Caution: Sound Doctrine Divides

"Doctrine divides but love unites."

This is the mantra of some within the broader American church. It's complicated root system ensnares many well-meaning Christians who have seen the words of Scripture used as a spiritual bludgeon against those who battled against enslavement to sin or who perhaps weren't walking in lock-step with church leadership.

Hence, the response: Doctrine appears to be dividing us, therefore, what we need is more love.

On the other hand, there are those whose lips play host to these words with less than sincere motivations of the heart. They are wolves in sheep's clothing. Their intent is to lead others astray by convincing them, among other things, that to be "under grace" is to possess a license to indulge the flesh, whether outwardly or inwardly. 

And possession of this license guarantees "freedom from the law" of God which therefore (practically) nullifies the authority of church leadership in any one church members life. Their's is a call to licentious living, or what theologians call antinomianism (lit: against God's law).

The truth is, there are few who explicitly proclaim this so-called freedom from God's moral mandates in the Christian life. Even antinomians think it wrong to have their wallets stolen! 

Yet the problem we're grappling with in this post is real and its effects in the church today, supported by gross biblical illiteracy, are devastating to discipleship and biblical counseling (see important articles on this from Ligonier Ministries and Dr. Al Mohler).

At bottom, we might say that many in the American church are now "punch-drunk" on an unbiblical understanding of God's moral law and its relation to the grace by which they are saved (Eph. 2:8-9).

Obedience from the Heart

One of the many unique qualities of biblical counseling is its embrace of God's word as the sufficient source and guide for the life to which God has called every believer (Heb. 4:12; 2 Tim. 3:16). And this call is buttressed by the good news that, unlike government, God never issues an unfunded mandate. As Peter tells us, we've been granted "all things that pertain to life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3).

In other words, the biblical call to know, understand, and observe sound doctrine and teaching is preceded by the giving of the spiritual ability to do so at conversion. This is good news!

Critics of biblical counseling have thus charged the movement with encouraging legalism on account of the counselor's willingness to be direct with those who are clearly living in opposition to God's word. Here, we often see (or taste) the leaven that infects the modern church which declares that "doctrine divides."

With the understanding that the human element, and therefore the possibility of human error, cannot be removed from any counseling scenario, it must be clearly stated that loving (Eph. 5:14), biblical confrontation is not merely descriptive in Christian discipleship, but is in fact prescriptive, that is, mandated

This is precisely what Paul was referring to when he instructed the Thessalonians to "admonish the idle" (1 Thess. 5:14), or those who are neglecting God's word to their own peril (and often times the peril of their own families and the entire church).

In a great twist of irony, when the shepherds of God's church willfully refuse to engage the wayward, they are themselves running afoul of God's gracious command which was in fact given for our sanctification (Rom. 6:19).

Within the pages of Scripture we find a clear and unambiguous call to holy or righteous living according not to our own imagined standards but according to "sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1). 

In his letter to the Romans, Paul himself commends his audience for their obedience, and gives thanks to God that where they were once "slaves of sin," they have become "obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which [they] were committed" (Rom. 6:17; 2 Tim. 1:13).

Notice two key phrases in the verse: 1) from the heart, and 2) the standard of teaching. Paul lifts up not a mere legalistic form of obedience to God but one that is motivated by love for Him according to what they have been taught concerning the Gospel. Orthodoxy (right knowing) tends toward Orthopraxy (right living).

"We will not believe more than we know, and we will not live higher than our beliefs." Dr. Al Mohler

Any honest reading of the New Testament would reveal that Paul himself would repudiate the maligning of sound doctrine and the pursuit of loving obedience in humble submission to it. 

If "doctrine divides" in the way some have suggested, then the words of Psalm 119:105, that God's word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, cannot in any meaningful way be true.

Connecting the Dots

This post has focused heavily on God's law, moral standards, and obedience to biblical doctrine. For some, it will be an uncomfortable discussion because it feels counter to the message of "grace" as they've come to understand it. Unfortunately, they may hear a message that is measurably different than what's actually been communicated.

Still, the application of sound, biblical doctrine in any pastoral or biblical counseling scenario is critical to discipling those who have fallen away and who are now experiencing the natural results of sin and the loving discipline of God. Either of these may produce experiences with worry, fear, depression, anxiety, relational brokenness, and the like.

