A Gospel/Doctrine Distinction
While the old Bible hermeneutics acknowledges that God communicated his will to man through explicit commands, approved examples and necessary implications, a new hermeneutics makes light of all three by establishing an imaginary distinction in scripture between gospel and doctrine.
Essentially, the gospel/doctrine distinction has historically held that the gospel consists of a very limited set of facts about Jesus which are preached to the lost and which they can believe to the saving of their souls. Doctrine, on the other hand, is taught those already saved by the gospel. It is the product of the epistles, which is then filtered down to modern men through cultural and theological biases, creating an individually held standard that must not be imposed upon those of a conflicting mindset. The gospel is never preached to the saved and doctrine is never taught the lost when this distinction is obeyed.
The net result of this distinction, whether intentional or not, is a broadening of fellowship since the parameters for disagreement are minimized into obscurity. Leroy Garrett speaks for the New Unity Movement when he says, "It is the gospel and not doctrine that determines fellowship" (Garrett 42-46, quoted in Roberts 55). Fellowship is first renewed for those who teach and practice error within the churches of Christ. Then it is expanded to include all those loyal somehow to the "Restoration Movement," including Christian churches and Disciples of Christ with their instrumental music, missionary societies and female leadership. Eventually, fellowship is offered to denominational believers and "brethren in prospect." The continued digression of this movement is inevitable as men whittle God's word down to whatever they can minimally agree upon. The false gospel/doctrine distinction is the tool of ecumenism and it reverberates whenever men proclaim that the bible is not understandable and that since we cannot know everything, it is not even certain that we know anything.
History of the Gospel Doctrine Distinction
Among brethren, Alexander Campbell pioneered the use of the gospel/doctrine distinction in his war against what he called the "yoke of clergy." In battling the clergy system of the nineteenth century, Campbell argued that gospel and doctrine were mutually exclusive (Roberts 47).
The gospel/doctrine distinction gained momentum, when in 1936, J.A. Jungmann, a German Catholic theologian, published his perspective as The Good News and Our Proclamation of the Faith (Meador). Jungmann championed the kerygmatic approach to preaching, by drawing a line of distinction between gospel (kerygma) and doctrine (didache).
Later that same year, a professor in the Church of England named C.H. Dodd published his similar theories in The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development (Meador). Not believing in the plenary of the scriptures, Dodd asserted that the true gospel consisted only of the teachings of Christ and that the words of Peter, Paul, et al. were merely a primitive catechism of their own moral instructions based on his life.
Since World War II, the gospel/doctrine distinction has been championed most notably by brethren Carl Ketcherside, Leroy Garrett and Edward Fudge. It is repeated in the digression of Max Lucado and Rubel Shelley. More recently, its echoes can be heard among brethren struggling to keep the peace amid controversies over fellowship with error, creation and divorce and remarriage.
Ketcherside, for instance, has written, "The gospel was proclaimed as fully and completely on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus as it ever has been, and nothing written later was added to it Not one apostolic letter is a part of the gospel ... the Roman letter was not a part of the gospel ... the letter to the Galatians was not a part of the gospel" (Mission Messenger). Ketcherside has narrowed the gospel down to just seven integral facts:
Garrett, on the other hand identifies just three core gospel matters: the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (Our Heritage of Unity and Fellowship, www.freedomsring.org). Fellow traveler Rubel Shelly also identifies three, but they are subtly different. "In The Second Incarnation, Shelly said that there are but three things that are core matters -- The Deity of Christ, baptism (for any reason, such as to obey God; it does not have to be for the remission of sins), and the Lord's Supper" (Cates). If they cannot agree on the one subject upon which everyone is supposed to be able to agree, what will happen to their theory?
The writings of Lee Wilson, Shelly and Edward Fudge show how the gospel/doctrine distinction facilitates a unity-in-doctrinal-diversity with few imaginable, objective limits.
