Doctrine. It’s an ugly word to some in Pentecostal circles which conjures up thoughts of institutionalized religion and a quenching of the Spirit’s work. The idea circulates that that doctrine should take a backseat to other things, taking expressions like:
Doctrine is not as important as the Spirit’s leading.
Doctrine is not as important as what God is speaking into my life.
Doctrine is not as important as the revelation that God has given to the “man or woman of God”.
But how does one come to that conclusion? Where does one get the idea that formal education, theological criticism, and doctrinal formation are antithetical to the Spirit’s work in the church? The source has been preaching, teaching and emphasis on the experiential, sometimes even as opposed to the intellectual.
This has posed issues for those who wish to continue in Biblical scholarship and study. Such individuals have been perceived as having too much “head-knowledge,” and not enough “heart-knowledge.” Somehow, the conclusion is made that academics are out of touch with the Spirit’s leading. But is that what we really see in Scripture?
Shrouded in the Supernatural
Mind you, many of our experiences are deeply rooted in Scripture. None of this is intended to oppose a genuine move of the Spirit; however, problems arise when people begin replacing truths deeply rooted in Scripture with experiences and beliefs that are not.
“Problems arise when people begin replacing truths deeply rooted in Scripture with experiences and beliefs that are not”
When spiritual things are communicated in an experiential way and labelled as a move or revelation of God, many are apt to embrace them regardless of what they are. As long as an idea is shrouded in the supernatural, anti-intellectuals and experience seekers are often apt to accept it. Let us never be so supernaturally minded, that we lose sight of sound doctrine and are led astray by some teaching simply because it looked, felt, or sounded right.
Those who continue in formal education and strive for theological scholarship are often viewed as less in tune with the Spirit of God. However, the operation of the Spirit in our meetings and in our lives is in no way detached from doctrine and proper instruction.
To be clear, the two New Testament writers from whom we get most of our Pentecostal understanding were both academics in their own right: Luke – a doctor, and Paul – a Pharisee. The scholarly approach to their contribution of Scripture cannot be denied. To be sure, Paul deals with issues of study and doctrinal instruction in his letters.
Spiritually Mature or Immature? – A Scriptural Case Study
Let’s take the story of the Church in Ephesus and the ministry of Timothy as a case study in the importance of theological vitality. Timothy was a young pastor who had been left in charge of that assembly. In his writing to Timothy, Paul was aware that there were individuals who had come in among his former flock who opposed Timothy and were leading others astray by their false doctrines.
Before he left Ephesus, Paul had prophesied that this is what was going to happen: “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:30-32).
Paul understood the importance of the Word of God in keeping the flock safe. A couple of years before Paul wrote the first letter to Timothy, he had written a letter specifically to the Church in Ephesus where he encouraged the church to, “no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).
In other words, one of the marks of spiritual immaturity is failing to truly understand what the Word of God teaches, adopting whatever new teaching comes along. On the flip side of that, one of the marks of maturity in the life of a believer is remaining steadfast in the truth of God’s Word. Ephesus was rife with spiritual infants.
“One of the marks of spiritual immaturity is failing to truly understand what the Word of God teaches”
It’s no surprise, then, that Paul opens his letter in 1 Timothy 1:3 by saying that he had left him in charge there so that he, “…may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer.” Paul had complete confidence in Timothy’s ability to teach what was right and to not tolerate these false teachers.
Your Life and Doctrine
Later in that same letter, Paul instructs Timothy: “Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:11-16)
Paul points out 3 things to Timothy here which need special attention:
- The way he lives – his witness and testimony before others.
- His spiritual gift –judging from the need and context, possibly the gift of preaching and teaching.
- His doctrine – Timothy had to carefully guard his doctrine. He needed to have a firm grip on truth, and convey that truth to the church.
Paul tells Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely, so that both he and his listeners will not be led astray. In other words, right living (orthopraxy) and right believing (orthodoxy) are inseparable. What you believe affects how you and your church live, and how you live affects what you and your listeners believe.
“Right living (orthopraxy) and right believing (orthodoxy) are inseparable”
My Personal Theological Vitality
How strong is your understanding and study of Scripture? No doubt, we have all completed different levels of academia and education; yet, we should never let that deter us from digging deeper and determining to solidify our understanding of doctrine. For some, that will mean undergrad or postgraduate studies. For others, it will be personal or group study and reflection. Perhaps it will mean taking the smaller step of reading a solid theology book. Education will doubtless challenge our own level of certainty (and perhaps even our traditionally held beliefs), but it is worth it. We will grow in our understanding of Scripture and sound doctrine as it leads us to maturity.
James Lander is ordained with the PAONL and currently resides in George’s Brook with his wife, Kelly, and their family. James serves as Senior Pastor and is currently working towards his Masters of Theological Studies.