by J. Matthew Pinson

Doubts About Doctrine

Adherents of the Emerging Church argue that doctrine is not as important as evangelicals have made it. How you live is what’s important, they say—not the details of what you believe. This is especially true when it comes to denominational doctrines that are not essential to salvation.

For example, Emerging Church writer Dan Kimball is critical of believers “who most hold to tightly detailed and long doctrinal statements with no room for mystery on the ‘minors,’” which in his view are things like Calvinism, Arminianism, and women in pastoral ministry—things, he says, “that are just not black and whitely laid out in the Bible.” These things “are not super clear, and it leaves room for a variety of interpretations.” He says of conservative evangelicals: “If you don’t agree with their interpretation on the more minor issues, then they will beat you up as their doctrinal statement is better, bigger, and badder than yours and you better watch out” (From  “My Doctrinal Statement Can Beat Up Your Doctrinal Statement,” www.dankimball.com).

Brian McLaren, who diverges more from evangelical orthodoxy than does Kimball, traces the roots of his aversion to strong doctrinal conviction to the postmodern flight from objective truth.  “We need ‘new theological wineskins’ for a postmodern world,” he says. “We have to tolerate diversity in nonessentials so as to enjoy unity in the essentials.” He explains why. “Postmodernism is the intellectual boundary between the old world and the other side. Why is it so important? Because when your view of truth is changed, when your confidence in the human ability to know truth in any objective way is revolutionized, then everything changes. That includes theology. . .” (The Church on the Other Side, pp. 68-70).

So what are confessional Protestants (Reformation Christians who subscribe to scriptural confessions or articles of faith) like Free Will Baptists to do with regard to doctrine? What should our posture be toward faithful preaching, teaching, and defense of doctrine? How does this apply to issues that are non-essential to salvation?

Imitating Apostolic Doctrine, Practice, and Tradition

First, we must understand that we have not simply chosen what to believe because we like it and want to impose it on people. We believe with all our hearts and minds that a certain set of beliefs is what the apostles believed, taught, and practiced. The Word of God constrains us to imitate the traditions that the apostles handed down to us, standing firm in them, holding fast to every apostolic tradition and doctrine (1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Thess. 2:15; Phil. 1:27). We simply confess as truth what we believe is apostolic doctrine, practice, and tradition. And the New Testament commands us to continue in that doctrine, practice, and tradition.

This “holding fast” (Titus 1:9) to apostolic doctrine keeps believers from being carried about by every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14; Heb. 13:9). It helps them to cling to the traditions of Christ and the apostles rather than human traditions and the principles of this present evil age (Col. 2:8). Paul tells Timothy to hold fast to the standard of sound teaching he had learned from Paul (2 Tim. 1:13). Paul ties doctrinal purity and stability to Christian maturity in his comment to the church at Ephesus that our not being carried about by every wind of doctrine shows that we are no longer children (Eph. 4:14).

Furthermore, he says we cannot be worried about pleasing people in our doctrinal teaching but must be concerned only with what God thinks. He is the One who entrusted us with the gospel and who examines our hearts (1 Thess. 2:4).

Contending for the Faith

Second, the New Testament witness urges us to “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3; cf. Phil. 1:27: “striving together for the faith of the gospel”). Contend is a negative terms. One contends against something. We are in a war. But it is not in a war with people—for we wrestle not against flesh and blood—but against error, against beliefs and practices that depart from the apostolic doctrine of the New Testament.

This language of “defending and contending” for what the apostles passed down to us is used throughout the New Testament. Paul tells the Ephesian elders that it is their responsibility, as shepherds of the flock of God, to be on guard and protect the flock against “wolves” who will rise up and teach false doctrine and try to entice people to become their disciples (Acts 20:28). Paul tells the church at Rome to “mark” contentious people who are contrary to apostolic doctrine (Rom. 16:17).

We are to “try the spirits”—prove or test everything (examine everything carefully, NASB)—to see if it measures up to the apostolic witness that has been handed down to us (1 John 4:1; 1 Thess. 5:21). Paul urged Timothy to charge certain people to teach nothing other than apostolic doctrine (1 Timothy 1:3), to keep reminding his brothers of Christian truth, to be continually nourished in sound doctrine (1 Tim. 4:6), and to “take heed” (pay close attention, NASB) to his doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). In two places, Paul exhorted Timothy to “guard” the teaching he had handed down to Timothy (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14), avoiding opposing arguments of what is falsely called knowledge (1 Tim. 6:20).

Furthermore, Paul instructed Timothy to correct those who oppose apostolic teaching (2 Tim. 2:25). Indeed, Paul said, this is part of the purpose for inspired Scripture: for reproving (rebuking) and correcting us (2 Tim. 3:16). Thus, Paul tells Timothy to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 2:2), and he instructed Titus to use sound doctrine to exhort and refute those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). Some false teachers, Paul told Titus, are so dangerous that their “mouths must be stopped” and they must be rebuked sharply (Titus 1:11, 13).

