Shortly after placing a saving faith in Jesus Christ, I posted a quote to Facebook from a well-known, worldwide preacher. Later I received a message in my inbox from a Christian friend. She encouraged me to research this man and his Christian teaching before “following” him further. In my immaturity, I didn’t understand why I needed to question him or what the seriousness of my post was.
After all, he was a preacher—so what he was saying must have been true, right?
I’m thankful and blessed that this friend approached me in Christ-like humility and love to direct me away from false doctrine. Because I was not yet spending time in God’s Word, it was easy for me to turn my ear toward what sounded right or what made me comfortable. Likewise, the word “doctrine” seemed overwhelming, too cerebral, and something only pastors needed to know.
So what is doctrine? Doctrine, simply, is scriptural teaching on theological truths.
Does Doctrine Matter?
Sound doctrine will reflect God’s intent for his Word. It will judge the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12); be useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16); thoroughly equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17); be a lamp for our feet and a light for our path (Psalm 119:105); keep us on the path of purity (Psalm 119:9); give understanding to the simple (Psalm 119:130); and grow our salvation (1 Peter 2:2).
Paul speaks of and warns about unsound doctrine in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, which says, “For the time will come when men 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. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
But, does it really matter what we believe as long as we believe in Jesus Christ?
The quick answer: Yes. Because our faith is based on an incredibly specific message, modifying or distorting it can have detrimental and eternal impact. The gospel is the basis for our salvation, therefore we need to “watch [our] life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). Essentially what Paul is urging here is, “If you don’t pay attention to your life or what doctrine says, you will lose yourself and anyone who hears what you say.”
Consider this generation of media overload coming at us left and right. Perhaps now, more than ever, we must watch carefully for doctrine that scratches “itching ears.” Scripture warns that many false prophets have gone into the world (1 John 4:1) and are inevitable, so it’s critical to understand what false doctrine looks like and how we can respond.
Warning Signs of False Doctrine
The gospel message is altered or refuted.
The Word of God is sacred and essential to our salvation, therefore we must understand that “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
It’s natural to believe that a teacher who calls oneself a Christian would relay a trustworthy message. But what happens when a preacher teaches pieces of the gospel, but ignores or outright refutes the rest? Paul warns that those who relay false doctrine may have “the appearance of godliness, but [deny] its power” (2 Timothy 3:5).
One example is the prosperity gospel, which teaches that you can use God for whatever you desire—and that God is required to respond. It stresses wealth, prosperity, and that God wants us to be happy. It wrongly stresses that having good faith and doing good things means we will receive material blessings from God. This false theology may sound appealing to its followers or immature believers, but it can potentially destroy one’s faith when suffering comes and God seems quiet.
Like prosperity theology, be cautious of other teachers who claim that parts of the Word are embellished, incorrect, inconsistent, out of date, or open to interpretation. Beware also of doctrine that teaches that there is another way to heaven, another God, denies Christ’s deity, or denies the Trinity. Watch for doctrine that states there is no heaven or hell, or that good works or being a “good person” will lead to eternal life.
The teacher doesn’t reflect Christ.
It’s likely that unsound doctrine will eventually show itself through the character of its teacher. After all, if a person is not filled with the fruit of the Spirit, the Lord will ultimately bring it to light. Be cautious of controversy, conceitedness, friction, or greed displayed by a teacher of the Word. Take serious notice of lying, deception, and hypocrisy. False doctrine may also show itself in the teacher’s insincerity, arrogance, and disobedience.
Paul saw the false teachers in Ephesus as charlatans—those who deceived and changed the gospel message to suit their own interest and the interest of their followers. Power, profit, and having successful teaching careers should send up red flags. None of these characteristics are Christ-like.
Paul shows us what this looks like in 1 Timothy:
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. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
How We Should Respond
Paul states, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared” (1 Timothy 4:1-2), which means we must prepare to respond. False doctrine can confuse immature Christians, destroy one’s faith, and ruin the credibility of Christianity.
We must take this seriously! But how?
Rightly handle the Word of truth.
If we are not depending on and being faithful to sound doctrine ourselves, we cannot grow in Christ or discern when doctrine isn’t sound. If we abide in the teaching of Christ, we are given his Spirit (2 John 1:9). Therefore, we aim to “rightly handl[e] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Accordingly, it is our obligation as Christians to spread the gospel message—exactly as it is written.
We must equip ourselves to resist being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried out by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14). And we accomplish this by growing in the Word, understanding its foundational truths, and continuing in truth. This can be accomplished through consistent prayer as you ask the Spirit to guide you, joining a Bible study and small group at your church, meeting with trusted leaders to ask questions, listening to gospel-centered podcasts, and so on.
Watch and avoid.
On numerous occasions, the Bible instructs us to take notice of false teachers and to avoid them (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 3:5; 2 Thessalonians 3:6). Romans 16:17 says, “Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”
Take tender care in examining every teaching or teachers in light of Scripture: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
There are benefits to keeping close watch and avoidance. By doing so, you will save yourself and others (1 Timothy 4:16), receive a full reward (2 John 1:8), be righteous (Proverbs 13:5) and approved (2 Timothy 2:15).
False doctrine can temporarily or eternally damage a person, which means we are faced with the task of keeping this from occurring. Though the Bible first commands and commends avoidance of false teaching, there will be instances where we need to correct and encourage—but this must be done “with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2-4).
We must humbly love and respect our leaders, and recognize that only God can judge their hearts. Therefore, we must first search our own hearts, and be intentional and cautious about our own self-righteousness, sinfulness, and hypocrisy.
Galatians instructs, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (6:1). “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
The Facebook message from my friend opened my eyes to how easy it is to fall prey to unsound doctrine. I am grateful for the gentle and humble manner in which she spoke out against that message, which in turn steered me back to Christ and the Bible’s non-negotiable truths that have the power to save.
How else do you discern if doctrine is sound?
I wrote this article originally for Unlocking the Bible on 9.13.16. ©Unlocking the Bible. Used with permission. unlockingthebible.org. Unlocking the Bible is the Gospel-centered teaching of Pastor Colin Smith (Senior Pastor of The Orchard in Chicago, IL). The ministry challenges listeners to believe that their lives can be transformed by ‘The Power of the Open Book’ through consistent study of the Bible and a deepening faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.