Purity In Doctrine

Jeff S. Smith


“Accustom your children constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.”

So wrote Samuel Johnson in 1778 concerning the absolute necessity of telling the unvarnished truth. The writer is concerned in this present article with examining the subject of relating the truth of God’s word, that is, teaching pure doctrine to the hearer. If we permit ourselves or an esteemed fellow traveler the right to a certain amount of unchastised impurity of doctrine, we invite a flood of apostasy to deluge us, for once the door of error has been made ajar, it becomes impossible to bar it again.

Often a negative illustration helps us to see the truth on a positive matter. Perhaps such is the case regarding purity in doctrine. The case of a group of teachers called the Pharisees surely illustrates the foibles and failures of impure doctrine, or teaching.

The Pharisees were a sect of Jews who taught the law and made much noise about heeding God’s will down to the most minute point. The Lord found no fault with their careful tithing habits, but chided them for ignoring the less tangible principles of the law upon which true religion should also rest. Christ did not want them to quit heeding the law, as some commentators suggest; he wanted them to start heeding the law more closely and genuinely live obedient lives by the principles of justice, mercy and faith.

Just as pure teaching should result from and lead to a pure lifestyle (1Peter 1:13-16), impure teaching will often come from living in an unclean way and will foster more ungodliness (Rom. 2:17-24, 6:1-2). The temptation is to craft one’s teaching to accommodate his weaknesses and accentuate his strengths while making up for the tenets of God’s will that tend to dissuade his audience from accepting it. The Pharisees accommodated their own weakness in the weightier principles of God’s law by creating loopholes, like the doctrine of “Corban” (Matt. 15:3-6) and accentuated their oratorical strengths by self-promotional prayer (Matt. 6:5).

In Matthew 23, Jesus speaks to a multitude of disciples and outsiders about the Pharisees’ place and their bad influence. We would be wise to understand his condemnation, lest we fall into the same pit.

Do As They Say, Not As They Do

In the first four verses of Matthew 23, Jesus begins his condemnation of the Pharisees for being hypocrites. I suppose it is the classic illustration of hypocrisy: an evil-minded person playing the role of Christian in grand speeches and publicity-seeking deeds, but betraying the role when no one is supposed to be watching. He is a Christian onstage and a worldly man in the wings. Notice that Jesus told the people that they ought to heed the Pharisees’ teaching of the law of Moses (verse 3). Christ was not trying to dissuade people from leading obedient lives or carefully respecting divine authority; He was encouraging them to live more obedient and, therefore, more godly lives!

It was hypocritical, though, for the Pharisees to bind such a heavy burden—perfect law-keeping—on the people, when they didn’t even try themselves to keep it perfectly. The Spirit of Jesus is one that helps bear the burden of failure (Matt. 11:28-30), but the Pharisees did nothing by way of teaching, example or exhortation to aid people in actually improving their spirituality or dealing with the guilt of sin. They had figured out they could act perfect and aloof so long as they appeared pious in the marketplace.

In Matthew 23:5-12, our Lord condemns the Pharisees’ intentionally and overly public religion. Jesus marks them for smearing their good works with an attitude of self-promotion, rather than glorification of God. They enlarged their phylacteries, broadened their garment borders, assumed places of honor at every feast and yearned for titles of reverence. In fact, their whole religion was built around the esteem of men and not God, and while it impressed many people with its pomp and ceremony, it angered God completely (Matt. 6:1-4).

Hindrance to the Gospel

Jesus takes note of the fact that the Pharisees before him were a great hindrance to the gospel (Matt. 23:13). He pronounces woe upon those who shut up the kingdom of heaven to others while refusing to even enter themselves. The kingdom of heaven can be shut two ways: by narrowing the door so much that no one thinks he can enter or by imaginarily broadening the door so much that few can seem to be excluded.

You shut the kingdom of heaven to people when you refuse to share Jesus with them, to tell them of the open door (John 14:1-6). If we are the world’s Bible, as we sing, we are worth little when closed and silent. We seem to shut the door to the kingdom by keeping it to ourselves, whether from worldliness, selfishness, cowardice or apathy. “And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14). Faith comes by hearing God’s word and passage into the kingdom depends to a great degree upon those already inside proclaiming the kingdom to those without (I Peter 4:11, Matt. 28:18-20).

