After the 1912 presidential election, the victorious Woodrow Wilson was approached by a Democratic Party stalwart who had worked tirelessly for Wilson’s triumph. Sensing a request for a favor, the president-elect shut the job-seeker down: “Remember that God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States. Neither you nor any other mortal or mortals could have prevented this.” Wilson may have been thinking of Romans 14:1 when lecturing the man.The problem was that the new president was beginning to confuse his own interests for God’s.
In Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder and Spiritual President, Prof. Barry Hankins argues that Wilson was among our most religious presidents. As professional and political success came his way, however, he had shed the biblical doctrines he had pledged to uphold when ordained a Ruling Elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Princeton, NJ in 1897. By the time Mr. Wilson was inaugurated president of the United States in 1913, he was running on pride. Since God ordained his presidency, Wilson reasoned, his political agenda must likewise be of divine origin.
What had happened to the boy who accepted Christ in 1873? In a nutshell, his desire to be a world-class statesman lured him away from the doctrines of grace. Yes, he always identified as a Christian, going so far as to make an audacious statement that would land him deep manure today:
“There is a mighty task before us and it welds us together. It is to make the United States a mighty Christian Nation, and to Christianize the world.”
It never happened and the former president-and Ruling Elder-died a broken and bitter man. There is also a spiritual Lesson here: knowing and remembering doctrine is not optional.
Yes, doctrine can seem like a dry and heavy subject, sometimes hard to sort out and apply. Yet often we avoid doctrine because it does not give us the thrill of an intense worship service or of a stirring testimony. Examining doctrine is like being forced to eat our spinach. Still, spinach is chock full of vitamins…and so is right doctrine.
Firstly, understanding biblical doctrine wards off the consequences of false teaching. The apostle Paul told Timothy:
“If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people ofcorrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.” (1Timothy 6: 3-5)
Secondly, doctrine teaches us about God. How can we relate to him if we know little about Him? British pastor Stephen Rees wrote in Banner of Truth:
“…if we love God, we’ll want to know all about him – about his nature, his character, his purposes, his commandments; about the work he’s doing in the world, about his work in saving people, about his plans for the future. In other words we’ll want to study ‘doctrine’.”
Finally (but not exhaustively), proclaiming God’s mercy in Jesus requires explaining. The apostle Peter reminds us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to
everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3: 15)
No, we should never elevate doctrine above the commandments to love, serve and glorify Jesus. Without sound doctrine, nevertheless, our good works can be an occasion for pride. At best they can leave the wrong impression. Consider the impression left by the Presbyterian Elder Woodrow Wilson when he addressed the Paris Peace Conference after World War I:
“Why has Jesus Christ so far not succeeded in inducing the world to follow His teachings in these matters? It is because He taught the ideal without devising any practical means of attaining it. That is the reason why I am proposing a practical scheme to carry out His aims.”
After days of hearing the roaring approval of Parisian crowds, the best of us could fall victim to this kind of conceit. Unless, that is, we hold fast to sound doctrine.