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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.

We need to take heed to ourselves and our teaching even as we seek to protect God’s people from errors.

Of course, this isn’t the gospel at all—it is moralism. And yet, as the sociologist Christian Smith showed us several years ago in his book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, this is the basic faith of most evangelical teenagers and, by extension, their parents and their churches. God is relatively distant from our lives, except in times of sadness or sorrow when He draws near to heal us; what He really wants from us is to be good and nice to others, and He gives the blessing of heaven to good people when they die.

At its worst, this kind of moralism can slide into a kind of soft prosperity gospel. Here the blessings aren’t merely sufficient food or shelter, relatively good marriages, and children; rather, our obedience is the pathway to fantastic material success. Those who live right are the ones driving the Cadillac Escalades with “Blessed” spelled out in bling on the back window—presumably, the blessing of driving the Cadillac was a result of God’s honoring our obedience. Those who please God are the ones who can afford the private education for their children or the most expensive summer camps. Those who are obedient Christians are the ones who live in the gated communities. This kind of quid pro quo is the very heart of moralism, which is the very heart of prosperity gospel thinking.

Another related kind of false teaching is legalism. Legalism and moralism are related to each other, but where moralism affirms its exchange with God in broad terms—morality for blessing—legalism has a very specific, though just as unbiblical, understanding of the kind of obedience that God demands and blesses. In Galatians, legalism took the guise of particular Jewish practices required to be part of the people of God: circumcision, dietary laws, and feast days. In our own day, legalism may look like very specific, extra-Scriptural ways of honoring the Lord’s Day; it may look like particular dating practices; it may look like a particular approach toward popular culture that confuses familial preference with biblical mandate. At bottom, however, legalism is a kind of moralism that suggests the gospel teaches that we ultimately earn favor with God by what we do.

What makes moralism and legalism so challenging for us is that the gospel does prescribe particular spiritual practices. It does say that what is true about us in Jesus bears fruit in action. Jesus did say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), and, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10).

The difference, though, between gospel obedience and a moralistic or legalistic kind of thinking is this: we obey in response to the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. We don’t obey in order to gain from God—whether His blessings or His love. In fact, none of us can obey God at the standard required for His blessing; our works are acceptable to Him only because He receives them in and through Jesus. And our obedience doesn’t happen apart from the influence and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, who works in us to desire and to do His will.

There is another kind of false teaching that is the opposite of moralism and legalism. Some might look at all of this and say, “All of this emphasis upon obedience actually distorts the gospel. God doesn’t demand anything from us but trust in His Son. As long as we believe in Jesus, He receives us just as we are with His “one-way kind of love.” As a result, these Christians de-emphasize obedience to such a degree that they become antinomian.

Strictly speaking, antinomians are “against the law,” denying any legitimate place for God’s law as a guide for the Christian life. Most evangelicals aren’t so crass as to specifically deny any place for obedience to God’s law; they can’t deny the express words of Jesus and Paul, James, and John for Christian obedience. Contemporary antinomianism tends to be subtler: denigrating the role of imperatives in preaching, de-emphasizing the need for any effort in the Christian life, extending easy terms of restoration for heinous sin and eschewing church discipline.

Again, what makes antinomianism difficult is that it is close to the truth. Our justification is based not on anything that we do but on Christ’s work that we receive by faith alone. As we’ve already said, our effort comes as a result of the Spirit’s influence and empowerment. And forgiveness is free to the repentant, as we come over and over again to the Father and repent from our sin and our sinning. The difference between antinomianism and the gospel, though, is one of emphasis. We are freely justified in Christ, but that leads us to act: we are to labor and toil against our sin. Repentance requires us to turn away from sin and to submit to the discipline of the church.

These dangers are all within the evangelical church. Perhaps you recognize them and have heard them or maybe even have believed them. And yet, moralism, legalism, and antinomianism are all forms of false teaching. We need to take heed to ourselves and our teaching even as we seek to protect God’s people from errors that might occur in here.

Danger Out There

There are cultural pressures that press in on the church’s message and mission and cause it to swerve off track. When the church begins to accommodate its message to the prevailing cultural norms, it inevitably takes the form of false teaching, moving congregants away from the gospel of Jesus.

