This article has been adapted from the introduction to my book Itching Ears. This book is now in its 3rd edition, and available from the aStore on this site.
Theory and Practice
There seems to have developed a lack of seriousness about the teachings and doctrines from the Bible in the early part of the 21st Century. Doctrine has become a despised word. I once heard a preacher declare, to appreciative murmurings from the congregation: “Aren’t you glad that God didn’t save you for doctrine”. Of course God didn’t save us for doctrine. But the purpose of doctrine is to keep our understanding on track, and to understand God better, so surely any normal Christian would want to know more about his God and Savior! But the very phrasing used by the preacher was not there to book dissent. It was to be assumed that doctrine is not only a dirty word, but a dangerous concept – a cold philosophy designed to take the Christian away from the love of and worship for Jesus.
Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose-Driven™ Church, said “The trouble with the church today is that we know too much and do little”1 Once again, the implication is that what we know is not of value compared to what we do. There might be many who nod their heads solemnly at such comments. Yet, without a knowledge of who God is, what He is like and what He wants, our behavior as Christians remains uninformed.
One refrain that we often hear is “doctrine divides, but love unites”. The problem is that this phrase does not occur anywhere in the Bible. That is because it isn’t true. True love will unite, but the sort of love which attempts to paper over all differences, pretending that they don’t exist, will not. And, unfortunately, the Bible also makes clear that there are some sort of divisions which we need to have. For example, in Galatians 1:8, Paul says “even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” And in 2 Corinthians 6:17, Paul quotes from Isaiah, saying “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord.” The modern ecumenical spirit suggests that we can all be together by ignoring our differences and tolerating everything. Such an idea is, however, itself a doctrine! It is actually a doctrine to say that differences of opinion don’t matter and should be tolerated. It will also be noted that the one group of people who cannot be tolerated under such a regime are those who say that the Bible is true.
The apostle Paul wrote two letters to Timothy, who seems to have been a sort of protégé of Paul. In 1 Timothy 4, Paul instructs Timothy to be careful about two things.
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:16, NIV)
Timothy is instructed to watch his life and his doctrine. Of course, the way that Timothy lives is important. It is a poor witness, if we live a life that is dishonoring to God. So, clearly, orthopraxy (correct practice or behaviour) is very important. But orthodoxy is equally important. Timothy is to watch his doctrine. Why? Because by so doing people will be saved. Orthodoxy without orthopraxy is dead. But orthopraxy without orthodoxy is useless. Paul has more to say on this matter in his second epistle.
I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)
This passage contains an important prophecy – “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine”. Who are “they”? They are the sort of people, to whom Timothy is speaking. Timothy was being sent to pastor churches. So the people who will not endure sound doctrine are people in churches. In the passage from 1 Timothy, Paul said that doctrine was part of ensuring that people were saved. In 2 Timothy, he expands on this matter. The consequences of not having sound doctrine are that the people will “turn their ears away from the truth and be turned aside to fables”. Whereas Timothy’s work in teaching sound doctrine was to be a major part of his “work of an evangelist” – so the preaching of the Gospel was to involve sound doctrine.
Paul’s exhortation to Timothy was basically to postpone the day when sound doctrine would not be endured. He was to “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.” The word translated “teaching” is translated as “doctrine” in the KJV, and comes from precisely the same root as the other occasion in this passage when the word doctrine is used. That is the measure of the forcefulness, with which Paul requires Timothy to present doctrine. There is an urgency in the passage. Timothy is to teach doctrine, because there will be a time when he will not be able to. By implication, the church today is to teach doctrine, because there will come a time when it will not be possible. That time seems to be largely upon us today.
I saw a bumper sticker on a car. It read “they will know we are Christians by our love”, which is a line from a song, not from the Bible. The Bible actually says “you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16) – and this applies not just to Christians, but also to knowing who the false teachers are. But on this sticker, it actually read “they will know we are Christians by our doctrine”, with the word “doctrine” crossed out and replaced with “love”. The implication, as above, is that love and doctrine are mutually exclusive. If you are interested in doctrine, you are not interested in love. Loving people are not interested in doctrine.
These are the sort of people described in that memorable phrase by Paul as having “itching ears”. Such people will find themselves teachers, who will reinforce their desire not to have doctrine. They are teachers who do not love doctrine! They are teachers who don’t teach. Such teachers are themselves the punishment for the unbelief of their hearers. Paul’s strong implication is that such teachers will lead their listeners, not to salvation, but to destruction. Paul makes clear to Timothy that his adherence to good teaching or doctrine is not optional. Paul says “I charge you!”
Of course, Paul actually says “I charge you therefore…”. The therefore implies that the reason for this charge, to teach doctrine, is what Paul has said in the previous chapter. In 2 Timothy 3, Paul has said:
Evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:13-17)
The sort of people, therefore, who teach such false doctrines are “evil men and imposters”. What is more, they “will grow worse and worse”. So Timothy is exhorted to “continue in the things which you have learned”. What are these things? They are the Holy Scriptures. Today, we can apply the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures to the entire Bible. I have written elsewhere about how the concept of the canon of Scripture applies to the New Testament as well as the Old, but not to extra-biblical books such as the apocrypha.2 Brian Edwards has written what I consider to be the best evocation of this position.3 At the time of Paul writing his epistle, however, the Scripture that he refers to must be the Old Testament. These Old Testament scriptures begin with, and are founded upon, the book of Genesis.
