by Al Maxey

Issue #117 ------- April 7, 2004
I'm not a teacher: only a fellow-traveler
of whom you asked the way. I pointed
ahead -- ahead of myself as well as you.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

The Gospel-Doctrine Debate
Are they the Same or Separate?

There seems to be no dearth of debate among the disciples of Jesus Christ. I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised, however; even among the Twelve, as they walked along with Jesus one day, they debated among themselves as to who was the greatest (Mark 9:33-34; Luke 9:46). A couple of them even got their Mom involved (Matthew 20:20ff). And who can forget the "great dissension and debate" Paul and Barnabas had with certain legalistic disciples from Judea (Acts 15:1-2)? Later, in Jerusalem, "the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. And after there had been much debate," the apostle Peter stood up in their midst and began the dialogue that would come to be known as The Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15:6ff). No, the church of our Lord Jesus Christ has never experienced complete uniformity of thought and practice. In ultimate purpose and spirit we can indeed be one people In Him, but in personal perception and preference we are a diverse body of believers. Thus, the potential for dissension and debate is always present. Our great challenge, as Romans 14 summarizes so well, is to rise above our differences and accept one another. In so doing we experience genuine unity in diversity. Through the death of our Lord upon the cross all barriers are broken down; we become one people, united and harmonious; we join hands in sweet fellowship at the cross (Ephesians 2:14ff).

One of the great current debates, the roots of which can be traced to early 20th century Europe, is whether or not there is a significant distinction between gospel and doctrine. A German theologian by the name of J.A. Jungmann, a member of the Roman Catholic Church, published a study in 1936 titled, The Good News and Our Proclamation of the Faith. In it he suggested there was a firm distinction, a truly significant difference, between the gospel message proclaimed (the Kerygma) and the later doctrine of the church (the Didache). That same year a British theologian, C.H. Dodd, suggested the very same distinction in a book titled, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development. These works got the reflective juices flowing among many disciples, the result being: dissension and debate over these two great concepts (gospel and doctrine) and how closely they may be related, or if indeed they are one and the same.

Brother Joseph D. Meador published an article a few years back in which he declared, "The 'gospel versus doctrine' issue has been a recurring theme over the years and has been trumpeted by those who desire to promote the unity-in-diversity view of fellowship. The Bible does not support such a theory" ("Are the Gospel and the Doctrine of Jesus the Same?," from the Firm Foundation, September, 1996). Meador insists that the phrase "unity in diversity" is "a contradiction in terms." He goes on to say, "In this view, the gospel is separated from teaching, or doctrine, and supersedes it in importance. The adherents of unity-in-diversity stress that only the gospel is important since doctrine is a relative and elusive standard. Therefore, all believers (regardless of their denomination) are to achieve unity of faith by ignoring doctrine, but gospel must not be discarded. ... Gospel and doctrine are not separate. Some have accepted a false distinction between gospel and doctrine to erect an unauthorized bridge of fellowship with the unwashed disobedient" (ibid).

With all due respect to brother Meador, who has provided years of faithful service and leadership in the Lord's kingdom, I think he has greatly misstated, and even overstated, the nature of the debate. It is obvious he has little use for the "liberal digressives" who, in his mind, are promoting a godless unity in diversity doctrine. It is not our desire (and I speak as an advocate of unity in diversity) to promote or pursue "fellowship with the unwashed disobedient." We have no desire whatsoever to "merge with the denominations" or to "ignore biblical doctrine." These are the proverbial "straw men" and "smoke screens" of the patternistic ultra-legalists who believe all those who differ with them on even the minutest matters of conviction are doomed to eternal torture in hell. The reality is that we regard doctrine as being just as essential to the body of Christ as the gospel; our point of difference is that we believe there IS some degree of distinction between the two, as well as some degree of overlapping. The matter is not as "black and white" as brother Meador, and those like him, would have us to believe.

This present issue of Reflections is prompted by an email I received from one of the readers who lives in Alabama, and who is affiliated with Auburn University. An incident occurred recently where he assembles for worship that led him to write me and share the following concern:


The Greek word euangelion "originally denoted a reward for good tidings; later, the idea of reward was dropped, and the word stood for the good news itself. In the New Testament it denotes the good tidings of the Kingdom of God and of salvation through Christ, to be received by faith, on the basis of His expiatory death, His burial, resurrection, and ascension" (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words). "Christians use the word to designate the message and story of God's saving activity through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of God's unique Son Jesus" (Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 567).

