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Having been in ministry for more than two decades, Pastor Bob had seen his fair share of challenging church situations. He witnessed the divisive effects of the worship wars firsthand. He had seen wave after wave of fad ministry techniques make their way through the church. He had even picked up after the devastation of fallen pastors. But nothing quite prepared him for the corrosive effect of false teaching that was spread to the congregation through one new family at his church.

The Smiths were the kind of family every pastor dreams of having. They were friendly, had a strong marriage with godly kids, and were ready to plug into the church. Just a few short months after arriving, the dad volunteered to teach children’s church, the mom volunteered in the nursery, and several of their young adult children served on the worship team. There was just one problem: the Smiths had an aberrant view of the Bible’s teaching on divorce and remarriage. They believed that remarriage after divorce was never allowed. They thought any such marriage was actually “adultery” regardless of the circumstances that led to the divorce, and they did not keep their view to themselves. Soon, Pastor Bob began to hear from church members who were concerned about the way Mr. Smith was advocating his position at the church. After worship or between services, Mr. Smith would approach a couple and under the guise of getting to know them would inquire about their marriage. If they had been married before, Mr. Smith would counsel the remarried couple to divorce, reminding them that God threatened to judge adulterers and that adulterers would have no place in the kingdom of God. These interrogations were enough to create real crises of faith in the lives of some people, and Pastor Bob knew he would have to confront Mr. Smith.

When they met, Mr. Smith accused Pastor Bob of being like the other pastors of the other churches the Smiths had attended (and been kicked out of): “You won’t stand for the truth,” he said. Although Pastor Bob didn’t kick out the Smiths, he did tell them that their view was disrupting the peace of the church and was not in line with the doctrines of the church. He told Mr. Smith that he could not promote his views within the church. After a few tense weeks, the Smiths resigned all of their volunteer commitments at the church and started a house church with a few friends from the community who shared their beliefs.

A day is coming when Jesus will present the church to Himself as His pure and spotless bride.

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).

Unfortunately, despite our best preventive efforts, confrontation may still be necessary if we discover that false teaching has taken root in the church. So, the fourth step is to do the hard work of confrontation. Despite the horrific things people feel free to say to one another online, shielded by the anonymity of virtual interaction, we live in a nonconfrontational age. Our tendency to “be nice” sometimes leads us to avoid hard conversations. Those who are wise in the faith, who are the elder brothers and sisters, the fathers and the mothers of the church, must be willing to gently rebuke and exhort those who may be disrupting the peace and purity of the church.

Pastor Bob’s example in the story above is helpful here. He firmly, but gently, explained the church’s position to Mr. Smith. He didn’t overlook the issue (hoping it would get better on its own), nor did he overreact (by confronting him publicly or kicking him out of the church). Every opportunity we have to protect the peace and purity of the church is also an opportunity for personal ministry to those who are in error.

While the officers of the church are particularly tasked with protecting the church against false teaching, all the people in the church are called to be Bereans (Acts 17:11) and to “hold fast to that which is good” after testing the teaching that they hear (1 Thess. 5:21). When God blesses our efforts, the result is a safe church where men, women, and children can have confidence that God is speaking to them through the ministry of the Word and serving them Sunday by Sunday in the gathered worship of God’s people.

Working for the peace and purity of the church is not normally glamorous work. It requires the hard labor of study and a steadfast character. It is tempting sometimes to throw our hands up in despair. In those moments, remember that while the peace and purity of the church may seem like a fragile reality now, our pursuit of them is based on God’s promised future. A day is coming when the gates of the new Jerusalem will never be shut, when God’s people will never be in any danger (Rev. 21:27). A day is coming when Jesus will present the church to Himself as His pure and spotless bride (Eph. 5:27). We work for the peace and purity of the church with that day in mind, confident that it will come in God’s time.

False Teaching Out There and In Here

Teaching the Truth

Keep Reading False Teachers

From the April 2018 Issue
Apr 2018 Issue