Many people today call themselves “doctors”. Leaving aside the so-called “spin doctors”, “tree doctors” and “fax doctors”, the world is awash with medical practitioners, dentists, veterinarians and doctors of philosophy who all call themselves “doctors”.

What is not often realised is that the word “doctor” really has nothing to do with healing, or practising some form of health science. The word is actually derived from the Greek word didache (and its related forms) which refers to “teaching or instruction”–and from which we derive such English words as “didactic”, “doctor” and “doctrine”.

This word didache is used a number of times in the New Testament, and is usually translated as “doctrine”, but also as “learning” or “teaching”. One of its most interesting occurrences is in 2 John 9,10: “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed”.

John invariably has something startling and confronting with which to challenge his audience, and this reference to the “doctrine of Christ” is no exception. Despite the fact that he doesn’t elaborate on what it actually means to have the doctrine of Christ, he does clearly intone that it is vital to have it and that conversely if one doesn’t have it, that person is not to be fellowshipped (2 John 10,11).

What is “The Doctrine of Christ”?

But what exactly is “the doctrine of Christ”? What does this term mean? It is likely that if every member of an ecclesia was asked what they thought was meant by “the doctrine of Christ”, most would provide similar answers, all of them doubtless centring around the idea of it being our unique set of beliefs, described as “the gospel”, and adequately summarised by such a document as the BASF or similar.

If that were our answer, then that would be a good expression of an aspect of Bible truth, finding support in passages such as Titus 1:9 where sound doctrine is equated with “the faithful word”. However, if we were to think that “the doctrine of Christ” was only a set of beliefs, we would only be viewing half of the story. The New Testament tells us that it is much more than printed words on a page. Jesus himself gives us a clue that there is more to “sound doctrine” than merely an academic grasp of Bible truth. In Matthew 15:7–9 he says: “Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”

There is an interesting play on words here with “teaching for doctrines”; the Greek reading as didasko didaskalia, is literally “teaching for teachings”. Further to this, Jesus advises us that if we adhere to the wrong set of teachings (didaskalia), then we are “vain… hypocrites”. Here Jesus also makes the vital link between doctrine and practice, equating the person with the stage player (hypocrite) who pretends to be someone he is not—if his beliefs are not borne out in practice. It is this unbreakable link between belief and practice that fleshes out the concept of “the doctrine of Christ” throughout the New Testament.

“Sound Doctrine” Seen in a Way of Life

In Romans Paul elaborates further: “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness” (Rom 6:17,18). There is an undeniable link here between doctrine and service, with Paul advising us that when we obey true doctrine we become the servants of righteousness, rather than sin.

Following on from this, perhaps the most authoritative passage linking these concepts is found in 1 Timothy 1:9,10: “Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.”

Paul here produces an impressive list of evil, ungodly behaviour and then surprisingly concludes with the statement that such behaviour is contrary to sound doctrine (didaskalia). So here this critical link between belief and practice is reinforced and helps to bolster our faith; but at the same time offers us a great challenge. Sound doctrine and sound behaviour are not able to be separated. It is not possible to artificially tear them apart and compartmentalize them. They are inextricably linked.

This is why didaskalia is more than just a belief system. This is why the doctrine of Christ is not just the BASF, the Doctrines to be Rejected, the Unity Booklet and our Ecclesial Constitution. It is our whole life. It is not just what we do on a Sunday morning, or an academic acknowledgement of Bible Truth. It is our life—our actions—motivated by our beliefs.

In essence, this is what the whole book of James is about, where James labours the point that “faith without works is dead”. He does this because he also recognises that the doctrine of Christ is both of these things together. If you take away one element, the other becomes meaningless.

In James 1:22-27 he writes: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Although James doesn’t actually use the expression “doctrine”, that is exactly what he is talking about, and he does it in terms with which it is impossible to argue.

“Continue in them”

Paul uses this idea of doctrine and behaviour being linked together extensively in Timothy and Titus—in fact there are more uses of the word “doctrine” in these pastoral epistles than anywhere else in Scripture. For example: “These things command and teach. Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim 4:11–16).

Here again Paul emphasises the need for doctrine to be linked to practice, and indeed at the end of the passage in verse 16 he advises his readers to “continue in them” (ie practise these things), with the dual outcome of saving both oneself and others.

So this passage of Paul’s adds a further interesting dimension to the concept of doctrine and behaviour being linked. Not only can sound doctrine save the individual who holds it—it also has an efficacy to save others who hear it! And how often have we seen the very real outworking of this phenomenon. Leaving aside for the moment the reality of this within the ecclesial context (where faithful behaviour borne out of doctrinal purity will have a tremendous power to positively influence brothers and sisters), think of how often a non-believer has become interested in the Gospel and eventually pursued baptism as a direct result of observing the consistent behaviour of a disciple of Christ. This was never more tested and proved than during times of duress when brethren would have to stand before a military tribunal to be asked about their conscience. It is true that the magistrates were interested in the beliefs of the appellant, but it is also true that they were much more interested in the behaviour of the candidates seeking exemption from military service. As the saying goes, “actions speak louder than words”.

“If we say…”

This then leads us back to where we started—in the epistles of John—where, in a sense, John himself puts us on trial in his unique and challenging way. When reading his epistles, it is easy to feel as though he is cross-examining us in the witness box. “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth…If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:6,8,10).

John is very ruthless with us, isn’t he? “If we say… if we say… if we say.” In other words, talk is cheap! Say what we like, but if our actions don’t match our beliefs, then we walk in darkness, we lie, we deceive ourselves, and we have no truth in us—a fairly uncompromising challenge!

In chapter two, he gives us no respite or room to manoeuvre—in fact he cuts even deeper. He writes: “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (v4); “He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked” (v6); “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now” (v9).

So devastating is John’s argument, that it is possible for the vulnerable brother or sister to be completely unnerved by it—a realisation that they are living a life where belief and actions do not always (or often) match one another, and that the resultant outcome will be certain rejection from God’s kingdom.

“Ye are my friends, if…”

Although this may be our fearful thought from time to time, John doesn’t expect us to throw our hands up in frustration and despair for he continues in chapter 2:28: “And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming.” The solution to our dilemma is found in the fact that a quiet assurance can be ours if we “abide in him”.

Looking to the Gospel of John for an amplification of what it means to abide in him, we read: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you” (John 15:4–14).

This whole section of John 15 is really a detailed exposition of “the doctrine of Christ”. Having been grafted into Christ at our baptism, all we really need to do is hang on! Christ will supply our needs. The nutrients, the stability and the strength that we need will all come from him, and if we allow ourselves to remain under his sphere of influence (to paraphrase John’s words) “his joy will remain in us, and our joy will be full”.

The doctrine of Christ, therefore, is something to be nurtured and cherished. It is our pathway to salvation. It is a lifelong challenge to attempt to develop it in our lives, and success in its development will reap rewards for both ourselves and our brothers and sisters.

It is only right that we should let John have the final say on this matter, where he condenses the concepts we have explored, and focuses it upon our Master and the way we ought to emulate his example: “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren…My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him” (1 John 3:16,18,19).