Is Sound Doctrine a Moral Obligation? (Part Two)
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 2:22pm
I wrote an earlier note called “Does It Matter What Church We Attend?” What I said in that note stirred up quite an active discussion, with some responders consigning me to some version of theological (if not literal) Tartarus. That’s OK; I don’t expect everyone to agree with my (always) completely rational and Biblical answers! I do like to avoid being misunderstood or misinterpreted, however. Thus I have chosen to follow up on that note with a two-part essay that addresses the main concern of my critics, i.e., that I pontificated that being a member of a non-Restoration Movement church is a sin. In Part One of this note I cited the Biblical teaching about sound doctrine that leads me to that conclusion. In this note (Part Two of the essay) I will build the same case from a slightly different perspective.
The main question is still this: Do we have a moral obligation to believe (and act upon) everything the Bible teaches? (On the issue of moral obligation in the intellectual sphere, see W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous [IVP, 1998].)
Philosophically, how we answer this question all comes back to what we believe about the nature of the Bible. Is it the Word of God, or not? By “Word of God,” I mean a clear and understandable communication, in human language, from God’s mind to our minds as human beings. Regardless of how we may explain the mechanics of such communication (in terms of revelation and inspiration), if the Bible is in any way the Word of God in the general sense described here, then my thesis is that we (all human beings) have a moral obligation to receive it as such, to make every effort to understand it, and to conform our lives to it.
This would apply to any such communication from God, if there should happen to be any in addition to the Bible. According to the Biblical records, in Bible times such communication came to certain individuals and to certain groups on numerous occasions. Many believe that such communication still occurs outside the Bible, whether it be (e.g.) in the form of tradition, continuing prophetic revelation, or voices in the night. I personally reject any such post-Biblical revelation, but that is a separate issue. For our purposes, whether tradition (e.g., The Didache) is authoritative is irrelevant.
Of course, if one does not believe there is such a thing as verbal communication from God, the whole issue (“Do we have a moral obligation to believe the Bible?”) is moot. The answer to the question would be an obvious NO. But if we do believe it is such a communication from God, then the answer has to be YES, regardless of what we believe about sola Scriptura.
It is not my purpose here to attempt to establish my belief that the Bible is indeed the Word of God. That is something that is addressed by and established by a branch of study called apologetics, or Christian evidences. I teach a seminary course called “Basic Apologetics,” in which I lay out the case for this belief; but for our purposes here I will assume that the case can be made and that we can approach the Bible as the Word of God in the general sense described above.
If the Bible is indeed the Word of God, then the question arises: What are we supposed to do with it? This depends on the nature of its content. Certainly there are all kinds of writing in Scripture, such as praise to God, prayers to God, promises from God, commands to be obeyed, affirmations of truth to be believed. Here I will focus on the last two. These are encapsulated in the familiar slogan, “The Bible and the Bible alone is our only rule of faith and practice.” To say that the Bible is our rule of faith means that any assertion, statement, or truth-claim that it makes is in fact true, and that we are obligated to believe it. To say that it is our rule of practice means that any applicable instructions concerning conduct have absolute authority, and that we are obligated to obey them. Such instructions may be in the form of commandments, law, examples, or apostolic precedent.
We usually have no difficulty understanding how the latter (law) elements function: God commands; we obey. The biggest problem we have here is determining which commandments apply to which eras or groups. But we do understand this: if the Bible is the Word of God, then the applicable commands or instructions must be obeyed. We have a moral obligation to do so. NOT to obey is what the Bible calls SIN (1 John 3:4).
My thesis here is that, basically, we have a parallel moral obligation to accept the truth of every statement in the Bible. Not to accept something—anything—affirmed in Scripture is a sin. For example, not be accept the Biblical testimony to the deity of Christ is a sin. Not to accept its testimony concerning his virgin birth, his bodily resurrection, his second coming, etc., is a sin. Not to accept the Bible’s teaching that God is a God not only of love but also of wrath is a sin. Not to accept the Bible’s teaching about the purpose of government (as in Romans 13) is a sin. Not to accept the Bible’s teaching about gender roles is a sin.
But here the issue will always be raised, “What if we do not agree on the meaning of the relevant Biblical texts?” This is a serious question, but for our immediate purposes it is irrelevant. If the Bible is the Word of God, then we have a moral obligation to believe everything it affirms—period. The question of what it means is important, but secondary.
