Why do Some Pastors Deliberately Avoid Teaching Doctrine?

by Jim Elliff March 8, 2018

I have been involved in leading churches for four decades, with an emphasis on church planting in the last few years. I’ve also visited and addressed hundreds of churches around the world and have had the privilege of meeting thousands of Christian leaders. Through this time, I’ve watched an unintentional doctrinal imprecision on the part of many pastors become intentional. In other words, I have witnessed a new “conventional wisdom” emerge. Simply stated, it is the “wisdom” of attempting to circle in more people for our churches by unashamedly minimizing, or perhaps nearly eradicating, the restricting influences of doctrine. What pastors used to do (because of being poorly taught perhaps), they now do by intent, all for church growth.

The problem is, it works.

For instance, I just visited with one friend concerning a large church in our area that has grown exceptionally well. The directional pastor of this church is a smart man who has some distinct beliefs he holds personally. I can talk with him about doctrine when alone. He reads and knows the Bible. But, in his leadership and preaching, he fully intends not to go beyond the most elementary issues, and appears to not be concerned that his people differ on major doctrines, some of which are most significant. Outside of an expression of the gospel and some “how to’s,” there isn’t much to get your teeth into in his preaching. He has created a birthing station, but not much else.

Doctrine does narrow things. And we don’t like that word “narrow.” Where you will find one person who is attracted to sound doctrine, you will find a hundred who want to allow all sorts of beliefs to be tolerated. I have been in such churches where great heresies were listened to as if it were perfectly permissible to hold such views as “your opinion.” And I’m not talking about the guest’s view, but the member’s view.

This happens on the mission field as well. Preparing for a mission to Mozambique soon, I’ve been reading the reports of a good missionary doctor who has attempted to plant churches. Because he cares about doctrine, there are some real pains in building a church. He knows that because of the communal nature of the people, an apparently large church could be built easily. Whereas he may find only a handful of believers in most churches in his area, there may well be ten times as many who just attend, believing themselves to be Christian only because it is their custom to be joiners. If he were to avoid doctrine in favor of shallow evangelism, he would build a large unregenerate church. Is that useful for the kingdom? He does not believe so. But he is the exception.

Few Think of This 

In all of this acceptance of doctrinal sloppiness and miasma of beliefs, I find that many have totally disregarded a tenet that should be obvious to any Bible reader. I mean this: The apostles began churches with the intent to grow them as solidly as possible by means of a steady and meticulous interest in doctrine. The biblical data is overwhelmingly in line with this conclusion.

The apostles saw the church as “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim.3:15). And so, giving attention to doctrine was paramount to them. I am sure the entire future of the work was in mind as Paul and the other apostles emphasized a wide assortment of critical doctrines. Whereas we would say, “At least we have a witness in the city of some sort, preaching Christ,” the apostles would say, “Because this church is a witness in the city, and other churches will come from this one or emulate their beliefs and practices, we must be all the more precise.”  There is a world of difference between the two schools of thought.

And these doctrines were to be “taught” and “preached.”  In other words, it was not the prerogative of those elders that were appointed by the apostles to minimize the importance of doctrinal precision. Similarly, I don’t think we can be like Jesus or like the apostles in our leadership without emphasizing what they emphasized. It is, in fact, ludicrous to think otherwise. I don’t think Paul would listen very sympathetically to our explanation of why we have minimized doctrine for the sake of church growth.

All of us are aware of the need to avoid being doctrinaire, that is, of teaching doctrine in a sterile, pedantic manner, without application and devotional “heat.” Look to Jesus and Paul as perfect illustrations of how to do teach doctrine correctly. If we teach the Scriptures faithfully and exactly as stated, we will automatically teach good doctrine. We have to be very clever to avoid it. But many do miss it, either by selecting and addressing passages that are only behavioral, or by avoiding Scripture all together, or by being a diverter, like a pastor who preaches on time management based on Jesus’ cry, “It is finished.”

