What is Sound Doctrine? 1 Timothy 1:8-11

In order to illustrate what he means by “the disobedient, ungodly, and sinners,” Paul offers a sin-list. For the most part, this sin-list is the standard sort of things one expects in a sin-list. This kind of list is common in the New Testament and is found in Greco-Roman ethical writing as well.

Paul has two words for sexual sins. The first covers a wide range of deviancy from norm, the second refers specifically to homosexuality (ἀρσενοκοίτης).  From BDAG:  “Paul’s strictures against same-sex activity cannot be satisfactorily explained on the basis of alleged temple prostitution. . .or limited to contract with boys for homoerotic service” Remarkably, “enslavers” is on the list (ἀνδραποδιστής). The word only appears here and might be translated as “kidnapper,” although in a first century context a person might be kidnapped in order to make them a slave.

Sound DoctrineRemarkably, the final item in Paul’s list is “anything else that is contrary to sound doctrine.” Paul’s description of “sound doctrine” is “healthy” teaching (τῃ ὑγιαινούσῃ διδασκαλίᾳ). This description of sound doctrine appears here and in 2 Tim 4:3 and Titus 1:9, 2:1; “sound words” in 1 Tim 6:3, 2 Tim 1:13, “sound in faith” in Titus 1:13, 2:2.

The definition of “sound doctrine” in verse 11 is “the gospel which was entrusted to Paul.” This is not unlike the sorts of things we read in other Pauline letters. Paul frequently refers to being given the gospel as a sacred trust from God, his commission to preach the Gospel among the Gentiles is a calling from God.

To be “entrusted” with the Gospel is a critically important concept in 1 Timothy. Paul was entrusted with the gospel, he has passed that Gospel on to Timothy, and Timothy is now responsible for guarding that deposit of faith in the next generation. “Healthy Doctrine” is the only cure for the “unhealthy doctrine” of Paul’s opponents in Ephesus. By teaching the truth, Timothy will expose the false in the “other gospel” which is being promoted in Paul’s churches.

Frequently in both letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus Paul emphasizes holding to the traditions which were already delivered to the church. This body of truth is called “sound doctrine” or “sincere faith” or simply “the truth.”  Timothy’s task included appointing good elders and deacons who will hold to the Gospel which was initially preached in the city and will be excellent examples of living out the Christian life so that outsiders will be attracted to the Gospel.

What is sometimes overlooked is Paul’s solution to the problems in Ephesus. He does not recommend that more ecclesiastical structure be imposed on the local churches.  He tells Timothy to appoint qualified elders and deacons, but the qualifications are fidelity to Paul’s teaching and high moral commitments.

Unfortunately most Christians define “healthy doctrine” as “what I  believe” and bad doctrine as “what that church across the street believes.” This is not at all what Paul has in mind here!  He has not created a 39 point doctrinal statement that has to be signed by all members of the church for them to be declared “orthodox.”  For Paul, the core of the Gospel is non-negotiable, but also a set of ethical parameters which work out the gospel in very practical ways.  Rather than declaring the Calvinist or Arminianism “right” or “wrong,” Paul asks “Is the Gospel is preached?” “Are the members of the the congregation behaving in a way that brings honor to the Gospel?”

I understand the importance of doctrinal statements (I sign several every year myself). They help define communities of believers around a common set of beliefs. But it is remarkable that conformity to the Gospel and proper ethical conduct are the two tests Paul set for Timothy when dealing with the opponents in Ephesus.

How does a contemporary church find a balance between promoting sound doctrine and providing a place for people to discuss ideas and ask questions? Is this more than agreeing to a doctrinal statement? How can a church or Christian organization promote the Gospel, demonstrate grace, and be faithful to the core doctrines of the faith?

7 thoughts on “What is Sound Doctrine? 1 Timothy 1:8-11

  1. On a 2nd (and 3rd) look, after being taught and long accepting the standard Evangelical view on it, it now appears much more likely that the main “other gospel” Paul opposes, not only in Gal., but elsewhere, and perhaps his disciples as well (to me, disciples of Paul, or even 2nd generation followers wrote the Pastorals almost certainly), is that of James, Peter and “the pillars” in Jerusalem. Why is this view (I can definitely imagine good reasons) cast aside so lightly when so much in the texts points toward it? Esp. in Paul, but not really reversed adequately in Acts.

