In contrast to the erroneous doctrine taught by the false teachers stands the approved doctrine of the church. Paul intended the contrast to be obvious, and his description of Christian doctrine reveals three critical points of departure.
What is the difference between Christian doctrine and false doctrine? First, as Paul describes it, apostolic teaching is the sound doctrine (v. 10). This is not an allusion to consistent and compelling logic, for all competing doctrines make this claim. Sound means "health-producing," and Paul means that in the widest sense. On the one hand, the Christian faith produces new life in those who accept it. Christianity is much more than assurance of a place in heaven; it involves a thorough renovation of the person, which begins with the way one thinks about God and oneself and continues from there to affect every part of a person's life. Thus the sound doctrine produces new people who are morally and conceptually healthy, those marked by love, pure hearts and good consciences (1:5). Christian health builds relationships through service and sacrifice. Here is where today's (like yesterday's) false religions often diverge from the intent of Christian doctrine. Impressive outward expressions of piety and self-denial may have nothing to do with relationships.
Second, Christian doctrine differs from false doctrine in that it conforms to God's message of salvation, the glorious gospel (v. 11). Paul means that the message that Christ proclaimed and passed on to his apostles (1 Cor 15:1-3) is the source and "standard" of Christian doctrine. But there is also an implication of results. Correct doctrine produces genuine Christian life, beginning with repentance and forgiveness of sins, then supplying power for godly conduct. Also, this new life is a gift from God, for Paul rightly says that it is "God's" gospel. So it has been said that Christianity is not our search for God, but God's rescue of us. Correct doctrine is God's revelation, which directs us in our proper response to him. Genuine Christianity must come out of the gospel that saves. Anything else may be similar in some respects, but will lack the staying power that is available to the Christian by faith in Christ.
Third, the Christian message bears apostolic authority. This is Paul's meaning when he says of the gospel in verse 11 that it was entrusted to him. He rejects the false teachers' claim to authority. He has seen the risen Christ and has received God's special commission to carry the gospel to the Gentiles. The implication of this is that if some competing doctrine conflicts with the apostle's, its source is something other than God (Gal 1:6-9).
"Conformity to approved Scripture" and "apostolic endorsement" were the "canons" applied by the church fathers to various Christian writings as they sought to set the limits of Scripture. These tests, which Paul applies here himself, are very appropriate for us today. We can approach competing claims to authority, those made by the cults, by beginning with Scripture. Missionaries of one particular cult say that their scriptures are authoritative because they stem from God. Its elders usually insist that the Holy Spirit will "move in the heart" to confirm the veracity of their teaching. But when their doctrines do not pass the more objective test applied by the church fathers, what does it matter how one "feels" about their teaching? Such counterclaims to authority are clearly wrong.
Coming to final conclusions concerning this doctrine or that is a difficult task and one that requires the attention of the church's leaders. We have a measuring stick—Scripture—and doctrines, interpretations and whole systems must conform to this standard. The doctrine that Paul approved for Christian use must produce whole Christians, must be founded on or flow out of the gospel and must bear the apostle's seal. But a cautionary note is again in order: let us not think that every doctrinal disagreement is capable of an easy solution, or that complete agreement on every teaching in Scripture is necessary within the church. There are essential issues which need to be addressed and nonessentials in which freedom to hold diverse views must be allowed. Above all, there should be a commitment to open dialogue, particularly in those areas in which the teaching of Scripture may be interpreted in more than one way (see the discussion of heresy above).
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.