Monday, February 26, 2018

Practical Doctrine

Ever hear Christians complain that we really need more practical platform ministry — as if they never hear any? Mostly I’ve heard it from people listening to the same speakers I listen to; men (imperfectly but regularly) making the effort to explain how the teachings of Christ and the apostles ought to be worked out in our lives today.

I’ve also regularly heard serious Christians lament “Nobody will put up with sound doctrine anymore” — that, in effect, today’s pew-sitters want nothing but pseudo-spiritual, life-oriented, anecdote-driven blather from the platform instead of accurate and profound teaching.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that both sides are making a not-entirely-scriptural distinction between doctrine and practice.

Too Much Doctrine

“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 veggies than SweeTARTS®, to look both ways before they cross the road, to be wary of stranger danger 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.

Complaining About the Complainers

On the other hand, Christians who complain about Christians who complain about “too much doctrine” (whew!) may be using “doctrine” in an exclusive sense too; 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.

These folks too may have a point: Bible teachers who overemphasize “what it means to ME!” run the risk of tickling ears, distributing milk to audiences in need of 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.

A Distinction Without a Difference

The apostle Paul doesn’t seem to make this modern distinction between doctrine and practice 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.

He tells Titus to “speak things which are fitting for sound doctrine” and then tells him 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”.

Adorning Doctrine

That’s interesting. It seems doctrine and practice are not opponents but are inextricably related. 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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