    • This is an interesting comment, Howard. I think that you may be right for Galatians, certainly the main problem there is legalism, forcing Gentiles to keep the Law, etc. I think that the Pillars are more open to that, but it will be hard to prove that James (for example) agrees with the Judaizers in the background of Galatians. My guess is that he did, but I cannot imagine many evangelicals liking that kind of an answer!

      With respect to the pastorals, I think that there is some Judaism in the opponent’s teaching, but there is a more rigorous asceticism than I find in James or Peter. Maybe more like the Essenes, but again, no one can really make the connection between the opponents in Ephesus and the Essenes as we know them. Still, there is evidence for an ascetic form of Judaism in the first century, and the Ephesian opponents seem to be a part of that mix.

      As the first century develops, though, there are other forms of Pauline theology that run amok with freedom in Christ, going the opposite direction toward antinomianism. I think that appears early as well (Romans 6, for example implies that someone is using freedom as a license to sin!)

  2. To me, other than historical/intellectual curiosity, the details of what “Judiazers” taught and just who they were, doesn’t really matter. Similarly with the precise views of James et al in Jerusalem. But I do think it takes careful, close observation to correctly get the big picture issues. Perhaps the most core of these is that there WAS no single and widely-agreed upon “deposit of faith”, no close, cooperative relationship between the Pillars and Paul…. a strained and distant “cooperation” of sorts, probably yes, but not with real knowledge in Jeru. of much of Paul’s teaching which was via his personal “revelation”. He, of course makes a point of this repeatedly… distinguishing himself from and I think pretty clearly opposing (on some key points) the Jeru. Apostles, to whom he HAD to (for practical purposes) defer. HE was the “latecomer”, not them, or I have little doubt he’d have tried to keep control (and I DO see many positives in Paul… but he was typical of highly zealous, “type A”, “evangelist” type personalities).

    The point is, as numerous scholars I respect have pointed out, Paul added many aspects of theology never occurring to the orig. 12 or other direct followers of Jesus, even “post Resurrection,” and sometimes at odds with the core teachings of Jesus. Had their admin. organization and “control” (such as it was) not been disrupted entirely by the big war and destr. of Jerusalem and the Temple, I think a more Epistle-of-James-like Christianity would have continued much longer, stronger and perhaps led to a much different faith (more Jewish-but-universal, ethics-oriented, mystical, etc.) than we got via the Pauline-influenced Gospels/Acts, literalist Church fathers, etc.

    To me, there are still some important and unanswered mysteries in just why Luke treated many things as he did in Acts, esp. the demise of the Jeru. “church”… basically ignoring it entirely (on the assumption–pretty safe I think–that he wrote Acts well after 70, probably at least in the mid-80s to 90s). Last further key issue: Evangelical and conserv. scholars in general either just can’t see this, and related vital points or they sort of do but (understandably but not excusably) choose to look at other less threatening things.

  3. I think that the topic of “sound doctrine” has become an issue in many modern Churches. At times, different denominations will have slightly different beliefs and suddenly everyone acts like they adhere to a completely different religion. I believe that Paul simplifies it because at its core, the only thing that matters is praising God and honoring him through the way we live our lives. The differences that people have about baptism, how to take communion, dates and times of gathering, etc. should not separate the body of Christ. In addition, in my experience, Christians who are familiar with doctrine will label other believers based on their church or denomination assuming that just because they attend a certain church, they wholeheartedly agree with everything about that denomination’s theology. There are many things I love about my Wesleyan church, but I wouldn’t claim to agree with every aspect of the Wesleyan doctrine. Annually for a few years in our community of Holland and Zeeland, over 30 churches covered their church signs with a burlap cloth that read “One Lord, one church” to promote the idea that Christ and unity is more important than competition, differences, and denominations. I love this idea because it highlights the concept that although we all have differences, we know what is truly important and can be united over our belief that God’s kingdom must advance.

