Recently, at least in my little world, there seems to be a firestorm of controversy among believers. I know, I know that's really nothing new. However, it seems to be increasing on my Facebook news feed and in the small part of the blogosphere that I frequent. For anyone living near the Charlotte, North Carolina area there has been a series of news stories about Elevation Church and their pastor, Steven Furtick. I was mildly surprised when an author/speaker/blogger friend of mine from Michigan chimed in on the Elevation debate. Most in the conservative evangelical world are well acquainted with the ongoing debate between John MacArthur and...well...the rest of the Christian world on the subject of false teachers. Then an extraordinarily polite (it really was) debate erupted on a friend's Facebook page over the Jesus Calling devotional book.
In my estimation there are basically two camps in Christendom when it comes down to the issue of, what I will call for simplicity's sake, false teaching and teachers. On the one hand there are those who promote the highest degree of caution and rebuke towards these "false teachers." They are anathema, period, end of story. Expel the immoral brother! The other folks that I have come across fall into the "Rodney King" camp and just want us to get along with one another. Is is not true that Jesus prayed for unity among His followers in John 17?
My temptation is to side with the latter and sort of gather everyone together for a group hug and sing "Jesus loves me" followed by a rousing refrain of "Kumbaya." Dave Ramsey says I'm a free spirit so that all makes perfect sense to me. However, I think two things are at stake here neither of which should be sacrificed; the unity of the Body, and people's souls. So, for once in my life I'm not interested in playing Switzerland and finding the neutral, middle ground. I want to seek the truth and find out if it really is either/or, or both/and (please note the nod to one of my favorite apologists, Ravi Zacharias).
Fact: There are false teachers who claim the name of Christ.
This issue did not begin in the early Church. Rather it was something that God's people had been dealing with for centuries. At least as early as Moses' discourses in Deuteronomy we are warned against false prophets and given a test for them. If they try to draw people away to worship other gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-3), or if they say something is going to happen and it doesn't (Deuteronomy 18:22) then they are false prophets.
The first one is obvious, even in our day. Furthermore, I do not think it is a stretch in interpretation to say that the second part of the test could apply to speaking against God's Word. Scripture is the revelation we have from God, it is what He has said. We don't have prophets today in the same way that they had them back then. God sent His message, "Thus says the Lord," directly through the prophets to the people. Well, now we have "Thus says the Lord" written down for us and anything a prophet, teacher or preacher says must agree with what God has already said through His Word.
This is the clearest and simplest way for us to test a suspected false teacher; if what they say is contrary to God's Word then it is wrong. Now, I think some sugar may be required to make this hard medicine go down. As a preacher I know that my faith and understanding of God's Word has grown over time and, Lord willing, it will continue to do so. There are probably plenty of things I've said in the past that if I really thought about it would make me want to slap my forehead and go "DOH!" I would submit that one faulty statement does not a false teacher make. My point is that if we intend to be faithful and honest we need to look at the greater body of preaching, teaching and fruit before we slap a label on someone that could potentially ruin a ministry that is working for the Kingdom and jeopardize Christian unity.
Fact: False teachers are deadly.
If I was diagnosed with a terrible disease I would not want a doctor prescribing treatment for me that got his degree by filling out a form and sending in $10 to some guy named Cletus with a laserjet printer in the back of his '89 Chevy van. There is a reason that medical professionals are required to submit themselves to far more schooling than I would ever want to go through; lives are at stake!
Since the time of Adam and Eve the human race has been afflicted with a terminal disease called "sin." God, the ultimate Physician of both the body and the soul has given us a prescription that will cure sin 100% of the time. It is called the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Notice I didn't say the Gospel is what saves us, it is only that which gets us to the thing which saves us, Christ. To understand what I mean here try eating the paper your prescription is written on next time you get sick and let me know what happens.
False teachers, by definition, undermine the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ. The most common way they do this is by adding to or taking away from it. Add some good works here, take away some condemnation of sin there, you know. Monkeying with the Gospel is just like someone telling you to take your drugs with a beer. The consequences are steep. Works are good in their proper place and the Gospel is good...no, its great (!) in its proper place but when you combine the two in the wrong way you wind up with a wild concoction that isn't going to be helpful at all.
When false teachers are allowed to peddle their wares they are taking people down a path to destruction that is paved with their lies. For that reason alone we should do our utmost to be discerning. Unity in the Church is ridiculously important to God but I can't believe that He would ever sacrifice the truth or people's souls in the interest of it. It is possible to be unified under the wrong thing.
Fact: Christ desires unity in His Church.
First of all, let's be really honest here. The Church belongs to Christ. The Church is His bride and if we begin to think that a church belongs to a person, or group of people, we are in very serious danger. Since Christ is the Head of the Church we don't have the privilege of deciding what goes on within it or what it does, only Christ has that prerogative and He has given us the framework in God's Word.
Throughout the New Testament we have example after example of the necessity of unity among believers. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, Christ prayed that we would be unified in His "High Priestly Prayer" in John 17. This unity is for a purpose, "so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me (John 17:23)." Furthermore, in the book of Acts we see that the early Church was consistently described as "in one accord" or "of the same spirit" or some variation on that theme. Lack of unity gives the impression that Christ is a jumbled mess and that this wonderful Gospel message must be awfully confusing. Unfortunately, this is the image that the Church is offering to the world today.