Wilson, editor of Grace Centered Magazine, explains his purpose as offering brethren a reality check about what matters:
Fudge replies on his website to doctrinal questions with thoughtful, if not always scriptural, answers, but then chalks many of them up to matters of minutia. Concerning Premillennialism, he sums, "The precise meaning of the 1,000-year reign in Revelation 20 is not at the core of the gospel, and it is not something about which those who love and follow Jesus Christ should break fellowship or engage in combat" (GracEmails: Premillennialism). On baptism, Fudge says, "Faith and baptism do not belong in a list of like-and-equal things. They are not of the same "order" and ought not be lined up in a row as if they were" (GracEmails: Baptism).
The Core Gospel
It becomes apparent then that making a distinction between gospel and doctrine allows one to emphasize a few core facts about Christ and to relegate the remainder of the New Testament to uninspired catechism or debatable theories viewed through a theological prism. All those espousing the core gospel theory are at odds themselves over what to include in the core, since the bible fails to make the distinction for them with its own ink.
The end result, however, is always a broadened fellowship among men who can agree on a few issues and agree to disagree on most matters. First, teachers of error among brethren are excused, tolerated and even embraced in spite of their doctrines. Then, other children of the "Restoration Movement" are begged to forgive us for fighting against Premillennialism, instrumental music in worship, female leadership and the missionary society. Finally, fellowship is offered to the "pious unimmersed" and "brethren in prospect" among the denominations (Lemmons).
The unavoidable consequence of the gospel/doctrine distinction is a Calvinistic understanding of grace and an ecumenical approach to fellowship. Some of the theorists whittle the important stuff down to a half-dozen matters, some including baptism and other acts of obedience to the faith, but others carve deeper and eliminate all but faith alone. Additionally, it becomes evident that no violation of any New Testament doctrine will cause one to forfeit his eternal salvation, thus tending to Calvin's doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints. Holding one's faith firm to the end now means only continuing to believe in Jesus, whether or not one bothers to behave like it.
An undercurrent of this same sentiment, though much diluted, can now be heard among brethren unwilling to confront the specter of modernism and liberalism abroad today. Some bible subjects are being demoted almost as swiftly as brethren develop some disagreement over them. Truths that were once almost universally held are now relegated to meaningless matters of indifference, even though God has forcefully spoken about them. The analysis of God's creation account in Genesis 1-2 has been subjected to this kind of wrangling and we are now being told that it does not matter if one believes in a literal, six consecutive 24 hour day creation or that there are gaps and ages in there that Moses did not mention.
In the summer of 2000, an open letter was sent to the administration of Florida College expressing concern at the apparent tolerance there for teachers and doctrines that indicated that a non-literal understanding of the Genesis account was both permissible and perhaps even mandatory. In addition to the administration response, brother Tom Couchman also replied to the more than five-dozen signers of the open letter. His response indicates a flirtation with the gospel/doctrine distinction:
While brother Couchman's core matters are surely broader than most others referenced here, they exclude certain matters about which the Bible speaks. He suggests that fellowship is only threatened when obedience to the gospel message, imitation of Christ or the ministry of the church is violated. Yet, our Lord did not treat the creation account as allegory, fairy tale or gap-ridden summary. When he referenced Genesis 1-2, he noted that God created man and woman at the beginning (Matthew 19:4). In order to imitate Christ, a believer must likewise be willing to accept that God actually created male and female at the beginning, not some millions of years after the beginning and a time far closer to the present than the beginning. Maurice Barnett responded to brother Couchman:
Refutation of the Gospel/Doctrine Distinction
Nowhere is the error of the gospel/doctrine distinction more clear than in Romans 6:17, which reads, "but God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered." Paul gives credit to doctrine for emancipating sinners, but surely no one is prepared to argue that he was ignoring the gospel. God forbid; instead he was using the two terms interchangeably. Although the two Greek words are not synonymous, they are used interchangeably in scripture, denying distinction theorists an important piece of evidence. Elsewhere, Paul just as sweetly commends those who "obey the gospel" (Rom. 10:16) and the faith (Rom. 1:5, 16:26). This was the doctrine of Christ that they had obeyed (2 John 7-11) and it was the gospel without distinction.
Doctrine and gospel are also used interchangeably in 1 Timothy 1:8-11, where the gospel was the standard by which unsound doctrine was to be identified. When Levi spoke of the words of Christ, he referred to them as "the gospel of the kingdom" (Matthew 4:23) and his astonishing doctrine, or teaching (7:28).
