We live in an environment in which it is most difficult to stand for the faith. Not only will those on the front lines of discernment face the opposing guns, but they may be hit by “friendly fire” as well.
For example, I recently wrote what I thought was an innocuous article expressing a high view of Scripture, which included belief in its sufficiency. I was surprised to receive a quick e-mail rebuke from a pastor who also claimed to believe in the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Bible and ultimately accused me of taking a “biblical charismatic” view.
When I inquired how that could be, since I believe God speaks today only through Scripture, he did not reply. God is not adding new revelation or new inspired texts to supplement the canon of Scripture. He has promised that the Scriptures are adequate to equip us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17).
Our task is not to seek “fresh communication” from God, either in the form of prophecies or tongues (as most Charismatics do) or through our inner feelings and hunches (as many non-charismatic evangelicals do), but to rely on the “more sure word of prophecy” (2 Pet. 1:19), the Holy Scriptures. This understanding leads us to be followers of Christ who “study to shew (ourselves) approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
Our assignment is not to search for secret communications from God but to observe and live out the things revealed by the Lord (Deut. 29:29). Truth emerges from the inspired text, and that text can be trusted to reveal God’s will in all matters “pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3).
But even at the risk of being misunderstood by those in our own camp, one of our privileges is to examine all teachings and thoughts through the lens of Scripture. The apostle Paul modeled this approach when he wrote:
Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.2 Cor. 10:5
Since most of the worldviews and philosophies we encounter in a fallen world are in competition with truth, we are obliged to run them all through the grid of Scripture. Those ideas which make it through this grid intact can be embraced. But those that lack biblical foundation must be disposed of, as “every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5).
For these reasons, one of the qualifications for an elder is that he understands the Scriptures well so that “he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Titus 1:9). A pastor or elder is not equipped to lead the church of Christ because he makes an excellent CEO, or has a PhD or MBA, or knows how to win and influence people, or has a sunny personality although none of these things rule him out either.
The Holy Spirit did not mention any of these criteria when laying out the requirements for church leaders, although an intimidating list of personal and spiritual qualifications is given (Titus 1:5-8; 1 Tim. 3:1-7).
Instead, the Spirit focused on the need for elders to know biblical truth and be able to communicate and defend it against false doctrines and false teachers.
Unfortunately for some contemporary Christian leaders, what God considers essential many consider optional at best, or even detrimental to what is considered “ministry.” Rare is the church today that attracts large crowds because of its careful, systematic teaching of the Word. People will flock to churches with great programs for all ages, a well-organized sports schedule or professional-level music of almost any genre, but sound doctrine holds little attraction for many Christians.
Yet, it is sound doctrine that God mandates. Lives are not changed by programs and entertainment; they are transformed by the renewing of our minds which can only come about through exposure to the truth of God’s Word (Rom. 12:2).
If the teaching of sound doctrine is unappetizing to many, the exposing of false doctrine is utterly repulsive. Discernment is considered unnecessary, unwanted, and downright mean-spirited in a relativistic age.
To spend even a fraction of time critiquing false teachings (as our Lord directs us to do) is to invite charges of negativism, division, or worse. Yet we must decide whether we want to please the Lord or men. And, since the Lord commands us to refute those who contradict sound doctrine, we have no choice.
This is not to say that we spend the bulk of our teaching time on issues that don’t measure up to Scripture, for to do so would throw us out of balance very quickly. I believe that the majority of biblical teaching within the church should be exhortation in sound doctrine.
But we must also be willing to handle issues that threaten the spiritual health of the body of Christ, and not shy away from teaching on such subjects as we work through the Scriptures. Sadly, in our pluralistic, postmodern age, even gracious critique is viewed as negative and critical.
Why not tolerate the theological and philosophical views of others, even if those views are seriously flawed and unbiblical? After all, since we are brothers and sisters in Christ, aren’t we just airing our dirty laundry in public?
But I would argue the vital necessity of biblical discernment and critique. As we survey the Word of God it is impossible to miss the prominent place that God places on truth and the deep concern that our Lord has when His people err in life or doctrine. The Old Testament is permeated with calls to live on the basis of God’s truth, and with warnings about those who teach anything else.
For example, consider these verses from Jeremiah 23: “Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD... Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the LORD.”
The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully... Behold I am against them that prophesy false dreams ... yet I sent them not, nor commanded them, therefore they shall not profit this people at all, saith the LORD.
Earlier, God revealed the double-edged problem facing Judah when He had Jeremiah prophesy:
A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?” (5:30-31).
