Paul wrote the letters we refer to as 1st and 2nd Timothy to his young colleague Timothy, who had been tasked with organizing house churches into functioning congregations. Paul hoped to be there to assist Timothy in person, but just in case he was delayed 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 churchof the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:14-15)
The directions given to Timothy, therefore, are applicable to all churches in general, and so also to us. And one of the first topics Paul instructs Timothy about is to “command certain people not to teach false doctrines…(1:3) and “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel…” (1:11)
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 have encountered churches that claim, “We don’t teach doctrine, we just preach Jesus.” But the moment you ask them—‘Well, who is Jesus, and what did he do?’—the only way to answer is to begin to lay out doctrine.
But Paul does not simply say that right doctrine is necessary, but it is “sound.” The Greek word Paul uses here means healthy rather than diseased. This is Paul’s way to say that wrong doctrine eats away at your spiritual health. Or, to say it another way, if you lack spiritual vitality and fruit, if you are not courageous enough, or joyful enough, or if you are not filled with love and hope, it may be because your grasp of Biblical doctrine is shallow and thin, or distorted and mistaken.
This came home forcibly to me many years ago when I spent a number of weeks working through a Bible study on the attributes of God by Warren and Ruth Myers. What was so revealing were a couple of application questions: 1) What specific false thoughts or disturbing emotions hinder me when I don’t trust (fully grasp) that God has this particular attribute? 2) Although my conscious mind may agree that God has this attribute, does my outward life demonstrate that he is like this? (Experiencing God’s Attributes, NavPress, 1978.)
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, get a better work-leisure balance, to block negative and guilty thoughts, to exercise and 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. (Philippians 4:8-9). In effect Paul 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, and learning, grasping, rejoicing in, and resting in the truths and doctrines of the Word of God.
So learn Biblical doctrine—for your health.