Levels of Authority of Doctrines
teaching is from chapter 5
of Purpose by Malcolm Webber,
To have a proper balance, we must recognize that our doctrines
have various levels of authority.
Jesus said there are certain doctrinal
matters that are "more important" than others:
have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness
By implication, this means there are some
doctrinal matters that are "less important." We must realize that our
doctrines have varying degrees of significance and of authority. They are not
all equally important (although, of course, nothing in the Bible is unimportant).
Vital doctrines such as the deity of Christ, the substitutionary blood
atonement, Jesus' virgin birth and bodily resurrection, justification by faith
alone, the inerrancy of Scripture, the triunity of the Godhead, etc., that are
clearly taught in the Scripture must never be compromised. These are the doctrines
for which you should be prepared to die and which you should defend even if it
means causing division in the local church.
However, issues such as the
exact method of water baptism and the timing of the rapture should not be the
causes of church divisions. You should be prepared to die for the deity of Christ,
but not for someone's speculation regarding the meaning of Paul's head covering
in 1 Corinthians 11!1 You should
not divide churches over disagreements about the historical identity of the king
called "Darius the Mede" in the Old Testament book of Daniel!
following graphic shows the relationship between a particular doctrine's importance
and clarity and its subsequent authority.
the importance and clarity of the doctrine increases, its authority increases.
However, if a doctrine is relatively less important or clear, then its authority
There are five levels of authority of doctrines2:
1. Direct statements in Scripture. To the extent that our doctrines are built
on direct statements and not on interpretations of Scripture, they have the highest
level of authority. They are the direct, clear Word of God. There is no element
of human interpretation involved. For example, the fact that Jesus is God is directly
stated many times in the Bible:
In the beginning was the
Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1; cf. 20:28; Is.
9:6; Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1; Heb. 1:8-9; etc.)
1" doctrines that are built simply on direct statements of Scripture are
doctrines for which we can, and should, be willing to die. These are the doctrines
we need to believe to be saved. If we disagree with these doctrines, we are not
Other examples of direct statements are Jesus' genuine humanity (1
Tim. 2:5), His substitutionary blood atonement (Is. 53), His bodily resurrection
(Luke 24:39), and justification by faith alone (Rom. 3:28).
Level 2. Direct
implications of Scripture. These are "close interpretations" from the
Scripture. They are interpretations, as opposed to direct statements, but they
are very "close" interpretations, as opposed to "distant."
Consequently, they are not quite as authoritative as direct statements, because
there is an additional small step of interpretation involved. These doctrines,
however, still carry a high level of authority and should be taken very seriously.
An example of this kind of doctrine is the triune nature of God. There is no verse
that explicitly says, "God is three in one," yet there is much scriptural
evidence for this truth.
Level 3. Probable implications of Scripture. There
is a much greater degree of interpretation involved in the formulation of these
doctrines. The authority of these doctrines increases as the number of Scriptures
used to support them increases (as long as those Scriptures are interpreted with
accuracy and integrity). An example of such a doctrine would be the relationship
of divine sovereignty to human responsibility. While many would argue this doctrine
to be fairly clear from a study of the entire Bible, this is probably not a doctrine
for which you should die. Another example of this level of doctrine is the method
of water baptism that one uses. We all should believe, teach and practice our
differing convictions on this matter, but we should still be able to work together
as believers as long as we agree on Level 1 and 2 doctrines.
Level 4. Inductive
conclusions from Scripture. This is when we look at what the whole Bible says
about something, seeking to understand it in the context of history and culture,
trying to understand what the author originally intended by his words to those
people in that place at that time, and prayerfully considering how to apply it
to our lives now. There is quite a lot of interpretation entailed in these conclusions,
and the more interpretation involved, the less authoritative the doctrine becomes.
This doesn't automatically mean that such a doctrine is wrong, but it does mean
that we shouldn't burn someone at the stake simply because he disagrees with it!
4" issues are addressed in the Scriptures in some form or another, but there
is a high level of interpretation involved in these doctrines. Some examples are:
one's particular view concerning the rapture, the correct mode of women's dress,
the precise function of deacons, the role of women in the church, the meaning
of the head-covering in 1 Corinthians 11, etc.
Many of our hallowed church
traditions are actually "Level 4" doctrines. To some believers these
doctrines are absolutely clear. However, in reality, they are not so clear. Problems
arise when believers become dogmatic over "Level 4" doctrines, and many
churches have been divided or destroyed over such issues.
Level 5. Speculations
from Scripture. These doctrines are derived from a single statement or hint in
the Scripture. Frequently they come from an obscure or unclear part of the Bible.
They may also involve "spiritualization" of the Scriptures. These are
theories; in fact, they are often guesses. In spite of the fact that doctrines
of this nature frequently become very big issues in churches, nevertheless, in
reality they possess little authority.
Here are some examples of these
Some say the distance of 2000 cubits between the
Ark and the people in Joshua 3:4 represents the 2000 year period between Jesus'
resurrection and that of His people at His return. Of course, this is pure spiritualization
and speculation. The difficulty with this interpretation is further compounded
by the fact that some Hebrew texts (along with modern translations) say 1000 cubits!
