The “Unity Movements” Distinction between “Gospel” and “Doctrine”

By Mike Willis

In order to justify the unity in diversity which they advocate, Ketcherside and his comrades, whom he considers to be the only free thinkers in the brotherhood, have contended that a distinction exists between “gospel” and “doctrine.” Everyone must believe the same facts about the gospel but a unity in diversity can be scripturally maintained relative to doctrinal beliefs, according to Ketcherside. Here are a few quotations from his mighty pen to demonstrate that he actually holds the position attributed to him:

AFew other errors have worked the mischief that has resulted from confusing the faith with the letters of instruction, admonition and exhortation to the people of God who had embraced the one faith. It was that which made them the people of God. Because of this error there has grown up that curious postulate which makes a specific degree of knowledge of doctrinal deductions essential for acceptance into ‘the fellowship.’ All sorts of creeds, both written and un-written, have thus been devised, and are now expounded as if creed-making was the will of God for preachers and elders…. The gospel consists of seven facts about a person. Those facts are the life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, coronation and glorification of Jesus…. The gospel is not the collation of apostolic writings forming the new covenant scriptures. The gospel is the glad news about a person, while the apostolic letters are composed of commendations, exhortations, warnings and criticism, sent to those who have accepted that person as Lord” (Carl Ketcherside, Mission Messenger, Vol. 36, No. 5, pp. 130, 132).

“Preaching the gospel is for the world. Its design is to call men out, to enroll them in the school of Christ. The apostolic doctrine is for the saints” (Ibid., Vol. 36, No. S, p. 71).

“The gospel is to be announced, proclaimed or heralded to the world. It is to be preached in all the world and to every creature. It is the euaggelion, the evangel, designed for the lost, and its purpose is to announce that divine love became effective and the Word which was with God and was God became incarnate, and through Him we have become reconciled to the Father. This message is not for the saved. You cannot evangelize saved persons. The new covenant scriptures know nothing of preaching the gospel’ to the saints of God. Such an expression would have seemed ridiculous and unintelligible to the apostles…. The gospel is the seed, the sperm, by which we are begotten. The doctrine is the bread upon which the children feed. and by which they grow. . . . It is easily demonstrated that not one apostolic letter is a part of the gospel of Christ. Every such letter was written to those who heard, believed and accepted the gospel…. As long as preachers mistakenly assume that the gospel embraces the entire new covenant scriptures they will brand as unbelievers those who truly believe in Jesus but may be mistaken about some point of interpretation in one of the epistles” (Ibid.. Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 19-21).

A person does not have to be a genius to see the kinship between what Brother Ketcherside has written and what Edward Fudge has written. This quotation should demonstrate that kinship:

AAny error which denies this gospel’ condemns, because it denies that which saves. . . . There is another sort of apostolic teaching, designed fora different purpose. Most of the epistles come here. This teaching does not give life; it sustains it. It is not to tell men how to be saved but how to live after they are saved and urge them to stay saved…. (2) We should learn to make a Biblical distinction between teaching necessary for salvation in the first place and teaching designed to aid our growth in Christ. Otherwise we will be condemning each other for spiritual immaturity or unwillful ignorance – a thing never done by New Testament writers” (Edward Fudge; “Truth, Error, and The Grace of God,” Reprint of Articles, pp. 9, 4).

The gospel-doctrine distinction held in the unity-in-diversity position is not new; its application is new but the supposed distinction is not. Ketcherside and Leroy Garrett both taught that a distinction existed in gospel and doctrine when they took the anti-located preacher position. The gospel, they said, could not be preached to the church by an evangelist. Here are some quotations taken from their debates so that you can compare the quotations given above with the ones given here:

ANow, the idea of preaching the gospel to the church, is one that is not held forth in the New Testament scriptures… My friends, there is a great difference between preaching and teaching. Our brother has repeatedly spoken about preaching to the church. I want you to know that you cannot preach the gospel to the church and here is a good place for us to center this discussion. Let my good brother Wallace put his finger on that passage in the New Testament scriptures where it indicates that anyone ever preached a, gospel sermon to the church. . . .” (Carl Ketcherside, Wallace – Ketcherside Debate, pp. 21-22 from the Paragould debate). “Now note, in, all 122 times’ there is not one instance, unless these two that have been introduced are possible exceptions, there is not one instance where the gospel was ever preached to, a church!” (Leroy Garrett, Humble – Garrett Debate, p. 25).

