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 Timothy 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 ‘sure word of prophecy’ (2 Peter 1:19), the Holy Scriptures.
This understanding leads us to be followers of Christ who are ‘diligent to present [our]selves approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:14).
Our assignment is not to search for secret communications from God but to observe and live out the things revealed by the Lord (Deuteronomy 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 Peter 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 modelled this approach when he wrote: ‘We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Since most of the world views 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 ‘lofty thing[s] raised up against the knowledge of God’ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
For these reasons, one of the qualifications for an elder is that he understands the Scriptures well so that he can both ‘exhort in sound doctrine’ and ‘refute those who contradict’ sound doctrine (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 Timothy 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 programmes for all ages, a well-organised 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 programmes 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 (Romans 12:2).
If the teaching of sound doctrine is unappetising 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 to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture declares the Lord … Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord…
‘The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has my word speak my word in truth … Behold I am against those who have prophesied false dreams … I did not send them or command them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit’.
Earlier, God revealed the double-edged problem facing Judah when he had Jeremiah prophesy: ‘An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority; and my people love it so! But what will you do at the end of it?’ (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 you do at the end of it?’ 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, ‘Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees’. Later the disciples ‘understood that he did not say beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ (16:12).
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, ‘Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood’.
And the safeguard is found in verse 32: ‘And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who 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 to ‘equip the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:12) and to lead God’s saints on to maturity (Hebrews 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 endeavour to emulate this loving concern.
To be continued