Is it possible to know the Bible inside out - and still miss the point of it? Has the Church of God complete knowledge of the truth? How important is "doctrine" to the Christian life?
Former Russian leader Nikita Khruschev reportedly could recite the entire New Testament word for word. Thousands of accomplished and eminent scholars have researched and dissected the whole Bible, and have amassed an awesome knowledge of its content. Yet Khruschev and many of these same scholars would have disdained the label "'Christian". Some Bible scholars even profess atheism as their "faith"! For such the Scriptures are mere literature. They don't seek out doctrine as a guide to life.
All too many Christians reflect a similar approach to doctrine!
The Value of Knowledge
It's clear from the Scriptures that Jesus Christ seeks "perfection" in his people. We must become "all glorious with no stain or wrinkle or anything of the sort, but holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:27). That is, we are to mature spiritually, become holy - "grow in grace", as the apostle Peter words it (2 Peter 3:18).
However, he also charges us to "grow in knowledge". It's the responsibility of God's people to search out from the Scriptures the golden nuggets of pure and wholesome doctrine. And certainly over the years the Church has mined rich treasures of knowledge, unchallengedly derived from the Word of God. We have insight into Bible teachings that for centuries have lain buried in the sinking sands of tradition.
This is no mere academic exercise. For if we are to be truly free, if we are to develop holiness and joy in Christ, if we are to follow the leading of the Spirit - then we need to grow in knowledge. "The truth" said Jesus, "shall make you free" (John 8:32).
As an example of this freedom, we can see how a right understanding of what happens to us humans at death in large measure removes death's sting. Our joy in Christ is enhanced by the true doctrine of what at death befalls our "unsaved" loved ones, or the billions of adults and countless children who died not knowing Jesus.
Is the Church, then, doctrinally perfect? Do we now have it all sewn up? Is there no further need for the Holy Spirit's guidance into truth? The fact is, never in history have God's people known the whole truth.
To this day there are stains to remove, wrinkles to iron out. Here and there may be blemished doctrinal fruits. But does the farmer fell the tree because of a few damaged peaches? Does the owner raze his home because of a few warped timbers? Or is minor injury or sickness a valid reason for taking your life?
So it should be with the church of God. As a body it must be healthy, vigorous, strong and abounding in the work of the Lord. But as long as the church organism is in the flesh there will be warts! Doctrinal blemishes are inevitable.
Jesus promised to preserve his church - it will never die, never be extinguished from without. Sometimes it is highly visible, sometimes all but eclipsed. But always new Christians will stand where others have died or been martyred or gone astray. The Church continues, however imperfectly, to fulfill its divine commission: to proclaim repentance and deliverance, to make disciples, to warn sinning mankind of the end result of their chosen way, to proclaim the good news of God's Kingdom.
Doctrinal imperfection, however, is not solely a twentieth century affliction. It has dogged the Church for two thousand years! God's people have never known all. Nor can we expect today's Church to solve every theological difficulty that has plagued it since its inception.
Notice some of the doctrinal blind spots of God's saints both of the Old Testament and the New. Errors which in no way invalidated their inheritance in the Kingdom of God.
A Universal Faith
Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, Steven - stalwarts of Bible history - had a far from perfect understanding of the truths of God. Yet they will be a part of His ruling Family.
These esteemed men of God did not, for example, fully understand a teaching which in our day is a flagship doctrine of Christianity - that God wants all men to be saved. He waited some four thousand years before making this fundamental truth crystal clear. Here's how the apostle Paul recounts its unveiling: "It was by a revelation that his secret was made known to me. In former generations this was not disclosed to the human race; but now it has been revealed by inspiration to his dedicated apostles and prophets, that through the Gospel the Gentiles are joint-heirs with the Jews - part of the same body, sharers together in the promise made in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 3:3-6).
God welcomes all nations. Yet not even the first century martyr Stephen knew this!
