(January 2009 – Volume 15, Issue 1)
In our last Think on These Things paper the issue of the two major enemies facing pastors was being discussed. There the enemy of internal conflicts within the body of Christ was the subject. In this paper we will turn our attention to the external enemy of false teaching.
Perhaps the most ignored promise found in the New Testament is 2 Peter 2:1-3:
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
Peter clearly warns that false teachers will be found within the church of Christ, and these posers will secretly introduce heresies that will bring destruction to the lives of God’s people. In light of this fact Jude, in a parallel passage, calls for us to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). If Peter’s warning is ignored, Jude’s charge is equally discounted. Why? Why do most of God’s people, including pastors, behave as if these texts were never written? This is especially problematic because these are not isolated concerns in the Scriptures. Not only did Jesus constantly confront false doctrine, but most of the New Testament epistles heavily lean toward exposing and correcting both false teaching and false living (Titus 1:9). Why would modern believers assume that these things are no longer important in our age?
No doubt the principle reason is that people today eschew the negative and gravitate toward the positive. The pendulum has swung from a time when people didn’t feel like they had gone to church unless they had their toes stepped on, to a time when to step on people’s toes might mean they will switch churches. The most popular preacher of our day is a man who knows little theology, is not trained in the Scriptures, does not preach the gospel and ignores large portions of biblical truth. Instead he smiles constantly, tickles his listeners’ ears by telling them God wants them to have a wonderful and prosperous life, and shuns any comment on sin or judgment. Yet, every weekend over 30,000 people flock to his services and millions tune in via television. This pastor is merely reflective of our times—and he is successful. Preach a biblical message if you like, but if you want a successful ministry (in other words crowds) you better give the people what they want.
But what about God’s warning of false teachers and His mandate to contend for the faith? The trendy pastor rides the waves of current fads and philosophy, but the faithful pastor anchors his ministry in the timeless truth of God’s revelation. If our Lord has bothered to warn us that wolves in the form of heretical teachers will attempt to ravish the sheep, we need to take Him seriously and keep a constant watch for predators. If God has instructed us to earnestly contend for the faith, we had better strap on our armor and prepare for battle. If we love the people with whom the Lord has entrusted us, we will want to protect them from the danger of wandering from the truth.
Unfortunately there is much confusion in this area. Many, eager to maintain harmony among God’s people, cannot reconcile contending for the faith with unity. Certainly Paul speaks of “unity of the faith” as a mark of Christian maturity and something that should result from equipping the saints as we “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:12-15). But the unity Paul commends is a oneness built around “the faith,” which is a synonym for biblical truth. The body of Christ is to be taught God’s truth, stand on truth, be united around truth and dispense truth. Paul even describes the church as the “pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). It becomes obvious that the church has very little purpose if truth is not at the center of all it does. Unity that is not centered in the truth is not unity of the faith but mere uniformity. Where I live, we have the second largest military cemetery in the country. If you were to visit Camp Butler you would not find unity but the essence of uniformity—gravestones in perfect order, grass beautifully mowed, etc. But everyone there is dead. Uniformity is a good description of much of the church today: sociable, active, tolerant, compromising and dead. Biblical unity, on the other hand, is a description of a vital faith wrapped around truth.
Since we are called to this kind of living, it is of utmost importance that pastors devote themselves to both the careful teaching of the Word and the protection of God’s people from error. Many pastors are quite dedicated to the study of Scripture. They painstakingly prepare their message and Bible studies using all diligence to make certain that they exposit God’s Word. This is excellent and where the majority of the pastor’s energy should be expended. They must also be aware, however, that their people are surrounded constantly by a wide array of falsehood and half-truths in the name of Christ. There are few “Christian” television programs worthy of the name, Christian radio is often a mixed bag, many Christian bookstores are a minefield where the very worst in Christian literature is sold, and the Internet is filled with every form of deception.
This is not to say that there cannot be honest disagreements among Christians over some areas of doctrine—not every hill is worth dying on. Nor am I saying that everything outside the four walls of one’s particular church is dangerous—far from it. There has never been a time when more wonderful tools have been available to aid the serious Christian: computer programs, excellent commentaries and theological works, literature which shines the truth of God on the issues of life, and good Bible teaching from many sources. The problem is that few Christians have been taught to discern truth from error. Therefore, many well-intentioned believers swallow whatever is being promoted. For example, Michael W. Smith heavily endorses the fictional work The Shack, saying that it will change one’s relationship with God forever. His endorsement alone may account for the sale of hundreds of thousands of copies of the novel. And he is right. The Shack, if taken seriously, may very well change your relationship with God—but not in a positive way. The Shack offers a view of God that blends Christianity with Eastern and New Age thought. The undiscerning Christian will not recognize this fact and could easily sink into a distorted understanding of the nature of God.