The biggest contributor to disunity in the Church is believers attacking one another. Just the other day I found myself following yet another controversy, one surrounding Pastor Mark Driscolls. It turns out that there is at least one website completely devoted to destroying this man's career and it is a self-proclaimed "discernment ministry." Now, there may very well be issues that need to be addressed in Pastor Driscolls' life. However, is the most biblical method of achieving that goal setting up a domain and lambasting him? I'm not so sure it is. What happened to Matthew 18? The really sad part is to see the other godly people who are caught up in the collateral damage just because Pastor Driscolls may have referenced them in some way. Too many "discernment ministries" use the Word of God as a wrecking ball rather than the scalpel that it was designed to be. Just because someone uses another version beside the King James or listens to contemporary Christian music they are demonized as succumbing to secular culture. Is discernment a critical discipline in the Church? Absolutely! Is it meant to cause strife and division? I don't think so.
I can already here the naysayers crying "foul" so let me address some concerns before they are raised.
1. You can't compromise the Word of God so false teachers must be dealt with quickly and completely.
No, the Church cannot afford to compromise on the Word of God. In fact, I would submit that it by doing just that that we have found ourselves in the weakened state that we're in. We have watered down the Gospel so much in our culture over the past few decades that there is little difference between the Church and the world. However, I believe there is a way to address false doctrine/teachers and maintain unity in the Body. The problem is that we engage in mud slinging and an "if you don't agree with me 100% you're off the reservation" attitude and, as you can see, everyone is losing ground.
One thing that I believe would be unbelievably helpful would be to focus on the core doctrines of the Gospel and cling to those without wavering. This forces us to consider some difficult questions such as, "What does it mean to be a 'Christian?'" and "Which of our various doctrines constitute 'orthodox' Christianity?" Things like worship styles, how you should dress when you go to church and which Bible translation is superior simply do not fit in this category. Unfortunately, it is things like this that create new denominations and congregations and cause untold damage to the Church. Let me be perfectly frank for a moment, if we want the best version of the Bible we should all be learning Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.
So, since this topic has been hotly debated since the early years of the Church, what do I think some core doctrines are?
- That God created the world and everything in it.
- That God is sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.
- The Scriptures were inspired by God and are perfect and infallible in their original autographs.
- That Jesus Christ is God's Son, the second person of the Trinity.
- Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, died for our sins, was resurrected on the third day and ascended into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God.
- God sent His Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, to comfort, guide and live in His children.
- Christ will return to this earth again.
- There is a literal Satan who was an angel of God before he rebelled.
- There is a literal heaven, hell and millennial Kingdom of God.
Interestingly, if you agree to the third doctrine then all of the rest follow naturally.
2. Unity and love are the seminal virtues of the Church so we needn't get wrapped up attacking people who differ in viewpoint.
As I have said, unity and love are integral to the Church. If Jesus prayed that we would display those things they must have been pretty important to Him and should be important to us. The issue I think we have is that we have perverted definitions of both love and unity. Unity is not to be understood as uniformity. The teachings on the Church being the "Body of Christ" make this truth plain. If God were after uniformity He would not gift us in unique ways, call us to unique ministries and have created us so different from one another. With our diverse gifts, talents, personalities and tastes we can have a unity of purpose. What is our purpose other than to worship God and proclaim His Gospel to the world?
Love has also been perverted and I have spoken to that before. In short, to love one another is not to be equated with affirming everything someone does. Jesus told His disciples that if a brother sins they were to rebuke him, and if he repented then forgive him. Why? Because we love one another and this love is one of the hallmarks of our faith. Do we love our brothers and sisters enough to point out the error of their ways and submit ourselves to the same? My suspicion is that we don't. If someone were to hold up the microscope of God's Word to some of these discernment ministries they would probably be met with rage and more mud slinging. Love and accountability are both two-way streets (I've gone to meddlin' haven't I).
3. But...no...just no.
Listen, I've tried to explain that false teachers are poisonous to God's Church but so is disunity. In either case the work of God's Kingdom is not being accomplished and people are dying and going to hell because of it. What we need to do is take a close look at our motivation. For some it may be relevance in our culture. For others is may be numbers, notoriety and fortune. For others yet it may be the desire to be "right." The bottom line is that our motivation as Christians should only be to see God exalted, glorified and magnified in the world. Anything else takes away from God and if we're worshiping anything other than God (including His Word) we are guilty of idolatry. It is time for us to take a long, hard look at what is really important and begin to focus on that; not website hits, Twitter followers, weeks on the bestseller list, Facebook "likes" or anything else. God promises us that if we fix our eyes on Him and His Kingdom then He'll look after the rest.
At the outset I said that I wanted to find out if unity and addressing false teachers is an either/or, or both/and proposition. In most cases truth is either/or. Either a woman is pregnant or she is not. Either God exists or He does not. However, in some cases with our faith both/and is the truth. Jesus Christ was both God and man. God Himself is both merciful and just. Likewise I believe that the church must be both discerning and unified. It can be that way. The two ideals are not mutually exclusive and if we are going to be faithful to God, His Gospel and His purpose for the Church we must strive for both. Why? Again, souls hang in the balance.