Then there's circumcision. It's a rare Christian who would consider circumcision to be essential to the life in Christ. Yet this concept smoldered in the early Church for some twenty years before bursting into a flame that scorched Church unity.
It was passionately believed by some influential members of the prestigious and august mother Church at Jerusalem. They even thought Gentiles could not be saved without circumcision. Paul participated in a conference at Jerusalem to determine God's intent - and God's Spirit in them led them to see it as unnecessary (Acts 15:28).
But no one's salvation was annulled because until then they had believed "they must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses". Certainly not the apostle James - martyred some seven years before (Acts 12:2). And indeed not any of God's people prior to the Council of Jerusalem.
God certainly wants His people to move towards purity of doctrine, for His Spirit leads in the direction of "all truth". He wants us to be teachable. It's our resistance to clear truths of Scripture that brings His just judgment upon us.
What then of prophecy? Isn't prophetic understanding a mark of "the true Church"? Surely this is necessary!
If so, then we must exclude a whole galaxy of glittering saints - Abraham, Moses, David, Paul to name but a handful. Then there's Daniel. Surely he of all people understood every twist and turn of prophecy? God gave him skill in all knowledge and wisdom. And he "had understanding in all visions and dreams". Did he therefore "know it all"? Judge for yourself, from his own pen: "And I heard but I did not understand" (Daniel 12:8). What Daniel saw in vision, and recorded, puzzled him! Indeed he was told to "Seal the book, even to the time of the end" (v. 4).
In fact it wasn't till the apostle John received the visions recorded in the book of Revelation that right understanding of end-time prophecy even became possible. This was towards the end of the first century, John alone surviving.
Yet without this vital book the detail and sequence of prophecy is sealed to our understanding.
The apostle Paul, for instance, wrote at length about resurrection. But not until John pencilled in the details did it become clear there will be more than one future mass resurrection, each separated by many years. Peter wrote of earth's "being kept in store, reserved unto fire..." - but John's visions are needed for us to see this awesome conflagration in its time context.
John outlived all the other apostles. So it's likely even they were in ignorance of the of the full scope of the prophecies.
The Churches of God believe we have a sound grasp of the overall direction of future events - knowledge gleaned from long years of study of the Scriptures and history, and guided by God's Spirit. But we "sit lightly in the saddle" - we won't know with absolute certainty until all is fulfilled. Or not!
Wrote Paul: "Whether there be prophecies they shall fail" (I Corinthians 13:8). "For our knowledge and our prophecy alike are partial, and the partial vanishes when the wholeness comes.... Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face".
The apostle - God's channel for so much "new truth" - admits his prophetic understanding is incomplete. Isn't it clear that an incomplete knowledge,of prophecy won't exclude us from the Family of God! Yet whole denominations originate in the prophetic scenario concocted by one man or woman.
Is Doctrine Important?
Jesus - in whom, said Paul, "lie hidden all God's treasures of wisdom and knowledge" and who has "all power" - assured his Church he would never forsake it (Matthew 28:20). He is the living Head of the Church and walks in its midst. Without committing himself to preserving the Church (nor any individual of whatever standing) from error, Jesus in a very real way guides and directs and corrects it -just as he did in apostolic times (Revelation 2, 3).
Sadly, since the earliest days of the Church - and to this day - many Christians have ceased to respond to the Head. They are at sea, anchors dragging and without compass or bearings. And doctrinally lost.
Such a calamity can indeed happen. Throughout history whole Christian communities and individual Christians, whole denominations, have been shipwrecked through gross error, or moral decline, or refusal to grow in knowledge - or simple neglect of what they understood. The words of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, still ring loud and clear. Addressing the leadership of the people of God in his day he said "...you always fight against the Holy Spirit" (Acts 7:51).
So it is indeed important that we do all in our power to "get it right" doctrinally.
Jesus has not left his Church rudderless or without guidance. Notice his words to the apostles: "There is still much that I could say to you, but the burden would be too great for you now. However, when he [Jesus Christ] comes who is the Spirit of truth, he will guide you into all truth" (John 16:12-13).
