The band Switchfoot has, throughout their career, shown a great deal of attention in dealing with questions of the worldview of Christianity, in a philosophical sort of way, that has often resonated with a wide audience that includes plenty of people who are not professed Christians. Their fifth album, which featured the minor hit “Stars” as well as notable songs like “Lonely Nation,” “Happy Is A Yuppy Word,” and “We Are One tonight,” was called “Nothing Is Sound.” The point of this album, at least insofar as it deals with the band’s interest in philosophy, is that as far as humanity goes, nothing apart from God is sound at all. There is always a question when we discuss matters of soundness, and the subject was brought to my mind tonight because one of our local elders in our congregation happened to discuss the topic in a Bible study that admittedly left me a bit puzzled and mystified.
In one sense, the message the elder gave was entirely predictable. If, without any knowledge of the speaker or contents of the message, you could predict a message given what others have said before on the same subject of what is sound doctrine, it is likely that you would come to a pretty close approximation of what was meant. The speaker urged humility as well as consensus and urged people to stay close to direct citation and implication from scripture and to stay away from speculation. The speaker urged people to stay close to what others say and not to engage in private interpretation of the Bible by which many are led astray, and there were statements as well that a speaker need not be a Bible scholar. All of this is well and good, but where it comes to soundness in one’s Bible understanding, it is of vital importance that one understands the Bible as well as possible in what it actually means. This is by no means as straightforward a task as it may seem, not least because the Bible has a wide variety of layers, not all of which are equally obvious to all people who read and expound upon the Bible.
To take an example not at random, if we take the expression ‘sound doctrine,’ we can find that it is used four times in the Bible, all of which appear in the pastoral epistles of Paul. It is worthwhile to quote the immediate context of all four times this expression occurs, first in 1 Timothy 1:8-11: “But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.” The expression next appears in 1 Timothy 4:1-5: “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
Continuing on, the expression appears twice in the book of Titus. We find it, for example, in Titus 1:5-9: “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” Finally, we find the expression at the beginning of the passage in Titus 2:1-10: “But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine: that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience; the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things— that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed. Likewise, exhort the young men to be sober-minded, in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you. Exhort bondservants to be obedient to their own masters, to be well pleasing in all things, not answering back, not pilfering, but showing all good fidelity, that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.”
One the one hand, given the context of all of these uses of the expression in books of the Bible that are expressly written as guidance to preachers, it is entirely unsurprising that ministers would be so interested in talking about sound doctrine. This is especially true since the ability to exhort and convict those who contradict by sound doctrine is specifically part of the qualifications for someone who is an elder within God’s church. In general, though, something quite striking appears when we look at the context of sound doctrine as it appears in the scriptures, and that is the relationship that the expression has with godly practice. Biblically speaking, healthy teaching is closely related to godly practice. We have noted this before when it comes to discussions on the “doctrine” of love , where godly love is a behavior that has to be practiced towards everyone, including our enemies, not something that comes easily by our corrupt human nature but which requires the active assistance of God and Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit for us to be able to do with any frequency. Similarly, sound doctrine prevents us from having itching ears to seek after fables that would justify our ungodly and corrupt behavior, and encourages us to live behavior that serves the glory of God by giving His name a good reputation in a world that is quick to sniff out and condemn hypocrisy. One of the ways we know godly teaching is that it leads to godly conduct, just as unsound teaching leads to and serves to justify ungodly and wicked behavior. While there is, lamentably, frequently a great gulf between our knowledge and our practice as human beings, with God that which is sound in teaching and that which is sound in practice are closely and explicitly connected.
All of this ought to remind us, if such a reminder is necessary, that the element of our teaching that is most frequently defective is not so much that which we proclaim but that which we practice. If it is indeed of vital importance that our teaching and preaching come with humility, this fact needs to be understood most of all by someone who is preaching the necessity of humility, because it is easy to state that one should be humble and it is hard for someone who believes that they understand and practice everything well enough to be an authority on the subject to be humble. Moreover, it is not always easy for us to recognize when other people are being humble or not. We may judge someone as proud and arrogant merely because they express views with confidence. Similarly, we may in fact be humble and modest in our behavior but other people may be insecure of us and may judge us as being arrogant and proud. It is of the utmost importance, to ensure the integrity of our teaching and our own place in God’s judgment, that we do not bring shame and dishonor upon the reputation of God because our practice does not match our teaching, and because we lack self-awareness and a proper attitude of repentance where we struggle and fall short of the example of Jesus Christ in our own lives, especially to the extent that we are powerful and important people within any institution. Let our deeds be a more eloquent sermon about sound teaching than we can speak with our lips.
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