Question: "What is doctrine?"
Answer: The word translated “doctrine” means “instruction, especially as it applies to lifestyle application.” In other words, doctrine is teaching imparted by an authoritative source. In the Bible, the word always refers to spiritually related fields of study. The Bible says of itself that it is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). We are to be careful about what we believe and present as truth. First Timothy 4:16 says, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Biblical doctrine helps us understand the will of God for our lives. Biblical doctrine teaches us the nature and the character of God (Psalm 90:2; 97:2; John 4:24), the path of salvation through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9; Romans 10:9–10), instruction for the church (1 Corinthians 14:26; Titus 2:1–10), and God’s standard of holiness for our lives (1 Peter 1:14–17; 1 Corinthians 6:18–20). When we accept the Bible as God’s Word to us (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20–21), we have a solid foundation for our doctrine. There can be disagreement within the body of Christ over secondary points of doctrine, such as eschatology, church organization, or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But truly biblical doctrine is that which incorporates the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) and draws conclusions based on that which seems most closely aligned with the character of our unchanging God (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 13:8).
However, the Bible is not always the foundation upon which people or churches build their doctrinal statements. Our sinful natures do not easily submit to God’s decrees, so we often pick and choose the parts of the Bible we are comfortable with and discard the rest. Or we replace what God says with a man-made doctrine or tradition. This is nothing new. Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7, ESV; cf. Isaiah 29:13). False doctrine was rampant in New Testament times, and the Scriptures tell us it will continue (Matthew 7:15; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1). Second Timothy 4:3 says, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”
The Bible gives stern warning to those who would teach false or incomplete doctrine simply because it is more compatible with man’s ideas. First Timothy 6:3–4 says, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.” The apostle Paul wrote harsh words about perverting the gospel with false doctrine: “Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!”(Galatians 1:7–9).
Doctrine is the worldview by which we govern our lives. If our doctrine is based soundly upon Scripture, we can know we are walking in the path God designed for us. However, if we do not study the Word of God for ourselves (2 Timothy 2:15), we are led more easily into error. Although there are a variety of minor issues upon which Christians disagree, true doctrine is clearer than many imply. Second Peter 1:20 says that “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” There is a right interpretation of everything God says, and it is our job to discern that meaning, not create an interpretation to suit our tastes. God wants us to know His heart and has given us His Word upon which we can build godly lives (see Matthew 7:24). The more we study true doctrine, the more we understand God and ourselves.