The gospel-doctrine argument, if true, is a very handy argument. It will prove anything, apparently. It was used to prove that the church should divide over the located preacher issue and now it is used to prove that the church should have unity regardless of what issues are at stake. The argument sounds a little like this: To prove position “X” (any position), use the gospel-doctrine distinction. I make these harsh charges because no two positions are more diametrically opposed than Ketcherside’s former and latter positions, yet the same argument supposedly proves both positions. If for no other reason than that, I would be suspicious of the argument. But, now let us examine the argument.

If It Were True

If Brother Ketcherside’s distinction between gospel and doctrine were true, some objective criterion would be needed by which one could distinguish what is gospel and what is doctrine. No one has yet methodically distinguished the two. Is what Jesus said regarding marriage and divorce which is recorded in the gospels to be considered gospel or doctrine? Is what John said about the humanity of Jesus in the doctrinal section, the epistles, to be considered gospel or doctrine? No one has told us how to distinguish gospel and doctrine. Everyone who makes the gospel-doctrine distinction with whom I have talked or after whom I have read always uses a purely subjective basis of distinguishing the two. If I seem a little reluctant to accept the gospel-doctrine distinction, the reason might be that all of the pet doctrines of those with whom I talk always fall under “gospel” but all of what they call my “pet doctrines” always fall under “doctrine.” Those who are going to take the position that a distinction exists between gospel and doctrine should establish some objective means of distinguishing the two.

Secondly, if we admitted that a distinction between gospel and doctrine actually existed and that an objective criterion for distinguishing the two had been found, the conclusion that one should not divide over “doctrine” still would not necessarily follow. If we assume that “the gospel consists of seven facts about a person” (the life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, coronation and glorification of Jesus), as Brother Ketcherside maintains, then every commandment found in the New Testament relative to withdrawing fellowship must fall under the heading of “doctrine.” That would include matters such as the way one treated his brother (Mt. 18:15-17), immorality (1 Cor. 5; 1 Tim. 1:8-11), heresy (2 Jn. 9:11; Tit. 3:10-11), etc. To say that one can be disfellowshipped for errors relative to the gospel but not for errors relative to the doctrine would be tantamount to saying that a person could be disfellowshipped for denying the resurrection but could not be disfellowshipped for forsaking the assembly, refusing to partake of the Lord’s- Supper or refusing to give. (Ketcherside’s position that fellowship can be broken for moral turpitude contradicts his position that a distinction exists between gospel and doctrine and that unity cannot be broken over doctrinal matters.) Two of the seven churches of Asia were condemned for tolerating the very kind of doctrinal errors which Ketcherside says must be tolerated. Apparently, John did not believe in Ketcherside’s unity in diversity (see Rev. 2:14-15, 20-24).

Thirdly, since fellowship cannot be broken over matters of doctrine, anything which the New Testament labels as doctrine (didache) must be a matter over which the church cannot divide. Here are some things labeled doctrine in the Scriptures, false views concerning which must be tolerated if the gospel-doctrine distinction is true:

(a) False views about Jesus (2 Jn. 9-11). (For the sake of argument, I here am granting that “doctrine of Christ” means “doctrine about Christ.”) Notice that the discussion regarding the humanity of Jesus is called “doctrine.” Our unity-in-diversity brethren do not object to using this passage regarding the humanity of Jesus against those who deny the deity of Jesus. Since this falls under the category of “doctrine” and we should have unity-in-diversity regarding doctrinal matters, the logical conclusion is that we could fellowship Jews, modernists, and atheists-those who have diverse views about Jesus.