    I think that the trickiest concept is knowing what topics it is okay to disagree on and what topics are not. We say that with topics like communion and baptism it’s “okay to agree to disagree” but is the same true for more prominent issues like abortion, homosexuality, immigrants and refugees? Or no matter what the topic or issue is, is it okay disagree if we understand that God kingdom is what’s truly important?

  4. In any time in history people did and still do not respond very well when their faults are called out and their sins are revealed. Like P. Long stated above, people relate sound doctrine to what they personally believe and their own opinions and ethical views. This can make it difficult to convince people the truth of needing a Savior. A lot of times churches get so fixed on what they want to promote and the little technicalities become more important than the foundational truth of the Gospel. It is important to keep the Bible as the foundation for truth, to communicate our sin and our need for Jesus Christ. While communicating this, it is also important to communicate the love Jesus has for us, no matter what and To create a welcoming atmosphere within the church. Romans 15:7, states we need to accept others and receive them like Christ. I think leadership is super important in a Christian organization or church because that can influence where the church goes in the future. Having a leader and a set of elders who are determined on living out the Gospel and being examples for the people around them is essential for building up a church. It is more than just a doctrinal statement, it involves actually living the doctrine out through the church. Reaching out to the community and communicating truth with no judgment can be extremely effective for people who don’t have a “sound doctrine” in truth. In order to teach sound Doctrine, you have to constantly be in God’s word, always being reminded and focused on truth in order to live it out.

  5. Many people go to church thinking that wherever they go they will be healed similar to what is said in the blog post, on how “healthy doctrine” is what I believe to be true. I have recently been going to a church with a friend and it has been really one of the first times that I have heard from a church that has not been my own or a church that a family member is the pastor at. After about the third or fourth time, my mother asked me, “What kind of doctrine do they believe, is it similar to what our church believes?” This is what most Christians do, they begin to define this healthy doctrine as what I believe versus what each of the other churches believe, yes churches can have different denominations which is good to know and understand but I don’t believe this is what Paul is getting at when talking about healthy doctrine. I feel that the only way we will be able to follow what Paul is saying here and as a Church what to do by promoting the Gospel, demonstrating grace, and being faithful to the doctrine is perseverance. There are numerous times where churches preach what will get them the most people in seats or what gets them the most money in the offering instead of preaching what God wants them too. Galatians 6:9 talks about how everything will happen in due time, but we mustn’t give up when we don’t hear things that we want to hear. If you go to church to get fixed for any reason other than to get to know and grow in Christ, you are at church for the wrong reason. It is the job of the leaders, deacons, the pastor to make sure that you are able to do these things. Paul says follow me as I follow Christ, these heads in the church are not here to lead over people in the church but to point others to Jesus Christ. Rather than looking it as a “healthy doctrine” look at it as a “sound doctrine” which flows from what the Gospel teaches us rather than what others want us to hear (ESVSB Notes, 2326).

  6. 1 Timothy 1 presents this idea of sound doctrine. Sound doctrine is essentially healthy or truthful teaching. This idea of sound doctrine that appears in 1 TImothy 1 is a new one. Typically, Paul would refer to the Gospel as something that was entrusted to him rather than it being a sound doctrine. Around the time the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim., 2 Tim., Titus) were written, sound doctrine within the church seemed to be lacking. Rather than churches teaching a sound, truthful doctrine, they were spreading false teaching. 1 Timothy 4:1-2 says “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.” The state of the church around the time 1 Timothy was written was a state of falsehood.

    Sadly, 1 Timothy 4:1-2 can relate to the church today. While there are churches who are teaching sound doctrine, there are others that are teaching a falsified view of the Gospel. Some examples of this are health and prosperity churches as well as some mega churches such as Joel Osteen’s church, Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church, etc. Christians need to use discernment when listening to teaching because God’s Word can be easily twisted to fit man’s meaning rather than looking at Scripture the way that God intended.

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