While those who counsel biblically must always be on the lookout for signs of an underlying organic issue in a counselee and be ready to refer the person to a medical doctor for examination, it will not infrequently be the case that the trouble a person is experiencing in their life can be linked to some ongoing sin issue (i.e. adultery, pornography, addiction, anger, criminal activity, etc.).

Consequently, the most unloving thing any concerned biblical shepherd can do is to avoid the loving confrontation at the point of departure from God's word in favor of some physical remedy to what is a spiritual matter of the heart.

Indeed, while some choose to report that "doctrine divides and love unites," what we know to be true is that sound doctrine divides not the church, but the righteous from the unrighteous. And the resulting unity it produces for those who are trained by it is securely in Christ and with one another (Heb. 12:11).

In this, sound doctrine, we encounter the love of God whose perfect love casts out all fear (1 Jn. 4:18).

For a related discussion, check out the latest podcast from ACBC on overcoming sin.

What's In A Name? A Post for Parents and "No Name Calling Week"

This post is for parents of school-aged children and grown men who are still telling "Yo mama" jokes.

January 18-22, 2016, according to Psychology Today, is "No Name Calling Week." I'm not sure who has the privilege of deciding such a thing, but in this new year I hope to write on some of these otherwise arbitrary topics in order to make connections between them and life-giving biblical truth.

Positively, I appreciate that those on the secular side of mental health counseling have a concern for things which bring emotional (i.e. spiritual) hurt into the lives of others. In our day and in our schools especially, the topic of "bullying" has become a hot-button item. I suspect "No Name Calling Week" is somehow connected to this wider issue, and rightfully so, I would argue.

High profile cases, influenced by the advent of social media and involving tragic circumstances have occurred across our nation. In response, many school districts have enacted stiff policies to combat a thing which was once considered a part of growing up. "Kids will be kids---let them sort it out," we used to say.

But one too many suicides committed by young people who were subjected to intense bullying and name-calling changed all that. To be sure, there is a discussion to be had with young people about the level at which they covet the praise of their peers (Paul Washer speaks powerfully about this HERE). Even so, that discussion does not negate the destructiveness of repeated and ongoing shunning by a young person's natural community (or anyone's for that matter).

Indeed, there are good and profound reasons for the apostle Paul's admonition, "No foul language is to come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear" (Eph. 4:29; emphasis mine). Did you catch Paul's stated purpose for the command? Christian speech is intended by God to be a conduit of grace.

What fellowship then does the darkness of name-calling have with those who walk in the light of Christ (2 Cor. 6:14)?

The Limitations of No Name-Calling Week

Our friends at Psychology Today, I believe, have helped us by calling attention to a matter that on the surface seems a bit over-blown. After all, if you're like me, somewhere along the way in your childhood somebody picked on you---and you survived. But, your survival (and mine) doesn't justify the sin. If anything, it's evidence of God's grace in our lives.

For others, like those I sometimes meet with in counseling who were berated and torn down for years in childhood by the words of an angry father, the reverberations of the past have left an indelible mark on the soul. For them, "Sticks and stones break bones---and words hurt terribly."

What is it then about this name-calling that so deeply touches the hearts of many? Perhaps there's more to a name than we'd like to admit. In Scripture, and even in non-Christian cultures throughout the world, the name a person is given at birth has great meaning. Names speak to the perceived character and hope-for attributes of the child. Consider also the power we're intended to perceive in the names of God we encounter in the pages of the Old Testament, in particular.

Further, even the act of assigning a name to a person communicates privilege, power, and authority. Generally speaking, this is an honor extended by God to the parents of children. When parents give a child a name, they can only hope that their little one will indeed grow up into the name they've selected and all that it represents. In this way, there is in fact quite a bit wrapped up into this special act that seems so perfunctory in our modern day culture.

All of this speaks to the profundity of the type of name-calling that's in view with "No Name-Calling Week." When we, with malice aforethought, name call another with the intention of harming them and putting them down, we actually usurp the authority God vested in their parents and take it upon ourselves to assign moral character and personal attributes to a person over whom we hold no meaningful authority.

In this and many other ways, name-calling is a deeply theological topic and not one that should be casually dismissed. The challenge for parents and all who hold a biblical worldview is to make these connections for our children and even our peers who don't yet understand why name calling matters at all.