Not only were the prophets, priests, and kings leading the sheep astray, but the people loved it. Rather than being appalled by the falsehoods pouring from the mouths of their leaders, the people of Israel gravitated toward their teachings, no doubt because it was already in line with what they wanted.
But the Lord cautions, “What will ye do in the end thereof?” That is, after these false teachings have robbed you of true life, after they have brought you into bondage, after they have led to counterfeit living – what will you do then?
In the Gospels we find Jesus continues this theme. In Matthew 16:6 He warns His disciples,
Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.
Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.
And in case anyone thinks Jesus always preached a meek and mild, positive and upbeat message, read Matthew 23:13-36. There the Lord pronounced eight “woes” on the Pharisees, calling them such things as hypocrites, blind guides, fools, sons of hell, whitewashed tombs, serpents and a brood of vipers. It is hard to miss His righteous anger against those who taught lies in the name of His Father.
Acts 20:27-32 speaks of wolves, often coming from within the church, who will do great harm to the flock. Paul wrote,
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
And the safeguard is found in verse 32: “And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.”
Exhortation and warning are vital in caring for the sheep.
Likewise, large portions of the New Testament epistles were written to combat false teachings of various kinds. These biblical passages include Jude 3-4, 2 Peter 2, and Galatians 1:6-9, which pronounces a curse on those who pervert the gospel.
One of the strongest admonishments in all of Scripture is reserved for those who offer a different gospel from the one Paul had given the Galatians. Paul wishes these false teachers to be damned for propagating their false gospel.
Perhaps only the final warning found in Scripture rivals this one. In Revelation 22:18, 19 John warns that anyone who dares add to or subtract from the prophecy of the book of Revelation will have added to him the plagues written in the book.
The epistles also devote much attention to specific instances of false teaching and living. The Corinthians misunderstood the sign gifts and tolerated numerous sins in their congregation; the Galatians twisted the gospel; the Colossians were replacing godly wisdom with human philosophy; the Thessalonians had been discouraged with bogus claims about the end times.
Timothy had to battle with “strange doctrines” and “myths”; the letter to the Hebrews was written to combat a movement back to the old covenant; and on we go. To ignore these cautionary themes is to ignore much of the New Testament – which is perhaps why topical preaching has virtually replaced expositional preaching in most pulpits today.
The goal of exhorting with sound doctrine and refuting false teaching (Titus 1:9) is not to develop critical, negative people who are looking under every rock for someone who has slipped up. Rather it is “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12) and to lead God’s saints on to maturity (Heb. 5:11-14).
I believe the apostle John reflects the heart of God when he tells us that he has no greater joy than to hear of his spiritual children walking in the truth (3 John 4). We should endeavor to emulate this loving concern.
Ironically, those who preach most tenaciously the need for tolerance are themselves intolerant of any who seek to faithfully follow God’s directives in this matter. Let’s analyze some common objections.
What right do you have to judge others?
Answer: Some claim the best known verse of Scriptures in the West is Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Most who recite this command do so without the advantage of having read it in context. If they were to do so, they would see the Lord is not calling a moratorium on examining the lives and teachings of others; He simply wants us to do it the correct way.
The Lord tells us to first judge ourselves. When that has been done properly we are in a position to help others with their sins and false beliefs (Matt. 7:1-5). “First cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then thou shalt see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye” (v. 5).
Far from telling us not to be concerned about the life of our brother, He demands that we get involved – not as self-righteous hypocrites, but as those who recognize their own sins and weaknesses and have honestly confessed and dealt with them first.
Jesus continues by telling us to beware of false teachers and examine their fruit (Matt. 7:15-16), which is a reference to their lives and teachings.
Aren’t you following in the footsteps of the Pharisees?
The idea behind this accusation is that any who dare critique the beliefs of others are clinging to the letter of the law but missing its spirit. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we are told, loved the Word of God, were serious students of the Old Testament, and sought to wrap their lives around God’s truth. The problem was that they then became legalists who followed the letter but missed the real point of spiritual transformation. They kept all the rules by concentrating on outward appearance, while having no true relationship with God.
The modern disciples of the Pharisees are inevitably slated to be those who cling most robustly to the Scriptures. The more someone seeks to be a “biblical” Christian living out the teachings of the Word, the more that one is likely to be accused of being a Pharisee.
Answer: While many think Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their literalness and strict adherence to the Old Testament law, a careful examination of the Gospels reveals He never spoke against these things as such. He certainly condemned them for their hypocrisy (Matt. 23). But hypocrisy has nothing to do with love and devotion to the Scriptures and everything to do with sham. These men were reprimanded by Jesus because they knew the Word, but did not live what they knew. They were posers – men of pretence.
