Pastors, Watch Your Doctrine


In times of social upheaval and protests against injustice is “watch your doctrine” the word pastors really need to hear?

I contend that it is. As social upheaval advances throughout the world, pastors will feel pressured to evaluate their teaching by its apparent usefulness according the needs of the hour. We will be tempted to evaluate our doctrine not on the basis of its truthfulness but its utility. We may even judge that the old doctrines are not useful because they no longer seem relevant to the needs of our hearers.

But no crisis can alter God’s truth or God’s commands. His word does not change or fade according to time and circumstance.


Sound doctrine” simply means the teachings of the Bible—the full concourse of truth that God revealed in the Scriptures. Sound doctrine includes not merely the precious realities about God, creation, redemption from sin, and Christ crucified and resurrected, it also includes Scripture’s demands for repentance, personal holiness, and the rules established by Christ for his church.

Sound doctrine is thus fundamental to faithfulness. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy are never at odds. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching, and persist in them,” Paul commanded Timothy, “for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). Life and doctrine are so inextricably connected that you cannot effectively watch the one without the other. They cannot be safely separated.


Your teaching must also oppose the false doctrines currently attracting your flock. False teaching is not just falsehood. It is rebellion against the God who spoke truly in his word. Sin always involves at bottom a distrust of God’s truth. False teachers will always assail and twist true doctrine. False doctrine is the chief weapon of the enemy and the chief support of all idolatries ancient and modern.

The false teaching most dangerous to the church is not that which rejects Christianity, but that which affirms it while seeking to restore relevance and effectiveness to its preaching.

Liberalism pursued this agenda in the early 20th century and the result was devastating. Liberal Christians insisted Christianity was losing relevance by continuing to focus on the old doctrines, even as advances in modern science and historical research had rendered it rationally impossible to believe the Bible literally.

Liberal pastors and theologians sought to “rescue” Christianity, not by openly opposing the Bible’s statements about creation, miracles, and regeneration, but by failing to mention them, or by suggesting that their real meaning was spiritual rather than literal.

In the end, the search for relevant doctrine did not rescue the church in its time of crisis, it only added to the crisis.

Pastors, be alert and oppose false doctrine firmly and lovingly.


Your teaching must include those doctrines which you are tempted to omit because you suspect that it will not really help your members to teach them. To remain silent on matters where Scripture speaks, however, is to say that we do not trust God’s truth to accomplish God’s purposes. Refusing to speak what God speaks is rebellion founded on distrust. By refusing to speak where Scripture speaks we are essentially indicting the Holy Spirit for revealing something that harms rather than helps.

Rufus Burleson reminded his fellow Texas Baptist pastors in 1849 that watching their teaching meant preaching the difficult and unpopular doctrines of Scripture no less than the others:

There are certain parts of ‘the faith once delivered to the saints,’ to which we fear too little prominence is given. Among them, we should mention total depravity, election, the divinity and constant agency of the Holy Spirit, regeneration, the necessity of a holy life, the design of baptism, and church government. The present crisis demands that we give special attention to, and guard with sleepless vigilance, these important points of doctrine.

There are two reasons which may secretly restrain some from contending for sound doctrine: 1st. It will repel from our church those persons who hold loose and erroneous views of doctrine, and our numbers, and sometimes our wealth, will thereby be decreased. We grant that our numbers for a while will be lessened by adhering rigidly to the ‘old landmarks,’ but we are fully assured that our real strength will be greatly increased. By receiving into our church men of all creeds and no creeds, our increase for a few years may be rapid; but such a church would be only like Jonah’s gourd—the worm of error would eat upon its vitals, ‘as does a canker.’ In the day of adversity, it will wither and die.

2nd. Contending for our doctrines will diminish our popularity, and exposes us to persecution. This we fear, has more influence, even upon Baptists, than we suppose. But, could our venerable fathers arise from the dead, or speak to us ‘from under the altar,’ (Rev. 6:9) what would be their language? What would be the words of the Waldenses—of a Roger Williams—an Obadiah Holmes—a John Bunyan? Should we not hear them exclaiming: ‘For these principles, we suffered exile—the lash—the stake—the dungeon—and will you desert them for a little breath of popular applause?’”

Let your answer be: “No. Never.” Some of God’s truth may not be welcomed by your hearers. That must not deter you. Preach all that God has spoken. Do not judge the effectiveness of the word of God; let it judge you.

God requires pastors to preach his word because we trust him in all that he has spoken, not because we judge his word to be useful.

Brothers, watch your doctrine.

Gregory A. Wills

Gregory A. Wills is the Research Professor of Church History and Baptist Heritage, and the Director of the B.H. Carroll Center for Baptist Heritage and Mission at Southwestern Seminary.

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