Still, it is a question that must now be faced. If we both agree that every affirmation in Scripture is the Word of God, that we have a moral obligation to believe it, and that not to believe it is a sin, then what happens when we disagree about the meaning of a certain affirmation? As dictated by logic, if our two understandings are contradictory, then at least one of them must be wrong. Those who have a wrong understanding and believe that wrong understanding are thereby committing a sin. Most of us understand this when we are talking about certain fundamental doctrines, such as the deity of Christ and his bodily resurrection. But then when we get down to (what are considered to be) less crucial Biblical subjects, such as gender roles and the visible church, many will change their approach altogether. Such things are relegated to “matters of opinion,” and no interpretation is considered to be wrong—and thus sinful.
But are not Biblical statements about such issues just as much the Word of God as is testimony about the deity of Christ? How, then, can our moral obligation to believe their intended meaning just disappear?
This leads me to what I believe is another fundamental fact about the nature of the Bible. If it is indeed the Word of God, then its individual statements have one specific right meaning which we, as creatures made in God’s image, are capable of discerning and are intended to discern—indeed, are obligated to discern. Not to discern that meaning, and thus not to believe it and implement it, is a sin. To say that human beings are incapable of this is to say either that God has failed in his attempt to create us in his image, or that he has failed in his attempt to communicate with us.
I will now apply this to the issue that generated this discussion, i.e., the Biblical teaching about the visible church. Some of the NT teaching about the visible church is in the form of affirmations, or statements about what the church is or is intended to be; some it its teaching is in the form of commands or other types of authoritative instruction (such as examples or apostolic precedent). Sometimes the teaching is a kind of combination of these factors, in that the New Testament describes God’s plan for the church and shows how it was actually implemented by the apostles in the first few decades after Pentecost. In both the Book of Acts and in the Epistles we can see the teaching about church government (e.g., how elders and bishops are the same office, and how each congregation had a plurality of such), about church membership (e.g., how baptism by immersion was always a part of the conversion experience), and about church practices (e.g., how the Lord’s Supper was celebrated each Lord’s Day).
If the Bible is what we accept it to be—namely, the understandable Word of God—then these matters are the true teachings about how the visible church was set up by God via the apostles at the beginning. We have a moral obligation to accept these truths about the true nature of the visible church.
An important part of the Biblical testimony is what is called apostolic precedent. Here we must ask another question: Was God working through the apostles or not? Was their foundational work in establishing the church (as we know it in their actual teachings, and in the recorded practices sanctioned by their authoritative approval, e.g., Acts 20:7) intended to establish a pattern for the church for all times? If we believe the Spirit of Christ was truly working through them, then the answer is YES. Thus we have a moral obligation to accept the inspired record of apostolic teaching and leadership. Not to accept it is a sin.
It would thus be true, according to my understanding of the nature of the Bible, that most of the Christian world is “living in sin” on this matter. This seems to be a very harsh judgment. But let us go back to the parallel introduced earlier between believing Biblical truth and obeying Biblical law. Regarding the latter, we all agree that in an absolute sense “there is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). “Fall short” here is present tense; it is an ongoing shortcoming. This is why Paul declares that we are constantly justified by our ongoing faith, not by how well we live up to the requirements of our law code (Rom. 3:28).
For example, part of the NT law code is Romans 13:1, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.” We have a moral obligation to obey this command, which means we have a moral obligation to obey every “law of the land,” including speed limit laws. Is there anyone reading this who never breaks such laws? We know we should never do so, but we are careless and presumptuous, and usually don’t pay close attention to our speedometers. Here is where we must absolutely trust in Romans 3:28: that we are justified by grace through our faith in Jesus and not by how well we are obeying Romans 13:1. But we still believe that Paul’s command is authoritative, and that it is a sin to break the speed laws; and we are trying to do better.
What applies to Biblical commands also applies to Biblical truth. It is all the Word of God. But who of us even knows everything the Bible says, much less understands it in its God-intended meaning, consciously believes it is true, and makes a conscious effort to put it into practice? We do indeed have a moral obligation to do all of this, but in this area Romans 3:23 is still true: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” No one has absolutely pure doctrine about any subject, including the visible church, despite our desire to do so. And we should never give up this desire for it, and our pursuit of it! But in the meantime, grace covers our unintentional (and even perhaps willful) false beliefs: we are justified by faith, not by how well we understand all aspects of Biblical teaching.
Here is the parallel: It is true that we are justified by faith, not by the absence of sin in our lives—but our sin is still sin! And it is also true that we are justified by faith, not by the absence of all false beliefs in our lives—but false beliefs are still false!
To say it another way, the grace that covers our doctrinal errors no more relieves us of the moral obligation to pursue doctrinal purity, than the grace that covers our sins relieves us of our moral obligation to pursue absolute holiness.