One may also effectively shut the kingdom of heaven when he pretends to broaden the door so that the disqualified can enter without making the sacrifices necessary to true conversion (I Cor. 9:24-27). According to the sermon on the mount, the way to life is narrow and difficult and few actually find it (Matt. 7:13-14, cf. I Peter 3:20-21). This, one fears, is the error of those today that want to stretch the gospel to cover people that refuse to repent of their sins, by either tolerating the sin or neglecting to warn against it (Ezek. 2:1-7, 3:16-19). A mirage of redemption and hope is constructed so artfully that it fools the sinner all his life into thinking that God will look the other way in the day of judgment, just as the local church has looked the other way all his life (Acts 17:30-31). While he has been made to believe that the way to life is broad enough to admit him and his sin, minus repentance, the day of reckoning will dash his hopes and reveal how onerous and duplicitous were his beloved brethren who essentially refused to aid him with the gift of loving reproof (II Peter 3:9, Gal. 6:1-5, James 5:19-20).

One can appear to be the greatest force for good in the gospel since Pentecost and actually be a hindrance to it if he is making condemned people feel saved when they have not yet met the terms of God’s grace (Matt. 23:15, Acts 2:37-41). Without genuine repentance of sin, baptism is nothing more than a brief bath. Without repentance, sins cannot be cleansed and souls cannot be saved, “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation ...” (II Cor. 7:10).

A preacher or other Christian hinders the gospel when he gives people the impression they can continue their sins or when he refuses to help them identify their sins (II Tim. 4:1-5). Hindering the gospel by preaching error on the necessity of repentance to salvation is every bit as dangerous as the false sense of security wrought by Calvinism’s doctrine of final perseverance of the saints.

Hypocritical Religion

In Matthew 23:14, 23-28, the Lord takes note of the hypocritical religious practices of the scribes and Pharisees. In the morning, they might conspire to take a widow’s house away from her and in the afternoon, they might stand in the marketplace, hoping a sunbeam would surround their faces as they make a long, oratorical prayer to impress those who don’t know about the widow (Matt. 6:5-7).

They followed the letter of the law when it came to the easily measurable matters of tithing and other tangible displays of submission; but when it came to more abstract and weightier principles of justice, mercy and faith, they were woefully disobedient (verse 23-24). They made an important show of ceremonial washings and thoroughly cleansed the external part of everything including themselves; but inside they were drinking the wine of extortion and eating the bread of self-indulgence, putrefying their souls before God (verses 25-16, Mark 7:1-9, 14-15).

Jesus condemned the Pharisees’ form of obedience because it was incomplete and founded upon self-service rather than true self-sacrifice. Would the Lord have praised a different sect who excelled in justice, mercy and faith, but failed to tithe and pray at all? Of course not! Any doctrine that effectively encourages an impure lifestyle is itself impure and counterproductive. Casting matters of immodest attire, divorce and remarriage, and social drug consumption as gray areas tends to persuade weak Christians and prospects for conversion that little sacrifice or hardship is required to please God in such cases, for even He could not make Himself clear.

This impurity of doctrine is further exemplified when brethren are willing to tolerate the teaching of error so that a sense of friendliness is not dissolved among those who disagree on a doctrinal matter (cf. Peter and Paul, Gal. 2:4-5, 11, 14), or when the local church is willing to tolerate sin in its number so long as that sin does not shame the church in the community. We want the image of a house set on a hill, though we have slid down into the valley of the shadow of the second death.

Here in Austin, Texas, a church that condones homosexuality by promoting its cause, preaching its tolerance or ordaining homosexual deacons is put on the front page of the newspaper and applauded on the editorial page. It is given prime and positive exposure on all the television newscasts and earns a proud visit from the mayor. By the community standard judgment of fellowship, the churches here in Austin should tolerate homosexuality. But in the outlying communities, morality is somewhat more conservative and homosexuality is still deemed sinful by the majority. We, then, should condemn homosexuality in Georgetown, Round Rock and Pflugerville while condoning it in Austin, based on the “shaming the church in the community” standard. Such a double-standard would surely brand us hypocritical, just like the Pharisees.

In Matthew 23:27-28, Jesus teaches that you can’t judge a book by its cover, for the most beautifully sculpted grave marker in the world still conceals only dead men’s bones, decaying flesh and rotting clothing. The faith of the Pharisees was this deceptive, for while they appeared to men to hold the utmost reverence for the law, God judged them to be lawless (Matt. 7:21-23).

I don’t think the Pharisees have gotten a bad rap and I would never want to defend or be like them. But perhaps they have gotten the wrong rap from many people who like to brand others “Pharisees” so that they can blur Bible distinctions and authority to suit their own whims and agendas. Note the reason for the Lord’s condemnation of them at the end of verse 28: LAWLESSNESS! So often, we are told that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for holding too stiffly to the law, but that is not correct. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for evading the parts of the law that did not suit them. He called them lawless!

The fact is that many religious people are practicing their faith in a way that is not from God. When confronted with a lack of Bible sanction, they can be heard to defend themselves by branding the rebuker a Pharisee. Jesus, however, did not condemn the Pharisees for being too careful about their tithes, but for neglecting other acts of the law: “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matt. 23:23). If that simple phrase were magnified in our understanding and conversations, it might end forever the misguided accusation of “Pharisaism” cast at anyone who contends for the importance of Bible authority in every Bible matter (1 Peter 4:11, Col. 3:17).

