Is Sound Doctrine a Moral Obligation? (Part One)

Is Sound Doctrine a Moral Obligation? (Part One)
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 2:19pm

Do we have a moral obligation to believe everything the Bible teaches? I will approach this question from two directions. First, I will set forth (here) what the New Testament itself says about this; then (in a later note) I will answer the question based on the nature of the Bible.

What does the New Testament say about our responsibility toward its teaching? Here I will survey how it uses the two basic Greek words that are usually translated as “teaching” or “doctrine.” First, let’s see what it says about the didachē. I am not referring to the early second-century writing usually classified as one of the Apostolic Fathers. Rather, I am referring to the Greek word itself as it appears several times in the NT, which is the only didachē that is relevant to this issue.

From a general and positive perspective, Acts 2:42 says that from its very beginning the church continued steadfastly in “the apostles’ teaching [didachē].” In Titus 1:9 Paul instructs us that the elders of the church must be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching [didachē; note the definite article, the teaching].” This will enable them to instruct the church in “sound doctrine,” says Paul. In Romans 6:17 Paul thanks God that the Roman Christians “became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching [didachē] to which you were committed” [NASB, here and elsewhere, unless noted].

In all these texts the didachē is presented as something which God expects us to receive, believe, and put into practice. In Romans 6:17 he says the didachē is something to which we have been “committed,” or “entrusted” (NIV), or “delivered” (NKJV). Literally, we were “handed over” to this form of teaching. What does this mean? Some believe the concept comes from the world of slavery, the specific image being the occasion when a slave changes ownership and is “delivered over” to a new master. This thought is appropriate in the context, but it should be supplemented by the following idea as well. When we became God’s slaves, he delivered us over to the body of doctrine which he has revealed through his apostles and prophets, and instructed us to conform ourselves to it. This is our job as his slaves, and is in accord with the references to “righteousness” in verses 16 and 18. By shaping our minds and deeds to the pattern or mold of sound doctrine, we achieve the righteousness that is characteristic of slaves of God.

In any case the idea of moral obligation to accept and submit to the didachē is patently clear.

The other relevant uses of didachē speak negatively of false teaching, which we have a moral obligation to avoid. In Romans 16:17 Paul refers to “the teaching [didachē] which you have learned, and commands us to “keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to” those teachings, and to “turn away from them.” The writer of Hebrews commands us thus: “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings” [didachē].” In Titus 1:9 Paul says that when elders hold fast to “the teaching,” they will then “be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”

In these texts we find the counterpart to the above, namely, the moral obligation to be on guard against and to reject any false teaching, i.e., all doctrine that is contrary to the teachings of the Word of God.

In addition to these texts that use the word didachē, there are several that use its synonym, didaskalia, also in such a way that we are clearly placed under a moral obligation to receive, perceive, and believe the teaching thus indicated.

Most uses of didaskalia occur in the Pastoral Epistles, where Paul exhorts Christian servants to take heed to their doctrine and praises them for faithfully teaching it. He tells Timothy that when he as a young preacher shares Paul’s teaching with his fellow Christians, he “will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine [didaskalia] which you have been following” (1 Tim. 4:6). He then exhorts Timothy to “pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching [didaskalia]; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:16).

In his letter to Titus, Paul reminds another young preacher that elders have the responsibility to “exhort in sound doctrine [didaskalia]” (1:9). He commands Titus himself to “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine [didaskalia]” (2:1), and “in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine [didaskalia]” (2:7).

On the other side of the coin, in his letters Paul frequently uses this word in warning us against the dangers of false teaching. In Ephesians 4 he says that one result of becoming spiritually mature is that “we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (4:13). “As a result we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine [didaskalia], by the trickery of men, and craftiness in deceitful scheming” (4:14). In Col. 2:22 he warns us not to conform to “the commandments and teachings [didaskalia] of men.” In 1 Tim. 1:9-10 he warns us against a whole list of specific sins “and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching [didaskalia].” False teachings, he says, are “doctrines [didaskalia] of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine [didaskalia] conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing” (1 Tim. 6:3-4). Paul condemns those who “will not endure sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:3), and those who contradict it (Titus 1:9).

I do not think it is necessary to explain in detail how all of these texts about the didachē or didaskalia without question put us under a moral obligation to learn, believe, and implement the teachings that God has provided for us. If this is the case, I see no alternative to saying that accepting, believing, and implementing false teachings is a sin. This applies to whatever subject about which God has spoken, including his instructions about the visible church.

One might ask, though, whether all these texts as cited above actually refer to the Bible. Can the words didachē and didaskalia, as used in these texts, be identified with the Bible? Let us consider one other text that refers to the didaskalia, 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching [didaskalia].” In this passage Paul first (verse 15) refers to the “sacred writings” upon which Timothy was nourished in his youth, which must refer to the Old Testament. But then in verse 16 he speaks of “ALL Scripture”—which I believe must refer to the New Testament writings in addition to the OT. We should not forget that Paul refers to a statement recorded in Luke 10:7 as Scripture (1 Tim. 5:18), and that Peter refers to the writings of Paul himself as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).

In view of Jesus’ promises to empower his apostles with the Spirit of Truth (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15), we should not be reluctant to think of their teachings as “the Word of God.” This is how Paul thought of his own teaching (1 Thess. 2:13). Paul says in Eph. 2:20 that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (i.e., the NT prophets; see 3:5), which must refer to their teaching, which we have in the form of the New Testament writings.

In a Facebook note that will follow this one, I will again ask the question, do we have a moral obligation to believe everything the Bible teaches? In that second note I will deal with some of the more theological and/or philosophical issues that are involved, but I will come to the same conclusion: whatever is contrary to the teaching of Scripture is false teaching, and it is a sin to embrace false teaching.

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