2 Timothy 4:3-4
3 For the time will come when people 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. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
Doctrine in the Old Testament has the meaning of “what is received”1 or “something heard; news or announcement.”2 The idea of revealed teaching is chiefly expressed by “Tora,” which occurs 216 times and is rendered as “law.”
In the New Testament, two words are used in describing doctrine and they both mean “the act and the content of teaching.” It is used of the Pharisees’ teaching3 and several times in the Pastoral Epistles.4
It is clear from Scripture that doctrine refers to the body of teaching that is the truth claims of Christianity.5 This includes foundational principles – such as who Jesus is – and more minor principles – such as what Christians should or should not eat. Whether it is of crucial or secondary importance, all the teaching that comprises Christianity is called doctrine.
Is There Such a Thing as “Correct Doctrine”?
There are two levels to this question. First: is there such a thing as absolute truth (objective right and wrong)? Second: is Christianity a religion of absolute truth with one set of doctrine, or is it a collection of subjective philosophical advice that people can tinker and tailor with to fit their situation?
To clarify, absolute truth is that which corresponds to reality. It is the way things objectively, unequivocally are. Christianity is a religion of absolute truth because it is grounded in history. Either Jesus was born, crucified and raised or He was not. It cannot be both. Something cannot have occurred in history and yet still be “true for you but not for me.” We may not always know exactly how historical events occurred, but we can do our best to search for what truly took place. Only when we as Christians are in search of true history can we understand our faith in its entirety.
Once we see that Christianity and the Bible are historically reliable, we then need to understand God and what He has revealed to us. We must wrestle with another question: is the God of the Bible one who has a specific set of doctrines, or one who allows multiple variations of doctrine to fit each person’s need? The former is true, but the latter is more popular acceptable in culture.
Correcting Wrong Doctrine
The Bible makes clear that there is right doctrine and wrong doctrine. It is also clear that we should guard right doctrine and teach it carefully, while we are to rebuke false doctrine.6 In the Old Testament, there were God’s prophets and false prophets. When Satan tempts Jesus, he quotes Scripture, but he distorts it.7 We clearly see that there is a right way and a wrong way to use Scriptures. Jesus opposed these false teachers, no matter who they were and what their societal status may have been. Jesus modeled that He would confront anyone who taught wrong doctrine.
Most of the epistles include some sort of warning against false teachers and were sometimes written for the purpose of exhorting the readers to guard right doctrine. Even if the epistle does not include the words “false teacher” or “doctrine,” it is clear that many of the epistle writers were counteracting false teachers and their teaching.
- 1 Timothy 4:15-16; 1:3-7
- 2 Timothy 4:2-5
- Titus 1:9-16; 2:1
- 2 Peter 2:1-3
- Romans 16:17-19
- 1 Peter 3:15-18
In Galatians 2:11-21, we see how wrong thinking affects a church leader and has the potential to affect those under his influence. Paul rebukes Peter (who was with Jesus, and one of the early church leaders!) because of his bad doctrine, which was affecting him and his hearers. Specifically, Peter feared the ‘circumcision group’ (a group teaching bad doctrine) and was being influenced to believe that Gentiles needed to behave like Jews to truly be saved. Because of this, Peter did not eat with the Gentiles. When Paul “saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” he rebuked Peter. Paul knew that if Peter started believing another gospel (observance to the law) that this would be very detrimental to both Peter and others that he influenced.
We are to be like our Father in thought, attitude and action. That means that we cannot understand Him enough. We must commit our lives to learning about Him, being willing to change our thinking about any aspect of life. This only happens by pursuing and guarding right doctrine.
Guarding Doctrine and the Canonization of the Bible
Even though the Bible we read today was not canonized until the 4th century, God’s Truth – which was written in the letters that circulated the early Church – was strictly guarded. The New Testament documents did not become authoritative for the early Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; rather, the Church included them in its canon because it already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and apostolic authority.8 Therefore, the only thing that has changed is not that we have the complete Scripture (because we have always had the revelation of how to love God and others) it was just that the people guarded the truth that was revealed to them up to that point.
To be sure, the formation of the Bible does not guard it from being distorted; it just solidifies what should not be distorted. It sets parameters on what should be protected. It actually gives us a specific task. Rather than guarding ‘truth’ that is indeterminate, God tells us what is true and says, “Guard it.”
