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If we are to be effective and balanced teachers of God’s Word, we must recognize that our doctrines have various levels of authority.
Jesus said there are certain doctrinal matters that are “more important” than others:
… you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness … (Matt. 23:23)
By implication, this means there are some doctrinal matters that are “less important.” We must realize that our doctrines have varying degrees of significance and of authority. They are not all equally important (although, of course, nothing in the Bible is unimportant).
Vital doctrines that are clearly taught in the Scripture – such as the deity of Christ, the substitutionary blood atonement, Jesus’ virgin birth and bodily resurrection, justification by faith alone, the inerrancy of Scripture, the triunity of the Godhead, etc. – must never be compromised. These are the doctrines for which you should be prepared to die and which you should defend even if it means causing division in the local church.
However, issues such as the exact method of water baptism, the timing of the rapture, forms of worship, method of taking communion, or the appropriateness of Christians observing Christmas should not be the causes of church divisions. You should be prepared to die for the deity of Christ, but not for someone’s speculation regarding the meaning of Paul’s head covering in 1 Corinthians 11! You should not divide churches over disagreements about the historical identity of the king called “Darius the Mede” in the Old Testament book of Daniel!
The following graphic shows the relationship between a particular doctrine’s importance and clarity and its subsequent authority.
As the importance and clarity of the doctrine increases, its authority increases. However, if a doctrine is relatively less important or clear, then its authority decreases.
Here is a model of five levels of authority of doctrines.
To say there are exactly “five” levels of authority is arbitrary and has no biblical basis. The general idea of differing levels of authority of doctrines is, however, biblical. The designation of five levels used here helps us to grasp this valuable principle. For the sake of simplicity, it may sometimes be better to reduce these five levels to three: Dogma (Levels 1 & 2), Doctrine (Level 3), and Tradition or Speculation (Levels 4 & 5).
Level 1: Direct statements in Scripture. To the extent that our doctrines are built on direct statements and not on interpretations of Scripture, they have the highest level of authority. They are the direct, clear Word of God. There is no element of human interpretation involved. For example, the fact that Jesus is God is directly stated many times in the Bible:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1; cf. 20:28; Is. 9:6; Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1; Heb. 1:8-9; etc.)
“Level 1” doctrines that are built simply on direct statements of Scripture are doctrines for which we can, and should, be willing to die. These are the doctrines we need to believe to be saved. If we disagree with these doctrines, we are not saved.
Other examples of direct statements are Jesus’ genuine humanity (1 Tim. 2:5), His substitutionary blood atonement (Is. 53), His bodily resurrection (Luke 24:39), and justification by faith alone (Rom. 3:28).
Level 2: Direct implications of Scripture. These are “close interpretations” from the Scripture. They are interpretations, as opposed to direct statements, but they are very “close” interpretations, as opposed to “distant.” Consequently, they are not quite as authoritative as direct statements, because there is an additional small step of interpretation involved. These doctrines, however, still carry a high level of authority and should be taken very seriously. An example of this kind of doctrine is the triune nature of God. There is no verse that explicitly says, “God is three in one,” yet there is much clear scriptural evidence for this truth.
Level 3: Probable implications of Scripture. There is a much greater degree of interpretation involved in the formulation of these doctrines. The authority of these doctrines increases as the number of Scriptures used to support them increases (as long as those Scriptures are interpreted with accuracy and integrity). “Level 3” doctrines often become the particular “distinctives” between one Christian group and the next. An example of such a doctrine would be the relationship of divine sovereignty to human responsibility. While many would argue this doctrine to be fairly clear from a study of the entire Bible, this is probably not a doctrine for which you should die. Another example of this level of doctrine is the method of water baptism that one uses or one’s position on divorce and remarriage. We all should believe, teach and practice our differing convictions on these matters, but we should still be able to work together as believers as long as we agree on “Level 1 and 2” doctrines.
Level 4: Inductive conclusions from Scripture. This is when we look at what the whole Bible says about something, seeking to understand it in the context of history and culture, trying to understand what the author originally intended by his words to those people in that place at that time, and prayerfully considering how to apply it to our lives now. There is quite a lot of interpretation entailed in these conclusions, and the more interpretation involved, the less authoritative the doctrine becomes. This doesn’t automatically mean that such a doctrine is wrong, but it does mean that we shouldn’t burn someone at the stake simply because he disagrees with it!
“Level 4” issues are addressed in the Scriptures in some form or another, but there is a high level of interpretation involved in these doctrines. Some examples are: one’s particular view concerning the rapture, the correct mode of women’s dress, the precise function of deacons, the role of women in the church, the meaning of the head-covering in 1 Corinthians 11, etc.
Many of our hallowed church traditions are actually “Level 4” doctrines. To some believers these doctrines are absolutely clear. However, in reality, they are not so clear. Problems arise when believers become dogmatic over “Level 4” doctrines, and many churches have been divided or destroyed over such issues.
Level 5: Speculations from Scripture. These doctrines are derived from a single statement or hint in the Scripture. Frequently they come from an obscure or unclear part of the Bible. They may also involve “spiritualization” of the Scriptures. These are theories; in fact, they are often guesses. In spite of the fact that doctrines of this nature frequently become very big issues in churches, nevertheless, in reality they possess little authority.