Yes, the intent of "No Name Calling Week" is good so far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. Like much of secular counseling, it attempts to remove or modify the behavior without supplying a sufficient or proper counter motivation of the heart.

What then should we do?

Affirming the Imago Dei

If name-calling has anything at all to do with seeking to assign value, character, and attributes to a person (even if sinfully), then we must remind ourselves and certainly our children that the one thing that connects all men to one another is the same thing that makes man unique from all creation: the Image of God (Latin: Imago Dei). Scripture teaches us that when God created man, He created him in His very image (Gen. 1:26-27).

Among other things, this means that all men are created with an inherent value that no other human can remove or has the right or authority to diminish. And this is precisely what we (or our children) do when we engage in sinful name-calling. It is, in fact, an assault on the God-given personhood and value of the other party. We may even rightly consider that to sinfully name-call is to impugn the very work of God who alone is holy, perfect, and just in all that He does.

Here is where we as parents must take this dialogue of "No Name Calling Week" as we teach our children (and ourselves) to love God and love our neighbor (Luke 10:27). While we are right to hold our kids and one another accountable to confess and repent of sinful behavior, we must disciple them into an understanding of why we would choose not to name-call, but instead build others up in love and grace.

These are the things of Scripture with which the world is unfamiliar. As we encounter it seeking to bring order into a disordered world (and for that we can be thankful), we have the duty and privilege of adding biblical truth to the conversation. And the truth we bring is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is itself a river of living water (John 7:38).

In light of this conversation, perhaps we might speak with our children about "No Name Calling Week," and go a biblical step further, and call our children to adopt a spirit which affirms the Imago Dei in everyone they meet.

Join the Conversation

1. How have you been tempted to sinfully name call another?

2. How will you speak to your children about "No Name Calling Week" so that they learn to not only avoid the sinful behavior, but affirm the Image of God found in their neighbor?

So, You Want to Get Married?

"For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods..." 1 Kings 11:4

One of the great privileges of pastoral ministry and biblical counseling is the role of mentor and guide to couples who are engaged or considering marriage. In a culture that mocks and scoffs at the biblical vision for marriage, helping those who desire to honor the Lord and put the Gospel on display through their marital covenant is a joy (Eph. 5:32). 

But, with the privilege of sending many couples down the aisle toward holy matrimony comes tremendous pastoral responsibility. There is more to biblical marriage, we are to be reminded, than one-man-one-woman composition, romantic feelings, sexual compatibility, and similar interests and hobbies. 

Pre-marital counseling, therefore, is designed to vet an engaged couple's readiness for marriage and to honestly assess and inform them of the same. For all that pre-marital counseling is designed to be, one thing it must not be is a rubber stamp.

Just Say No (or Not Yet)

To the extent that pastors and biblical counselors influence the decision of couples to marry, they must also be prepared to provide a prophetic voice of sorts by speaking the truth in love to those who are not (or who are not yet) good candidates for marriage (Eph. 4:15).

Pastors and biblical counselors then have a type of responsibility to both caution against marriage and to withhold their participation when and if necessary. Unwise decisions for marriage must be avoided before they are made. This can be an emotionally charged but necessary action to be taken with wisdom and discernment by the one providing pre-marital counseling and received with grace by the couple in question (Heb. 13:17).

It has been said that indifference rather than hate is the opposite of love, and when it comes to pre-marital counseling, the gravity of the decision at hand demands that pastors and biblical counselors be anything but indifferent. Sometimes, saying "no" or "not yet" is the most loving answer the pastor-counselor can give.

Right Questions Yield Wise Answers

God's word provides for us an important question to be asked in the context of biblical pre-marital counseling. We extrapolate this question from a telling passage about the life of King Solomon in 1 Kings 11:1-8.

Solomon was perhaps, second only to his father, David, the most famous of all of Israel's earthly kings. Blessed by God with immeasurable wisdom, his was a kingdom marked by unmatched wealth and influence (1 Kings 4:20-34). But, for all of Solomon's great wisdom, he was not sinless. And, his sin would have tremendous influence on the life of the nation he was charged by God to lead.

One of Solomon's very public and well-documented sins was the practice of polygamy and sexual immorality. Solomon literally had hundreds of wives and hundreds of concubines. What made matters worse was Solomon's proclivity to take for himself wives from other nations which God had previously commanded all of Israel to avoid (1 Kings 11:1-3). 