Major and Secondary Issues of Doctrine
Many ask, “Can I just focus on the major issues of doctrine and not worry about the smaller stuff?” The Bible does show that there is a hierarchy of learning. However, it is never seen in Scripture that we ought to focus on more important matters and not worry about the less important. In fact, whenever the Bible shows a difference between the two, it is not to show that there is such a hierarchy, but to reveal the wrong understanding of hierarchy.
- Matthew 23:23-24
An argument could be that in this text we witness Jesus Himself say that there are some matters of the law that are more important than others. This would mean that some teachings of God are more important than others. For the reader to stop there would be exegetically irresponsible. As we read the context in addition to the affirmation of the end of v. 23, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former,” it is clear that Jesus’ point was not to show that there are more important teachings than others in the Scriptures, but that if you are to practice the smallest of teachings, how do you not practice the major strands of doctrine?
Jesus’ assumption in this text is twofold: first, that the professing believer understands both small and large teachings in Scripture. Second, you should not practice one and neglect the other. He never assumes that one should take credence. It would be unbiblical to say that Jesus teaches us to focus on “major” doctrines versus “minor.”
Why Even Bother?
Even people who dearly love Jesus often say: “We can’t know everything about Scripture. How do we know who is right on what issue?” “Why even bother trying to fully understand the book of Revelation when all we need to know is that we win in the end?” “I don’t want to make my devotional time overly-intellectual.” “I would rather trust the Spirit than analyze a sermon.”
Although we are to be sympathetic to believers with such baggage, it is also our duty as to help them understand that this kind of thinking leads to people saying that God gave us Scriptures but did not mean for us to understand it. This fatalistic thinking is unbiblical.
Although we cannot know all things, we can know some things. We might get discouraged because of the complex nature of God’s Word, but to simply be hands-off is bad stewardship. We cannot allow disagreements from other denominations about a doctrine discourage us from understanding more about God and His ways.
Truth and Insight Are Not Synonymous
Be weary of teachers that interpret the Bible in a new and innovative way. Maybe you have heard someone say, “I like this or that teacher because they present the Scriptures in a way that I have never heard before” or “I am amazed at how I can get something different out of a passage each time.” The danger is not these statements themselves, but that neither of these statements asks the question, “Is what I am hearing true?” The person seems to focus more on new insight and fresh ideas than critically assessing if this is what Scripture actually teaches.
- 2 Timothy 4:3-4
Does Knowing Too Much Hinder Your Affection for Jesus?
No, it informs your worship! Knowing more about God and His story allows us to better understand our faith and to worship Him more clearly. As God designed it to be, our mind and our heart work in sync; what we know affects how we feel. The epistles’ designs even demonstrate this. They give teaching about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, etc. (the indicative) and then instruction on how to live in light of this teaching (the imperative).
What Guarding Right Doctrine is Not
Sadly, if the pursuit of right doctrine is not done in a godly manner, it can bring about discord and idol worship. Discord occurs when people either do not rebuke with humility or do not receive correction with humility. The result is fractured relationships. Based on the dreadful experience, the rebuked person can very easily end up approaching Scripture in a skewed manner. However, when people disagree with humility, damaged relationships and skewed Bible study are not the result. Disagreements do not have to cause discord and hinder people from pursuing sound doctrine. Those who disagree in a godly manner can diverge and still have dialogue because the goal is glorifying God, and edification of the body. We need to pursue godliness and disagree with humility (without resulting in discord).
Another danger is idol worship. The Bible is clear that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.9 Paul is teaching that knowing something in itself is meaningless – or harmful – if it is not accompanied by love. The result is that the person will become boastful and not demonstrate love.
Having biblically sound doctrine allows us to maximize our capacity to worship God. Worshipping God and building up of the body are the focus; this is why Satan tries to fill us with lies about the importance of growing in this area.
Why Do People Believe it is O.K. to be Biblically Illiterate?
- Satan’s job is to deceive.
- We are lazy.
- We do not want to offend anyone or seem arrogant. Therefore, we live our lives as practical postmodernists who say there is not absolute truth.
- What are practical ways you can begin to search and guard sound doctrine?
- Have you ever been told something about Scripture only to later find out that it was actually unbiblical?
2 Timothy 4:3-4
How does this study reinforce your belief in the gospel?
- Deuteronomy 32:2; Job 11:4; Proverbs 4:2; Isaiah 29:24
- Isaiah 28:9
- Matthew 15:9; Mark 7:7
- 1 Timothy; 2 Timothy, Titus
- Romans 6:17; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29
- 1 Timothy 4:16; Titus 1:9-16
- Matthew 4:1-11
- Bruce, F.F. New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?
- 1 Corinthians 8:1