Four years ago, I wrote a post called “Doctrine is not doctrine anymore.” The point of the post is to consider how “doctrine” is usually viewed today as concepts or knowledge. But, to the authors of the New Testament, “doctrine” or “instruction” or “teaching” (all translations of the same word) goes much, much beyond concepts or knowledge and instead encompasses a way of life. Think about how much different our teaching would be if we were as concerned with a way of life instead of only facts.
In Acts 2:42, Luke begins to describe the response of those first Christians after receiving the promised Holy Spirit:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42 ESV)
What does it mean that these early followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching”? As long as I can remember, I’ve been taught that this means that they listened to sermons by the apostles, or at least by those who had heard sermons by the apostles. So, they “devoted themselves” or they “continued in” or they “persevered in” listening to someone teach them.
This sounds good. We all know that “teaching” or “doctrine” is a set of biblical fact, so it makes sense that those early believers would spend time listening to what the apostles had to say. They studied “doctrine” so that they would know what they needed to know.
But, there’s a problem with this picture. “Teaching” or “doctrine” or “instruction” (they are translations of the same word – no difference) in Scripture does not point to something that is simply known. Instead, “teaching” points to something that is demonstrated in both word and deed. Words alone would not be considered a “teaching”; but words combined with a living example would be considered a “teaching”.
Don’t misunderstand me… When I say “words combined with a living example”, I’m not talking about a sermon with application points. “Applications points” are still words. Instead, I’m saying that someone who brings a “teaching” or “doctrine” only does so when the life of the “teacher” matches the words and is demonstrated before the ones who are learning. In other words, a “teaching” combines both words and a way of living that is witnessed and imitated by those who are learning.
Consider Paul’s words to the church in Phillipi:
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:9 ESV)
Consider his reminder to the Thessalonians:
For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed – God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:5-10 ESV)
Finally, in his letter to Titus, Paul specifically connects “doctrine” and “teaching” to more than words, as he parallels “teach what accords with sound doctrine” with “show yourself”:
But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. Slaves are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. (Titus 2:1-10 ESV)
Titus was to teach with his words, but just as importantly, he was to teach with his life. For Paul, teaching with words could not be separated from teaching with lifestyle. Of course, this means that Titus would have to live his life among those he was teaching. It was not enough to simply see them occasionally. In order to Titus to teach “sound doctrine” he would have to live “sound doctrine” with the people.
So, those early believers that Luke described in Acts 2 were devoting themselves to the words and lifestyle of the apostles. They heard what the apostles said, and they saw how the apostles lived. In response to this and to the Spirit’s work in their lives, they spoke and lived in the same way. They did not simply listen to sermons about what to belief. They heard, watched, and lived with the apostles and other believers, and learned from their “living doctrine”.
What does this mean for us? It means that when we make a list of “beliefs” and call it “doctrine”, we are not using the word “doctrine” in a scriptural sense. It means that when we stand before a group of strangers and give them good, biblical information, we are not bringing a “teaching” in the way that the word is used in Scripture.
Primarily, for those of us who desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ, it means that our lives must demonstrate what our mouth is saying. We must live among and with people who are learning from us. Teaching cannot be done at a distance to an audience of strangers. Teaching (in the scriptural sense) occurs when people share their lives together, not when the teacher stands behind a podium.