Paul told the Corinthian brethren that he was determined to "know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). Obviously, this would include the resurrection, in which death was defeated. "Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain" (1 Cor. 15:12-14). Thus, again, we see that the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ was central to the preaching of the gospel. Paul told the Romans that he was "eager to preach the gospel to you" (Romans 1:15). At the beginning of that chapter he clearly declared what that gospel was -- he was "set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead" (vs. 1-4). Thus, it is no surprise to hear that Paul, while in Athens, "was preaching Jesus and the resurrection" (Acts 17:18). In Pisidian Antioch, during his first missionary journey, Paul declared in the synagogue, "We preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus" (Acts 13:32-33). When the disciples were scattered because of persecution, they went about "preaching the Lord Jesus" (Acts 11:20). When Saul of Tarsus was first converted, he "began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, 'He is the Son of God'" (Acts 9:20). When Philip encountered the eunuch from Ethiopia, "he opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him" (Acts 8:35). Earlier, while in Samaria, Philip was "proclaiming Christ to them" (Acts 8:5). After being punished by the Council, Peter and the apostles, "every day, in the temple and from house to house, kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ" (Acts 5:42).

Such biblical testimony could be continued for quite some time, but the point is rather evident. The gospel message was centered in JESUS! His birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection. God had purposed from the very beginning to bring redemption and salvation to mankind via a gracious, loving sacrifice: the sacrifice of His beloved Son. This phenomenal event, and both its temporal and eternal impact upon us, is the GOSPEL message. It is the ultimate "good news." Thus, the term euangelion, as generally used in the New Testament writings, "refers to the word of salvation made available to the world in and through Jesus Christ" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 521). "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). This is the gospel in a nutshell.


"The NT distinguishes between teaching and proclaiming or preaching" (ibid, p. 1278). Paul wrote, "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching" (1 Timothy 5:17). The word "doctrine" comes from the Greek words didache and didaskalia, both of which essentially signify "teaching." "The subject matter of teaching is vague; it included but went beyond the basic kerygma of preaching" (ibid). "Whereas didache is used only twice in the Pastoral Epistles, didaskalia occurs fifteen times. Both are used in the active and passive senses (i.e., the act of teaching and what is taught), the passive is predominant in didache, the active in didaskalia; the former stresses the authority, the latter the act. Apart from the Apostle Paul, other writers make use of didache only, except in Matt. 15:9 and Mark 7:7" (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words).

Jesus, just prior to His ascension, told the Eleven, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:15-16). In the companion passage (Matthew 28:19-20), Jesus states, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you." I believe we here see a clear distinction between preaching the gospel to the lost, and making them disciples of Jesus, and teaching these disciples to observe the commands of our Lord Jesus. The gospel, therefore, would be the proclamation of redemption in Christ Jesus, for the purpose of instilling a saving faith in the hearts of those penitent listeners, whereas the doctrine would be the subsequent instruction of these disciples of Christ with regard to the guiding principles and commands of the Lord pertaining to their lifelong walk in the faith.

The qualities to be sought in elders, for example, would be part of the doctrine of the church, but would have no place in the preaching of the gospel. The nature of our worshipful expressions, the role of women in the work and worship of the church, characteristics of deacons, matters pertaining to the collection of funds or aspects of the observance of the Lord's Supper, would constitute a part of this body of doctrine for the subsequent guidance of the One Body, but would NOT be part of the "good news" proclaimed to bring the lost to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Concluding Thoughts

To some degree the teaching of the church must be flexible. By this I mean that we must be able to take eternal truths and guiding principles and make them relevant and applicable to our own time and circumstances. TRUTH is eternal; it is changeless. However, the way in which it is presented to others -- the teaching of Truth -- must be flexible enough so that those taught can relate to it. "God and His Word remain consistent and unchanging. Human teaching about God has to be stated anew for each generation in the language that generation speaks. Without abandoning crucial affirmations, the church must address itself to the issues of each new day. It goes without saying that most Christian doctrines reflect something of the culture in which they were brought to speech and Scripture" (Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 374).

"Scripture may, however, become bound to tradition. The church may become a servant to and rely on inherited interpretations of Scripture. The church may adopt definitions having no other basis than earlier church statements and teachings. The result is traditionalism. This leads a church to become deaf to the Word of God and to fail to penetrate to the core of scriptural teaching. Doctrine may be perceived, then, as ... irrelevant and meaningless" (ibid). "We should retain a suspicion of any claim to have arrived at a comprehensive, exhaustive, definitive, or infallible statement of doctrine. The human intellect tests experience of personal life, church, and culture by the truth of Scripture to describe the church's beliefs in current language. Such descriptions remain open to correction and revising" (ibid, p. 375).