We forget that the difficult doctrines that we talk about are found in the Letters to the Churches. These were epistles that contained the very truths we are refusing to talk about in our churches. Do you see the incongruity? Is it really right to think that we should not talk about those doctrines that were the staple of the earliest churches? I know I’m being overly obvious, but haven’t we overlooked this fact? And many of those difficult passages that we are absolutely afraid to teach were written to nascent churches. Paul thought it critical to present the whole truth to these people (Acts 20:27). He did not “shrink” from doing this. But we do.

What I am saying is that we do not have the luxury of avoiding these things because we want to grow a larger church. What is the effect of a new church start in New Guinea if it is grown by doctrinal imprecision? You can certainly imagine that generations of churches following that one will share similar vagueness about beliefs and practices and will leave perhaps thousands (and maybe millions, i.e. some errant denominations exemplify this) teaching error, or at least open to divergent beliefs that will be harmful to the believers and the success of the movement. It is not just wrong doctrine that will do this, but the vacuous absence of doctrine as well. Surely it can be seen that error in Christian movements is a thing that is taught and propagated one church at a time, one leader at a time, yet has a long-term permeating effect. This is so not only in a virgin church planting situation, but also where there are numerous churches. We are irresponsible to leave doctrinal precision out of the equation in our church starting and church growing. It is negligence (often planned negligence) that is destructive.

Dereliction of Duty

It is assumed that elders, of all people, are to care about doctrine. In our day this is an assumption that is not finding much support, but it must be so. If this is not so, then a whole new team of elders must be chosen. It is part of the job description. Paul says that an elder is to 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” (Titus 1:9).

When elders come together, it is part of their responsibility to work on what they believe. For instance, what is the view of the elders on divorce and remarriage? What is their view on the Law. Or election? Or the nature of man? What is their belief on Creation? Or on plurality of eldership? Or concerning spiritual gifts? Or on the nature of the atonement? Or on the role of women?  If elders do not know what they believe, how can they possible fulfill the requirement of Titus 1:9 mentioned above?

Since elders (also called overseers and pastors) are to care about doctrine, it should be in their interest to make their elder’s meetings more than just business meetings about the more mundane things or merely vision meetings about new ideas. I know we must do some of that. Visionless churches are dying churches, of course. But pastors should work hard to perfect what they believe. They should put the months of study and discussion into various doctrinal positions so that they become familiar with them and are ready to teach them. After coming to one mind on a doctrine, they should meet with the men, and then the whole church, to transmit and teach what they have learned.

Once painstakingly arriving at what they believe about cardinal doctrines, they will be willing to pay a price for them. After all, it is God speaking these doctrines to them.

As the people learn that an elder actually has some clearheaded views about things, he will be respected as a person who can help bring understanding and direction to families and veteran disciples, as well as to children and new believers.

Act Biblically Now

Paul makes my premise lucid when he says that we must “strive together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). He trains leaders with the words, “But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), and “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).  He worries, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:3).

Jude showed us doctrine’s import when he said that we must “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). Peter thought it necessary to stir us up “by way of reminder, that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:1-2). He warns us to “be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men . . . . but grow in grace and knowledge . . .” (2 Pet. 3:17-18).

John rejoices to find “some of your children walking in the truth, just as we have received commandment to do from the Father,” but warns, “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God . . . . If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him . . . . for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 Jn. 4:9-11).

For us to even attempt to build churches by minimizing doctrine is a philosophy so far removed from the original purpose of Christ and His apostles that one would wonder if we were in the same movement. How close is this to the prediction of Paul when he said that “they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).  It is too close for me.

Therefore I urge you to reconsider how you use your leadership. There is much to do. We must be loving and comforting, praying and available, transparent and visionary, but as leaders we cannot dismiss what God insists on. If it were not so unambiguous, we might have room to debate the wisdom of this. Since this truth is repeated ad infinitum in the Word, what can anyone say against it?

Therefore, give yourself to sound doctrine and make much of it from now on. If you cannot do this, resign.

And, if you are not a pastor but a listener, go to those responsible for dispensing the truth with a sincere appeal for them to teach you doctrine without compromise. Tell them you cannot grow without it.