(b) False views concerning the resurrection of the dead (Mt. 22:33). The context of Mt. 22-33 indicates that Jesus was discussing the resurrection of the dead. Since the scriptural position regarding the resurrection is there called “doctrine,” could we have fellowship, a unity-in-diversity, with those who deny the resurrection of the dead.

(c) False views concerning what one must do to be saved (Rom. 6:17-18; Acts 13:12;17:19). That which Paul preached to unbelievers and which freed one from sin is called “doctrine.” Therefore, one must maintain that one can have a unity-in-diversity regarding what one must do to be saved. Can a person scripturally fellowship all denominations which teach unscriptural plans of salvation? (Perhaps this explains some of Ketcherside’s recent comments concerning Baptist baptism.)

(d) False views regarding any part of Jesus teaching. The word “doctrine” (didache) is used generically to describe the sum total of the teaching of Jesus and the inspired apostles (Acts 2:42; 5:28; Rom. 16:17; Tit. 1:9; Mk. 1:22, 27; Jn. 7:16-17; 18:19). Therefore, any false doctrine regarding any subject concerning which Jesus taught can and must be tolerated, if the distinction between gospel and doctrine is true and if one must practice a unity-in-diversity in doctrinal matters. Hence, we have arrived at universalism.

Fourthly, since the idea that we can have unity in diversity would fall under “doctrine” and not under “gospel,” why can we not have unity-in-diversity regarding the unity-in-diversity position? Ketcherside condemns magazines such as Truth Magazine for agitating “doctrinal” issues (issues such as the sponsoring church, church support of human institutions, etc.) but Mission Messenger is likewise agitating a “doctrinal” issue (unity) concerning which we can, according to his reasonings have a unity-in-diversity. If I believe that unity can be maintained by doctrinal conformity and he believes that we must have a unity-in-diversity in doctrinal matters, our disagreement is a doctrinal disagreement concerning which we can have a unityin-diversity. What justification can be found for magazines such as Mission Messenger, Restoration Review, Integrity, and Fellowship agitating this doctrinal issue? Our conclusion under this section must be that if Brother Ketcherside’s gospel-doctrine distinction were true, he, of all men, is most inconsistent because he is trying to agitate a doctrinal issue when he believes that we can have a unity-in-diversity on doctrinal issues; he is trying to get doctrinal conformity on the doctrine that says we can have a unity-in-diversity in doctrinal matters.

The Bible and Gospel and Doctrine

Let us now examine what the Bible says about the “gospel” and the “doctrine.” Didache, the Greek word which is translated “doctrine,” is defined as follows:

1. teaching; viz. that which is taught … one’s doctrine, i.e. what he teaches: . . . doctrine, teaching. concerning something…. 2. (the act of) teaching, instruction. . . . ” (Thayer, pp. 144-145).

“Among the Gks. this is used in the sense of >teaching,’ ‘instruction’ . . . with a strong tendency to restrict it to the fact, so that didaskein or didaskesthai can normally be used as an alternative…. In the LXX. . . . didache is thus syn. with the Rabbinic talmud, which signifies ‘teaching’ in the sense that it might denote according to context either >teaching’ of ‘being taught’. . . . The New Testament follows this usage fairly closely” (Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. 2, pp. 163-164).

Euangelion, the Greek word which is translated “gospel,” is defined as follows:

“1. a reward for good tidings … 2. good tidings…. In the N.T. spec: a. the glad tidings of the kingdom of God soon to be set up, and subsequently also of Jesus, the Messiah, the founder of this kingdom. . . . After the death of Christ the term to euangelion comprises also the preaching of (concerning) Jesus Christ as having suffered death on the cross to procure eternal salvation for men in the kingdom of God, but as restored to life and exalted to the right hand of God in heaven, then to return in majesty to consummate the kingdom of God; so that it maybe more briefly defined as the glad tidings of salvation through Christ; the proclamation of the grace of God manifested and pledged in Christ; the gospel” (Thayer, p. 257).

