The Bible’s Viewpoint
Does It Matter What You Believe?
“MAN PREFERS TO BELIEVE WHAT HE PREFERS TO BE TRUE.”—FRANCIS BACON, 1561-1626, ENGLISH ESSAYIST AND STATESMAN.
WHEN it comes to religious doctrines, many people feel that as long as one sincerely believes that ‘there’s Someone up there’ and loves his fellowman, it does not really matter what else one believes. Some may look at the conflicting notions that religious groups advocate regarding God, his purpose, and how to worship him and conclude that the differences are merely superficial, like different styles of clothing worn by the same man. They may even feel that those who make a big issue of such differences have entirely missed the spirit of true Christianity.
The Scriptures acknowledge that not all discussions of religious teachings are worthwhile. For example, in his inspired letters to Timothy, the apostle Paul referred to men who fomented “violent disputes about trifles.” Paul described them as “mentally diseased over questionings and debates about words.” (1 Timothy 6:4, 5) He instructed Timothy to “turn down foolish and ignorant questionings, knowing they produce fights,” and to instruct the congregations “not to fight about words, a thing of no usefulness at all.” (2 Timothy 2:14, 23) Much religious debate in our time has fit this description and has proved to be a pointless waste of time.
Does that mean, though, that all discussions of religious beliefs are pointless? Well, we would not give up wearing clothing altogether simply because some clothes are unfit to be worn, would we? So why give up as unimportant the entire subject of religious beliefs just because some doctrinal questions are unworthy of consideration? The context of Paul’s words quoted above shows that he considered the matter of doctrines to be one of vital concern. He repeatedly warned that false teachings could result in one’s being led away from the faith, and he instructed Timothy to “command certain ones not to teach different doctrine.” (1 Timothy 1:3-7; 4:1; 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:14-18, 23-26; 4:3, 4) Certainly, he would not have made such emphatic statements unless it was important what those first-century Christians believed.
Why, then, the counsel to turn down questions on doctrine? It was because in Paul’s day certain men—described by him as “corrupted in mind and despoiled of the truth”—were raising doctrinal issues solely with the intent of subverting the faith of others. (1 Timothy 6:5) It was only with respect to the questions raised by those corrupt men that Paul advised Timothy to avoid discussions about religious beliefs.
Do Beliefs Affect Conduct?
Some might question, though, whether our religious beliefs have much effect on the kind of people we become—our personal qualities and conduct. They may view beliefs and conduct as two separate and unrelated items, like a jacket and slacks that can be mixed or matched according to the wearer’s preference. In the Bible, however, beliefs and conduct are more like a suit that comes only as a matched set.
The Bible reveals a direct connection between what we believe and what kind of persons we become. The self-righteous Pharisees of Jesus’ day were an example of misguided beliefs affecting conduct. (Matthew 23:1-33; Luke 18:9-14) On the other hand, Colossians 3:10 admonishes: “Clothe yourselves with the new personality, which through accurate knowledge is being made new according to the image of the One who created it.” Notice that the power to lead a godly life is linked to having an accurate knowledge of God.
The Greek term translated “accurate knowledge,” which appears 20 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures, refers to exact, accurate, or full knowledge. Greek scholar Nathanael Culverwel describes it as becoming “better acquainted with a thing I knew before; a more exact viewing of an object that I saw before afar off.” Thus in the way a jeweler examines a precious gem in order to appraise its qualities and value, a Christian must examine God’s Word in order to come to an exact, accurate, and full knowledge of the God he serves. This includes coming to know God’s personality, his purposes, his standards, and all the teachings that make up “the pattern of healthful words”—a far cry from merely believing that ‘there’s Someone up there.’—2 Timothy 1:13.
An example of the kind of fruitage that results when one knows God only from afar is recorded in the first chapter of the inspired letter to the Romans. There, reference is made to certain men who, “although they knew God, . . . did not approve of holding God in accurate knowledge.” The consequences of their erroneous beliefs are related by the apostle Paul: “God gave them up to a disapproved mental state, to do the things not fitting, filled as they were with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, badness, being full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malicious disposition, being whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, insolent, haughty, self-assuming, inventors of injurious things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, false to agreements, having no natural affection, merciless.”—Romans 1:21, 28-31.
Unquestionably, the beliefs held by those men directly affected their ability to lead Christian lives. Likewise today, beliefs and conduct can be compared to a seamless garment, inseparably woven together. It is, therefore, essential that all desiring to gain God’s favor make sure their religious beliefs are genuinely true, soundly based on God’s Word. For “[God’s] will is that all sorts of men should be saved and come to an accurate knowledge of truth.”—1 Timothy 2:4.
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The Pharisee’s self-righteousness reflected his beliefs