April 13, 2020

Is It Really Loving to Teach Doctrine to the Poor?

Yes, unbelievably, this is a question that arises from time to time within our ministry. I understand what lies behind the question.

How do we teach doctrine in a culture where the majority of people do not read books? How do we teach doctrine in a culture where many people did not finish their High School education? How do we teach doctrine in a culture where a person’s attention span is very short? Implicit within the question, however, is another—more troubling—one: Shouldn’t we just love people and tell them about Jesus instead of confusing them with ‘heavy’ teaching?

More incredible still, much of this attitude stems from outside visitors and, ironically, University-educated students! Indeed, doctrine has become something of a bad smell to many young Christians I come across, particular among those who want to work with the poor or engage in some form of mercy ministry. Almost without exception, the first question young people (in the UK at least) ask about 20schemes will be connected to music (which they connect almost exclusively to worship). In fact, if we were to scratch below the surface, I think many young Christians today would think that doctrine hinders our ‘worship’ of Almighty God. In fact, far too many live their ‘Christian’ experience under the following mathematical equation:

  • A musical, emotional experience of God = Spiritual connection and worship
  • A thoughtful, brain engaging, doctrinal discussion = Spiritual death and no worship

At 20schemes, we not only believe that every scheme should have a vibrant, gospel-centred local church, but that each of those churches should preach and teach the whole counsel of God as revealed in the Scriptures. We believe that what we teach is fundamentally important to the spiritual life and well-being of every soul. We believe that teaching doctrine to the poor is one of the most loving things a Christian can do. Here are some reasons why.

1. God cares about the truth.

In speaking of the man of lawlessness and his followers in 2 Thessalonians 2:10, Paul reminds the church that, “They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” In John 14:6, Jesus says that it is the truth that will set us free. God wants everyone to come to a knowledge of the truth in 1 Timothy 2:4. God reveals his wrath against those who suppress the truth in Romans 1:18. Jesus says that he will send the Spirit of truth to us in John 16:13.

Therefore, God cares—deeply—how we view Him and how we worship Him. Truth matters. Right thinking about God matters. This is where healthy doctrine comes in. It helps us to grasp biblical truth and enables us to understand how God wants us to know him. More than that, doctrine helps us to understand our Almighty God.

2. Everybody holds to, and teaches, doctrine of some sort.

This is true even for those who say they oppose doctrine on the grounds of so-called ‘love’. All they are doing, in effect, is revealing their own doctrinal bias(es). They are teaching what they understand about the nature of God and what He considers important for the church. In this case, their doctrine is saying that God is unhappy (and we are unloving) when we teach poor people a system of belief on various theological matters relating to the Bible. That is a doctrinal statement, whether people care to admit it or not.

Every person, Christian or not, is forming a view of God, as they understand Him, and (sub)consciously teaching others as a matter of course as they share these views with those around them. It follows, then, that every statement about God, Jesus, or the Bible is a doctrinal statement. Therefore, it surely matters what and how we teach the poor regarding these issues. I would argue that it matters a great deal.

3. Our doctrine must, therefore, be sound.

This, of course, is where it gets interesting. Who decides soundness? Well, doctrine does of course! How so? Well, if your doctrine of the Bible states that it is the final, complete, inerrant, authoritative Word of God in all matters, then this will govern the answer to this question. If not, then you will take a different, more dangerous, route. You will turn somewhere outside of the Bible—even if that’s turning within oneself for the answers.

Concerning elders, the Apostle Paul writes to Titus: “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). So not just ‘any doctrine’ goes. The Bible is concerned that we teach sound doctrine.

In a similar way, Paul encourages Timothy to be very careful what he teaches others about God. In 1 Timothy 1:3–7, he is encouraged to stay in Ephesus and warn certain men about their dodgy teaching. Later on in that chapter—in verses 19–20—he informs him that false doctrine has led to the shipwreck of the faith of some followers. Again, in chapter 4 of 1 Timothy, he is warned that some will abandon the faith and therefore he is to carefully watch his life and doctrine.

In fact, the good pastor “must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). The Bible is clear on this. Not only is doctrine important, but sound doctrine is the very lifeblood of the Christian faith. Sound doctrine means a healthy, vibrant gospel. If consistent gospel preaching is missing from our churches then, by default, so will consistent, healthy evangelism; so will consistent, healthy growth; and so will consistent, healthy discipleship. There will still be worship, of course. But it won’t be biblical worship.

It would be a hateful, dangerous and unloving thing not to ensure that doctrine is faithfully taught as we live and work among the poor. Therefore, we help our hearers (and ourselves) when we engage in diligent study of the Word of God and teach them the truths found therein. The objective of teaching in our context is not to avoid difficult subjects and to avoid doctrine, but to make it understandable for our people.

A Word of Warning

In conclusion, let me offer a word of warning. There are many who love doctrine more than they love God. They use study and knowledge to boost their intellect at the expense of their hearts. Knowledge of God by itself doesn’t move a soul toward a greater love of Christ. I fear the generational swing to emotionalism and the suspicion of ‘sound doctrine’ has been caused, in great part, by a dry, intellectualised faith that has fought for ‘truth’ at the expense of ‘love’, hence the opening question.

In my experience (personal as well as pastoral), those who love doctrine as an end in itself tend to become smug, self-righteous, and emotionally disconnected from God and his people. We are to worship God with our hearts as well as our minds. Everything that we learn about God should fuel our love for Him more and more. That’s the goal of doctrinal teaching: to change lives, not egos, from the inside out. Tim Keller writes this:

If we don’t find that our affections have been moved away from earthly idols toward God, we haven’t worshipped. . . . If I leave Sunday mornings having had no emotional connection whatsoever, I haven’t worshipped. I must allow my heart to be touched to worship.