Caution: Sound Doctrine Divides

"Doctrine divides but love unites."

This is the mantra of some within the broader American church. It's complicated root system ensnares many well-meaning Christians who have seen the words of Scripture used as a spiritual bludgeon against those who battled against enslavement to sin or who perhaps weren't walking in lock-step with church leadership.

Hence, the response: Doctrine appears to be dividing us, therefore, what we need is more love.

On the other hand, there are those whose lips play host to these words with less than sincere motivations of the heart. They are wolves in sheep's clothing. Their intent is to lead others astray by convincing them, among other things, that to be "under grace" is to possess a license to indulge the flesh, whether outwardly or inwardly. 

And possession of this license guarantees "freedom from the law" of God which therefore (practically) nullifies the authority of church leadership in any one church members life. Their's is a call to licentious living, or what theologians call antinomianism (lit: against God's law).

The truth is, there are few who explicitly proclaim this so-called freedom from God's moral mandates in the Christian life. Even antinomians think it wrong to have their wallets stolen! 

Yet the problem we're grappling with in this post is real and its effects in the church today, supported by gross biblical illiteracy, are devastating to discipleship and biblical counseling (see important articles on this from Ligonier Ministries and Dr. Al Mohler).

At bottom, we might say that many in the American church are now "punch-drunk" on an unbiblical understanding of God's moral law and its relation to the grace by which they are saved (Eph. 2:8-9).

Obedience from the Heart

One of the many unique qualities of biblical counseling is its embrace of God's word as the sufficient source and guide for the life to which God has called every believer (Heb. 4:12; 2 Tim. 3:16). And this call is buttressed by the good news that, unlike government, God never issues an unfunded mandate. As Peter tells us, we've been granted "all things that pertain to life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3).

In other words, the biblical call to know, understand, and observe sound doctrine and teaching is preceded by the giving of the spiritual ability to do so at conversion. This is good news!

Critics of biblical counseling have thus charged the movement with encouraging legalism on account of the counselor's willingness to be direct with those who are clearly living in opposition to God's word. Here, we often see (or taste) the leaven that infects the modern church which declares that "doctrine divides."

With the understanding that the human element, and therefore the possibility of human error, cannot be removed from any counseling scenario, it must be clearly stated that loving (Eph. 5:14), biblical confrontation is not merely descriptive in Christian discipleship, but is in fact prescriptive, that is, mandated

This is precisely what Paul was referring to when he instructed the Thessalonians to "admonish the idle" (1 Thess. 5:14), or those who are neglecting God's word to their own peril (and often times the peril of their own families and the entire church).

In a great twist of irony, when the shepherds of God's church willfully refuse to engage the wayward, they are themselves running afoul of God's gracious command which was in fact given for our sanctification (Rom. 6:19).

Within the pages of Scripture we find a clear and unambiguous call to holy or righteous living according not to our own imagined standards but according to "sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1). 

In his letter to the Romans, Paul himself commends his audience for their obedience, and gives thanks to God that where they were once "slaves of sin," they have become "obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which [they] were committed" (Rom. 6:17; 2 Tim. 1:13).

Notice two key phrases in the verse: 1) from the heart, and 2) the standard of teaching. Paul lifts up not a mere legalistic form of obedience to God but one that is motivated by love for Him according to what they have been taught concerning the Gospel. Orthodoxy (right knowing) tends toward Orthopraxy (right living).

"We will not believe more than we know, and we will not live higher than our beliefs." Dr. Al Mohler

Any honest reading of the New Testament would reveal that Paul himself would repudiate the maligning of sound doctrine and the pursuit of loving obedience in humble submission to it. 

If "doctrine divides" in the way some have suggested, then the words of Psalm 119:105, that God's word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, cannot in any meaningful way be true.

Connecting the Dots

This post has focused heavily on God's law, moral standards, and obedience to biblical doctrine. For some, it will be an uncomfortable discussion because it feels counter to the message of "grace" as they've come to understand it. Unfortunately, they may hear a message that is measurably different than what's actually been communicated.

Still, the application of sound, biblical doctrine in any pastoral or biblical counseling scenario is critical to discipling those who have fallen away and who are now experiencing the natural results of sin and the loving discipline of God. Either of these may produce experiences with worry, fear, depression, anxiety, relational brokenness, and the like.

While those who counsel biblically must always be on the lookout for signs of an underlying organic issue in a counselee and be ready to refer the person to a medical doctor for examination, it will not infrequently be the case that the trouble a person is experiencing in their life can be linked to some ongoing sin issue (i.e. adultery, pornography, addiction, anger, criminal activity, etc.).

Consequently, the most unloving thing any concerned biblical shepherd can do is to avoid the loving confrontation at the point of departure from God's word in favor of some physical remedy to what is a spiritual matter of the heart.

Indeed, while some choose to report that "doctrine divides and love unites," what we know to be true is that sound doctrine divides not the church, but the righteous from the unrighteous. And the resulting unity it produces for those who are trained by it is securely in Christ and with one another (Heb. 12:11).

In this, sound doctrine, we encounter the love of God whose perfect love casts out all fear (1 Jn. 4:18).

For a related discussion, check out the latest podcast from ACBC on overcoming sin.