This lack of distinction becomes very practical immediately in the history of the church due to the error of the Judaizing teachers. Among the Pharisees who believed in Christ, many rose up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them [Gentile converts], and to command them to keep the Law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). When this trend began to infiltrate the churches of Galatia, Paul wrote to warn the saints about those who desired to "pervert the gospel of Christ" (Galatians 1:7). Arnold Hardin wrote, "The Galatians were falling from grace in that they were allowing themselves to be carried away from the sacrifice of Christ to that of bondage under the law" (Roberts 56). While that much is undeniable, it ignores the prominent means by which this was being accomplished. The error was not about the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, nor about his ascension or coronation. The error concerned the necessity of circumcision to salvation. It was plainly a perversion of the gospel, in spite of the fact that Jesus said nothing about it during his public ministry. The gospel, therefore, includes matters that did not come to the fore until well after the church was established.
The effect of this error cannot be denied either. Souls were falling from grace (Galatians 5:4). "Thus, one could teach 'doctrinal' error (circumcision, law keeping) and still be guilty of perverting the 'gospel.' But how is that possible if the gospel only consists of three basic facts while all else is doctrine?" (Hafley)
Paul describes contending against this doctrinal error as maintaining the "truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2:5) although many believers in Christ were holding to it. Were they right about the gospel, but wrong about the doctrine? No, when they were wrong about circumcision, they were wrong about the gospel.
Paul's accusation against Peter for refusing to eat with uncircumcised brethren solidifies the notion that this doctrine is part of the gospel and a matter of fellowship. He writes, "But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel..." (Gal. 2:14). "However, if association with the Gentiles involves 'doctrinal' matters only, and not issues of the 'gospel,' how could his behavior be said to be contrary 'to the truth of the gospel'? Peter certainly did not deny the 'core' gospel facts, yet he walked not 'according to the truth of the gospel'" (Hafley).
Even the old assertion of Campbell and Dodd that the gospel is preached to the lost and the doctrine is taught the saved is proven false in the crucible of scripture. Paul informed the church at Rome that he was "ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also" (Romans 1:15). In 1 Corinthians 15, he recites the account of Christ's death, burial and resurrection for the church, preaching to the converted in the process.
Fellowship was strained on other occasions in the New Testament and some involved clear-cut matters about the nature and person of Christ. The Gnostic error described in 1 John and the accusations against Hymenaeus and Philetus in 2 Timothy 2 all revolve around the divinity of Christ or his resurrection. Fellowship, however, was also strained over matters that could not be connected even remotely to the gospel of this false dichotomy.
In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul commands a local congregation to deliver one of its members to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. They are not to keep company with him or eat with him anymore. Has he denied the virgin birth or discounted the resurrection? No, he was guilty of ongoing sexual immorality with his father's wife. His error fell on the doctrinal side of this imaginary distinction, but that did not protect him from correction.
Paul's description of withdrawal in 2 Thessalonians 3 is the fullest in scripture. There, brethren were required to withdraw from every brother that walked disorderly. Is "disorderly" synonymous with some recantation of the core gospel facts about Jesus? No, here disorderly is living in a way that was "not according to the tradition which he received from" the apostles (6). Specifically, some in Thessalonica were lazy and idle, refusing to work and compelling the brethren to provide for them. Paul failed to make the gospel/doctrine distinction, one supposes.
Scripture makes no gospel/doctrine distinction, save that the words are indeed different, though often used interchangeably. This false dichotomy is nothing more than an ecumenical tool of the devil to console men to stand a little less firm concerning the will of God. The result is always a broader fellowship than the narrow and strait way depicted in the teachings of Christ (Matthew 7:13-14, 21-27, Luke 6:46). In a limited form it is used to protect associations with teachers and practitioners of error among the saints. Still, we have seen it used to extend a hand of fellowship to errorists in the "Restoration Movement" and even denominationalism.
Until we learn to speak where the bible speaks and remain silent where it is silent, we will continue to see methods of denying those in error the correction that may save their souls. All the while, we will be surrounded by gospel/doctrine distinctionists crying, "Peace, peace" in the midst of undeniable conflict.
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Grace Centered Magazine