“Teach no other doctrine.”
“The purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart.”
“The law is made for those who act contrary to sound doctrine.”
These are the main thoughts St. Paul has in his heart as he instructs Timothy on how to lead a church.
What strikes me from the very beginning is Paul’s use of the word “doctrine.” I normally associate “doctrine” with our formal theologies that we are supposed to learn, the “head” knowledge that eventually should meet up with our daily lives somehow.
But Paul seems to have the strange idea that “doctrine” is so intimately connected with our behavior that act in an ungodly and unholy way is to act contrary to sound doctrine. When Paul exhorts Timothy to charge the Ephesian church not to teach any other doctrine and exchange sound doctrine for fables and genealogies, his reason is that such disputes do not produce godly edification which is in faith (verse 4.) Paul’s and Timothy’s teaching is not about endless dispute about the minutiae of our systematic theologies but is immensely practical. It has everything to do with how we live in holiness before God.
Paul makes this clear as well when he says that the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith (verse 5). Did we all catch that? The purpose of doctrine is love, and love is not only a noun but also a verb. Obeying God’s commandments is what love is all about, and for this reason faith and obedience, faith and works, faith and love can never be separated.
I love how Scripture works together to feed our faith and faithfulness. But it only works this way if we read it in enough quantity and with a good enough quality of meditation. Isn’t it interesting – even providential – how Paul seems to pick up James’ discussion of faith and works, only in a different context and with a different vocabulary? James spent his one book on teaching the doctrine of the necessity of “good works,” which it might be helpful to think of as the fruits of the Spirit. Now Paul, who has taught this elsewhere as well, opens his letter to Timothy on how to run the church by talking about the same thing.
It’s time to dissect our difficulty with doctrine a little more. Part of the confusion we have over the word doctrine and what it should mean to us comes from our translations. It’s important that we not get hung up on one particular word – especially if that word is not even in the text or is misunderstood. The fact is that when the New Testament refers to “doctrine,” it is word that simply means “teaching.” Paul doesn’t separate “doctrine” as a formal or official teaching of the Church from the “teaching” of the Church about how we should live. All of the apostolic teaching is doctrine, whether it is the doctrine of the Trinity or Resurrection or the teaching about how we must produce good fruit.
Since the teaching is such an important part of Paul’s teaching to Timothy, I should say a word about it here. The teaching to which Paul refers is the apostolic teaching, the teaching that Paul himself received either from the other apostles or from Jesus Christ Himself. It is the tradition and the teaching. It is an apostolic deposit of faith that is supposed to be faithfully believed, faithfully passed down, and faithfully lived out. This is the “doctrine” of which Paul so often speaks.
We, too, have been entrusted with this apostolic tradition, this apostolic teaching, and this apostolic faith. It is incarnated for us in the Bible but also in our lives – two more things we must never separate. Paul is saying, therefore, that the Church is to guard the apostolic teaching. We must faithfully receive what the apostles taught, and we must teach others the apostolic teachings.My own belief is that this is best done by looking what the early church taught. If we know what Polycarp taught, for example, who was a disciple of St. John’s in Ephesus, then we have a better idea of what John’s teachings in the Bible meant. The earlier, the more consistent, and the more plentiful the teachings of the early church writers, the more likely what they taught is what the apostles taught and meant by their teachings.
We therefore have a sacred obligation to guard the faith, the teaching of the apostles. But I am suggesting much more than just that we guard the teachings by guarding the Bible or by passing down “doctrine,” as it is commonly thought of. These are essential. But they will be weak and useless unless we guard the apostolic teaching with our lives as well. For it is not just what we teach but how we live that guards the faith and teaching of the apostles. As we learned from Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians and from James’ letter, if we live faithfully and guard the faith by our faithfulness, then others will believe and live for Jesus Christ. If we “teach” the apostolic teaching with our mouths but live it out hypocritically by a life of unfaithfulness and disobedience, then others will disbelieve and walk apart from Christ.
Every parent and teacher knows (or ought to know) that we teach by our lives and by our example. Why should it be any different when it comes to passing on the teaching of Christ and His apostles?
The purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith (verse 5.) The purpose of God’s commandment is not for us to affirm with our tongues and minds that we love God, but to have our hearts and bodies continue to serve themselves. The purpose of the commandment is love: the love that comes from a pure heart that seeks God in holiness, and the love that comes from a sincere faith that is actually faithful to God. Love God with your mind: believe what He says and accept Him for who He has revealed Himself to be. Love God with your body: obey His commandments by how you act. But above all, love God with your heart: desire Him above all else and when you obey, obey not from coercion or mere duty but with a cheerfulness that comes from deep affection and attachment to God Himself.
By all means, let’s study doctrine and the teachings of the apostles, but if we truly want to teach them, guard them, and pass them on, then let’s make sure we live by them as well. And to do this, it takes love.
Prayer: Almighty God, I thank you for revealing yourself to me through Your Son and through Your Holy Word. Thank You for preserving Your truth from generation to generation. So move my heart to have faith in You and to show it by my loving obedience that I may be made a faithful steward and guardian of Your Truth, which is found in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Point for Meditation: Examine your attitudes toward doctrine through some of the following questions. Do you view it positively or negatively. Is it somehow different from the teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles? Does your view of doctrine include with it the commandments to produce the practical fruits of the Spirit, or is it primarily in the head?
Listen for what God’s Spirit is teaching you about how to better hear and live out His teachings.
Resolution: I resolve to humbly submit myself to all that God teaches through His Word. I resolve to believe with body, mind, and heart.
© 2013 Fr. Charles Erlandson