For many of our evangelical churches, one form of false teaching is an insidious kind of “God and country” gospel. Perhaps you’ve seen license plates and T-shirts that link together the Christian flag and the American flag as though these two flags reinforce each other and are not ever in competition with each other. Or others, perhaps, have continued to see our country as a “redeemer nation” that has a significant role in prophecy or redemptive history.

But the pressures of our conservative political culture to baptize America as a “Christian nation” without any qualification actually represent a form of false teaching. God’s kingdom is not identified with any political order or nation-state but stands in judgment over all of them. After all, God’s rule and reign are the rock that crushes the nations and fills the world (Dan. 2:44–45). The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ (Rev. 11:15). Failure to distinguish God’s kingdom from America is a form of false teaching.

Another kind of false teaching that is “out there” is a kith-and-kin form of teaching that privileges one’s “blood” over other races or ethnicities. Some Reformed evangelicals have argued that God’s law requires the separation of the races and a primary loyalty to one’s own ethnic heritage. While such teaching stands on very shaky biblical grounds, it doesn’t stop those who desire strong families to buy into a form of false teaching that stands opposed to the overarching message of the Bible, namely, that the cross of Jesus tears down the dividing wall between the races in order to make one new humanity in Him (Eph. 2:14–16).

These first two forms of false teaching in our culture are more “right wing” in orientation. But, of course, there are dangerous pressures from the other side that seek to shift the church’s teaching. As our culture promotes the legitimacy of homosexual marriages, gender exchange, and other alternative lifestyles and beliefs, there is increasing pressure on evangelical churches to accommodate the biblical message. Some professing evangelicals argue that Jesus never addressed homosexuality and so it is an open issue for Christians; others buy into the demonstrably erroneous claim that the Apostle Paul did not have “monogamous” homosexual marriages in mind at all when he wrote Romans 1. Some churches, on the other hand, do not embrace such views, but they never talk about them either. Yet in remaining silent on issues related to homosexuality or gender exchange, these churches leave the door open for their congregants to chart their own pathway apart from biblical wisdom on these issues.

There is increasing pressure on evangelical churches to accommodate the biblical message.

That’s especially the case regarding other cultural assumptions in the area of sexuality. It was shocking to me when a Bible teacher at a Christian school once told me that perhaps 60 percent of his high school students believed that cohabitation before marriage is an acceptable way of sorting out “compatibility.” Of course, their churches weren’t teaching them that explicitly, but they weren’t teaching them anything about sexuality beyond a simple (and basically negative) abstinence message. There is so much more that evangelical pastors and teachers can and should say about the beauty and excellency of sexual love within the bounds of biblical marriage, but our young people are often left to navigate the cultural waters with the culture’s basic assumptions.

In the end, however, our culture poses the most significant danger through its constant drumbeat of autonomy. As Westerners, we assume that we are self-sufficient, self-determining individuals, and that we can create our own identities and our own futures. As a result, we assume that no one really has the right to tell us how to use our bodies or even to hold us to account. And so, in areas of sexuality, we define our own gender or sexual practices; in areas of conception, we rationalize abortion; in areas of marriage, we justify easy divorce, adultery, open marriage, or polyamory.

But this autonomy plays out in other ways. Because we determine our own selves and destinies, there is no God who can or would actually send people to hell. As a matter of fact, there is no true religion anyway; all religions are simply private means by which we are able to function in this world. Proselytizing (preaching the gospel and the danger of hell) is not only bad manners, but it is bad policy because it contradicts the fundamental autonomy that each of us has to choose our own pathways. From the garden of Eden on, we follow the enemy’s promise—“You will be like God”—and we ask the enemy’s question—“Has God really said?”

While our culture’s forms of autonomy might not find their way directly into a local evangelical church, that doesn’t mean we are free from autonomy’s temptations. When people refuse to join a Bible-believing local church because they want to remain independent, that’s a form of dangerous autonomy, one that is of a piece with our culture’s fundamental assumptions. When others flee their churches rather than submit to the government and discipline of the church, that’s autonomy at work as well. When elders hold sessions hostage with “their vision” for the church rather than submitting themselves to the other brothers, that’s an example of our culture’s dangerous autonomy at work.

