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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Practical Doctrine, and Other Clarifications

The sermon didn’t really go on until 2:00.
It just felt that way.
Growing up in and out of various local churches, I often heard the complaint (usually from women) that certain Bible teachers were hard to sit through because all they did was teach doctrine when what the church really needed was something more practical: the Bible applied to everyday life.

I must confess that at the time I was a little unsympathetic. I figured it was kind of a “girl way” of conceding they weren’t spiritually up to the job of making the effort to decipher what the speaker was saying. You know, like “We don’t do math.” That kind of thing. I thought, “Why don’t you just ask your husbands at home then?”

I wasn’t always as nice as I am today. Hard to believe, I know.

In retrospect, asking their husbands at home might not have been particularly satisfying, especially if the husbands reacted the way I did. But I suspect my failure to understand their distress was primarily due to the fact that neither the complainers nor their listeners ever stopped to first define the terms they were using.

So let’s do that.

Doctrine, Doctrine, Give Me the News

The word “doctrine” is used in various English Bibles to translate four different Greek words: (1) logos, usually translated “word”, rendered as “doctrine” only in Hebrews 6:1; (2) didaskalia and (3) didachē, two related words which refer to the act or content of teaching; and (4) heterodidaskaleō, a compound used only once in 1 Timothy 1:3 that really means “other teaching”, or a deviation from standard teaching.

What is important to observe is that the word is used so broadly in the New Testament as to make nonsense of complaints about “doctrine” being boring, dry or impractical. In the sense the word is used in our Bibles, ALL the instruction in scripture is “doctrine”, whether by precept, illustration or historical example, including and especially the practical stuff. Notice how Paul uses the word when writing to Timothy (where, not coincidentally, most references to “doctrine” occur):
“The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine …”
Paul refers to various kinds of active misbehavior as “contrary to sound doctrine”. What could possibly be more practical than the teaching that murder, sexual immorality, lying and disrespecting parents are displeasing to God? If that’s not boots-on-the-ground moral direction, I don’t know what is.

Ministering Questions

We are forced to conclude that it is sloppy, anti-scriptural thinking to set the concepts of doctrine and practice against one another. They are not at odds. When we are using the word “doctrine” as scripture uses it, it is evident that doctrine includes practice.

But of course it is not THIS sort of very practical “doctrine” the church ladies of my youth were carping about. If I recall correctly, most of the time they were complaining about something that doesn’t properly deserve the name “doctrine” at all.

Notice in the same passage that Paul contrasts doctrine not with practice but with conjectural theology:
“Remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.”
The “stewardship from God that is by faith” stands in contrast to the habit of some Bible teachers to engage in what Paul calls “speculations”. Speculations are not heterodidaskaleō, or “different doctrine”; they are not necessarily heretical or even opposed to the truth. They are simply unprofitable because they can’t be confirmed authoritatively. As the old KJV aptly put it, they “minister questions”. They are ephemeral and insubstantial. You leave a meeting wondering what on earth you just heard and what it could possibly mean to your life.

Provable, Practical or Conjectural?

In fact, a fair number of sermons I heard in my youth actually promoted speculations aplenty. Don’t get me wrong: I have no objection to typology; in fact I quite like it. But I like it to the extent that you can establish a type clearly from within scripture and point to some genuine New Testament realization of that type. I am not at all fond of the sort of typology that plucks possible meanings out of thin air and invests them with the authority of gospel truth. I also have no objection to history, be it in the form of genealogies or anything else, provided it goes somewhere provable and practical. Which is to say, provided it ends doctrinally.

After all, if we cannot say with some degree of certainty whether a particular passage teaches X or Y, we (or at the least the poor, suffering congregation) are best served by moving on to something of which they CAN be certain. I think that’s what Paul has in mind in instructing Timothy: spend time on things that matter (or should matter) to the people you are speaking to, not on things that are esoteric or on matters only of personal interest. The point is to build up our fellow believers, not leave them in confusion.

Who’s On First?

So work with me here: A good number of the visiting speakers and not a few of the local elders thought speculation was actually edification. Meanwhile, the poor, confused ladies in the audience complaining about doctrine actually disliked speculation, not doctrine. When defined biblically, doctrine would have been just fine by them. The problem was not that they preferred milk to meat; it was that they weren’t getting enough of either one. So they asked for something more practical, which almost surely left their elders puzzled: I mean, what could be more practical than doctrine? And round they went in circles.

When other Christians don’t respond to our concerns, once in a blue moon it’s because they can’t be bothered. But most of the time the problem is plain old communication failure.

The question “What do you mean when you use the word X?” can go a long way to clearing the air.

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