What to Look for in a Church: Sound Doctrine

iStock-1137572044What to Look for in a Church: Sound Doctrine


What you listen to and learn shapes you.

That’s why it is so important to look for a church with sound doctrine. It wouldn’t be much fun if you found a church you love only to find out that they believe a false doctrine.

But wait… let’s pause and back up. What exactly is sound doctrine?

The Britannica Dictionary defines doctrine as “a set of ideas or beliefs that are taught or believed to be true.” The adjective “sound” means “solid and strong” in this context.

In other words, a church’s doctrine is the set of beliefs they teach and believe to be true, such as Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected.

Unfortunately, there are many pastors and churches that have false doctrines (or ones that are not solid). To use the previous example, in these churches, they may preach that Jesus was an ordinary man that lived an admirable life, but they don’t believe he died and rose again. This is a false doctrine (and an especially dangerous one).

Sound doctrine should be one of the top things you are looking for in your search for a church. Let’s look at how you can examine a church to know if it’s trustworthy or not.

Proper Theology Built on Scripture

Essentially, sound doctrine is a theology that is built on scripture and what it teaches to be true.

Got Questions explains, “Biblical doctrine helps us understand the will of God for our lives. Biblical doctrine teaches us the nature and the character of God (Psalm 90:2; 97:2; John 4:24), the path of salvation through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9; Romans 10:9–10), instruction for the church (1 Corinthians 14:26; Titus 2:1–10), and God’s standard of holiness for our lives (1 Peter 1:14–17; 1 Corinthians 6:18–20). When we accept the Bible as God’s Word to us (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20–21), we have a solid foundation for our doctrine.”

Doesn’t Make God In Its Own Image

The problem is that some people tend to move away from biblical doctrine towards making their own to match their ideals.

Got Questions explains, “As early as the first century AD, false doctrine was already infiltrating the church, and many of the letters in the New Testament were written to address those errors (Galatians 1:6–9; Colossians 2:20–23; Titus 1:10–11). Paul exhorted his protégé Timothy to guard against those who were peddling heresies and confusing the flock: “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing” (1 Timothy 6:3–4).”

We see this today when churches develop a culture that fosters ideas that go against scripture, such as the idea that there are many paths to God or that hell doesn’t exist.

How to Know if the Core Elements are Sound

When it comes to doctrine, there are core elements and secondary elements.

Core elements are the ones the body of believers need to agree on for walking in truth and eternal life together, such as the exclusivity of Christ for salvation.

In contrast, secondary elements are those that we could disagree on and still be honorable brothers and sisters in the Lord, such as the appropriate positions for women in ministry.

So, how exactly can we determine if the core elements of the churches we are visiting are sound?

First, listen to the sermons carefully. Is the preacher saying what you know to be true about Jesus? Is the gospel being preached?

Second, study the Word of God yourself. You need to know the truth to identify falsehoods.

Next, ask about the church’s core beliefs. Most churches have some sort of doctrinal statement in the form of a “What We Believe” page on their website. For example, South Bay Bible Church has a webpage that explains the following:

  • What We Believe About God
  • What We Believe About Jesus Christ
  • What We Believe About the Holy Spirit
  • What We Believe About the Bible
  • What We Believe About Human Beings
  • What We Believe About Salvation (Being Saved)
  • What We Believe About the Priesthood of Believers
  • What We Believe About Eternal Security
  • What We Believe About Eternity

For each of these bullet points, we explain what we believe based on Scripture.

For instance, this is what we believe about salvation –

“Salvation is God’s free gift to us but we must accept it. We can never make up for our sin by self-improvement or good works. Only by trusting in Jesus Christ as God’s offer of forgiveness can anyone be saved from sin’s penalty. When we turn from our self-ruled life and turn to Jesus in faith we are saved. Eternal life begins the moment one receives Jesus Christ into his life by faith. (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8,9; John 14:6, 1:12; Titus 3:5;Galatians 3:26; Romans 5:1)”

Lastly, attend a new members meeting or set up a meeting with the pastor to ask more targeted questions surrounding the church’s beliefs.

Deciphering the Secondary Elements

Now let’s talk about secondary elements.

Secondary elements are those beliefs that are debatable and, most of the time, are what distinguish different denominations (Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist, etc.).

Secondary elements are not false doctrine. False doctrine is something that opposes the truth about God or salvation.

Secondary elements may include things such as beliefs about end times, spiritual gifts, baptism, the type of worship, alcohol use, communion, etc. These beliefs don’t affect your salvation, but they may affect your fit in a church.

At South Bay Bible Church, we say:

In essential beliefs – we have unity.

Ephesians 4:4-6, “There is one Body and one Spirit…there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of us all…”

In non-essential beliefs – we have liberty.

Romans 14:1, 4, 12, and 22, “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters…Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls…So then each of us will give an account of himself to God…So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”

In all our beliefs – we show charity.

1 Corinthians 13:2, “…If I hold in my mind not only all human knowledge but also the very secrets of God, and if I have the faith that can move mountains – but have no love, I amount to nothing at all.”

If you disagree with the church on secondary elements, should you attend the church?

The answer is a personal one.

To Stay or to Go…

The question comes down to whether these secondary elements are affecting how you view others and the church.

Say you visited a more traditional Baptist church and found out after growing to like the church that they believed in a biblically-mandated tithe (10% of your income)? Or what if you started to enjoy attending a more charismatic church than I’m used to, but then found out that they believe tongues is a required proof for salvation? Could you attend a church that didn’t teach a literal 7-day creation? Or a church that has beliefs about women in ministry that differ from your own?

These are examples of secondary issues. Are they worth graciously exiting to find another church? Will they cause you to look upon others in arrogance? Perhaps.

You have to decide what secondary elements are more significant for you.

With that being said, it’s important to recognize that most of us tend to make the secondary elements the primary ones. We’ve all heard those stories about churches splitting over the color of the carpet.

When you are searching for a new church, ask yourself if you are majoring on the minors. Will you be able to disagree and still be agreeable or will these secondary elements create disunity?

Watch Pastor Matt's Sermon on Sound Doctrine