Paul wrote to Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1:13). He warned Timothy that a time was coming when people would not endure “sound teaching” (2 Tim 4:3).
To Titus, Paul wrote that elders need to be able to “give instruction in sound doctrine and to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Then, “as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” (2:1).
God enjoins sound doctrine (teaching) upon us. What this essentially means is that our teaching is to be faithful to God and His word. “Sound” means “healthy” or “uncorrupted.”
I want to make two observations:
1. Doctrinal purity often hangs on a thin thread. The teaching and holding fast of sound doctrine is what God wants. Again, read 1-2 Timothy and Titus if there any doubt about that. I don’t see how that’s debatable for those who believe Scripture is God’s word. We ought to avoid the arrogance of thinking we are perfect, and we should always be amenable to further study, understanding, and changing when we see we must. Honesty demands this. At the same time, we should never downplay the importance of what Scripture says about sound teaching.
2. However, it is possible that what we believe is sound doctrine can be, in our minds, best maintained by adding rules and hedges that Scripture does not provide. In other words, we can bend over so far backwards that we end up outside of the sound doctrine that we were trying to guard. A creedal mentality can put us in this position.
With those two thoughts, the next will follow: the more that we seek unity and fellowship on grounds other than the authority of Scripture and sound doctrine, the more sound doctrine will be sacrificed. I am talking here about the doctrinal purity of observation #1 above, not the kind that #2 warns about.
While we might want to emotionally accept any and all who claim to be Christians, the fact is that there is a wide array of doctrines and practices, and they cannot all be correct. There appears an air of uncertainty about sound doctrine, as if it is “out there” somewhere, but never fully attainable in a way that anyone can be confident about. By failing to stand firm for much of anything, and by acting as if no one is wrong about anything, the door is opened for sacrificing the pure teaching of Scripture on the altar of open fellowship.
For example, either baptism for the remission of sins is necessary or it isn’t. If it is, then those who reject it are in serious error, for “remission of sins” is on the line. To accept them anyway necessitates sacrificing and severely diminishing the biblical teaching of baptism. If, on the other hand, baptism is not necessary, then those who teach it as unnecessary will have to either accept or reject those who do, and those who do are in error for binding what God has not.
Someone has to compromise what he believes to be the truth on the matter. While we all accept as brethren those with whom we have some disagreements (this is inevitable), this does not, and cannot practically, expand into the idea that we ought to accept any and all with whom we disagree on everything. Such would be an absurdity, and no one does this either. Everyone has doctrinal lines they will not tolerate being crossed. Telling the difference between what we can and cannot accept will take much discernment, wisdom, and deeply imbibing the Word.
There are dangers, among which include 1) a failure to listen when we might be wrong, and 2) trying to be so restrictive that we err in the opposite direction, and thereby also sacrifice doctrinal purity.
Yet commitment to the truth of Scripture needs to be built into the fabric of God’s people as a starting point. If we are not willing to do this, then on what grounds may we even call ourselves the children of God—terminology that itself is based upon what Scripture says? On what grounds will we be able to believe anything about Jesus and what He reveals Himself to be? This is fundamental.
Here, then, is the attitude that serves as a beginning point: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess 2:13).
Couple that with the attitude of the Bereans: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
When we are committed to God first, which entails being committed to His revelation, we will keep seeking to better our understanding and our lives. Yet we will recognize that there is indeed what is called “sound doctrine” to which we are to be faithful.