The apostle Paul tells Titus that he must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9). Later, he says, “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Paul’s words are typically translated as “sound doctrine” but might be more accurately rendered as “healthy teaching.” This isn’t merely a set of abstract beliefs but teaching about theological truths that leads to the transformed lives of believers as they enter the kingdom of God and become increasingly spiritually mature.
Modern culture either downplays the importance of doctrine or rejects it altogether. Some see it as divisive; others view it as problematic or unappealing. Those who see doctrine as relatively unimportant point to the explosion of denominations in the last few hundred years as proof that insistence on particular interpretations creates division.
There’s no doubt unity is essential. Jesus prayed that his disciples would be unified (John 17:21). This is God’s plan. Paul gives the Corinthians some fundamentals about the gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) and even cites specific points of theological concern that should unify believers in their beliefs (Ephesians 4:1-6). But Paul also warned that the time would come when some people would not tolerate sound doctrine but divide over it instead (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Those who choose to follow something else have separated themselves from the truth. They have voluntarily departed, not created a new, legitimate branch of the faith. They have become something else (see 1 John 2:19).
Ultimately, we have to ask, “Does it really matter what I believe—or what anyone else believes, for that matter?” The short answer, according to Scripture: it does. But why?
The primary reason sound doctrine matters is because God specifically instructed his messengers to teach it. The Bible teaches a specific, unalterable message (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Proverbs 30:5-6; Revelation 22:18-19). However, people have been tweaking the Bible to suit their tastes for a very long time. For example, Paul clearly states, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), claiming that this message is “of first importance” (v. 3). But classical liberal theologians turned the substitutionary atonement into a good example, wrecking the gospel message. They claimed that God would never kill his own Son and that Christ’s death was not required but was instead an example of sacrifice and a model of service.
The biblical authors—and even Christ himself—make it clear that sound doctrine is vital to the health of the church and must be defended:
- Jesus used the illustration of wheat and tares to distinguish between those in God’s kingdom and those outside it (Matthew 13:25). He also warned of wolves who would camouflage themselves (Matthew 7:15-16; see Acts 20:29).
- Paul advised Timothy to “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13).
- Paul also told Timothy to keep a close watch on what he taught (1 Timothy 4:16). He said that sound teaching was something to be guarded (2 Timothy 1:13-14) and that those who believed in something other than sound doctrine should be refuted (1 Timothy 1:3; Titus 1:9) and shunned (Romans 16:17).
- The Bible warns about false prophets and tells us to test teachers to determine whether they should be heard or rejected (1 John 4:1-6).
- Jude said that the faith was something worth fighting for (Jude 3).
Why is sound doctrine so important? Here are some things to consider.
It is the Foundation of the Church. Sound doctrine comes from God as he reveals his will in Scripture. Not only is sound doctrine the foundation of the church, but Paul also describes it like an anchor that keeps people from being blown about (Ephesians 4:14). Any glance at a religious programming channel like TBN will amply demonstrate the importance of Paul’s illustration.
It Tells Us Who God Is. When we say that we love God, what do we mean? Furthermore, what about Jesus? Many people say, “I don’t need doctrine; I just need Jesus.” Who is this Jesus, and why do they need him? Once the person begins explaining who he is, why he is essential, and what it means to follow him, this is where doctrine starts.
It is a Blueprint for Christian Life and Worship. After Christ’s resurrection, he instructed his disciples to teach others to obey all of his commandments (Matthew 28:20). This includes how we live our daily lives and the manner of our worship when the congregation assembles.
It Helps Us Mature Spiritually. Doctrine isn’t just about specific beliefs—it also impacts character formation. Sound doctrine leads to spiritual maturity (Ephesians 4:11-14), often expressed as the imitation of God and his Son. The converse is also true: false doctrine leads to spiritual immaturity. We could look to the prosperity gospel as one example. It fosters greed and dissatisfaction, and feeds the material gluttony of those who profit from it. Legalists are another example. The arrogance and condescension with which they treat others are wholly opposed to the gospel of Christ. False doctrine often gives us what we want rather than what we need.
It Encourages Holiness. Paul tells Titus that the truth “accords with godliness.” In other words, sound doctrine leads to a particular way of life. One of the most important ways we imitate the divine is by adopting a fierce love for good and a righteous contempt for sin. But this must also be lived out in the real world, meaning that our love for good must manifest as qualities like kindness, patience, mercy, and generosity. Likewise, we demonstrate our contempt for sin by fleeing temptation and showing concern for others when they are caught up in wrongdoing (Galatians 6:1).
Sound doctrine sounds like something that might only appeal to a limited number of people in the church. Some do eschew doctrine in favor of emotionalism and sentimentality. But if we’re going to live out our lives as God intends, we can’t neglect the basic instructions he provides in the Bible. Sound doctrine is a non-negotiable aspect of that plan.