Beloved, while I was giving all diligence to write unto you of our common salvation, I was constrained to write unto you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints (Jude 1:3).
My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth (1 John 3:18).
When considering current trends in Christianity, it is hard not to notice the “mixed messages” which are sent regarding doctrine and practice and their place in the faith. To some, doctrine is all important: having the right understanding of doctrine becomes the primary focus. In this view, the health of one’s faith is based almost entirely on how strongly one accepts proper doctrinal standards. Much of the preaching and teaching focuses on proper doctrinal standards, giving the impression that as long as everyone in the congregation agrees on what is true, all is well. The primary challenges are seen as the prospect of false teaching being introduced or any questioning of the emphasis on doctrine. To others, various aspects of practice is all important: doing the right types of things becomes the primary focus. In this view, the health of one’s faith is based almost entirely on how one has acted in self-development and to the benefit of others. Much of the preaching and teaching focuses on proper practice, giving the impression that as long as everyone is active in the right types of deeds, all is well. The primary challenges are seen as a slackening of effort or any questioning on the emphasis on practice.
These two types of groups seek to reinforce their messages by using one another as the foil: the group emphasizing doctrine denounces the group emphasizing practice for lax standards, weak teaching, and fostering heresy; the group emphasizing practice denounces the group emphasizing doctrine for legalism, hypocrisy, and superficiality. The conflict seems intractable. Who is right? What should Christianity be about?
Each side has grasped an aspect to the faith we are to share in Christ Jesus but have taken it to an unhealthy extreme. According to the New Testament, Christians are to contend for “the faith,” the standard of truth revealed by God through Jesus, but to do so “in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18, Jude 1:3).
From the beginning Christianity has been based in the teachings of and about Jesus of Nazareth: His life, death, resurrection, lordship, and return (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-3). His Apostles were given authority to establish the proper and healthy teachings about life in His Kingdom (Matthew 18:18, Acts 2:42). The way Christians live is to flow from what they think and feel, and their thoughts and feelings are to be determined by the types of things Jesus thought and felt (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:5, Philippians 4:8, 1 John 2:6). Thus Christians are to do all things by the authority of Jesus (Colossians 3:17); they must hold firm to the true teachings of Christ and stand up against false teachings (Romans 16:16-17, Galatians 1:6-9, 1 John 4:1-3, Jude 1:3).
Yet, from the beginning, Christianity has been the practice of the faith in Christ: following after Jesus, growing in our faith, sharing life with the fellow people of God, showing love, compassion, and mercy upon everyone (Luke 6:27-36, Ephesians 4:11-16, 1 John 1:7). These are all based in Jesus’ true teachings, and healthy doctrine always involves not just the substance of what is taught but also the practice thereof (Titus 2:1-10). Faith without works is dead; works without faith is futile (Romans 3:20, James 2:26).
We do well, therefore, to recognize that contending for the faith demands that we love in deed and truth, and that the reason we work is based in Jesus and what He has established as the true and living way. Focus on doctrine to the exclusion of practice can lead to sanctimony and hypocrisy; focus on practice to the exclusion of doctrine can lead to compromised standards and heresy. Let us instead practice according to the teachings of Jesus and be saved!