Speaking the Truth in Love

Third, while we must speak the truth, we must do so in love. There seems to be a tendency today to create a dichotomy between truth and doctrinal purity on one hand and love and unity on the other hand. Yet the apostles constantly put the speaking and defending of truth together with love and unity. We must reaffirm that telling someone the truth is an act of love, because truth will set them free.

In the context of his warning to the church at Ephesus not to be carried about by every wind of doctrine, Paul said that believers should hold to the truth and speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:14, 15). In 2 Timothy 1:13, when Paul told Timothy to hold fast to the standard of sound teaching, he stressed that Timothy was to do this “in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” Paul told Titus that using sound doctrine to refute those who contradict was a means of helping them (Titus 1:9). This pattern of mentioning love and similar emotions in the context of hard truth-telling and doctrinal vigilance is common in Paul’s writings. Paul believed that uncompromising doctrinal orthodoxy and lived-out love go hand-in-hand.

In the context of his exhortation to Timothy to correct those who oppose apostolic doctrine, Paul told Timothy that the servants of the Lord should not be “quarrelsome” (NASB), but rather kind and gentle and patient to everyone, correcting people who are in error only in a spirit of genuine meekness (2 Tim. 2:24, 25). Only when we combine these characteristics of love can we lead others to the knowledge of truth.

An integral part of this loving approach is patience. As Paul said to Timothy, “Reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 2:2). Dealing with error and standing for doctrinal truth is ineffective if it is not coupled with a loving, patient attitude.

Doctrines Not Essential to Salvation

The New Testament witness is replete with the apostolic admonition to stand for truth, and to hold fast to the doctrine, practice, and traditions that the apostles handed down. However, what do we do when it comes to issues of doctrinal truth that are not essential to salvation? Obviously, many doctrines that separate evangelical believers denominationally are not essential to salvation. Yet the fact that they are non-essential to salvation makes them no less true and no less apostolic. The apostles shared as truth many doctrines, practices, and traditions that are not essential to salvation. Is the New Testament indecipherable on all doctrines that are non-essential to salvation and decipherable on all essential doctrines? No. If we believe a given doctrine is apostolic, we must teach that doctrine.

Furthermore, it is almost impossible for sincere believers to be in the same congregation if they differ on non-essential yet significant issues. For example, if a Baptist plants a church with a Presbyterian, and both are serious about their doctrine, what will happen? When parents submit their infant for baptism, the Baptist will oppose it, because he believes it violates apostolic doctrine and practice. When the Presbyterian wants to bring the church under a presbytery that will have final jurisdiction over the church facilities, the Baptist will forbid it because he believes apostolic doctrine and practice forbid it.

When the Presbyterian wants a board of lay elders to have sole decision-making authority over the congregation, the Baptist will forbid it because he believes the apostles want the churches of Jesus Christ to be overseen by preaching pastors/elders (not lay elders), with final decision-making authority in the hands of the congregation. If the Baptist were a Free Will Baptist, and preached a straightforward sermon on

Hebrews 6:4-6, earnestly warning the congregation of the possibility of falling from grace, the Presbyterianwould attempt to refute it, because he believes it is unbiblical and dangerous.

The apostles did teach authoritatively on matters that are non-essential to salvation. Unlike many evangelicals, Free Will Baptists have agreed to tolerate some diversity on some of these matters (the millennium, for example). Yet differences in many doctrines of salvation and the church will make vibrant and effective congregational life almost impossible.

Of course, most would acknowledge the need to cooperate with orthodox Christians of other denominations on matters about which we agree. But we need to teach what we sincerely believe is the whole counsel of God, even on matters that are non-essential to salvation. God has given His church means of grace and edification. The New Testament commands us to continue in the doctrines, practices, and traditions of the apostles. This principle is not optional! Yet we must do so in a way that demonstrates love to the household of faith and the watching world. It is possible to maintain strong, doctrinal convictions and at the same time be characterized by charity and humility. This is the scriptural balance we must seek.

My grandmother, who grew up Methodist, joined the Free Will Baptist Church because she thought “it was closest to the apostles.” That’s the reason I am a Free Will Baptist. I want to be a part of a living, confessional community that seeks to build itself on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, with Christ being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). Let us reaffirm our commitment to doctrinal purity and doctrinal vigilance, to the whole counsel of God, and to speaking the truth in love.

About the Writer: Dr. J. Matthew Pinson is president of Free Will Baptist Bible College, Nashville, TN.

Reprinted by permission from ONE Magazine.