But Jesus reserved his strongest rebuke for the Pharisees because they added to the Scriptures. In Matthew 15, Jesus asks them, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” After giving them a concrete example, Jesus goes on to state, “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.” He then calls them hypocrites and accuses them of “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (vv. 3-9).
Based upon Jesus’ words, I contend that the real Pharisees today are not those who insist on following Scripture but those who add to the Scriptures. It is those that replace the commandments of God or supplement them with their own precepts who are living out the legacy of the Pharisees.
Jesus makes clear that it is not those who believe in the sufficiency of Scripture and seek to live their lives within its boundaries who are Pharisees, but those who believe the Bible is inadequate and must be enhanced with men’s tradition, philosophies, and ideas.
Aren’t you simply trying to prove yourself superior?
To challenge the teachings of others implies you think you have all the answers or your view is the only correct one. This attitude appears arrogant.
Answer: A common criticism cast at those who dare to discuss publicly the teachings of others relates to their supposed motives. Surely, they say, the only reason anyone would take such action is to try to prove himself superior.
But when some attacked Paul’s motives, he made it clear that no one was in a position to know the motives of others.
He tells the Corinthians to “judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts” (1 Cor. 4:5).
It is wrong to judge the hearts of others; we must leave such work to God.
Aren’t you assuming that everyone else is wrong and you only have the correct answers?
Answer: First, we must humbly admit that none of us has an inside track to the thoughts of God. There is no esoteric knowledge for a special class of elites. Everything God has communicated is there for reading and analysis by every child of God.
Next, we must understand that our views are unimportant; what matters is God’s view. We are not to spout our opinion but to carefully study the Scriptures and then shine its light on the teachings of ourselves and others.
Therefore, it is our obligation to scrutinize God’s Word and “rightly divide” it (2 Tim. 2:15) so that we are able to teach the Lord’s truth (2 Tim. 2:2), which is able to equip for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This is to be done not to appear superior but to humbly aid the spiritual life and growth of one another.
Critiquing the beliefs of others is unacceptable in our postmodern era. Even benign assessment is intolerant and mean-spirited
Answer: God’s truth has never been accepted by unbelievers in any age; this age is no different. In 1 Corinthians 1:18 we learn that the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but it is the power of God for those being saved.
Nor should Christians capitulate to the whims of secular world views. When the Corinthian believers seemed to hunger for some meaty Greek wisdom to be mixed into their New Testament theology, Paul refused to accommodate them. He preached the simplicity of Jesus Christ in order that their faith would rest in the power of God, not in the wisdom of men (1 Cor. 2:1-5).
We make a fatal mistake when we adjust our teachings and methods to appease the sensitivities of the spiritually dead and spiritually compromised. It should be the Scriptures that determine our methods and message, not those who do not know Christ or His ways.
A discernment ministry turns its practitioners into critical cynics
Answer: While this is a danger to be guarded against, the focus of our lives and ministries should be on the greatness of God and His wonderful truth. We must be careful that we do not deteriorate into people who are always looking for error under every rock or something about which to complain. Even in our discernment we are to “do all things without murmurings and disputings” (Phil. 2:14). And we must take seriously Paul’s admonition to Timothy to not get tangled up in useless arguments and speculation (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:4).
At the same time, it is impossible to really love God’s truth and not want to defend it (Jude 3). We must not allow the criticism of those who refuse to obey God to pressure us into living unbiblically.
Past generations of Christian leaders have seen the importance of defending the faith. For example, J. Gresham Machen observed at the height of the Modernist-Fundamentalist battles of the early 1900s: “What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires.” 1
Early Church Father Iranaeus wrote in Against Heresies: “Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.” 2
Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield commented: “The chief dangers to Christianity do not come from the anti-Christian systems. Mohammedanism has never made inroads upon Christianity save by the sword. Nobody fears that Christianity will be swallowed up by Buddhism. It is corrupt forms of Christianity itself which menace from time to time the life of Christianity.”
“Why make much of minor points of difference between those who serve that one Christ? Because a pure gospel is worth preserving; and it is not only worth preserving, but is logically (and logic will always work itself out into history) the only saving gospel.” 3
And Thomas Oden offers this word of wisdom: “Although I concede that there are other tasks more important than the exposure of heresy, I warn: if there is no immune system to resist heresy, there will soon be nothing but the teeming infestation of heresy.” 4
These men understood, as we must, that the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” is worth defending. We must not allow the objections of those who lack the courage or insight to fight for truth to cause us to cower from this important, God-given obligation.