How does the concerned pastor deal with these kinds of issues? First, he is careful to keep before his people solid biblical teachings—in the above case, the person and nature of God. Yes, I know that many would rather hear about self-image and how to prosper and succeed in life, but what they need to hear is about the greatness and majesty of God as rightly taught from the Word.
Secondly, I believe the concerned pastor will keep both eyes open, becoming aware early of potential trends, movements and books which might sideline his people. He then educates himself, as necessary, so that he can stay ahead of the curve on potentially harmful matters.
How can this be done, given the limited time most pastors have? First, pay attention to what the Christian media is pushing. What are the hottest books? What conferences are people attending? What quasi-Christian themes are being promoted in the secular arena? What new concepts are college students (including Bible college students) bringing home? What is making the rounds on the Internet? A few of these things will prove to need the attention of the pastor wanting to contend for the faith. For example, pastors might find, to their sad surprise, that some of their people are buying what Oprah is selling at the moment. Recently she has thrown considerable influence behind the New Age Movement (often called the New Spirituality). First, it was Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, next it was Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. Both of these authors liberally quote Scripture—could any of your people be taken in?
Hopefully not. Hopefully your flock can see through Oprah, but what about things closer to home? Take the Emergent Church movement, for example, which is nothing more than a postmodern update of old liberalism—the same liberalism which theologically gutted the conservative denominations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But most twenty-first century Christians have no concept of this, and when they read the winsome literature of Emergent leaders they are attracted. This is especially true of impressionable college-age students. Yet, when I ask Christian leaders if they have read the authors that so influence their young people, I receive few positive responses. They seem to be unaware that Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is the most popular book on campus, as it offers a fresh view of the Christian life, at the same time using virtually no Scripture and distorting the biblical worldview. Nor have most pastors read Brian McLaren, the recognized leader of the Emergent movement. They might be aware of Rob Bell, if for no other reason than his videos, called Noomas, are usually front and center at most Christian bookstores, but they don’t know what he teaches. It is hard to guard the sheep and contend for the faith if we don’t know what the most prominent wolves are doing to wreak havoc on the flock.
Most of the important challenges to the faith today seem to center either around the gospel (such as The New Perspective on Paul or Evangelicals and Catholics Together) or the Scriptures. Sometimes the Bible takes a direct hit, such as the Bible code phenomenon or a destructive hermeneutical approach (such as Redemptive-movement Hermeneutics). But more likely the Bible is subtly undermined by the time-honored approach of ignoring what it says and adding to it, thus twisting the Christian life into whatever form one pleases.
The last concern is so common that it is impossible to escape. The wise pastor teaches his people the authority and sufficiency of the Word. He further instructs them in how to take the ideas of men and women and run them through the grid of Scripture. This approach filters the concepts that do not emerge from Scripture leaving only the pure truth. Unless pastors teach their people this type of discernment they will most likely be “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14).
Somewhere I picked up this little story of a mother who one Sunday morning went in to wake her son. As she told him it was time to get ready for church he replied, “I’m not going.” “Why not?” she asked. “One, they don’t like me, and two, I don’t like them.” His mother replied, “I’ll give you two good reasons why you should go to church. First, you’re 59 years old, and second, you’re the pastor.”
It wouldn’t surprise me if most pastors feel this way on occasion. A few years into the ministry, and many are asking, “What have I gotten myself into?” Their expectations of perpetually calm seas and constant spiritual victories have dissolved into turbulent waters and all too regular battles. This is not to say that the work of the pastor is not gloriously fulfilling and often abounding in fruit; it is to say that most accomplishments for the Lord’s glory will be on the field of battle, not in the rose garden. The effective pastor must be prepared for this reality. Enemies, both within and without the church, will be his constant companions.
Surely there has never been a more challenging time to be a pastor. Pastors must learn to minister with both eyes open, as they fix their eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:2), and yet remain aware of the enemies that oppose the Lord’s work. Perhaps there is no better verse in Scripture for the man of God to memorize and believe than 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.”