One of my favorite set of lectures when I teach church history to seminarians deals with the first four ecumenical councils. As we work our way through the Arians and Nicaea, the Cappadocians and Constantinople, one of the points that I try to make for the students is that every heretic appeals to the Bible. In fact, much of the Christological controversy in these centuries centered on how to understand Proverbs 8.
The recognition that heresies often start from a biblical platform and basis should humble and warn us. It should humble us, even chasten us, to recognize that we might unwittingly propagate error even as we teach God’s inerrant Word. Though we labor over our sermons and lessons, wrestling with the text, trying to get it right, there is always the possibility that we might teach error in ways that lead God’s little ones astray.
But this should also warn us that what seems to be obvious or helpful biblical teaching might actually be false teaching or even heresy that would destroy us and our hearers. Especially today when so much religious teaching is packaged and consumed based on the popularity of the teacher or the size of his or her platform, we can’t simply say that it is “biblical” and leave it at that. We have to put the teaching to the test—because God’s little ones are precious to Him and must be protected (Matt. 18:6; 1 John 4:1).
So, how should we respond to error? Throughout the New Testament, the Apostles sought to fight false teaching and heresy. In fact, in nearly every letter, some false teaching or heresy is exposed and dealt with. For example, 1 Corinthians deals with teachers who denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Galatians argues against those who said that justification is by Jesus plus becoming a Jew, not faith alone in Jesus alone. In Colossians, Paul warns against a strange Jewish-mystical teaching that seemed to combine Jewish dietary laws with esoteric Greek philosophy. First John confronts many who denied that Jesus, the Son of God, came in a human body. Over and over, the church’s leaders fought against false teaching in their churches.
But the fighting spirit of the early church seems to be a long way away from the more polite, postmodern sensibility of contemporary culture. Inevitably, any courageous stand for biblical truth is rebutted with the claim that we are some teacher’s “warrior children.” Or, those who labor to defend sound doctrine are relativized with the claim that “we can’t really know” the truth after all. Or such-and-such has the Spirit upon him, which means that his biblical errors aren’t really that significant. Above all, it seems that our day is worried more about tone than truth.
This isn’t to say that in defending the faith we can or ought to forsake courtesy. One mark of our conversion is that we treat everyone, even those in error, with gentleness and courtesy (2 Tim. 2:24; Titus 3:2). Surely, we can disagree without being disagreeable. And yet, there are truths at stake, and even more than truths, there are precious individuals whom God has entrusted to us for pastoral care and oversight. Our task is to protect the flock even as we examine ourselves to ensure that our teaching and doctrine are pure (1 Tim. 4:16).
Danger In Here
Certainly, within the evangelical church there are a range of errors that require ministerial correction and rebuke. Most of these have something to do with the outworking of the gospel in the life of the believer; false teaching in this area inevitably raises questions about the nature of the gospel itself.
Perhaps the most common false teaching that goes under the guise of the gospel is moralism. Typically in evangelical churches, the basic gospel is preached and taught: sinners who trust in Jesus alone have their sins forgiven and are promised heaven. Yet from there, many of these same churches then teach their congregants that once they are saved it is up to them to “fly right and do better.” The Christian life is one of effort, and God blesses those who help themselves, work hard, keep their noses clean, tell the truth, and “live a good life.” Unwittingly, perhaps, people begin to believe that this is the gospel—an almost economic transaction where we give God our obedience and He gives us blessing: sufficient food and shelter, good marriages and well-turned-out children, good work, and occasional vacations.