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Why is error so easy to slip into?

July 2021 | by Paul Smith

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Jude 4 tells us that error creeps in unnoticed. Obvious error is relatively easy to reject. But are we over-confident in our ability to spot the less obvious error and to avoid subtle shifts in our thinking?

We are susceptible to teachings that allow us to fit in with the world by softening the more counter-cultural parts of the Bible. We are vulnerable to eloquent people who quote the Bible, mixing a little bit of error with a lot of truth.

Here are seven arguments that clever people are using to make drift from the truth seem reasonable and right.

1. ‘You can’t be dogmatic when Christians disagree’

When other Christians disagree we can doubt ourselves, however plain the Bible is. This suits Satan. He knows we won’t easily abandon truth. But we might relegate it to one view among many.

This is how a plain reading of Genesis 1–3 is undermined. A good man is named who embraced some level of evolution. You can’t consider creation essential, can you, because this would exclude so-and-so?

If disagreement prevents dogmatism, then all it takes is for a few prominent people to reject a doctrine to make it impossible to insist on it.

Secondary doctrines once meant those of lesser importance (like church government), but increasingly mean those where Christians disagree.

Once six-day creation is merely one view among many and creation a secondary issue, Christians feel free to shop around for the view that is most palatable or intellectually respected.

Soon, basic New Testament teaching of no sin before the fall, no physical death before sin, and a global flood becomes optional. Further, insisting on it seems divisive – yet the division in evangelicalism was caused by those who relegated biblical creation from an essential to a non-essential doctrine.

2. Leading advocates get some things wrong

Even good teachers make mistakes. This is the case with some leading advocates of biblical manhood and womanhood. It is not hard to find application focused on American culture or teaching linked to faulty Trinitarian theology. But even if some Americans have got some aspects wrong, should teaching held across the globe for the majority of church history be abandoned? Does the Bible lack clarity just because some people’s teaching lacks accuracy?

3. If Christians disagree, the Bible must be unclear

Christians increasingly disagree on what Paul meant in 1 Timothy 2:12 when he said, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach.’ They claim the passage is not straightforward. Is it that the passage is unclear, or is it that some are engaging in torturous exegesis to appease a culture that brands all men as oppressors?

Once you accept that a key passage is unclear (not because it is, but because Christians disagree about it), this leads naturally to interpreting unclear passages in the light of the clearer ones. Some, like N. T. Wright, conjecture on the basis of Paul’s commendation of Phoebe in Romans 16:1 that she carried the letter of the Romans to them and therefore gave its authoritative interpretation – i.e., she was its first exegete. Therefore whatever Paul was saying in unclear 1 Timothy 2:12, it cannot rule out women as expository Bible teachers – clearly seen in Romans 16:1! This argument flows seamlessly – until you actually read the texts in question.

While others may not go so far, the dictum ‘If Christians disagree, the Bible must be unclear’ is increasingly used as an excuse to soften rather than submit to culturally awkward teaching.

4. Attack a straw man

The straw man argument is highly persuasive: an overstatement makes you react: ‘I don’t agree with that!’ This is currently widespread on biblical manhood and womanhood.

Historically, evangelicals have embraced both the biblical practice and the biblical logic of 1 Timothy 2. God’s creation design for men and women was linked to their roles in marriage and worship services – but not limited to these contexts.

To ridicule this notion, a straw man has recently been advanced: ‘Nowhere does Scripture state that all women submit to all men.’ True enough – but who is actually arguing for this ludicrously sweeping statement? It is a ruse, a device to make someone think, ‘I don’t agree with that, so I must reject the position that the author is criticising – and embrace theirs.’

5. Let’s not talk about it

Some doctrines cannot be denied without obviously rejecting the authority of Scripture, yet are socially embarrassing.This makes us susceptible to the argument that we should just avoid talking about them.

Back in 2017, Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield described observing a five-stage drift as people moved from opposing to affirming gay marriage. First, oppose gay marriage. Second, ‘buy into the sexual orientation identity system that says gay is not how you are through the imprint of original sin, but rather is who you are, through your supposedly morally neutral sexual orientation.’ Third, oppose taking a stand on the question. Fourth, affirm gay marriage. Fifth, vilify traditional marriage proponents.

We must be careful. When someone does not speak out when we think they should, we ought not immediately to assume doctrinal drift. But we do need to be aware of the journey that teachers are taking people on, lest we are influenced by it.

6. Let’s set things aside for the sake of evangelism

It’s a joy to witness with people from churches holding different doctrinal distinctives. But the argument to set things aside, though helpful in certain contexts, has been abused.

The gospel calls proud men and women to humble themselves before God. The call to ‘repent and believe the gospel’ comes from the Creator and the Lawgiver. Therefore, without biblical creation and biblical sexuality, gospel explanation becomes problematic. Some doctrines are too important to be set aside or hollowed out of their biblical meaning.

This argument is even being used for churches to avoid distinctives. The situation is too desperate, people say, to worry about ‘secondary doctrines’: let’s just unite around a few key doctrines and get on with evangelism. The urgent need to evangelise can lead to an ever-increasing list of doctrines being classed as unimportant. Since truth is interconnected, once this drift is established it tends to continue.

7. It’s unkind publicly to identify drift

This chimes with our culture. But it ignores the fact that those undermining biblical truth are very willing to teach publicly and are often quite snide about those contending for biblical truth. Matthew 18 teaches that private faults should be dealt with privately if possible. But Christ and his apostles were ready publicly to identify public drift even in good men (most notably Paul challenging Peter at Antioch – Galatians 2:11).

Sometimes we can be too trusting of those who identify as evangelicals. Liberalism is like a parasite. Its powerless creed does not seek converts from the irreligious; it grows by providing evangelicals a soft landing in their drift towards unbelief. Like a parasite, liberalism creeps in unnoticed (Jude 4), often only detected by its effects.

The first place to seek out the parasite is in our own minds, studying the Scriptures to renew our minds, using the Word to wash clean our thinking. And then to ask – am I overconfident in my ability to avoid subtle error as I click on the next YouTube link or read the latest popular Christian blog or book?

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