Overreaction to Error
A second way that false teaching can enter the church is when teachers try overzealously to protect the church from error. By saying “overzealously,” I am referring not to the mere effort made to protect the church from error, but rather to the extent to which some go in the name of protecting the church. The greatest and most precious truths of the Bible have been explained and understood with great care throughout the centuries. Doctrines such as the Trinity, the person of Christ, and the relationship between faith and works have been developed from an understanding of the totality of Scripture and with the knowledge that there are equal and opposite errors that someone can fall into. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan described the Christian’s journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death as walking between two dangers: a deep ditch on the right, and a dangerous quag on the left. If one moves too sharply in one direction to avoid one danger, one can fall into the other opposite danger.
Perhaps the best historical example of this is the way that false teaching on the person of Christ came into the church. In trying to understand how Christ can be both human and divine, Nestorius and his followers taught a sharp division in Christ that essentially made Him two persons, one human and one divine. The church took issue with this teaching and condemned it at the First Council of Ephesus. But in an overzealous attempt to correct the Nestorian error, Eutyches and his followers taught that the way to avoid conceiving of two persons in Christ was to understand the divinity of Christ as overwhelming the humanity of Christ, essentially denying His true humanity. They had successfully avoided one false teaching only to fall headlong into another. Another example is when various false teachers throughout history have sought to deal with the supposed problem of tritheism in the doctrine of the Trinity (that the doctrine appears to teach there are three Gods). From Sabellius in the third century, to Michael Servetus during the Reformation, to oneness theologians today, attempts to “ensure” that the church teaches monotheism have often resulted in false teaching about the Trinity.
The Desire to Avoid Criticism
A third way that false teaching enters the church is when teachers are overly desirous to avoid criticism, especially when that criticism comes from the surrounding culture. This is where human nature, especially our sinful pride, comes in. People do not like to be thought of as ignorant, uncultured, or uneducated. They do not enjoy being looked down on by others for things they believe or say. And yet this is a fundamental part of being a Christian.
To be a Christian means to believe that what God says in His Word is true even if everyone around you disagrees. “Let God be true though every one were a liar,” the Bible tells us (Rom. 3:4). Martin Luther put it with his characteristic wit: “One with God is a majority.” But often this is easier said than done. Teachers within the church can become afraid that they will have no effect on the world around them unless they teach in a way that is acceptable to the culture.
It was this way of thinking that led to a departure from the biblical truth about the atonement and Christ’s sacrifice. Cries against “cosmic child abuse” and a “harsh, vengeful Father” have led some to teach against the substitutionary atonement of Christ. This, in turn, has led to the redefinition of sin, repentance, and holiness. Once the thread starts to unravel, the whole cloth begins to tear.
Another example of this tendency is the way that teachers within the church have shied away from the biblical doctrine of creation as set forth in Genesis 1–2, Isaiah 40, and Colossians 1, among other places. Rather than seem to go against a scientific “consensus,” such teachers will deny that God is the Creator of all things.
What is especially dangerous is that false teaching can come into the church from the culture because people have good intentions—they want to reach the lost, so they try to remove anything that they think is a barrier. We should not make a point of intentionally attacking our neighbors, but we must also never be afraid to stand on the Word of God—even when such a stand is unpopular. That also means we must be wary of those within the church who are constantly trying to accommodate the latest cultural thinking.