By Jeff Faull
OK, I might as well admit it. I’m a peacemaker by nature, an off-the-charts shower of mercy. A lover and not a fighter. I tend to look for commonality over differences—I despise legalism. Unity is not a bad word to me. I’m a Psalm 133/John 17 guy and glad to be one.
Quickly skim over the New Testament with that mind-set. It only takes a few minutes. With a cursory glance at Acts 2 and beyond—you can see it. It’s beautiful to trace the harmony that existed when the church began. Christians were doctrinally aligned—all of one mind.
But it didn’t take long before there was disagreement and strife. There are traces of it in every letter in the New Testament, starting with the ones penned by Paul.
Reminders to Love
The church at Rome had to be reminded to quit judging and causing their brothers to stumble—and to begin to put other people first and to accept one another.
The Corinthian church was rebuked for its internal bickering and division.
The Galatian church had to be encouraged to serve one another, and to avoid strife, jealousy, and anger. Hostile actions were condemned and the fruit of the Spirit was elevated.
When Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, he begged for unity and instructed them to show forbearance, to be diligent, to get along. He told them to be kind to one another, and tenderhearted, and to forgive one another.
In the Philippian letter he addressed two women who evidently couldn’t get along and he called them out by name and encouraged the whole church to be of the same mind and have the attitude of Christ.
To the Colossians, he said to put aside anger, wrath, and malice, and to put on the heart of compassion, humility, and forgiveness, even as God forgives you.
To the Thessalonians, he advised trafficking in love for one another and not repaying evil for evil.
He advised Timothy to not be quarrelsome, but to be patient when someone does him wrong, and to be gentle.
In Titus, he taught about the danger of maligning each other. He advised Christ followers to reject people who always fight.
He urged Philemon to do the right thing, and to accept and forgive Onesimus.
Other New Testament writers were of the same mind.
The writer of Hebrews said to encourage one another and pursue peace with everyone.
James offered this advice: Watch your tongue, don’t curse your brother, get rid of selfish motivation, avoid fighting and quarreling, and don’t speak against each other.
Peter instructed his readers to fervently love one another from the heart, while putting aside malice, envy, and slander; he also said don’t fight back.
Then there was John: Love, love, love, they will know we are Christians by our love.
Jude hoped for mercy and peace to be multiplied, and urged Christians to watch out for those who cause divisions.
And, finally, the book of Revelation described a place where there is no more conflict, negative emotion, and division—a place where all things are new.
Yes, I realize what that means. It means we can go through every single book in the New Testament and with little effort find that Christ’s church is to be a church that can get along. If we don’t get this, we don’t get anything. What other subject and teaching is so easily and readily seen on every page of the New Testament?
Only one other type of warning appears so often. Only one other target of practical admonition gets that kind of ink. Only one other emphasis gets this much press.
What subject is it? The warnings against false doctrine.
It’s the flipside of the coin. It’s the opposite edge of the double-edged sword of truth and love. It is the incessant warning against false teaching and false teachers.
The Currency of Truth
I’m wondering; whatever happened to false doctrine? Is there such a thing anymore? And if there is—how bad does it have to be in order to be designated as such? Must one be a cultist or an intentional proponent of multiple heretical positions to earn the rank of false teacher? Must one believe in golden plates and magic spectacles or created gods and Watchtower literature to be censored?
We deal in the currency of truth. Are there no longer any counterfeits?
I know, I know, no one has a corner on doctrinal truth. Grace, love, and humility are not merely admirable qualities but absolute necessities when dealing with doctrinal and spiritual matters. And yes, there are voices out there attaching the label “false teacher” to anyone who has the slightest difference of opinion.
But there are also those who have completely removed that moniker from their vocabulary. There are now no felony offenses. All doctrinal deviations are simple misdemeanors. The only serious charges are reserved for those who dare to judge or prosecute the proponents of falsehood.
We know society has moved many formerly unacceptable behaviors off the prohibitive lists and placed them on the acceptable behaviors side of the ledger. Could it be that, in the same way, churches of the Restoration heritage have decided to tolerate or even embrace teachings and practices that would have been utterly rejected in the past?
Are the shepherds among us playing the part of “dumb dogs” who do not bark? (Isaiah 56:10). Have we inadvertently traded the beautiful pursuit of the apostles’ teaching for the ever-elusive quest of hyper-inclusive fellowship, entrepreneurial savvy, cultural pragmatism, and trendy spirituality?
Is it possible we have become doctrinal pacifists fleeing as conscientious objectors to avoid conflict? Or, at best, are we seeking noncombat positions to avoid contending for the faith? In our understandable and justifiable fear of the possibility of “friendly fire,” have we abandoned our posts and put down our weapons?
Thomas Jefferson once said, “Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not.” Rather than influencing other people with the dream of New Testament Christianity, we are parroting the leaders and even the rebels of the Evangelical world. We now function in an environment where many leaders would rather identify themselves with the trampoline theology of Rob Bell and his book Velvet Elvis than the brick-and-mortar theology of Jack Cottrell in his book The Faith Once for All. Doesn’t the New Testament use the imagery of cornerstones and foundations to describe the church—solid rock, not shifting sand?
Let’s skim the New Testament one more time from that perspective.
The latter chapters of Acts find Paul warning the elders to be on guard for the inevitable truth distorters.
He reminds the Romans to mark those who would teach contrary doctrines.
To the Corinthians, Paul affirms the necessity and responsibility to judge.
The book of Galatians is an exposé of those who would pervert the gospel.
Great church teachings in Ephesians include encouragement to brace against the winds of incorrect doctrine.
Within the joyous letter to Philippi, Paul posts a “beware of dogs” sign.
Colossians teaches us to reject traditions of men.
Christians in Thessalonica were warned of deceivers and apostasy.
Timothy was told to correct those who are in opposition. In fact, Timothy was to remain in Ephesus to keep certain people from teaching false doctrine.
Titus was instructed to pursue purity in his teaching.
The writer of Hebrews reminded us of the need for doctrinal maturity.
James said teachers will incur tougher judgment.
Peter exposed destructive heresies.
John commanded us to test the spirits to see if they are from God.
Jude said to contend for the faith.
And in Revelation, God, through John, called out churches for their false teachings. All this is easily found in almost every book of the New Testament.
It is true Jesus prayed for unity. But he also warned of falsehood. It is true Jesus is the judge, but we will also be judged by his words. It is true that where there are waves in the baptistery, people aren’t fighting over trivial issues. But if we don’t guard doctrine there might not be any waves in the baptistery. Paul’s letters to Timothy were written so we might know how to operate in the church that is the pillar and support of the truth. Listen to what he said.
“Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:15, 16).
I’m still wondering, whatever happened to false doctrine?
Jeff Faull is senior minister with Mount Gilead Church in Mooresville, Indiana. He serves as one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors.