“Sound doctrine” is a phrase we Christians throw around quite often. Believing the correct thing on a wide range of biblical issues is very important to us, as it should be for anyone. Whenever I read through Hebrews or 1 John or Ephesians or 1 Corinthians or Romans, I’m reminded that I can’t just believe ANYTHING I want. My mind and its thoughts should be submissive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

But being a fan of “sound doctrine” brings with it a sneaky problem. I’m honest to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with “sound doctrine” because it can be a manipulative jerk. “Sound doctrine” as I have always thought of it isn’t my friend, but neither is it my enemy. It’s more like the bad roommate I had in college that I hope I never see or hear from again.

There is no denying that Satan so often takes what is intrinsically good and twists it into an obscene perversion of its former self. He did so with Eve in Eden; he turned obedience to God’s provision into rebellion against God’s prohibition. In a similar way, Satan once took my zeal to obey “sound doctrine” and twisted it until it had become an obscene perversion of obedience, for obedience that does not come from the heart isn’t obedience at all (cf. Rom. 2:28-29).

At its core, “sound doctrine” simply means “healthy teaching,” i.e. a body of instruction that leads to the full, abundant life Jesus spoke about (John 10:10). Any other form of teaching only steals, kills, and destroys. Too often, I have seen “sound doctrine” steal, kill, and destroy. So it wasn’t too “sound” or healthy after all.

Going back to my earlier reference to 2 Cor. 10:5, Paul says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” This has become a formative statement for me since it reminds me of why sound doctrine is important, and thereby provides a guardrail to keep my doctrine sound and healthy.

Here’s what I’ve seen Satan do with “sound doctrine.”

1. It can become a work-based system of salvation, which denies the atoning grace Jesus achieved in his death and resurrection.

I know of no one who would come out and actually affirm this, but they betray themselves in the way they live life and orient themselves to God. I know, because I used to be like this, and I still slip into this thinking every now and again.

It’s the thinking that says God will bless me more, or approve of me more, or ignore my other failings if I can only get **insert favorite pet theology here** right. It’s like viewing the Christian life as a video game—I get to more advanced levels, unlock special powers, and win the trophy at the end if I input the right sequence of buttons. But God can’t be manipulated like that.

An unhealthy view of “sound doctrine” makes me believe that my salvation rests not in trusting Jesus in all things, but more in trying really hard, which gets exhausting after a while. Instead of feeling perpetually free and joyous, I become increasingly guilty and crabby over my repetitive failure. And there’s always the dark fear that I haven’t got one obscure doctrine completely figured out and will be sent to hell on a technicality. Thanks be to God that he is a rewarder of those who sincerely seek him by faith (Heb 11:6), which means those who seek the Truth will find Him (John 14:6).

2. It can become a convenient way of segmenting my spirituality so that I remain blind to my failures.

If we aren’t careful, placing a huge emphasis on “sound doctrine” can lead us to the faulty notion that God cares MUCH more about our beliefs than he does our behavior, or that God cares about our relationship with Him vs. our relationship with others. But when Jesus was asked about the #1 most important commandment, he said, “I can’t give you one. There’s two.” Loving God and loving our neighbor are of equal importance (Matt. 22:36-39). And when Paul told Titus to teach what was consistent with “sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), he went on to discuss how we get along with other people, instead of a comprehensive list of the doctrines we have to get right.

My point is that “sound doctrine” as understood in the NT has as much to do with behavior as it does beliefs. When you or I take a stand on the essentiality of baptism, but then continue to live as slaves to sin (which baptism freed us from, Romans 6), we just look stupid. And when we insist on the NT pattern of a cappella singing, but never allow corporate worship to put us in our cosmic place (i.e. that God is God and we are not), we’ve sort of missed the point.

The Pharisees were concerned about tithing their spice cabinet, but in so doing lost their connection to God’s sense of justice, love, and faithfulness. When sound doctrine has made us less sensitive to the character of God, it’s no longer sound.

3. It can make me forget the “Why” of the Christian life.

Sound doctrine can become a god. There. I said it. I’m glad to have that off my chest. And obviously, when sound doctrine takes on an idolatrous form, it’s no longer sound. Believing the right things and behaving the right way is all about Jesus. I love Christ and want to believe what he taught me. I love Christ and want to behave how he taught me. I love Christ and want to be a part of his body, the church.

For that reason, we should never adhere to “sound doctrine” so that we will continue to be accepted by our peers or community, or so that we can remain employed, or… Such motives will eventually breed hypocrisy. Believing the right things and behaving the right way, yet still not having a relationship with Christ, gets you no closer to heaven. Instead, your life will remain a living hell, and you will have missed the joy that comes from seeking to glorify Christ in all things.

Seeking to exalt Christ in everything we say, do, and believe—now that’s a very healthy way to live. In our quest to be the body God wants us to be, let’s make sure that we don’t become disconnected to the head, Christ (Col. 2:19).

Father, we love you and want to believe and behave as you have taught us. But Satan perverts this desire in sneaky ways. Help us never to become SO consumed with believing and behaving as you have taught that we lose sight of YOU, for that would be a great tragedy. Help us always to define “sound doctrine” by what is healthy, by what glorifies and exalts you. Help us never to become so obsessed with obedience that we become disconnected from your character, from your nature, from your Son. Help us to remember that everything, our beliefs and behavior, is about Jesus. In His name…

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34 Comments

  1. Thanks Michael. I too cringe a bit when I hear people speak of “sound doctrine,” mainly because those people use mean “doctrine that is the same as mine.”

    Blessings!

  2. Well said, Michael. In my experience it seems that soundness, more often than not, has been code for aligning with my own viewpoints and with equal intensity and fervor. Patience, humility, gentleness, and forbearance are traits of the spiritually healthy (sound), but are unnecessary if my idea of soundness is complete agreement with me.

  3. Never heard anyone criticize soundness in teaching. Christ said “I’m the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life.” Not I the Way, the falsehood and the Life.” I’ll go with the critical importance of teaching sound doctrine that Paul shared with the young preacher Timothy, “Speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine, for in doing this you will both save yourself and those who hear you.” Yes, being right and following the Truth is critical. Nothing whatsoever wrong with being religiously right!! In fact, it’s expected.

    1. Greg, I could be wrong, but this article isn’t defending falsehood or denying the importance of sound doctrine at all. In all sincerity, I would recommend carefully re-reading the article with this thought in mind: The end goal of Christianity is not sound doctrine…the end goal of Christianity is to please The Lord, which includes sound doctrine among many, many other things. I see this article as reminding us that we should seek/teach/defend sound doctrine while still managing to display the fruits of the Spirit. If our desire for sound doctrine causes us to be un-loving and self-dependent, we’re no longer following Christ’s doctrine. (Think 1 Cor. 13)

  4. Thank you brother for your thoughts! “Sound doctrine can become a god.” Man, what I’ve felt for years finally said! I grew up in a very legalistic church where it was taught “if one ‘i’ is not dotted or one ‘t’ not crossed, then you’re in trouble.” Where’s grace? Where’s mercy? And how foolish can anyone be to think that they have every single thing figured out and are “sound”?

    I also feel that many times when “sound doctrine” is used, it’s always convenient that “sound doctrine” is what they believe, and anyone who disagrees with them is not “sound” – i.e “sound doctrine” = what I believe.

    Anyways, thank you!

  5. So good. So needed. So often we lose sight that ‘Truth’ is actually a person…Jesus said I AM the way, truth and life. To model him, to serve, to love, is walking in truth. Doctrine is important, make no mistake… but yes, it has become a god/idol in many churches. Destroying our brother who disagrees in the name of ‘sound doctrine’ and ‘standing for truth’ is to completely slap Truth in the face and goes against everything Gospel centered. The Gospel is the good news of grace…not the bad news that if we miss a point, even an important one, we lose salvation.,.thereby making our effort/understanding the basis of our salvation. This actually IS false doctrine. Thank you, brother…thank you, thank you for your bold message that is rooted in the Gospel of our Lord.

  6. Mr. Whitworth,

    I fully agree with the thesis of this article and thank you for being my teacher, though you have only met me in person like once. Also I intend to suggest some of my friends to read it because of how true I think it is. However, when you talk about the greatest commands, please be more careful. The one concerning love of God IS first, while the one concerning people is only “like” (Matthew 22:39) the first.

    -Jeffrey

    1. Thanks Jeffrey. I would respectfully disagree on what Jesus meant when he said “a second is like it.” He clearly taught elsewhere that poor relationships with others trumps our relationship with God (Matt 5:23-24). Thanks for reading!

  7. So very well said. Sound doctrine (healthy teaching) is a worthy goal and pursuit. That is why we continue studying all through life, and never rest upon what we already know (or think we know). But, it is not the goal. Jesus us. Teaching isn’t healthy unless it is thoroughly immersed in the person and spirit of the savior. You’ve written a very good post here.

  8. Although I agree with all three of those things you have seen Satan do with “Sound Doctrine”, may I suggest a 4th? I have seen it used to divide Christ’s Body over interpretations of proof texts, rather than unite us over true shared beliefs.

  9. It amazes me after 40 + years of being a disciple that so little is seen about the primary teachings of Christ…Every epistle, Acts, and the Gospels consistently teach our demonstration of our godliness is seen in “This command I give you: Love one another.” Again, “How you love one another demonstrates to the world that you love me and are in me.”
    “Sound doctrine” in most of the teaching I have heard has centered on what we do, not who we are. James said, “Mercy triumphs over judgement!” and in Hebrews 13, the two actions that follow the writer’s admonition at the end of Ch 12 to worship acceptably are “brotherly love” and “practice hospitality (love strangers)”.

    The article uplifted me.

  10. Thank you. Perhaps the North TX small town CoC preacher who visited a new family in town (who had attended CoC previously) should thoughtfully read this blog. Particularly the part about behavior and love. Not loving to outright tell that young mother they are “going to hell” and storm out the door because they found their new church home with the Baptists in town.
    This kind of behavior does not reflect the “law of Christ”, which IS love.

  11. The issue then is not sound doctrine but rather “sound” doctrine. The very notion of following the actions and example of Christ can only come from sound doctrine. We have no words of Christ recorded by His own physical hand, therefore all of the gospels are teachings about Christ, the doctrines of Christ, sound doctrine. A misuse of a word does not invalidate the word any more than the misuse of an authority. Is God to be blamed for the atrocities committed by man in His name? Of course not. Is sound doctrine to maligned just because some misuse it? Of course not.
    I agree with most of what you are saying, but I disagree with the presentation. From the scandalous headline to the continued connection of sound doctrine to wrong living you have created an impression that sound doctrine is to be looked down upon. I know what you said, I understand what you meant, but still I have the feeling that you have a problem with sound teaching. This is similar to the symptoms of Jamais vu or reverse deja vu. It is when you see something so much you begin to doubt your understanding of it. You say you are not talking about true sound doctrine, but then you tie sound doctrine to error so much my conscious and subconscious war against each other.
    Once again, I understand what you are saying and even agree for the most part, but I just wish I didn’t walk away feeling that you had a problem with sound doctrine.

    1. David, I’m very sorry you walked away with that impression. I assure you that it was not my intent to give that impression. This article concerns the human perversion of sound doctrine, not the sound doctrine taught in God’s Word that we are to believe and adhere to. Hope this helps… Blessings.

    2. I agree with the idea that we should never lose focus on God, but this article is just a continuation of liberal ideas constantly presented by Michael.

      1. So Jake, does that mean that you subscribe to the conservative view that you can get to heaven by your own merits? Because you follow sound doctrine to the letter? Because that is what we’ve been taught as “sound doctrine,” and I believe that is what Michael is condemning. I remember having the discussion with people that if I said a prayer as I walked out the door for school and asked God to forgive me of my sins, then walked in front of a bus, said a curse word, was hit and died, would I go to hell because I had sinned and hadn’t asked for forgiveness. It completely denies the grace of God to save us and puts the honus completely on me which is not what the Bible teaches, but many churches do teach as sound doctrine. Sound doctrine is to be a person after God’s heart. Loving the things God loves. When we do that we will do the right things because it’s what we love, not so that we can attain heaven (which is impossible). Great article.