Solomon's own life would become the "poster-child" for God's purpose in this loving prohibition which would be carried over by Paul in the New Testament for followers of Jesus to obey (Deut. 7:3-4; 2 Cor. 6:14). 

For Solomon, the net result of not only polygamy but wedding himself to those who worshipped the world's false gods was a life and legacy corrupted by idolatry and rebellion against the Lord (1 Kings 11:4-6). 

Due in part to his very unwise attitude toward marriage, Solomon's heart was turned away from the one true and living God. Tragically (and avoidably), Solomon became like those who worshipped the idols of nations made by human hands (Psalms 135:15-18).

What if, in his wisdom, Solomon had sought godly counsel to inform his martial decision-making and in so-doing had been forced to answer this critically important question: 

How does this relationship and potential marriage turn your heart and the heart of your potential spouse away from the false gods of the world and toward the living God of Scripture?

Hopefully, you recognize this question as the inverse of what we are told became of Solomon in 1 Kings 11:4. It is a question that every engaged couple must answer and answer well if they are to live out Paul's foundational statement about marriage as a beacon for the Gospel (Eph. 5:32).

Taking Solomon's Advice

Among other things, Solomon is known for having been inspired of God to write much of the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs is, of course, full of wisdom sayings to help guide us in life. One of the more memorable proverbs written by Solomon teaches us that "Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed" (Prov. 15:22). 

In light of what we learn about Solomon in 1 Kings 11:1-8 and about the plans we make in Proverbs 15:22, we applaud those who desire to honor the Lord in marriage by submitting themselves and their relationship to a season of pre-marital counseling.

While there is always some risk in exposing the desires of our hearts to God's word, we can always trust that He has His glory and our joy in view. 

Whether in marriage or in singleness, His desire is always to turn our hearts toward Himself in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, to whom we as believers are already united and eternally wed. By seeking to live in faithfulness to His word as regards earthly marriage, we prove ourselves to be His faithful bride.

For Further Reflection

1. If you're a pastor-counselor, are you willing to say "no" or "not yet" in pre-marital counseling or do you see your role differently?

2. If you're engaged or thinking of getting engaged, are you willing to submit your plans to God's word and wise biblical counsel?

(Author: Joshua Waulk)

Book Recommendation: Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ

Dr. Robert Kellemen, Chair of the Biblical Counseling and Discipleship Department at Crossroads Bible College, is the author of Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ. Published by Zondervan, Gospel Conversations is part of the Equipping Biblical Counselors Series, and is the follow up to Kellemen's previous book, also from Zondervan, Gospel Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives (you can read my recommendation of that book HERE).

As part of the Equipping Series, Gospel Conversations is concerned with providing biblical counselors with the skills they need to use the gospel in the context of soul care for teaching others how to resist temptation and respond to suffering with love for God and one another (p.15). Kellemen wrote that "Gospel Conversations provides an intensive, relational, hands-on equipping manual" designed to develop in the counselor "twenty-one biblical counseling relational skills" to care like Christ (p.15).

Kellemen succeeds in meeting his stated purposes for Gospel Conversations by providing twelve in-depth chapters and helpful appendices that unpack the one thing he asks his reader to not forget throughout the book:

We learn to become competent biblical counselors by giving and receiving biblical counseling in the context of real and raw community (p.17).

In keeping with the spirit of Kellemen's other works, Gospel Conversations is not merely a theoretical treatment of the critically important task of providing biblical soul care. It is a hands-on, practical teaching tool designed to equip the body of Christ for "face-to-face gospel ministry where we speak the truth in love to one another" (p.17). With extensive follow up questions designed for small group or individual application, Gospel Conversations has the biblical counselor's growth and maturity in full view.

The strength of Gospel Conversations is of course found in its gospel-centeredness, but the reader also benefits greatly from Kellemen's writing style and experience as a teacher. The book is accessible to most readers, yet appropriate for any setting in which training for biblical counseling is occurring. The net result, then, of a thorough reading of Gospel Conversations is a biblical counselor who is better prepared to care like Christ.

"Christ's vision for the church involves the whole body sharing Scripture and soul in gospel conversations where we help one another to become more like Christ as we endure suffering as overcomers and battle and defeat sin as more than conquerors." Dr. Robert Kellemen (p.354)

To purchase a copy of Gospel Conversations, visit Dr. Kellemen's ministry website HERE.