When we fail to recognize and name these cultural dangers or when we accommodate ourselves, our culture—whatever form it takes—ends up harming the church’s message and drives us into forms of false teaching. As pastors and elders, we have to be aware of the way our teaching and preaching can become culturally captive to the right or the left, because precious souls are at stake.

Shepherding With the Word

In the end, our only hope for preserving ourselves and our people is to teach and preach the whole counsel of God. In fact, the best means of shepherding God’s people that we have at hand is the pulpit ministry of the Word in our weekly corporate worship. That means that we have to be purposeful in the way we preach and teach God’s Word so that we might present everyone fully mature in Christ (Col. 1:28).

One way to be purposeful in shepherding God’s people with the Word is to embrace consecutive preaching through biblical books. While there might be seasons where a topical series would be of great benefit, the greatest need God’s people have is to understand God’s Word and to apply it to their lives. And the best way to help people understand God’s Word is to preach it consecutively in such a fashion that they can walk away with an understanding of the overall message of a biblical book as well as specific texts within it.

As pastors preach and teach through books of the Bible, opportunities to address various forms of false teaching naturally arise. Preaching through Galatians allows expositors naturally to address moralism and legalism as forms of false teaching. Preaching through John’s gospel or his letters will require the preacher to address antinomianism. Preaching through Matthew’s gospel allows the pastor to deal with a range of problems, including easy divorce, sexual immorality, and political idolatry. Preaching through Genesis will bring the major cultural assumption of autonomy under one’s microscope. And preaching through Song of Solomon gives a natural way to teach on the excellency and beauty of sexual desire and love within a biblical marriage.

Our people need to see why various forms of “Christian” teaching are false, but even more what the right form of teaching is.

These examples suggest another way to be purposeful in shepherding with the Word: elders, teachers, and pastors should expose people to various sections of the Bible. Moving back and forth between Old and New Testaments, working through Old Testament history and New Testament gospel, explaining wisdom or apocalyptic literature—all of it is necessary in teaching the whole counsel of God, but also in providing examples of how to study and apply the Bible for themselves. In addition, various sections of God’s Word provide natural opportunities to address false teaching in its various forms and guises and to replace it with the truth.

Another aspect of shepherding with God’s Word is a willingness on the pastor’s part to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). Most preachers prefer a particular mode in our preaching and teaching; our people, however, sometimes need reproof and rebuking, sometimes exhorting and encouraging. If we are always encouraging but never rebuking, our people may receive various portions of Scripture, but they will not always get them in the mode that they need at that time. If we are always reproving but never exhorting, they might not receive the energy or encouragement needed to keep moving forward.

That means, then, that we have to know our people. One of the most difficult parts of pastoral ministry is our isolation: in a weekly preaching ministry, we tend to run in the same tracks, preparing sermons and lessons. Over time, we assume that everyone tends to see the world as we do; but in fact, because our days are filled with thinking about Scripture and our ministry, we might lose touch with where our people are and what they are thinking.

The more, then, that we can be among our people, listening to them, and the more that we can listen and exegete our culture, the more likely we will be to teach and apply God’s Word in a way that lands where our people are, in the mode that they need. That’s one of the reasons, I think, that the Bible’s model for pastoral ministry is shepherding, and it is one of the reasons that Scripture calls us to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2). There is a presumption that we will know our people—both by name, but also by heart, in terms of what they are thinking, what shapes their worldview, and how they address life.

I think this is why the Apostle Paul tells Timothy, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). God’s Word is the best means for growing solid Christians. Our calling as pastors and teachers is to equip our people so that they are able to discern the right path, the God-ordained path, and to walk in it. We know that heretics always appeal to the Bible, so we have to equip our people to see why various forms of “Christian” teaching are false, but even more what the right form of teaching is.

As we do, we will discharge this ministry that God has entrusted to us, a ministry that has as its goal that every single person entrusted to our charge gets home to heaven safely. To that end, we labor and strive with all of God’s energy granted by the Spirit.

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