches and even started the bloodiest of wars? This dangerous word is doctrine.
Doctrine has become a curse word in many cul-de-sacs of ministry culture.I run into youth leaders, pastors and Christians all the time who say stuff like, “Doctrine and theology are impractical, irrelevant and divisive. We just focus on Jesus.”
Some even accuse this word of assault and battery on the body of Christ. They point the finger of judgment at this simple word and call it the root of division in the church, the cause of countless in-house battles.
Those who hate this word sound a lot like prosecuting attorneys, vehemently and vociferously attacking the need for Christians to know, live and defend truth. According to these angry quadrants of Christendom, the old school of non-negotiable fundamentals of the faith should be swapped out for a more contemporary quest for soul unity on a deeper, mystical level with our fellow sojourners on our collective yellow brick road hike toward nirvanic spirituality. Or, they say “we should just focus on the practical aspect of our faith with our teens to the exclusion of the deeper, less relevant truths of the Christian faith.”
Those who imply such things need to re-examine the New Testament. The divine mission to study, understand and apply Biblical doctrine to our daily lives is at the core of the quest of Christianity. It is the pathway upon which we come into the presence and power of God. It is the map with which we find God himself.
Here are some things you may or may not know about doctrine:
1. The word “doctrine” actually means “teaching.”
This word is used about fifty times in the New Testament. Again and again Paul the apostle challenges Christians to know the teachings of God as described and defended in Scripture. These teachings are not man’s teachings, but God’s. These are the truths that God wanted us to know about him. Through these teachings we can come to understand the basic truths that define the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, his death, burial and resurrection, the inerrancy of Scripture, the return of Christ and more.
But for some reason there are a number of teachers and leaders who have a really hard time with the unflinching proclamation of these basic truths. Paul the Apostle predicted that this would happen. He writes,
“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” 2 Timothy 4:3.
That time is now.
We live in a relativistic society where declaring any statement or creed to be absolute truth is viewed as cultic or closed-minded. Some of that relativism is seeping into the church like overflowing sewage…and we are the plumbers called to stop it. Too many times we are so busy with pizza parties, overnighters, missions trips and just “hanging out with kids” to clean the mess up. But the stench is getting stronger.According to According to Barna, 70% of teenagers currently attending church don’t believe you can know absolute truth1. Meanwhile some youth leaders are more worried about who is going to lead the games at camp this summer than what exactly their teens believe about God.
2. There are good doctrines and bad ones.
Not every doctrine is good. There are doctrines taught by demons (1Timothy 4:1) through false teachers (1 Timothy 4:2.) These doctrines are not in line with what the Bible says. They may sound true and reasonable but upon close examination they are in contradiction to what the Bible clearly teaches.
In the early New Testament church there were several false doctrines that were being foisted upon some in the church. The book of Galatians was written to counteract the false doctrine that salvation was not received simply by faith alone but had to be accompanied by circumcision and a willingness to obey the 10 commandments. Paul was so angry he wrote these words to the Galatians, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” Later in Galatians 5:12 he writes these rated “R” words to those who wanted to add circumcision as a condition to salvation, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” Ouch. That’s a man who is serious about good doctrine and seriously upset with the bad ones.
What are a few of the false doctrines that some of our teens may be buying into? Maybe they believe that Jesus had sinned while on earth. Perhaps they are convinced that there must be a certain degree of good deeds to make it into heaven. Maybe they don’t believe in the Trinity. Some of the may be buying into The DaVinci Code or The Bible Code or some other kooky code. Maybe the code they are buying into is the postmodern code that a person can’t really be certain of absolute truth.
On the major issues of God, God’s Word, God’s Son and the Gospel (I call these the four “Go” truths that every Christian teen should know) how do your teens score when it comes to understanding the Biblical view?
3. God calls us to guard the good ones and resist the bad ones.
Paul ends his epistle to young Timothy with this challenge, “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith. Grace be with you” 1 Timothy 6:20,21.
Timothy was called of God to guard the truth at all costs. We are called to do the same.
I used to have a “guard” dog named Mitzy. She was a German Shepherd/Boxer mix. Sound intimidating? She wasn’t. Little kids would ride her like a horse and everybody who came into contact with her got a good licking. She was a nice dog to play with but not to defend our property…or so we thought.
