My insistence on sound doctrine as an essential element in Christian maturity has, more than once, spurred people to call me a Pharisee, either directly or by insinuation. People making that connection also sometimes point out the perils of dead orthodoxy, reminding me that the Lord cares more about how I live than about my finer points of theology. In some respects, I understand their concerns. And, in one sense, I agree with them. After all, Paul’s advice to Timothy applies to everyone–not just pastors:
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. ~~1 Timothy 4:16 (ESV)
Yet the apparent hostility to the idea that sound doctrine (by which I mean the teachings of the Bible) matters troubles me. The rallying cry to disregard doctrine “for the sake of unity” often tolerates (or even promotes) violations of Scripture such as Contemplative Prayer, pragmatism, women in leadership and the acceptance and celebration of homosexuality. Some who bristle at the word “doctrine” believe these are secondary matters. Others still recognize that the Bible does prohibit homosexual behavior, but increasing numbers of evangelicals now question the “traditional interpretations” of “the six clobber passages.”
Those who minimize concern over the erosion of doctrine typically equate conservative Christians with the Pharisees of Jesus’ earthly ministry, charging that we live by the “dead letter” of Scripture rather than by the Spirit of the Living God. I shall resist the temptation to embark on a lengthy discussion of their hypocrisy in making that judgment. Instead, I want to give attention to their implication that God’s Holy Word is a “dead letter” that requires human intervention (such as Contemplative prayer or pragmatic evangelism strategies) to revive it.
Hebrews 4:12 describes God’s Word as “living and active.” Additionally, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 teaches both that the Spirit of the Living God authored each word of Scripture, and that Scripture adequately gives us all the teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness necessary for serving Him. Far from being a “dead letter” that opposes the Spirit, the Bible is His sword, operating by His power.
The Pharisees dogmatically claimed that they adhered strictly to God’s Word, and fiercely objected to the “new” doctrines that Jesus proclaimed. In reality, however, Jesus routinely brought them back to the original intent of His Word, rebuking them for corrupting it with their traditions, loopholes and embellishments. For example:
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” ~~Matthew 15:1-9 (ESV)