The Lord’s point is that you cannot arbitrarily decide which parts of God’s law you will obey and which parts you will reject (James 2:10-13). He does not teach them to consider only justice, mercy and faith to be henceforth important, but encourages them to make their obedience complete in all facets of God’s will (I John 2:3-6). “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). “He who rejects me and does not receive my words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day” (John 12:48).

Impure teaching, then, is the progenitor of lawlessness and rebellion. Sometimes it wrongly divides God’s law into essential and non-essential doctrines. Other times, it falsely makes a distinction between the “core gospel” and those things which we may leave undone with impunity (James 4:17).

Fellowship and Impure Doctrine

The propagation of false doctrine, if unchecked, will eventually sever a man’s fellowship with God. The church at Pergamos numbered Nicolaitans in her fellowship, for which Jesus rebuked them and promised to fight against them with the sword of his mouth (Rev. 2:15-16). Thyatira had a Jezebel deceiving its members while operating as a part of that church and Jesus promised to cast her in a sickbed of tribulation (Rev. 2:20-22). Paul marked two teachers of error, Hymenaeus and Philetus, for espousing an impure doctrine regarding Christ’s resurrection (II Tim. 2:17-18). He had the courage to expose the hypocrisy of Peter and Barnabas when they practiced the impure doctrine of the Judaizers in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-21), whom he claimed had become estranged from Christ and fallen from grace (Gal. 5:4).

If I am obligated to sever fellowship with one practicing false doctrine, am I not obligated also to sever fellowship with the one teaching it (Eph. 5:11-12, Romans 16:17-18)? If Paul demands I withdraw myself from a brother who engages in sexual immorality with his father’s wife, would I not also be commanded to withdraw myself from one who taught this was permissible and tolerable (I Cor. 5)?

Am I obligated to withdraw myself from those living in “adulterous marriages” but continue in fellowship with the one who taught that couple to wed without concern? It can only be a respect of persons that leads one to come to such a conclusion. The deceiver’s reputation protects him while the deceived get the shaft. Did the deceiver deceive intentionally? When the ox is in the ditch, the purity of the farmer’s intentions in pushing him will not rescue him. If the souls of men are really so important to us, they will take precedent over a judgment of intentions and yearning for peace with the deceiver.

Both the teacher and the taught are responsible for this sin and this error. “Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because you did not give him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand” (Ezek. 3:20). Paul told the Ephesian pastors that he was “innocent of the blood of all men” for he had not shunned to declare the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27).

Sometimes that stumbling block is a preacher who knows better but says nothing, claiming isolationism, community standards or some other excuse. Sometimes that stumbling block is a preacher or elder who gives no warning in order to protect the reputation and camaraderie of a revered soldier of the cross (I Cor. 4:6). One man’s reputation is preserved at any cost, while a hundred men’s souls perish in ignorance, without a peep from the shepherds (Heb. 13:17) and watchers (II Tim. 4:5). When impure doctrine is tolerated, impure religion will surely follow and the spots and wrinkles upon Christ’s bride will render her unrecognizable in time.

Concerning the error of Hymenaeus and Philetus, Paul notes that their impure doctrine would spread like cancer and overthrow the faith of the deceived. In his letter to Timothy, Paul was attempting to identify and excise the cancerous lesion from the body and prevent its spread and corruption. Let God be thanked for such an apostolic example of love for the redeemed and the pure wisdom from above.


How many preachers will examine their own hands in the day of reckoning and observe the “blood” of souls condemned, in part, because they uttered not a word of warning or were too reluctant to declare the whole counsel of God to someone presumptuously deemed unlikely to submit? One is reminded of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, desperately trying to remove the bloodstains of a guilty conscience, when he considers the tardy reflections of a preacher who failed to proclaim the word boldly as he ought (Eph. 6:20).

In a work called “Hope,” William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote “And diff’ring judgements serve but to declare / That truth lies somewhere, if we knew but where.” Concerning matters of the faith, the Holy Spirit told us just where to look for truth, the oracles of God (1 Peter 4:11). Now, we must go about declaring that truth without respect to persons, convenience, or ecumenical peace.

Impure doctrine—speaking smooth things to satisfy an ungodly yearning for guilt assuagement rather than true redemption—both hinders the spread of the glad tidings of Christ and leads to a severance of fellowship with God and brethren. Tolerating impure doctrine is a deal with the devil, a willingness to exchange everlasting peace with God for a temporary peace on Earth among men. Woe unto both those who propagate and those who tolerate the cancer of impure doctrine.

e-mail this author at SmithJeffS@aol.com

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