Are All Doctrinal Errors Fatal?
by Todd Deaver
In my first post allow me briefly to thank Jay for initiating this discussion and inviting me to be part of it, and also Phil and Greg for their willingness to participate. I have great respect for all three of these gentlemen, and I trust that–having recently gotten acquainted over lunch–we’re all on a first-name basis here.
To begin with, I share Phil’s concern for the importance of biblical doctrine or teaching, as well as his desire to be as doctrinally accurate as possible. We do have an obligation to study the scriptures diligently and carefully (Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 2:15), and that duty must not be taken lightly. No one should imagine that doctrine is no big deal or–like a congregation I recently heard about–decide that it can be dispensed with in favor of an exclusive emphasis on love and grace (which are, in reality, doctrines themselves).
Nor do I disagree with the proposition Phil set forth: “The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that doctrinal error can lead to eternal damnation.” I believe that some doctrinal errors are, in fact, spiritually fatal. However, Phil’s elaboration and defense of this thesis seems to suggest that any and every doctrinal mistake, if not corrected, leads to the loss of salvation.
Phil, in fact, repeats the phrase “any teaching” (or its equivalent) no fewer than six times. Notice what he says. Citing Matthew 7:24-27 he writes, “Jesus does not separate one teaching from another here. Rebellion to his teaching, any teaching, is rebellion toward him” (emphasis added). In his discussion of 2 John 9-11 he explains, “the act of distorting or changing any teaching from God is abhorrent and condemned throughout Scripture (Deut. 12:32; 2 Cor. 4:2; Gal. 1:6-9). By way of the application of this principle, one must not distort any teaching of Christ. Should he do so, he risks losing his relationship with God” (emphasis added). He adds, with reference to Galatians 1:6-9,
When people think they can pervert or distort the will of God on any matter, they have become in essence ‘lawless.’ They are acting outside the will and teaching of God. Distorting God’s teaching is a crime against God; it may be presumptuous rebellion or callous indifference. In either case it shows no love for God. (emphasis added)
He continues, “Whether in matters large or small, distorting God’s Word is offensive to God and sinful. Any sinful behavior arising from distorted teaching that disturbs the brethren is sand theology (Matthew 7:24-27)” (emphasis added). And on 1 Timothy 4:13, 16, Phil notes that “Here again, the principle applies to teaching on any topic” (emphasis added). All this, as I said, seems to indicate that any departure from any biblical teaching results, if uncorrected, in condemnation.
On the other hand, Phil often uses qualifying terms that would limit condemnation to cases of willful disobedience. For example, he speaks of “rebellion,” “callous indifference,” living in “disregard” of God’s law, “lying” about God’s will, people who “think they can pervert or distort the will of God,” etc. And, knowing that Phil accepts some degree of doctrinal disagreement among faithful Christians, it seems more reasonable to take this as his meaning throughout, even in those statements where this limitation is not explicit. After all, I think we would both say that it’s possible for an honest, diligent, God-glorifying saint to draw inadvertently a wrong conclusion about, say, the state of the dead, and that this unintentional distortion of biblical teaching does not fall under the curse of Galatians 1:6-9.
If this is, in fact, Phil’s meaning, then we are in agreement: any rebellious rejection of biblical doctrine is spiritually fatal. Actually, the problem here is not really “doctrinal error” at all, since those under consideration know the correct doctrine but refuse to submit to it. The problem here is willful disobedience, persistence in which will certainly lead to the loss of salvation (Hebrews 10:26ff.).
Phil surely recognizes that the passages he referenced cannot condemn all who make doctrinal mistakes, regardless of the condition of their hearts. Otherwise, salvation is impossible without doctrinal perfection. And how many of us can claim to have achieved that?
But, since Phil’s post is ambiguous, at least to me, I ask that he clarify his position. We are agreed that any intentional violation of God’s will, persisted in, threatens a Christian’s salvation. But does all doctrinal error damn even if unintentional despite prayerful study? Or do only certain doctrinal errors damn–even if unintentional despite prayerful study?