Here are some examples of these theories:
- Some say the distance of 2000 cubits between the Ark and the people in Joshua 3:4 represents the 2000 year period between Jesus’ resurrection and that of His people at His return. Of course, this is pure spiritualization and speculation. The difficulty with this interpretation is further compounded by the fact that some Hebrew texts (along with modern translations) say 1000 cubits!
- Some teach that Gideon’s Army in Judges 7 is a prophetic type of God’s “end-time army” that consists of an elite group of believers. One cult in China has developed a large following with this teaching, and the leader claims to be Christ Himself!
- Others combine Peter’s assertion that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Pet. 3:8) with the six days of creation to suggest that there will be a total of only 6000 years of human history, before Christ returns to institute the Millennium – the “seventh day” of rest on the earth. This idea is nowhere found in the Scripture and is contradicted by the genealogies of Genesis (the difficulty of determining the exact time periods indicated by the genealogies in Genesis is compounded by the omission of links in them), which indicate a period of time somewhat longer than this, and also by the Early Church’s belief that Christ would return in their generation (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:17). If one reads Psalm 90:4, from which Peter quoted, it is obvious that the “thousands years” is intended to be understood poetically: “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.”
- The “Gap theory” that says there was a “gap” between verses 1 and 2 of Genesis 1, during which time God created and then destroyed a “pre-Adamic race,” is another speculation that is nowhere taught in the Scriptures.
- Certain groups handle deadly snakes and drink poison as part of their worship times in “obedience” to Mark 16:18!
- The identity of the Antichrist.
- The meaning of the “baptism for the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15:29.
This is where things can get dangerous. It becomes a very serious problem when speculations are presented as possessing the same degree of authority as “Level 1” direct statements of Scripture. Due to a lack of theological training, many church leaders and Christians do not have a balanced view of the degrees of doctrinal authority, but they have a “flat” theology in which everything they believe is considered to possess the same absolute authority. In such churches, aberrant speculations are believed and held to as zealously as direct statements of Scriptures, and sometimes even more so.
Strangely, in some churches, “Level 5” speculations are stated and pursued as pure and absolute revelations from God, whereas foundational “Level 1” doctrines are disregarded as unimportant (“that’s just ‘doctrine,’ and ‘doctrine’ is not so important!”). Of course, the opposite is the truth: foundational doctrines are important, speculations are not.
Obviously, you should not give your life for someone’s speculation. Unfortunately, however, in small, “cultic” churches, many believers have done just that.
We need to know the Word of God, and we need to know it in a balanced manner:
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work – which is by faith. (1 Tim. 1:3-4)
In essence, Paul says to avoid speculation and focus on sound doctrine that is solidly based on the Scriptures. Stop worrying about peripheral issues and get into the Word – into matters that count, matters that will build you up and help you fulfill God’s purpose.
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. For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach – and that for the sake of dishonest gain. (Tit. 1:9-11)
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3)
Jude says to contend for “the faith.” He is speaking of foundational doctrine. We should not contend for someone’s theory, however attractive it may seem.
For us to discern and fulfill the purpose of God for our lives, we need to know the Word, and to know the Word in a balanced way. We need to know the difference between a direct authoritative statement of Scripture on the one end of the scale, and a speculation from human reasoning on the other end. We need to rightly divide the Word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15).
People waste years and sometimes their whole lives, never coming close to their purpose in God, because they get caught up in their own or someone else’s religious speculations. This frequently happens in churches.
Furthermore, when a believer has a “flat” theology and he embraces all doctrines as “Level 1” for which he should die, then he will be in trouble when someone points out the error of one of his (in reality “Level 5”) beliefs. This will frequently happen because “Level 5” doctrines do not have scriptural integrity and can be disproved easily. Since everything he believes forms the bedrock foundation of his Christian life – instead of only the top level beliefs forming his foundation – he will suffer a spiritual crisis and will not know what to believe anymore. His entire belief system will unravel. On the other hand, a believer who has a clear understanding of the different levels of authority of what he believes will be able to examine, adjust and occasionally reject, his lower-level beliefs, while safely holding to the doctrines that matter the most.
Consider Paul’s words in Philippians 3, after he has taught about the deep things of God:
All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (Phil. 3:15-16)
Clearly, Christians in any church are at various degrees of maturity and understanding. There are many different levels of teaching they have received and experiences they have had. Some will not understand the deep things Paul has just taught in previous verses. Significantly, Paul does not speak “down” to them, but as a friend. They may disagree with him, and if they do, Paul trusts God to help them see the Truth. Significantly, this refers to the deeper things of God; on the core issues of the faith, Paul does not allow such flexibility (e.g., Rom. 16:17-18; Gal. 1:8-9)!
Concerning the many minor issues about which Christians differ, you should:
- Learn to distinguish between major issues and minor ones (Matt. 23:23). Build your life on the major issues.
- Learn to distinguish between matters of command and matters of freedom (Rom. 14:14, 20).
- On debatable issues, cultivate your own convictions ( 14:5). In Philippians 3, Paul shows us the balance: live according to your own conscience (v. 16) but give your brother the freedom to grow in his convictions (v. 15).
- On peripheral matters, allow your brother the freedom to determine his own convictions – even when they differ from yours (Rom. 14:1-2).
- Let your liberty be limited, when necessary, by love (Rom. 14:13 – 15:2).
- Follow Christ as the Model and Motivator of servanthood ( 15:1-3).
- Pursue unity among the brethren (Rom. 15:5-7). This appeal for unity is a direct statement of Scripture!