It is hard for me, as a teacher of theology, to consider anything worse than bad doctrine in the church. When people’s views of God become distorted, their lives follow suit. When someone believes it is always God’s will to heal their sickness, they are going to be left disillusioned and riddled with spiritual pain. When peripheral issues get elevated to the status of essentials (and this is bad doctrine too), the central message of the Gospel gets replaced or lost. I had a lady here at the Credo House the other day who said that God gave her a message. What was the message? That women do not inherit original sin, only men. She went through a long complicated argument. I could tell that this was incredibly important to her. She was insistent, assured, and demanding. She even wrote a book about it and gave it to me. It was the focus of her message! Was this sinful?
I suppose that I want bad doctrine to always be sin. That way, it is easy for me to explain why people don’t agree with me. If we are not on the same page theologically, the answer is simple: they are in sinful rebellion to the truth. Next…
But I am not sure this is always correct. I am pretty sure that bad doctrine is sinful, but I am not sure when it is sinful.
Let us talk about the polar extremes of this issue. It is easy to see that any rejection of Jesus is sinful. Now, one may do this with perfectly good doctrine. One may intellectually believe that Jesus is the Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. They may believe in the Trinity, the hypostatic union, justification by faith alone, and the like. But they simply refuse to accept God’s sovereignty over their lives. This is obviously the sin of rebellion. I always think of King Saul when it comes to this type of person. However, there are those who don’t have good doctrine at all. There are polytheists, who believe there are many gods. There are those who believe God is a force, not a person. There are those who do not even believe in God. Is this sin? I believe it is. Ultimately, it is a rejection of God. It is a rejection of the truths God has plainly revealed about himself and his nature – truths which some people choose to turn away from, in favor of lies. In Romans 1 we see this very clearly.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
Notice here that there are certain things about God that he has made plain, or clear. These things have been revealed through creation and can be observed by all. Notice what things are plain.
For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes– his eternal power and divine nature– have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.
The word “attributes” is not really in the original. But this probably expresses Paul’s thoughts well. It is the “invisible things” of God that are plain. His “power” and “nature” are singled out as examples. Paul does not go into detail about what invisible things can be known about God through creation, but whatever these things are (most certainly his power, singularity, and transcendence), the reason for people’s rejection of them – the reason for bad doctrine – is clearly explained: people “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
If this is the case, then bad doctrine is not so much sinful in and of itself; it is the result of sinfulness. In other words, people suppress what is plain about God (and, I suppose, the Bible) so they can continue on in the lifestyle they desire. Bad doctrine serves to facilitate their sin. This is easy enough to see in atheism. If there is no God, there is no punishment for sin. The same can be said for those who reject God’s righteousness, judgement, wrath, and the doctrine of hell. This is suppression of truth in favor of sin.
Are there cases where people are legitimately deceived and their bad doctrine is not due to a favoring of sin? This could certainly be true in some situations, but we are going to have to let God work this out.
Other times, bad doctrine is not so bad. In other words, I think egalitarianism is bad doctrine for the most part. But I am not sure it can be described as “suppression of truth in favor of sin.” After all, there are some very good Christians who are egalitarians due to convictions brought about by their studies. I don’t think their bad doctrine is sinful. And if I am wrong about my complementarian views, I don’t think it is sinful. I could say the same thing about all non-cardinal issues. There are just so many things that we are not sure about. Someone is wrong, but this does not mean they are in rebellion. With the things that are evident, plain, and clear, I think denial of these particulars is the product of sin and is, therefore, sinful.
The best I can do right now is say that bad doctrine is often, but not always, sin.