Which Doctrines are Important?
There is a sense in which this question is redundant. All doctrines are important. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that some doctrines are more important than others. Can we rank the doctrine of the Trinity alongside my assertion that baptism is to be by immersion and for believers only? I would suggest not. I cannot have fellowship with someone who disagrees on the Trinity, but I can have fellowship with a Bible-believing evangelical, who believes that baptism can be appropriate for infants. And how do these doctrines compare with teachings on our modes of worship?
Three Point Scale of Doctrines
I have not come across any other comment on the relative rankings of doctrines, like the one that I am about to use. But I like to classify doctrines as Primary, Secondary and Tertiary.
Primary Doctrines are essential indicators of orthodoxy. Without an acceptance of these doctrines, the subject is outside of the church and therefore outside of fellowship. To clarify this point, a new Christian may not have got all their doctrine straight, and might, for example, not fully understand the concept of the Trinity (and none of us fully understand it!). But when such a primary doctrine is explained, if the subject consistently rejects it, and says they cannot accept it, one must doubt whether they have really been saved at all. If such a doctrine is a primary doctrine, then the Holy Spirit will witness to people that the doctrine is true. Examples of primary doctrines are the ones on which I focus in my book, Itching Ears.
Secondary Doctrines are not unimportant. A church ought to take an official position on such a doctrine. But in joint church initiatives it ought to be possible to work with people who do not share these doctrines. For example, I hinted above that I hold to the doctrine of Believers’ Baptism by immersion. Not everyone who works for a ministry, like the one for which I work, will necessarily agree with me on this. Christian ministries may not be able to take a position on such a secondary doctrine. But my church does take a position on this, and it should. Other examples of secondary doctrines would be Calvinism vs. Arminianism, or differing eschatological positions, or what position one takes on the Baptism into the Holy Spirit.
Tertiary Doctrines are those, on which people even within a church will differ. Such doctrines would include how the Sunday School should be taught, or different modes of worship music.
Itching Ears only concentrates on Primary Doctrines, and does not even cover all of these! However, one of the Primary Doctrines is not listed as a chapter heading. It is the doctrine of biblical creationism – that the Genesis account is one of literal history. Many, many Christians assume that the issue of creationism is a secondary doctrine. Can I justify placing it as a primary? I believe I can. Of course, it is possible to be saved without believing in 6-day creationism. The point is that such a belief impinges on a belief in the authority and inerrancy of scripture. It is part of the purpose of this book to show that failure to believe in Genesis leads to a weak view of inerrancy and therefore a lack of authority for any of the other doctrines. It is the contention of this book that all Christian doctrines are founded on a foundation of Genesis.
Let me explain how this principle outworks in practice. I will make no comment on where I stand on the Calvinism/Arminianism divide. One usually hears from godly people on both sides that they accept one another as Bible-believing Christians, even though they differ on this point. In practice, however, Christians on both sides often find difficulty in fellowshipping together in parachurch ministries. Yet Christians on both sides will often find it easy to fellowship with someone from the same side, even if that other person disagrees that Genesis should be taken as literal.
For example, I once used this analogy to a conference almost entirely made up of Calvinists. Person A is a Calvinist who believes Genesis in a 6-day creation, as Genesis teaches.. Person B is a Calvinist, who believes in long day-ages. Person C is an Arminian who believes in a 6-day creation. My challenge to Person A is “who do you find it easier to have fellowship with”? In practice, it will usually be Person B – and I have no doubt that a similar scenario put to an Arminian would provoke an analogous response. My argument is that Person A should have more in common with Person C. That is because the issue of the truth of Genesis is a primary doctrine, but Calvinism vs. Arminianism is secondary.
There are many who will struggle with that last concept – and might struggle even more if I had used cessationism/pentecostalism as the secondary divide. Indeed, the struggle is so great, that a close friend of mine – who is a well-known Christian speaker – actually felt he was unable to write a commendation for this book, because of that very argument. While I respect his view, and remain his close friend, what I want to convince you of, gentle reader, is that the secondary issues are held by sincere people, who equally believe the Bible to be true, but differ on the interpretation of certain passages. But the disagreement on Genesis is not between different interpretations. It is between those who interpret Genesis, and those who simply read what it plainly says. The secondary doctrines have arisen because some passages of scripture are hard to get a handle on. Differing views of Genesis have built up, because there are those who understand perfectly well what Genesis actually says, but use extra-biblical filters, such as evolution, millions of years or the Big Bang, as an authority over and above the plain reading.
This Is No Time for Itching Ears
Therefore, my book is a plea for a return to the love of sound doctrine. It is a plea it recognize that Genesis is the foundation of all Christian doctrine, and that such doctrine is important and essential. If the time will come – and, indeed, I am of the opinion that it has already come – when they will not endure sound doctrine, then this book is a plea to reverse that trend. The need for sound doctrine is great. This is no time for itching ears!