In my previous role as an editor at Christianity Today, I had the opportunity to engage many Christian leaders and to see “behind the curtain” of numerous ministries. Often I came away from these encounters deeply encouraged and grateful. Sometimes I did not. Occasionally, my time with a prominent pastor would leave me utterly confused. Why do thousands of people follow this guy? I’d ask myself. He’s a monster.
When I asked the fans of these malignant ministers why they follow them, I would often hear the same defense—“He teaches the truth.” In a culture swimming in false doctrine and harmful lies, some Christians have come to believe sound theology (often delivered with bombast) is the only real mark of godly leadership. Therefore, a minister may be full of pride, greed, or anger and their ministry may be marked by hubris, division, and contempt for outsiders, but all of this is excused because he or she is teaching the “truth.”
Of course, doctrine is important, and we should be wary of leaders who deviate from the teachings of Jesus. The Apostle Paul told Timothy, a young pastor, to “keep close watch” of his doctrine, but Paul didn’t stop there. He also told Timothy to watch his life and to set a good example for others with his speech, behavior, love, faith, and purity (1 Timothy 4:12). Paul was concerned about a leader’s character not merely their communication of doctrine.
It is telling that when Paul cites the evidence that a person is living in deep communion with God, what he calls “the fruit of the Spirit,” truth is noticeably absent from this list. Instead, he identifies qualities of character—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
The Apostle James goes even further by mocking those who pride themselves for having good doctrine but lack godly character by arguing that even demons—who are God’s enemies—believe the truth. Like Paul, James turns to emphasize the importance of love, kindness, and compassion as evidence of belonging to Christ.
Good doctrine matters insofar as it facilitates our communion with God which overflows into love for others. But when good doctrine is disconnected from love, it makes us into devils, not disciples.