Dear Brothers (and a few Sisters, but mostly Brothers),
I have a confession to make.
In many ways, I want to be just like you.
I truly admire your passion and respect for the Word of God, and the knowledge of it that so many of you have. I am a little bit in awe of your courage to call ’em as you see ’em, spiritually speaking, drawing on that vast reservoir of scriptural familiarity.
In many of you, I’ve encountered a confidence in Christ to be able to call someone a false teacher – even when it’s someone you may not have met nor whose words you’ve heard or read first-hand. And, though I understand why doing that could pose a danger of contaminating the listener with their “false teaching” ….
I am having trouble with that kind of courage.
If I were compelled to display that kind of bravery, would it be fair for me to evaluate the teaching of others (I won’t use the word “judge” just yet) without having thoroughly examined it? Could I accuse someone of spreading falsehood on the word of someone else? Would I really be operating in the spirit of Paul, who admonishes me to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” if I have only explored some things for myself and have taken someone else’s word for the rest? Even if that someone else is a sincerely dedicated student of the Word?
And if I referred to a work that lists false teachers and their teachings in question but the work is more than, say, fifteen years old – shouldn’t I double-check to make sure that the list is still accurate?
How would I know for sure that a teaching is false? Or if it’s just something that I disagree with? I should know them by their fruits, right? But what if they’ve led dozens – maybe hundreds or thousands – to belief in Christ, even if I don’t agree with them on every point of doctrine? Does that mean they are unequivocally false teachers?
Or would it mean that I could be wrong about something, too?
Would I be too narrow in trying to lock down the Bible as being no more and no less than the Law of God? Would I be too liberal in admitting that it is also a story of love and grace? Is it possible that the Bible is both, and many more things, beyond simply a pattern to which I must conform in every detail of my life – whether I understand what or how or why?
Because I can see in scripture all of the aspects of God that so many of you continue to point out in the works of yours that I’ve read: He is demanding. He is all-powerful. He is all-knowing. He is all-sufficient. He is, often, very specific. He does not always take kindly to infractions.
Yet I can also see aspects of God in His Word that I don’t as often hear from you, and do hear frequently from some of the folks you critique: He is kind. He is loving. He is forgiving. He sometimes permits brothers and sisters to disagree on certain matters without revealing judgment. He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. He let His Son die for me. For you. For all.
Is it possible that He is both just and merciful? Both righteous and gracious? That God is big enough to handle and be the tension between the two?
Is He always waiting on the edge of His throne to consign one of His children to the everlasting flames of hell because that child has taught others about Jesus but gotten something wrong in the teaching; has honestly and misunderstood it; or has just been transparent enough to admit, “I just don’t know. I don’t know exactly what God meant in this case. But I trust His grace and His mercy.”?
If I felt compelled by the Spirit to never dare stray from the old paths; to become a watchman on the tower for the misdeeds and misteachings of others – if I actually caught someone in incontrovertible error – would it be the infallibility of the Spirit Himself that I would borrow to do so?
Would I be right in calling that person down in public shame before all of his/her brothers and sisters, snatching my beloved fellowship away from him/her, at my very first mention of his/her fallacious teaching?
Or would it be more conforming to Christ’s nature of me to go to him/her privately … and if that didn’t work, to take one or two of my brothers or sisters with me again to indicate that I’m not alone in seeing the teaching as false … and if all else failed, after exhausting every possible alternative to persuade that loved child of God to desist from teaching error, THEN to shake the dust off my feet and the puzzlement from my head and the tears from my eyes?
Wouldn’t it be more efficacious to at least begin the way Aquila and Priscilla did with Apollos – privately, in the hospitality of home, teaching a more complete truth so as not to expose and ridicule and humiliate and ruin the powerful witness of a teacher of God’s will?
You know, even as I write this, I just know in my heart that it would mean more if I wrote it out by hand and addressed it personally to each of you by name, rather than classing you all under the label “correctors” when I am convinced that each of you has unique qualities and qualifications given as gifts by God that I can’t possibly recognize adequately and lovingly in this way.
For you see, that label fits me as well as anyone else.
Oh, I do understand that you feel compelled to right the wrongs of others, for there are some who are grievously in error; that there were those whom Paul would call down by name in his epistles – but is there any evidence that he and/or the churches ever circumvented the first steps as Jesus described them in Matthew 18 and went straight to public chastisement? And weren’t Paul’s judgments urgently needed to protect the very core truths of the gospel … the humanity AND divinity of Christ; God’s acceptance of Gentiles AND Jews; the priority of teaching the gospel above any lesser and selfish desires to be seen and known and recognized and rewarded?
Because isn’t that exactly what the false teachers of the New Testament were mostly called down for – thinking themselves and their interpretations more important and more binding than the simple truth about Jesus – from the scribes, Pharisees and Saducees to the Judaizing teachers to the Gnostics to the Antichrists themselves?
And when a false teacher is truly and inarguably teaching doctrine that threatens the very unity of the church, should I still call him/her a sibling; a brother or sister in Christ – when that person has stubbornly and willfully lied, misrepresented his/her own teaching as that of Christ? Should I not completely dissociate myself from that person, so that my influence as a teacher will not be called into question? Shouldn’t I refuse to call such a person a brother or sister? Shouldn’t I stop praying for something as absurd as their repentence or their salvation? Shouldn’t I concentrate my efforts on those who will listen and accept good news, rather than squandering it over and over and over again on those who will not heed?
I know these are hard questions, but I felt that if there were people who loved the Book as much as you do, those people could help me find answers.
But in the end, I wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to leave all the judging up to God. He is so much better qualified for it than I am. Maybe all He really wants of us is to judge for ourselves, and not for others … to judge actions and words, rather than people … to love each other deeply, even when we disagree … to address false teaching directly, rather than false teachers indirectly.
Well, all I can really ask of you is to consider these questions prayerfully with me. I know I’ve written some of them with an obvious bias, but I thought maybe they would provoke a reaction from some of you – just as things that some of you write are obviously designed to provoke a reaction from someone like me.
Maybe the dialog would do us all some good. Maybe we’d be less tempted to see each other as mere bylines on articles on Web sites or church bulletins or other printed publications. Perhaps we’d begin seeing each other and ourselves just as we are; just as God Himself sees us – pitiable sinning creatures, forever lost were it not for His love and grace toward us, expressed so powerfully in the blood of Christ.
We might even be more likely to display the kind of courage He seeks in us, the kind that is willing to say “I was wrong.”
I hope that you will pray fervently for my forgiveness if I have erred in writing this brief and inadequate epistle. I hope that you will pray that I will open my mind and my heart to every aspect of God’s good nature. I hope that you will understand that it is my love for you that prompts my prayers for the same blessing on you, so that because of, rather than in spite of, our differences and gifts the whole body of Christ will be built up together, complete and well-armed and unified, so that we can address each other with full hearts as ….
Your brother in Christ,