Doctrinal and Morality Matters


     In attempting to teach sermon outline creation and presentation classes through the years, I have often commented that a sermon normally consists of a title and a title as a rule needs good definition and anchoring as to what it is saying, affirming, or denying and that all possible ambiguity and potential misapprehension must be negated and eliminated. Hence, let me begin by practicing what I preach.

     "Doctrinal" or "doctrine" as far as the scriptures is commonly derived from the Greek, didache. A simple comment and definition is, "Denotes teaching either (a) that which is taught, e. g., Matt. 7: 28…, or (b) the act of teaching, e. g., Mark 4: 2, A. V., ‘doctrine’, R. V., ‘teaching.’ The R. V. has ‘the doctrine’ in Rom. 16: 17…" (W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. 1, p. 332, see addendum 1).

     The English word "morality" is commonly defined as, "1. Conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct" (Random House College Dictionary, p. 867).

     While I believe there is a legitimate distinction between "doctrinal" and "morality," I believe some have attempted to expand the distinction to the point of abuse and flaw. "To err regarding doctrine is not encouraged, but such is not damnable; however, to err in morality is a very serious, even soul threatening concern," I have been told many times.

     Many seem to have never considered that for conduct to be disallowed, it first must be taught against; hence, the presence of both "doctrine" and "morality." Paul and John worded it this way:

     "…for where no law is, there is no transgression," and, "Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law" (Rom. 4: 15; I John 3: 4).

     May I also submit that both correct doctrine and morality (conduct) are taught and enjoined. It is the belief of the truth that frees from the bondage of sin (John 8: 32) and man must worship God not only in "spirit," but also in "truth," correct doctrine (John 4: 24). Truth is to be so pronounced in the life of the Christian that his life may be thus described as, "walking in truth" (2 John 4). Some, to the converse, "walk after the flesh" (2 Peter 2: 20). Such especially refers to what we call "moral" sins or failure to comply with the rules of conduct especially concerning purity and holiness of life. Some have even been described as having, "eyes full of adultery and that cannot cease from sin" (2 Peter 2: 14).

     It is also observed that a failure in general to comply to the rules of conduct, if you will, is sin. Peter on an occasion "walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel" ("doctrine," dm) and was pronounced as a sinner (Peter committed racial prejudice, Gal. 2: 11-14, cp. 3: 6-29). I share this observation due to some drawing a line of demarcation between moral sins such as fornication and a failure to comply to rules of conduct regarding speech, for instance, by not using edifying speech to the point of saying that fornication, the "moral sin," and failure to use edifying speech are not consequentially equal; in that, the "moral sin" of fornication can condemn one’s soul while a failure to use edifying speech will not. In such instances, we must realize that in the case of the absence of the "moral sin" (from the negative, I Cor. 6: 18) and the positive commandment to use edifying speech (Eph. 4:28), both are required and taught (doctrine).

     Some retort by saying, "Do you not believe there is a difference between one honestly missing a Bible truth while they continue to sincerely study the matter and one living a sexually abandoned life?" In this question, effort again is expended to distinguish between "doctrine" and "moral sins." First, allow me to partially digress to address the, "doctrinal failure and moral failure have different consequences and must not be equated" position. The just mentioned rationale has been responsible for, "belief in the person of Jesus is all that is needed to justify fellowship" appeal. It is said that "doctrine of Christ" is simply the single belief that "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh" and that if one so acknowledges this belief, one must be received into fellowship, notwithstanding the belief of manifest doctrinal error in other matters (I have asked some who so think if they would include what they call "moral sins" and some even say such sins as fornication must not be allowed to prevent fellowship in the just mentioned matter. I have found this to be of paramount concern).

     I grant that one immediate reference John had to "doctrine of Christ" in Second John 9 and 10 is to the belief that "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh" (cp. 2 John 7-10). However, that John did not mean for the reader to restrict "doctrine of Christ" in verse 9 to this single truth and exclude all other truths is manifest in the epistle itself. Consider the plural status of "commandment" (enktolas) in verse 6 of 2 John and the attached stated importance:

     "And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it."

     One may say, "Yes, John used ‘commandments,’ but then he focused on ‘commandment.’" The "commandment" is "love one another" (v. 5, 6). Consider: Is John saying in verse five that there is only one, single imperative commandment and that is "love one another"? If so, then how can John be saying that the only requisite is the belief "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh" in verse seven through nine? One (love brethren) and another (Jesus Christ came in the flesh) equal two not one! Hence, it is obvious that John does not mean for us to engage in such irresponsible demarcation and minimizing and maximizing of what is taught. All of God’s commandments kept out of love are necessary (I John 5: 3, see John’s teaching in verse one and two, compare and notice the reference to apparent singularity and then plurality and how they together stand. Also compare James 2: 10).

     Back to "doctrinal" and "morality" differences: "Brother Martin, do you believe there is a difference between a preacher who is missing the truth regarding one Bible subject which he continues to study and in the preacher who holds truth across the doctrinal spectrum, but he lies, steals, and commits adultery?"

     I like to put it this way; a man may be sound in his teaching, but flawed in his conduct. In the foregoing flaw, it involves matters that we term "immorality" (to introduce the negated form). We learn from Jesus that it may be acknowledged that one teaches the truth, but one’s life is not according to truth (cp. Matt. 23: 1, 2, Jesus treats such as wrong). 