One night during an intense Colorado snow storm Mitzy left her heated dog house to investigate some strange noises in the middle of the night. Two men were trying to break into our house through the garage. Mitzy attacked both of them with such a fury that only one could escape. The other was badly mauled by Mitzy. A neighbor across the street who had heard the commotion called the police and the man was arrested and taken to jail. When the police knocked on our door and explained to us what had happened to the man we were shocked. Mitzy had morphed from a friendly pet to a fierce guard dog. After the police took this man away and we all calmed down we all went back to bed. All of us except Mitzy.
That night Mitzy stayed at the gate in the howling wind of a Colorado snow storm. She didn’t go back to her dog house to warm up. By the time morning came around she was covered in snow at our front gate, waiting and watching, almost freezing to death herself.
We had no idea how good of a dog that Mitzy was until that fateful winter night.
Why was Mitzy so fierce in her attack? Why was she willing to risk her own safety to stand guard in the freezing snow? The answer was simple. She loved us. She was loyal to us. She was going to do what it took to protect us. This dog was normally the nicest dog on the block, but when it came time to protect what she loved she had no problem baring her teeth and sinking them deep.
In the same way we as Christians should be the most loving people on the planet. But if we love God we are going to stand guard over what he loves. And there will be times we should bare our teeth and attack false teaching in our youth ministries.
Paul reminds us that this whole thing called the Christian life is a battle in 2 Corinthians 10:4,5 when he writes, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
Satan has come to “steal, kill and destroy.” One of the ways that he does this is through false teaching. When Satan, the vicious thief, tries to break into the minds of our teens and build a stronghold, we bare our teeth and defend our students at all costs.
4. Essential doctrines should unite us, not divide us.
In Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17 he is begging his Father for the unity of the church. He is asking God that we “may be one” as he and the Father are one. In the middle of this prayer Jesus cries out, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” He knew what was going to set them apart and unite them together was the truth of God’s word. Our common beliefs about God weld our hearts in true unity.
We may have different beliefs about modes of baptism or when or how Jesus will return. There may be mini-skirmishes in the body of Christ about whether or not tongues are for today or whether we should have a dispensational, covenant, Calvinistic or Arminian theological framework. But what unites us are the great doctrines of who God is, what Jesus did, how a person is saved and the why we can be fully confident in God’s inerrant word. These doctrines are often described in creeds.
A Creed is “A formal statement of religious belief; a confession of faith.” In Christendom it is a listing of basic bullet points that Christians believe.
The earliest creeds of the church are right in the Bible. Check these out:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
“Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” 1 Timothy 3:16
The early church formed some creeds that still stand strong today. Perhaps the most famous is The Apostles’ Creed. Take time to read it in today’s language:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. AMEN
Later on as heresy formed in the church these creeds evolved and expanded. The Nicene Creed was developed by church leaders in the 4th Century. Take the time to read this powerful creed:
“We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
Since these creeds were chiseled out, countless creeds and catechisms have been developed over the centuries to help Christians understand, master and defend the basic beliefs of orthodox Christianity. God lovers have forged and formed these truths into bullet points for us to know the basic doctrines of Christianity. So all of this begs the question…do you know them? Do your teens?
To those who say that postmoderns reject absolute truth so we must approach the Christian life from solely an experiential point of view, I remind them about the whole concept of repentance. In the Greek language the word “repent” literally means “to change one’s mind”. Our calling as preachers and leaders of youth is to help our teens to repent. If postmoderns reject absolute truth, then through loving persuasion, gentle instruction and persistent prayer we are to help them to change their minds about truth so that they then can change their minds about God, His word and the basic truths of the Christian faith.
As we train teens to know what they believe and why they believe, we are to equip them to live it out in real and relevant ways. Biblical instruction without practical application leads to the breeding of hypocrites. And if there’s anything God despises more than heresy, it’s hypocrisy.
The “D” word is a good word. It is the path upon which we discover our God and ourselves. It is the compass that points the way to truly knowing our Creator, and gives us the courage that the pathway to that discovery is the right one. It defines us as believers and defies every false teaching that stands against it. Doctrine is the unifying foundation upon which we, the true church of Jesus Christ, stand in humble gratitude to God for the great realities that he has revealed to us through his awesome book.
The devil be damned for trying to make doctrine a bad word.
1Third Millenium Teens, Ventura, CA: Barna Research Group, 1999.