Against all odds this guidance to the apostles has been preserved for us - in the Holy Scriptures.
That Spirit of truth is still in the Church of God, still guiding it. And step by step, as the Church is open to it and ready for it He expands our understanding of these same Scriptures. It's our responsibility to seek out and maintain true doctrine.
While we are nowhere promised -in this life - a complete unveiling of the mind of God we have been furnished with the essentials for eternal life. "His divine power", wrote the apostle Peter, "has bestowed upon us everything that makes for true life and religion" (2 Peter 1:3). Jesus Christ is committed to reveal to his Church every scrap of information that will expedite his work on earth. And all the power needed to enable the people of God to enter the Family of God.
It's clear, then, that every single one of God's people recorded in Scripture, with the sole exception of Jesus Christ himself, has lived in error to some degree.
While the Church taught circumcision, or proclaimed salvation for Jews only, or had incomplete understanding of the doctrine of resurrection, or misunderstood prophecy - at that time the Church was in error. Or was at best teaching incomplete knowledge.
What set apart these men - Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel - and gave them high esteem with God? Was it that they fully understood doctrine? Or prophecy? Did they comprehend the whole mind of God?
By no means. What counted with them - and with a countless host of other men and women of God - was their willing submission to what was revealed, coupled with the quality of their lives. Typical of them all were God's satisfied words concerning Abraham: "For I know him that he will command his children and his household after him and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment" (Genesis 18:19). Years later God gave majestic promises to Abraham's son "because that Abraham kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws" (26:5).
They lacked a complete doctrinal and prophetic knowledge. But once called of God they walked with Him. They obeyed His laws. They diligently sought out truth and obeyed when they understood. And above all they lived - and died - by faith. They had a profound trust in the living God - and daily submitted to His will.
This is what counts with God!
Crusade With Us
Today, Christianity is sorely divided. Traditional denominations can't, for example, even agree a common date for Christmas. Only in the next century will most subscribe to one Easter dating, for agreement could not be reached on the calendar calculations. Other traditions also split over not only the calendar, but when to observe festivals on that calendar. Clearly, when sincere Bible students can "incubate different offspring from the same egg" it is likely it's not a matter which greatly bothers the egg's producer - the Author of the Word!
The Church of God must focus on its divinely-appointed purpose. Tunnel vision focused on disputed doctrinal territory leads only to war. Swollen egos are puffed up as exegetical swords are crossed. Rather, let's concentrate on the foundational truths of God's Word and unite to reach out to a dying world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let's focus on the knowledge that counts!
Soon Jesus Christ will return to our planet as Supreme Ruler over every government. With him he will bring rewards for work accomplished by his people. Doctrinal "perfection" won't be among those works! When this momentous event occurs - will you be found laboring in his vineyard, abounding in the work of the Lord despite prophetic appearances? Will he find you have given him your all, dedicated your spiritual and creative and temporal resources to him? Will you have submerged your desire to "get it right" in wholehearted support for the global mission of God's Church, in promoting the true unity of the spirit? Will Jesus Christ find you active in your allotted task?
Or will you have abandoned the work of God in a fit of pique because of some error - real or imagined, doctrinal or prophetic - in one or other part of the Church of God? Will you embrace gross error simply because your leader asserts "we have been wrong, this is the way" - without your proving it?
True knowledge is important, and we should pursue better understanding from the written Word of God. What we now know is indeed incomplete. Nevertheless let's unitedly take up the challenge of reaching out to our dying world with the bitter-sweet, tough message of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.
You are invited to join us in this magnificent crusade!
To comment on this article or request more information, please contact James McBride by e-mail at the comment form below.
For PDF or mailed copy, see CGOM. Excerpt from New Horizons Issue 11, September-October 1998. Edited by James McBride of the Churches of God, United Kingdom.
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