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When it comes to religious matters, there are many people with a variety of extreme opinions. Unfortunately, those opinions sometimes result in confusion concerning what the Bible really says. There are also times when an opinion can turn into “tests of fellowship,” meaning that unless you agree with some given viewpoint, you can’t be a part of the group that holds that opinion. Thus, the opinion practically evolves into a matter of doctrine. So, is there a difference between doctrine and opinion? Let’s explore this topic through the lens of Scripture.
First, let’s understand what doctrine is. In John 7:16, we read, ”Jesus answered them and said, ‘My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me.’ ” If you look up this verse in some other Bible versions, you will find it rendered as “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” (ASV, ESV, NASB) The word doctrine literally means “instruction, teaching; that which is taught.” Teaching is what guided the church in its infancy. When the church began, the Apostles led the disciples by their teaching, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” (Acts 2:42). Their teaching was authoritative because it was guided by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, and 3:4, Paul affirms that the Apostle’s teaching can be in the form of commands and traditions that must be adhered to because they have divine authority to mandate such. Therefore, doctrine pertains to things that Jesus and the Apostle taught, many of which are obligations and patterns for Christians to keep and follow (cf. Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 4:17).
Doctrine consists of the things that we must do as Christians and do not have permission to change. Doctrine can also be equated to “God’s will” because of its divine origin (Matthew 7:21-23). In Paul’s letter to Titus, he wrote, “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’ (Titus 1:9). “Sound doctrine” means that the teaching is good, solid, acceptable, grounded in Scripture, valid, and not defective. It also implies that there is doctrine that exists which is not sound. Paul is exhorting Titus to maintain and adhere to the pattern of beliefs, the principles and tenets of the faith, and the instructions and commands that were laid down by the inspired men of God who guided the church in fulfilling God’s will.
Opinion enters the picture when we have to make decisions about how to carry out the commands and traditions given to the church. While we have direct commands and examples to follow – that we can be certain are according to God’s will – how we fulfill those commands sometimes requires a judgment call on our part. Here is one example, we know that we are to partake of the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week, “In remembrance of Him” (Acts 2:42, 20:7; 1 Cor 11:17-29). However, there are no specific instructions for exactly how we are to distribute and partake of the elements pertaining to the memorial feast. Do we all gather around a table, or have the elements brought to us? Do we use one cup or multiple cups? Are we to stand, sit, or kneel? Must it happen before the sermon or after? So, you see? We have to make a few judgment calls concerning how we will fulfill the command of participating in the Lord’s Supper during worship. As a result, some congregations will decide to do it one way while others will choose another way. In every case, it is a matter of opinion of how to fulfill the command properly.
It is these types of judgment calls, which are simply one’s opinion about how to effectuate a divine command, that can turn into a matter of contention, causing division or “tests of fellowship.” Concerning these matters, Thomas Campbell said, “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.” He is right! As long as a church isn’t changing the command by adding to or taking away from it (like using musical instruments when the example is singing), then those judgment calls should never become a source of division among the body of Christ.