          1. Curious, by what biblical teaching is it okay to name call our brother in Christ? Calling someone an idiot because you do not agree is outrageously offensive and what I would expect from the world…not a child of our Lord to their brother. This further supports and confirms that the far right who dot every jot and cross every tittle…totally miss the point..Pharisaical behaviors straight out of scripture. We need to pray for such brethren…it is stunningly disturbing to see such outright sinful behavior in the name of Jesus. God help us.

  12. What he seem to be criticizing is not really sound doctrine; it is “missing the point”, merit salvation, hypocrisy, etc. While Jesus criticized Pharisees about hypocrisy and the other things that are mentioned here, He never criticized sound doctrine. Quite to the contrary, he said, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses, therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds.” (Mt. 23:2,3). He didn’t criticize the sound teachings, he criticized the unsound deeds. Whenever one criticizes sound doctrine, it sounds to others as if one believes that truth does not matter. And I would hope that we all would disagree with that idea.

  13. “In a similar way, Satan once took my zeal to obey “sound doctrine” and twisted it until it had become an obscene perversion of obedience, for obedience that does not come from the heart isn’t obedience at all”–all of Michael’s statements are qualified by that sentence. Those who carefully read the article understand that Micahel isn’t condemning sound doctrine (in fact he says it is through it by which we reach the Abundant life in Christ) but rather the idea of blind, faithless obedience which objectifies sound doctrine as the apex of Christianity. His point is that, when we look at sound doctrine as an end in and of itself, instead of a means to an end, then we run a real danger of perverting the very doctrine we profess to follow. It’s a subtle difference which needs to be pointed out lest it rob sound doctrine of it’s true power: faith inspired, love motivated obedience to Jesus Christ. Thanks Michael.

    P.S. I don’t understand people who say they know what Michael is saying, and the intention behind what He said, but still write a post condemning Him for what they know He didn’t mean. If you really understood that, why post anything?

  14. I found this interesting and thought provoking. It’s easy to get caught up “rules” and miss that we worship God in our hearts. I’m not saying those aren’t important but it’s also easy to read thoserules the way we want to. Good article.

  15. Excellent article Michael. I plan to save it and re-read it to keep in mind those who change the Gospel of Good News just to be “sound”, and that isn’t healthy at all. I know I used to be that way, and I like you am slowly working my way out of it. By the way, I just said a prayer for Jake :).

  16. The letters to Timothy and Titus are the only places where the word “sound” is used with respect to teaching (doctrine). If you go there to find the definition, you will find that it has to do with teaching that is in keeping with the good news and that promotes a sound (healthy) faith, love, and hope. (Seems like those 3 traits are linked together frequently, aren’t they?)

    In Titus 1:9, the bishop is to hold the “faithful word” so that he can teach & exhort in “sound doctrine.” The expression “sound in faith” has a striking resemblance to “faithful word,” an expression used five times in these three epistles. How is it used?

    Well, here are those passages:

    Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am chief – 1 Tim. 1:15.
    If a man desires the office of a bishop, he desires a noble work – 1 Tim 3:1
    We trust in the living God, who is Savior of all me. 1 Tim 4:9-10.
    If we died with Him, We shall live with Him – if we endure, we shall reign with Him; if we deny him, he will deny us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful {to himself for] he cannot deny himself – 2 Tim. 2:11-13.
    And, perhaps the most important one, “these things I want you to affirm constantly that those who have believed in Christ should be careful [some trans., eager] to maintain good works” – Tit. 3:8. Look at the context to see of what “these things” consist.

    These statements of “the faithful word” relate to God’s grace that is trustworthy, but also awesome because if we deny him, he will deny us; they include exhortation to preach grace as we remind people of how to behave, that we might motivate them to good works, including the “noble task” of the work of shepherding God’s people.

    For more on this, see here for a fairly lengthy series on Sound Doctrine.

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