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Thursday, February 06, 2014

In Need of Analysis: Doctrine vs. Practice

Ever hear Christians complain that “We really need teaching that is more practical”, as if they never hear any? I’ve been hearing that complaint much of my life.

Most of the time it came from people who were listening to the same speakers I was listening to, speakers who, imperfectly but on a regular basis, attempted to take the teachings of Christ and the apostles and explain how they work out in the lives of believers today.

I’ve also regularly heard serious Christians lament that “Nobody wants to hear sound doctrine anymore”. That, in effect, today’s Christians want nothing but pseudo-spiritual, life-oriented, anecdote-driven blather from the platform instead of accurate and profound teaching.

I hope I’m not creating a straw man (or men) to swing away at, but it seems possible to me that both sides might tend to make an artificial distinction between doctrine and practice that is not entirely scriptural.

“Doctrine” simply means “teaching”. I don’t think anyone feels that “teaching” itself is intrinsically impractical, or we wouldn’t bother indoctrinating our kids (for that is what we are doing) to eat more vegetables than Sweet Tarts, to cross the road after looking both ways, to be careful of strangers and to avoid using words that hurt people’s feelings.

Doctrine can be totally practical.

But Christians who complain about “too much doctrine” from the platform are using the word in a more specific sense, I think. They’re using it to mean something along the lines of “sermons about stuff I find boring and can’t relate to”. And they may actually have a point when the speaker fails to draw any real-life conclusions at all from his text, or when his applications are brief, unrealistic, poorly thought out or fail to address obvious current issues. 

On the other hand, Christians who complain about Christians who complain about “too much doctrine” (whew!) are using the word in a more exclusive sense too, maybe. I wonder if they’re using it to mean something along the lines of “sermons about stuff I find really intellectually stimulating because I’ve read the Bible and all kinds of books, so I know what the speaker is talking about”.

With perhaps a tiny little unintended frisson of “which makes me better than those Philistines who don’t care about these things”. Maybe.

But these folks too may have a point: Teachers who overemphasize the practical run the risk of tickling ears, giving the audience milk when they need meat, or promoting real-life courses of action and lifestyle practices with insufficient scriptural background or evidence to produce conviction and give them authority in the minds and hearts of their hearers.

The apostle Paul doesn’t seem to make these sorts of distinctions in his letter to Titus. He uses the word “doctrine” three times in chapter 2, all of them to describe teaching with implications that are decidedly “practical”, if I may say so.

He tells Titus to “speak things which are fitting for sound doctrine” and then tells Titus what he means by this: Older men should be temperate, dignified and sound in faith; older women are to avoid gossip and heavy drinking, and to be reverent in their behavior; younger women are to work at home, be subject to their husbands, sensible and pure; younger men should be sensible, sound in speech, beyond reproach …

Stop me when I hit anything about Paul’s doctrine that doesn’t have practical consequences. Really.

Bondslaves, he goes on, are to be subject to their own masters, well-pleasing, not argumentative. They are not to steal on the job but to show good faith “in order that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in every respect”.

That’s interesting. It seems doctrine and ‘the practical’ are not opponents but are inextricably related to one another. This might explain why, when Paul or the Lord teach, we often get both together:

·         When the Pharisees complain in Luke 6 about the disciples’ practice (picking and eating grain on the Sabbath), Jesus’ response is doctrinal, referring them to their own Law (“have you not even read what David did … ?”).

·         In Luke 8, Jesus says, “nothing is hidden that shall not become evident” (doctrine), “therefore take care how you listen” (practice).

·         In 1 Timothy 2, Paul teaches that “Adam … was first created, and then Eve” (doctrine) as a basis for “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” (practice), following it with “it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (doctrine) as a basis for “women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint” (practice).

Doctrine and practice cannot and should not be separated.

Doctrine informs practice. Practice adorns doctrine.

We are unwise to make enemies of them by redefining them to mean things they really don’t.

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