Some teach that Gideon's Army in Judges 7 is a prophetic type of God's "end-time
army" that consists of an elite group of believers. One cult in China has
developed a large following with this teaching, and the leader claims to be Christ
Others combine Peter's assertion that "with
the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day"
(2 Pet. 3:8) with the six days of creation to suggest that there will be a total
of only 6000 years of human history, before Christ returns to institute the Millennium
- the "seventh day" of rest on the earth. This idea is nowhere found
in the Scripture and is contradicted by the genealogies of Genesis,3
which indicate a period of time somewhat longer than this, and also by the Early
Church's belief that Christ would return in their generation (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:17).
The "Gap theory" that says there was a "gap" between verses
1 and 2 of Genesis 1, during which time God created and then destroyed a "pre-Adamic
race," is another speculation that is nowhere taught in the Scriptures.
Certain groups handle deadly snakes and drink poison as part of their worship
times in "obedience" to Mark 16:18!
of the Antichrist.
The meaning of the "baptism for the
dead" in 1 Corinthians 15:29.
This is where things can get dangerous.
It becomes a very serious problem when speculations are presented as possessing
the same degree of authority as "Level 1" direct statements of Scripture.
Due to a lack of theological training, many church leaders and Christians do not
have a balanced view of the degrees of doctrinal authority, but they have a "flat"
theology in which everything they believe is considered to possess the same absolute
authority. In such churches, aberrant speculations are believed and held to as
zealously as direct statements of Scriptures, and sometimes even more so.
in some churches, "Level 5" speculations are stated and pursued as pure
and absolute revelations from God, whereas foundational "Level 1" doctrines
are disregarded as unimportant ("that's just 'doctrine,' and 'doctrine' is
not so important!"). Of course, the opposite is the truth: foundational doctrines
are important, speculations are not.
Obviously, you should not give your
life for someone's speculation. Unfortunately, however, in small, "cultic"
churches, many believers have done just that.
We need to know the Word of
God, and we need to know it in a balanced manner:
As I urged
you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command
certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to
myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God's work
- which is by faith. (1 Tim. 1:3-4)
In essence, Paul says
to avoid speculation and focus on sound doctrine that is solidly based on the
Scriptures. Stop worrying about peripheral issues and get into the
into matters that count, matters that will build you up and help you fulfill God's
He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as
it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute
those who oppose it. For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers,
especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they
are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach - and
that for the sake of dishonest gain. (Tit. 1:9-11)
although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt
I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted
to the saints. (Jude 3)
Jude says to contend for "the
faith." He is speaking of foundational doctrine. We should not contend for
someone's theory, however attractive it may seem.
For us to discern and
fulfill the purpose of God for our lives, we need to know the Word, and to know
the Word in a balanced way. We need to know the difference between a direct authoritative
statement of Scripture on the one end of the scale, and a speculation from human
reasoning on the other end. We need to rightly divide the Word of Truth (2 Tim.
People waste years and sometimes their whole lives, never coming
close to their purpose in God, because they get caught up in their own or someone
else's religious speculations. This frequently happens in churches.
when a believer has a "flat" theology and he embraces all doctrines
as "Level 1" for which he should die, then he will be in trouble when
someone points out the error of one of his (in reality Level 5) beliefs. This
will frequently happen because Level 5 doctrines do not have scriptural integrity
and can be disproved easily. Since everything he believes forms the bedrock foundation
of his Christian life - instead of only the top level beliefs forming his foundation
- he will suffer a spiritual crisis and will not know what to believe anymore.
His entire belief system will unravel. On the other hand, a believer who has a
clear understanding of the different levels of authority of what he believes will
be able to examine, adjust and occasionally reject, his lower level beliefs, while
safely holding to the doctrines that matter the most.
Concerning the many
minor issues about which Christians differ, you should:
1. Learn to distinguish
between major issues and minor ones (Matt. 23:23). Build your life on the major
2. Learn to distinguish between matters of command and matters of
freedom (Rom. 14:14, 20).
3. On debatable issues, cultivate your own convictions
4. Allow your brother the freedom to determine his own convictions
- even when they differ from yours (Rom. 14:1-2).
5. Let your liberty be
limited, when necessary, by love (Rom. 14:13 - 15:2).
6. Follow Christ as
the Model and Motivator of servanthood (Rom. 15:1-3).
7. Pursue unity among
the brethren (Rom. 15:5-7). This appeal for unity is a direct statement of Scripture!
In some of our Hispanic churches, the women sincerely believe they should wear
the head covering during public meetings. We respect that genuine conviction on
To say there are exactly "five" levels of authority is arbitrary and
has no biblical basis. The general idea of differing levels of authority of doctrines
is, however, biblical. The designation of five levels used here helps us to grasp
this valuable principle. For the sake of simplicity, it may sometimes be better
to reduce the five levels to three: Dogma (my Levels 1 & 2), Doctrine (my
Level 3), and Tradition or Speculation (my Levels 4 & 5).
The difficulty of determining the exact time periods indicated by the genealogies
in Genesis is compounded by the omission of links in them.