“So what?” That was a question my friend would ask any Bible teacher who “waxed eloquent” with doctrine. The question was not irreverent—rather, it was pointed. Essentially, he was asking for help in application: “What difference does that truth make in my life? Tell me how it works.” He was serious.
During the first few years of my Christian walk, I read repeatedly in Scripture about confessing to one another (James 5:17), confronting in love (Matt. 18:20), and forgiving one another (Matt. 18:21-22). I even heard these concepts taught from the pulpit at various times, but only in general terms—there were never any real-life illustrations showing how to put them into practice. I initially concluded, as a young believer, that no one really took those verses literally, because I never heard them related to everyday life or saw them in action. Yet clearly there was a fair amount of sinning against each other as believers. My initial efforts to put these truths into practice met with utter failure—misunderstanding and further conflict.
If there is one thing that should be preeminently assured, it is this: Scripture was given to be applied! Teaching in the local church should be both doctrinally sound AND realistically practicable. James 1:22 not only provides a mandate for the one hearing truth to be a “doer” of the Word, but it also implies a mandates for the teacher of the Word to help the hearer learn to “do” the word. It does no good to wash teaching over with a cursory benediction: “May the Lord apply this to our hearts.”
Right doctrine needs to be taught
Lest anyone misunderstand my point, elders are right to insist upon biblically sound teaching of the Word of God, for we have no other foundation that can sustain the attacks upon the truth of God. Not for a moment do I suggest that we minimize such emphasis. The church has been under assault since as far back as the first century, soon after the church began.
In the early part of the last century, the liberal/fundamental split brought the focus of believers to emphasize right doctrine, particularly as it related to the foundation of the Word of God.
Churches and denominations divided over this. The “charismatic” movement in the ’60s and ’70s—and its recent manifestation in the so-called “third wave” movement—has led many to migrate away from objective, sound doctrine.
These aberrations push into subjective experientialism fostered by disillusionment with modern rationalism. “Postmodernism” has become the catchphrase of our times, signaling a move to a “neo-rational”, pseudo-spiritual thinking that embraces religious pluralism.
Doesn’t that sound complicated? Yes—and if there was ever a time to stand firmly on simple, sound, biblical truth, that time is now! And thankfully, many churches are doing just that.
The teaching method of our Lord
At the same time, we note that our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom we ultimately derive our teaching methods, constantly applied His teachings to everyday life. He never proclaimed sterile truth by itself. His goal was not to make people smarter—if that were the case, we should lock ourselves in monasteries. Knowing and articulating truth is NOT the goal of teaching. Jesus said, “You will know the truth,” but he didn’t stop there. He continued in a very practical vein, “and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The goal is changed lives.
From the Sermon on the Mount (i.e. “turn the other cheek”) to the Upper Room Discourse (i.e. “wash one another’s feet”), application abounds in Scripture. The relevancy of the truth was the major emphasis of our Lord’s teaching because Jesus preached to change lives. He spent much of His time with the disciples showing them how the truth worked in their lives. For example, after teaching about faith, he led them out onto a soon-to-be stormy lake for part two of their lesson on faith (see the context in Luke 8:22). His “small group” included both lecture as well as practicum.
Showing the relevancy of truth
A common saying is, “We don’t need to make the Scripture relevant; it IS relevant.” True enough. But we need to SHOW people that relevancy. If that were not the case, then we wouldn’t need teachers—the primary role of elders would be hand out Bibles and send people on their way.
In an atmosphere of believers committed to each other, we are taught and trained in dealing with life and in taking the truth out into the work place, the market place, our neighborhoods and our homes.
Let’s bring this into sharper focus. Many churches focus on a narrow corpus of principles, with which they may accentuate their distinctiveness from other Christians groups. I’d like to suggest a distinctive that all gatherings of God’s people should have. A friend of mine put it this way, “Love is an assembly principle of gathering.” I would go on to say that it is THE most important characteristic of a biblical ordered local church (see John 13:35, 1 Cor. 13:13). Love is, or should be, the ultimate distinctive, which is the preeminent application of truth. You see, love is an application word, a verb, not just an esoteric concept. It cannot be contained in a doctrinal dissertation or kept bound in the pulpit with a false sense of mystery. It is real and tangible, like stopping by the side of the road to help someone beaten and left for dead (see Luke 10:25-36).
Truth and love
What then is the relationship between right doctrine and love? Paul answers this in 1 Timothy: “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (1 Tim. 1:6-7). Although he may be referring to the specific command in the context, it is not a stretch to see it’s universal application to all commands.
He later had a plan for propagating the truth after he was gone: “…the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). He was concerned that the truth be taught by “faithful” men, so that it would remain firm and emphasized. But notice the verse that precedes it, the context in which this teaching is to take place: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1). The teaching of truth was to be done in the context of “strong” grace. What does this mean? The teacher/discipler must have a clear understanding of the grace of God, not only as it was manifested in his salvation, but also as it is manifested and growing in his daily living. In all of Paul’s letters he includes “Grace to you” in the beginning. Peter adds, “Grow in grace . . .” (2 Peter 3:18).
But there is more: the teacher must saturate his teaching with grace, not only in how he teaches, but also in the content of his teaching—so that the truth is always set in the context of grace. In other words, the teacher/discipler should show how any particular teaching reflects God’s work in our lives and His gracious blessing through us. For it is only when the truth is held and shared in graciousness that the truth will bring about God’s desired application in our lives: love. That is His goal—and it should be ours as well.
So, as elders, let us commit to both proclaiming the truth and applying it to our lives and our teaching, so that others may know and understand how it applies to their lives as well.