In my previous post, I began to outline the general contours of a biblical ethic for theological discourse. The ability to discuss questions of theology and biblical interpretation Christianly, especially where there is disagreement, is a primary indication of a person’s maturity in Christ. However, in this current cultural climate, godly virtues like humility, gentleness, kindness, love, and grace are glaringly absent from most (online) theological discourse. As Christians, we are certainly called to contend boldly and vigorously for the truth, and sometimes this necessarily includes calling out those errors which are in direct contradiction to the clear teaching of the Bible. So, the question remains, how can we contend for theological truth without being unnecessarily contentious?
The fact is that false teaching has always been a plague on the people of God. From Mosaic prescriptions that lay out the consequences for those making false prophecies to the writing prophets and their warnings about those who offer false promises of peace and security in the face of judgment to the warnings of the New Testament Gospels and epistles even to
Revelation’s descriptions of an eschatological false prophet, the Bible is consistent in calling the people of God to be on guard, always watching our lives and our doctrine closely. The challenge, however, comes in identifying exactly what is and what is not false teaching. It has seemingly become common practice to label our theological opponents with these ideological and emotionally charged epithets that end up causing more confusion than clarity, which always results in even more division. Labels like false teacher, heretic, liberal, etc. simply cannot be thrown around carelessly. Merely holding a different theological conclusion than someone else does not mean that they deserve to be identified as a false teacher.
This is why we desperately need a clear and concise definition of false teaching. False teaching must be defined as any teaching that contradicts the primary and essential truths of the Bible. It is any doctrine that stands contrary to the fundamental essence of the Gospel. Historically, these primary doctrines have been defined by the classic creeds of the early church. These creeds (e.g. Apostle’s, Nicene/Constantinopolitan, Athanasian, etc.) were forged in the crucible of theological controversy, so they are helpful in identifying what does and does not constitute false teaching. Of course, they do not replace or supersede the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, but they can be helpful in clarifying the contours of Christian orthodoxy. Clearly, as it was then so also now, any teaching or doctrine that falls outside of these bounds is rightly called heresy or false teaching, and anyone who holds, affirms, or promotes this kind of doctrine must be rebuked for their error.
With that being said, in what follows, I would like to outline a few biblical priorities that we must keep in mind as we engage each other in these matters.
The first priority is the priority of the local church. The local church is the primary locus of God’s redemptive and sanctifying work, and this includes the ministry of rebuke. It is in the local church that we are taught sound doctrine. It is in the local church where we submit to pastor-elders who keep watch over our souls. It is in the local church where we hold each other accountable and consider how we might provoke one another to love and good deeds. All of the commands that instruct us to correct and rebuke false teaching are addressed to the local church. This means that the local church is the right and proper context for hammering out our theological differences, for wrestling with the text of Scripture. It should be a safe place where people can ask questions, where they can express their understanding of particular issues and questions without fear of judgment or ridicule, and when necessary, where they can be pointed back to the way of biblical truth by correction or rebuke. In other words, it is not our job as pastors or as church members to police the theology of all Christians everywhere. Rather, it is our job to maintain biblical faithfulness within the context of the local church community where God has placed us.
The second priority is the priority of relationships. Relationships matter. What we must realize is that the Great Commandment to love God and to love people is not two but one. These are two sides of the same coin, to halves of one whole. Loving God necessarily includes loving others, and we can only do this in personal intimate friendships. When these relationships are grounded in mutual love for God and for each other, then and only then can we be assured of a person’s intent, that they are for our good and not for our harm, that they only want what’s best for us. This unwavering trust is the currency that must be spent in speaking words of rebuke to one another. Outside of this basic assurance of a person’s good intentions, our rebukes will almost always come across as harsh, demeaning, belittling, and divisive. In other words, the greater the relational distance that exists between us and our theological opponents, the greater amount of grace we must be willing to extend. This means giving the benefit of the doubt; it means taking our opponents at their word. And it means attributing questions or concerns first to misunderstanding, differing emphases, or lack of clarity before immediately impugning, slandering, and mischaracterizing someone’s biblical fidelity and devotion.
The third priority in the ministry of rebuke is the priority of repentance. Repentance, restoration, reconciliation. This must be the guiding principle, the primary purpose, in every church discipline situation, and this especially so when it comes to the ministry of rebuke. There may be occasions where a stern rebuke is necessary and warranted, but we are not simply trying to win arguments for the sake of being right. We are not engaged in a game where we need to win theological points to defeat our opponents. If false teaching is any doctrine or belief that would invalidate the Gospel, then we cannot pretend that these questions have no consequence. We are engaged in a spiritual battle for the soul, that we might turn them to Christ. This is why doctrine matters; this is why we must contend for the faith. It can never merely be a question of who is right and who is wrong. Every theological conversation must be guided by the primary desire of both parties to be more like Christ, to submit more to Christ, to trust more in Christ. This is why we must be ready and willing to repent and seek forgiveness, and it is why we must engage our theological differences in ways that invite others to do likewise.
And finally, the fourth priority for our theological discourse is the priority of Christlikeness. We are called to demonstrate the virtues of Christian character in every situation, in every interaction, in every conversation. Even when we must speak hard words, we are not permitted to speak them harshly. We cannot give in to attitudes like hate, bitterness, or pride. We cannot treat our theological opponents, no matter the severity of their error, with derision or disregard or contempt. We must always seek to “speak the truth in love” even when that truth is confronting. The point is this, namely that tone matters. Even when we must confront those who are descending into grave theological error, we must endeavor to deliver our rebukes with the virtues of Christ-like character, not the least of which are grace, humility, and love.
Phillip Powers is a pastor serving in Northeastern Arkansas. He blogs periodically at phillippowers.wordpress.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhillipPowers