When you think about combating false teaching, what comes to mind? A book about cults? A discernment blogger exposing the latest heresy? That guy who devotes all his free time to apologetics? In the mind of many, combating false teaching is mostly about saying somebody or something is wrong. But that's not the whole picture. In this post, I want to talk about 2 very different, but essential ways to address false teaching in the church today. Both are needed, but they don't deserve equal time and priority in the teaching and preaching of churches.
1) The Negative Approach: "That's Wrong!"
The first way to combat false teaching is the one that most people are familiar with, but few people enjoy (though some people probably enjoy it too much). It is the act of holding up a particular teaching or teacher and saying, "This is wrong" or "He is wrong" and then comparing that teacher and his teaching to Scripture to show where he (or she) has got it wrong.
However, this approach doesn't sit well with a lot of Christians in the modern world. "Judge not" (Matt 7:1), they say. "Let's just focus on the Gospel and let God judge his own servant" they warn. In the minds of many, "focusing on the Gospel" is incompatible with pointing out error. It doesn't matter if the person addressing error spends 95% of their focusing on the Gospel, and 5% addressing false teaching, they will still be accused of not "focusing on the Gospel" if they make even the smallest peep about error in the church. Some people are so averse to anything that looks like judgment, that one wonders if they would rebuke the apostle Paul if the book of Galatians were published today.
As pious as it sounds to "not judge" and to "focus on the Gospel" (to the exclusion of pointing out error), neither of these rebukes line up with either what Jesus did (He "called out" the Pharisees) or what Paul did in confronting error and teaching others to do the same. Paul told Timothy to "…stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies." (1 Tim 1:3-4).
Paul dared to judge those who deviated from the Gospel of Christ, saying “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” (1 Timothy 6:3-5). Notice that Paul says it is the false teachers who promote controversy, not the people who point out their error. This is the opposite of what many Christians today claim, asserting that those who point out error are guilty of stirring up controversy, rather than the ones who are bringing strange teaching into the church.
And not only does Paul address false teaching in general, but sometimes he even names names. "Hymanaeus and Alexander" have shipwrecked their faith (1 Tim 1:19-20) and "Jannes and Jambres oppose the truth–men of depraved minds, who, as fas as the faith is concerned, are rejected” (2 Tim. 3:1-8).
Paul obviously thought that addressing false teaching and false teachers was necessary. We don't have the option of just "focusing on the Gospel" and never addressing error. Jude wanted to write about “our common salvation” but instead he found it necessary to write about protecting the church from false teachers (Jude 3-4).
Paul addressed error from time to time, but he didn't spend the bulk of his time exposing false teaching. However, there are some today who seem to revel in exposing the latest heresy and are always posting online the latest wacked-out quote. I appreciate the work of counter-cult ministries and I am glad that former adherents of false teachers summarize the errors of their former teachers and post them online. Those are helpful resources for those of us who don't have days and weeks to wade through primary source material to find out what a certain teacher is teaching. But I worry that some people spend too much time and energy on this kind of work. Those who regular follow my blog and Facebook postings know that I address false teaching when necessary, especially errors which are creeping into the churches of Thailand, where I serve as a missionary. However, sometimes I get really tired of dealing with this or that unbiblical teaching that is spreading. I don't want to read or listen to what so-and-so is saying and "expose" him or her. It gets old after a while. And many times I hesitate to post something online simply because I do not want to deal with the inevitable kickback I will get from those who take issue with what I posted. I just want to ignore it all, read my Bible, enjoy time with my kids, read some history, have a coffee, do sermon prep for this Sunday, and go to bed. And many times I do just that. If I spent all my time engaging in the latest controversy, I would become cynical, grumpy, and bitter. Man can not survive by exposing false teachers alone. For me, combating false teaching is often more tiring than it is edifying. As an ordained pastor, a seminary instructor, and a blogger with an established online presence, I have a calling and opportunity to address error in the spheres where I have a voice and can have an influence. But the negative approach of saying "That's wrong" is only one part of what must be a broader, deeper, and more positive Gospel ministry.
2) The Positive Approach: "This is Right!"
While the negative approach is a corrective and reactive necessity of Gospel ministry, the mainstay of Christian life and teaching must be positive endorsement of the truth. The majority of a Christian's time (especially those called to teach and preach) must be spent in teaching what the Gospel is, instead of what it is not. Disciples need to know what is true more than they need to know what is not true.
Just before Paul warned the Ephesian elders to guard against false teachers coming into the church, Paul reminded them of how he spent the majority of his time and efforts among them when he lived in Ephesus: “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 20:20–21) Teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the bread and butter of Paul's ministry. He wanted to focus on "Christ and Him crucified." (1 Corinth. 2:2). There were core truths of the Christian faith Paul wanted to make sure Christians knew and applied to their lives. He reminded Timothy, his protégé and fellow minister in the Gospel, to "Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction" (1 Tim 4:2). Paul wanted him to take the sound teaching he heard from Paul and pass it on to “faithful men who will be able to teach others also." (2 Tim 2:2). Paul told Titus, “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).
There is a time and place for expressing disagreement, but the servant of God should "avoid godless chatter" (2 Tim 2:16) and not "have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels." (2 Tim 2:23). Not every controversy is worth your time. But when the Lord's servant does need to address erroneous teaching, he shouldn't be reckless in his words, ranting and blasting the other side with ad hominem attacks. Instead, Paul teaches that, "the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:23-26).
At the end of the day, positive commendation of the truth, grounded in the Scriptures, and faithfully applied to everyday Christian life will be a much surer bulwark against false teaching than simply pointing out who is wrong and what the latest heresy is. God gave apostles and prophets to ground the church in the Gospel after the ascension of Christ, and He has given evangelists, pastors, and teachers to do the on-going work of building up the body of Christ in love and knowledge of Christ. When this positive building up of the body of Christ happens on a regular basis, the church will grow up in maturity and no longer be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”(Ephesians 4:14)
False teachers will come and go, and old heresies will be re-packaged and updated for new audiences, but it is not necessary for Christians to know about every strange teaching that comes along. A Christian who is soaking themselves in the Word of God, and worships at a church teaches the Bible well will grow in maturity such that he or she will know the truth so well that they will know the voice of the Good Shepherd and not be drawn away by the voice of another.
This is the primary ministry of the Gospel: helping God's people to know His voice through teaching the Word of God. False teaching and teachers need to be addressed from time to time, but faith in the Lord that gives us joy, peace, and endurance doesn't primarily come from addressing error, but concentrating on the great and glorious promises of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.