Kittle gave the derivation of the thought of euangelion from “besrah” (Heb.) to demonstrate that the primary connotation of the word is “the good news of victory.” When used in the New Testament, the fact that Jesus died for our sins makes the preaching of Jesus a message which is especially one which might be described as “the good news of victory” (Vol. 2, pp. 721-735).

From these definitions, let us draw some conclusions. (a) The basic idea connoted by didache is “to teach;” the basic thought connoted by euangelion is “the good news of victory.” (b) The content of the message cannot be learned from the words themselves. The didache could as easily be that of Balaam as that of Christ; the euangelion could as easily be that of victory over the Persians as victory over sin and death, (c) The content of the message is not necessarily different when both didache and euangelion are used; that which is taught can be the good news. Obviously, this is the case in the New Testament; that which is taught is the good news of Christ’s victory over sin and death.

If our conclusions are true, then the following should be, and are found in the New Testament:

(a) The gospel being preached to both saints (Rom. 1:7, 15-16) and aliens (Mk. 16:15-16), the assertions of Ketcherside notwithstanding.

(b) The doctrine being preached to both aliens (Rom. 6:17-18; Acts 5:28; 13:5,7,8,10,12; 17:19) and Christians (1 Cor. 4:17; Col. 3:17; 2 Tim. 4:2; Acts 2:42).

(c) Things which are called the gospel also referred to as doctrine. That which has freed us from sin is called both doctrine (Rom. 6-17-18) and gospel (1 Cor. 15-1-4; Rom. 1:16). That which leads to Christian maturity is called both doctrine (Mt. 28-20; Acts 2-42) and gospel (Gal. 2-14, Eph. 6-15; 1 Tim. 1-10-11).

(d) The “word of truth,” which is identified as the gospel (Col. 1-5; Eph. 1-13), should be applicable to both saints and sinners. In keeping with this, the “truth” is that which frees one from sin On. 8-32; Jas. 1-18) and anyone who does not obey it is lost (Rom. 2-8; cf. 2 Thess. 1:8); it also is that which produces sanctification (Jn. 17-17-19). Thus, one must not only obey the truth, he must also walk in it to keep from being lost (Jas. 5:19; Gal. 2-5,14; 3-1; 5:7).


No one of us would deny that there is a distinction between becoming a Christian and maturing as a Christian. However, what has not been proven, and which must be proven in order for the system refuted in this article to stand, is that the only ground for fellowship is the new birth. The person who says that must say (1) either that once a person has experienced the new birth, he is always in the fellowship of the saints (once saved, always saved) (2) or he must classify sins, as the Catholics did, into classes of “mortal sins” and “venial sins” (without spelling it out; this is what Ketcherside has done when he says fellowship can be broken for moral turpitude but not for heresy).

Undoubtedly, a person must not know every apostolic commandment in order to become a Christian. Therefore, there are some things which are taught before baptism and some things which are taught after baptism (Mt. 28:20). However, to maintain that (1) the former are exclusively called “gospel” and the latter are exclusively called “doctrine”and (2) one can break the fellowship of the saints only over differences pertaining to the “gospel” are false positions nowhere justifiable in the Scriptures.

And Remember!!

Let us never forget why Ketcherside and those who believe as he does are maintaining now that a distinction exists between gospel and doctrine: they are trying to find some scriptural justification for establishing fellowship with those who use mechanical instruments of music in the worship, practice unscriptural church organization in the form of the sponsoring church, support human institutions, and believe in premillennialism. Before a person swallows the bait, he had better look out for the hook or he will end up in the frying pan!

Truth Magazine, XVIII:50, p. 10-13
October 24, 1974