     May I now inject a new consideration based on an elusive matter ("morality") that must be carefully defined and qualified: What we term as "moral sins" typically share common characteristics. "Moral sins" such as, for instance, adultery (sin of the flesh, Col. 3: 5) are usually sins that are obviously sin and are for the most part universally pronounced wrong. They are also, as a rule, sins that require more abandon to commit. When a sin is of the nature that to commit it usually involves a progression of weakening as opposed to a sin that may be more spontaneous (one strikes out when spat upon for being a Christian), it is more difficult for repentance to be effected and, too, there are usually more adverse consequences that affect more than just the sinner, see addendum 2).

     It is my now decided conviction after years of serving as a preacher and elder that many obvious problems are not the main problem. In other words, the matter we see and that which often demands our attention is only symptomatic of a "more serious" problem. For instance, I have dealt with liars and what I have found is that rather than focusing on lying, we need to focus on building spiritual strength and moral courage (see "virtue" in 2 Peter 1: 5). I say this because lying is the product of fear and the lack of spiritual maturity and confidence (not all weak Christians lie).

     I have spent a goodly portion of my life dealing with religious error and what I have found, both in and out of the church, is that the problem is often more than "doctrinal" (this is serious enough, 2 John 9-11). In other words, there has often been more to it than simply a lack of intellectual acquisition of biblical facts (see addendum 3). If we use "flesh" to help define "moral" or rather "immoral," then based on Paul’s teaching regarding the "works of the flesh," we can see how a preacher may not "simply" be guilty of holding the same false teaching as a party or clique in the church, but rather guilty of subscribing to a party view to be accepted by the political group (Gal. 5: 19-21, see "variance, "strive," and "heresies" in verse 20, all "works of the flesh," verse 19). I am thinking of one such preacher who was a friend of mine and with whom I had worked in various gospel meeting circumstances. He stood against the teaching of a certain faction in the Lord’s church. However, he began to befriend certain preachers and they in turn began to influence him to join them and then I heard that he was weakening. I contacted him and said, "Is it true that you are accepting a staff position on a certain magazine that you have opposed?" "Yes," said he, "but only to try to influence these men to abandon their cause." It was only a short while before he became one of their champion debaters for one of their special interest false doctrines.

     Was this preacher’s defection doctrinal? "Yes." Was there more to it than accepting error? "Yes." When all the facts were revealed, he wanted to identify with a faction that he thought could promote his career as a Church of Christ Preacher; so, he "changed doctrinal positions" (reminds one of Balaam of old, Numbers 22, cp. 2 Peter 2: 15).

     We must not be guilty of assigning motives in the absence of tangible evidence (John 7: 24). However, this preacher believes that there is usually more to a matter than we, man, see (God knows and in the absence of fact, we must leave it with God, I Timothy 5: 24, 25). When there is doctrinal error, we must address it in the most expeditious manner we can, based on the nature of it and its associated circumstances, etc.). Men who have honestly been wrong on a doctrinal point have changed when their error is pointed out to them (cp. Acts 18: 24 ff.). There must be checks and balances to maintain the continuance of truth and when there is a failure to correct, we must follow the course set forth in the scriptures (Gal. 2: 5-11, 2 John 9-11, Rom. 16: 17).

     I have personally, for what it is worth, found that many who hold damnable error (not doctrinally sound, Titus 2: 1) when more closely examined and observed are seen as liars, cheats, and "immoral" in their revealed conduct and prompting motives. I believe that this is one reason we seem to fail so often in helping a situation; there is a more serious underlying causation that bespeaks a more advanced corrosion of spiritual fiber and "moral" goodness. Hence, I do believe there is an important distinction in "doctrinal" and "moral" matters.

     Knowing the immediately above can help us to understand so many teachings found in the New Testament. Upon closer examination, the "factious man" (ASV) is not merely one who at their present level of truth errs on a particular point, but one who is, "subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself" (Tit. 3: 11). Those of whom Paul warned were not "just" men who missed the point in some matter requiring more study on their part, but, rather, "For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple" (Rom. 16: 18). The false teachers mentioned by Peter were not just temporarily mistaken in some doctrinal nuance, they were corrupt manipulators who sought their own financial and egotistic gain (2 Pet. 2: 3 ff., see addendum 4).

     Addendum 1: I might mention that some view "doctrine" as removed from Christianity in the sense that to them "doctrine" is theology or human creed. Indeed, human creeds are not part of pristine Christianity (cf. Mark 7: 6, ff.). "Doctrine," noun, in the biblical sense is in its totality the official, if you will, body of teaching found in the New Testament (I Tim. 1: 10). If something is "doctrinal," adjective, it is part of this official doctrine (cp. Tit. 1: 9). Keep in mind, however, that a teaching or the inspired act of teaching, apostles, resulted in doctrine. Hence, Paul could write, "…the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" (I Cor. 14: 37; 2 Tim. 1: 13).

     Addendum 2: It must not be understood that only what are termed "moral sins" are progressive in terms of weakening and having stages of development. For instance, most would not describe Peter’s sin of denying Jesus as a "moral sin," but his sin was gradational (Matt. 26: 69-75). Also, under the microscope of temptation, all sin is gradational in its inceptional development (Jas. 1: 14-16)

     Addendum 3: Truth is, on a higher scale, incrementally realized and acquired. The honest, sincere child of God has the promise, "…God shall reveal even this unto you" (Phili. 3: 15). We must remember, "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine…" (John 7: 17).

     Addendum 4: For the sake of clarity and the avoidance of misunderstanding, I again stress that regardless of the actual motivational and spiritual status positioning of those who teach damnable error, whether they are "just" lacking in a doctrinal regard while they increase in knowledge or they actually experience core dishonesty, error must be addressed (see Acts 18: 24ff.). If a man such as Apollos incrementally lacks knowledge in his teaching, he will learn and correct his mistake. However, those spiritually abandoned will persist and will only "…wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived" (2 Tim. 3: 13).