Doctrine and the pastoral ministry

July 30, 2011

In our modern churchgoing generation, the word doctrine often bears a scholarly, academic stigma. Most western Christians would not say that they are into doctrine. However, most would probably say they are into truth. This dichotomy is an unbiblical one. Doctrine is simply the ordering of truth, and the way that Biblical truths fit together as sound doctrine matters much more to the health and vibrancy of our hearts than we probably realize.

Another unbiblical dichotomy we often make is between the teaching of sound doctrine and the pastoral ministry. When we think of a pastor, counselor, or mentor, we mostly think of someone with a heart of compassion who can guide us through the storms of life by coming along side of us and encouraging us. While this is an important quality of pastors and mentors, we must realize that the Bible primarily emphasizes something deeper than mere affirmation and "you can do it, there's hope" encouragement as critical for pastoring and discipleship.

The biblical mark of a good pastor or mentor is godly lifestyle and character (1 Timothy 3:1-13) and the ability to teach sound doctrine (Titus 1:5-9). Yet as spiritual fathers, mentors, pastors, and leaders we've often sidelined the teaching of sound doctrine as the means to leading others into godly lifestyle and character. Words of affirmation and acts of compassion are important, yet they must flow out of a heart and mind ordered in the truth of God's word. Human words cannot save a soul, but God's words can.

“Man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 8:3 NKJV)

The apex of sound doctrine is the person and work of Jesus Christ. His identity, life, and work is the main thrust of the New Testament. This makes the study of doctrine personal and relational, not a dry, sterile theological exercise. The neglecting of the "word of Christ" is perhaps the main reason for our pastoral crisis in the church today. Neutrality about Jesus, His identity, His work, and His return has a disastrous effect on the heart. Paul, in his pastoral letter to the church of Colossae, understood this, saying that admonition of one another should come through truths about the glory and worth of Christ:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”
(Colossians 3:16 NKJV)

A lack of concern for sound doctrine about Christ is nothing less than a concrete decision to unrestrainedly partake in the wine of delusion until one exists in a moral and spiritual drunken stupor. We can not be neutral, nor can we neglect the truth about Christ in our discipleship and pastoral ministry. The apostle John makes it clear that we should not even have fellowship with ones who do not abide in the doctrine of Christ, because they do not have God:

“Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him;”
(2 John 1:9-10 NKJV)

The apostle Paul was the primary biblical example of pastoring through doctrine. All of Paul's letters were highly pastoral in nature and were addressed to weak, maturing believers. They were much more "doctrinal" than modernity wants from something we often call "pastoral". The pastoral pendulum has swung too much in our modern day towards "Affirm me, tell me He loves me and makes much of me" away from the "doctrinal", biblical method of pastoring and shepherding a heart into maturity. Paul constantly appealed to truths about Christ and the gospel and ordered them in such a way to convince, rebuke, encourage, and exhort his brothers and sisters in the Lord to godliness and Christlikeness. It is only because of our modern Christ-less Christianity that we see his letters as somewhat irrelevant to our lives, being primarily theological rather than pastoral.

The ordering of the truth in the preaching of Christ and Him crucified is the means by which our eyes behold the Great Splendor instead of self. This is what lifts our hearts out of discouragement. The modern self-affirming gospel presentation beginning and ending with "God loves you" with barely a shred of doctrine about Christ and His glory leaves people completely unprepared for the wave of delusion that God will send prior to putting the worth of His Son on display. With such a deep focus on the glory of man and little focus on the glory of Christ - sound doctrine - I fear that millions of professing believers are sadly going to be swept away into apostasy.

…and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth [sound doctrine] (2 Timothy 3:7; 2 Timothy 4:3-4), that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion [allowing the false signs and wonders just described to take place], that they should believe the lie [falling away], that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Timothy 3:4; 2 Peter 2:18; 2 Peter 3:3-7; Jude 16-18).
(2 Thessalonians 2:10-11 - brackets and scripture cross references mine)

As we stray from biblical language and biblical focus on Christ in our discipleship and pastoral ministry, we will often stray from biblical theology and lead people into neutrality about Christ - the One who should be central and ultimate in our attention. But there is hope. As we set our focus on Jesus and earnestly plead with Him to open our eyes and ears, we can be sure the Holy Spirit will bring to remembrance everything He said, sanctify us as we bear witness of Him to a lost and dying world, and bring our hearts into aching for His return above all else. We need You, Jesus. Come and help us.

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About the author

Joshua Hawkins is a pastor, Bible teacher, and content creator for disciples of Jesus from College Station, Texas. He co-hosts The Apocalyptic Gospel Podcast, a weekly audio show exploring how a first century Jew would have understood the Gospel. He's also an all-around tech nerd and enjoys road cycling.

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