Sadly, examples like this can be multiplied many times over. In addition to laboring in the Word, striving to equip the people of God with the tools they need to live as pilgrims in a hostile culture, many pastors often find themselves fighting a rearguard action against false teaching within the church. Even when the teaching in question doesn’t strike at the heart of the gospel, the peace and purity of the church can be shaken. Instead of maintaining unity in the bond of peace, as Jesus prays for in John 17:22–23 and as Paul describes in Ephesians 4:1–3, a church that is racked by false teaching is divided and distraught.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the danger false teaching creates. We put locks on our doors because we know there are people who will steal our household goods if given the opportunity. In the same manner, we should anticipate that in the church wolves will arise who won’t spare the flock (Acts 20:29). Knowing that trouble will come should spur the leaders of the church to be even more vigilant watchmen, ready to protect the peace and purity of the church. A word of caution, however: don’t set the two virtues against each other. We can become so eager to maintain peace that we slide into doctrinal laxity. On the other hand, we can be so eager to maintain purity that we let our vigilance degrade into suspicion and fear.
So, what can we do to help maintain the peace and purity of the church? Although we can’t prevent every enemy incursion against the church, some simple steps will help prevent the kind of damage that false teaching can do in a local church.
First, maintain high expectations of ordained and unordained leaders. The Apostle Paul tells Timothy and Titus what to look for when they are considering leaders for their new churches. Their elders and deacons should have sound theology, godly character, and a positive witness in the world (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9). Do our local churches ensure that their candidates for leadership meet the qualifications laid out by the Apostle Paul? I fear that in some churches, those qualifications have been laid aside in favor of the person in the pew who is successful in business, who has a powerful personality, and who has donated (or may donate) a significant sum of money to the church. The church should expect leadership that matches the Apostolic expectation rather than the expectations of the boardroom.
Second, be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Church leaders read widely as they prepare to teach God’s people, but if we want to ensure a steady diet of sound theology, we need to regularly cite writers and refer to books that will not lead people astray. The theological nugget from an aberrant source or heterodox thinker isn’t worth confusing the people of God. Take a look at the books in your church library; carefully review the books on your book table in the narthex. Do the offerings there point people back to our theological center, or do they encourage “radical theology” that takes people in the church down unfamiliar paths? Church leaders should use their influence to regularly point people back to the tried and true rather than the boundary pushers.
Third, remember that all ministry flows from the ministry of the Word on Sunday. Church leaders should regularly check in with their lay leaders to see how their midweek classes or small groups are relating back to the worship of the gathered church on Sundays. It is easy for small groups to become “silos” cut off from the broader ministry of the church. That isolation may amplify one leader’s voice over the ordained leadership of the church and give them a platform to introduce false teaching in the church. This danger can be mitigated, in part, by carefully choosing who is allowed to teach and lead formal groups within the church and by choosing carefully the curriculum each group will use. An extra step, however, is usually required: gather group leaders and Bible study teachers together for periodic training, prayer, and encouragement. Ensure that they see their ministry as an extension of the ministry of the Word—not a competitor to that ministry. Pastors, elders, deacons, and lay leaders must link arms in the ministries God has called them to and gifted them for. Together—“working properly”—the body of Christ builds itself up in love (Eph. 4:16).