Does Doctrine Matter?

By Mark W. Swarbrick

A TRUE TALE…

The minister, who was first ordained by the Independent Assemblies of God, and then later ordained by the Disciples of Christ denomination, was loved by his congregation. As their church grew it became known for its kindness to all. Its outreach programs fed the poor, housed the homeless, rehabilitated drug addicts and criminals, and took loving care of the elderly. The church was also color blind. Black and white worshiped together in harmony.

And then there were the miracles. When the pastor laid hands on the sick they were dramatically healed. Countless people were healed of cancer. Some of the cancer healings were certified by medical doctors.

The pastor was friends, not only with the downtrodden and poor, but also the rich and powerful. He treated all the same. The wife of the President of the United States visited his church and counted him as a friend. His friends also included the Mayor of San Francisco, the vice president of the Unites States, The California Governor and the Lieutenant Governor. The Mayor appointed the pastor to preside on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and to head the San Francisco Housing Authority.

A testimonial of one of the church members exemplifies how the congregation felt about their pastor:

“A man of absolutely unimpeachable character, one who is continually involving himself in the practice of doing good for others, who gives and gives and gives of himself of his strength, and time, very often whole nights are spent in wrestling with some unfortunate’s problem, and seldom indeed is he fortunate enough to acquire two whole unbroken hours of untroubled rest a night. Far from doing spite to anyone or enriching himself at other’s expense, he is continually outgoing with deeds of kindness and love which very often necessitates a huge outlay of cash which is cheerfully given in any instance of need to friend or foe.”

There were, of course, some detractors. Some had left the church, saying that the teaching was beginning to stray away from the truth of scripture, but the faithful stayed and denounced the malcontents as mere trouble-makers. Those who dared to speak evil of God’s anointed would risk engendering God’s judgment, it was declared. “Touch not God’s anointed” they warned. The faithful followers were not swayed by the complainers. They knew their pastor was a dear man of God and their church was anointed with power and was changing lives.

Their devotion to him was complete. They followed him to the South American country of Guyana, to their agricultural mission there. And there, in Jonestown, nearly one-thousand of them listened to their dear man of God, Pastor Jim Jones, as he told them all to drink the cool-aid laced with deadly Cyanide poison. They obeyed, drank the cool-aid, and all 909 of them died painfully.

Deborah Layton, one of the few survivors to escape the Jonestown massacre, in her book Seductive Poison, shares some wisdom that bares heeding:

“People do not normally join cults that will kill them. It is usually only gradually that a group turns into or reveals itself as a cult, becomes malignant, but by then it is often too late…There are essential warning signs early on. Our alarm signals ought to go off as soon as someone tells us their way is the only right way.”

Nearly every encounter Jesus had with the religious leaders of His time resulted in a doctrinal dispute that enraged his opponents. Why? Because Jesus cared about the truth; because He knew that doctrinal error obscures the pathway of God.  If Jesus cares about doctrine, so must we. To imagine doctrinal conflict can or should be avoided within Christendom is a Pollyanna approach that naively ignores the reality and dangers of ignorance.

Indeed we are adjured that the man of God must be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” This then is our purpose: Not to create dissension for dissension sake, but to instruct and warn, to save the unsuspecting from spiritual danger. It is a ministry God has called me, and many others, too. Deborah Layton explains how she might have been saved the trauma and not have wasted the years she spent in the Jim Jones cult. She says, “If I, as a young woman, had had someone explain to me what cults are and how indoctrination works, my story might not have been the same.”

There are a lot of Deborahs out there and plenty of cults to seduce them. We must fight the good fight and persevere to the end, and say, along with the Apostle Paul, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” Indeed the prophetic day has come when, “they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires.”

In short – Yes, doctrine matters!

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