As I mentioned early on in this study, I believe there is some degree of overlapping between gospel and doctrine. With regard to the former, for example, there is obviously some essential teaching involved as to HOW to accept God's gracious offer of redemption in Christ Jesus. There is doctrine regarding faith and how it is to be evidenced. There is doctrine pertaining to our confession of His lordship in our lives, and our submission to Him. There is doctrine regarding the need to repent, and also to evidence our faith in an act of obedience called "baptism." These are all doctrines that are an essential element of the proclamation of the gospel message. Philip, by way of a singular illustration, "preached Jesus" to the eunuch (Acts 8:35). Nevertheless, when they came to a body of water the eunuch asked, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" (vs. 36). Clearly, part of the "preaching of Jesus" done that day involved doctrine regarding how one displayed one's faith and accepted God's grace.

With regard to the later doctrines of the church, can we not also confidently declare that in a great many of them there is clearly an element of "good news"? That God has, in Christ, broken down barriers between persons of diverse background and perception, and made them into One Body, is incredibly "good news" for the people of God. That we are set free from bondage to sin, death, and even LAW, and are living in a state of GRACE, is "glad tidings." That the way has been cleared, through our Lord's sacrifice, for us to approach our God boldly in prayer, and know He will hear us and act on our behalf and in our best interests, should fill our hearts with joy! That the Holy Spirit indwells His people ... that we have an event in which we can come together and remember the Lord's gift of Himself on the cross for our atonement ... that God has given us each special gifts which enable us to serve Him and His people ... all of these, and many more doctrines of the church, which serve to guide us and encourage us in our daily walk with Him, are glorious Good News indeed!! Yes, there is good news to be found in the teaching of the church, and there is essential teaching to be found in the good news about the gift of God's Son for our salvation. Gospel and Doctrine are indeed distinct in many ways, but each partakes of the other at various points.

In my view, the underlying problem of this whole gospel-doctrine debate is NOT that anyone is denying the place of either doctrine, which guides the church, or the preaching of the gospel to the lost, but rather the fear of some that doctrine will be excluded altogether simply to preach Jesus only, and the concern of others that Jesus will be pushed aside in favor of promoting legal exactness with respect to the doctrines, genuine and perceived, of the church. The former group feels this opens the door to an indiscriminate embracing of anybody and everybody regardless of belief. The latter group feels that genuine saints are being excluded because of lack of agreement with what is purported to be doctrine. With regard to the latter, much is currently promoted as "doctrine" that is little more than the prejudices, traditions and personal preferences of various parties and factions within Christendom. Thus, some say we find fellowship in agreement on "doctrines" (whatever "doctrines" are peculiar to a particular sect), rather than in our mutual devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. The former seemingly seeks a rigid uniformity, whereas the latter seems to prefer a unity in diversity. Thus, the debate is not so much over "gospel" versus "doctrine," as it is a fundamental debate over grace versus law, what constitutes "authority," and the nature and purpose of the inspired writings of both the New and Old Covenants, as well as their place in our daily walk with the Lord.

It is my prayer that the day will come when brethren, barricaded in opposing fortresses, will cease firing upon one another, leave their camps, and meet together to dialogue with each other, with mutual love and respect, about their perceived differences. The family of God has been dysfunctional long enough; it is time for squabbling siblings to grow up and begin behaving as mature sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. We must lay aside our pride, and our party preferences, and join hands in sweet fellowship at the cross of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Lord, hasten that day when your Son's prayer in John 17 is finally realized among Your children!!

Reflections from Readers

From a Doctor in Kentucky:

Great response with this entire article. Not to "bash" the Baptists (I have done enough of that in my former legalistic days), but I had a Baptist Pastor in my examining chair the other day. On the history form, there is a place for the patient to fill in their occupation. Many times, I will get "preacher, evangelist, minister, pastor," etc. written in this spot. This particular patient had written "pastor," I believe. So, I asked where he pastored and he told me. We had small talk about this for a couple of minutes. At the end, he handed me a tract from his church. On the back side, it has the "steps to salvation" listed. After repenting and confessing, it stated "Seek the Lord's Will in finding an Independent Baptist Church." I was stunned at the legalism involved here. See, it is the "Lord's Will" to find an Independent Baptist Church -- not Southern Baptist, not Primitive Baptist, etc. -- it had to be Independent Baptist. As I glanced through the other pages in the tract, I found many other legalisms as well. For example, this particular pastor was also a member of a church that held a very legalistic position on the 1611 King James Bible. Apparently, it was the ONLY authorized version one could use. Again, I say this not as a "bash" against the Baptists. This just demonstrates that sectarianism is alive and well in many groups.

From a Reader in Texas:

Ben Vick and Johnny Waddey's comments are indicative of the sectarian spirit within our restoration heritage. That kind of arrogance and attack on any who happen to have a different understanding of Scripture, and their complete lack of regard for the "Scripture of Jesus' day," is unloving, and it shows them not to be a disciple according to John 13:34-35. John and I have been in correspondence over his attack on so-called "change agents." There comes a time when Jesus' instruction to not throw your pearls before swine must be heeded, and I am about there. Keep on keeping on, my brother. You do well.

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