That Mysterious Disciple
“John said unto him, Teacher, we saw one casting out demons in your name; and we forbade him because he followed us not. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man who shall do a mighty work in my name, and be able to quickly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us” (Mk. 9:38-40).
In recent years, this passage in the Gospel of Mark has become the center of a doctrinal storm. It has been cited frequently as a proof-text for the allegation that there are individuals in practically all denominational bodies who are true Christians (Shelly, 123ff). This includes religious leaders like Billy Graham, John Stott, and James Dobson (Cope, 7).
Those who dispute this saints-in-the-sects dogma are accused of exhibiting an arrogant, exclusive attitude — similar to that of the Lord’s disciples, and for which they were rebuked.
What are the actual facts of this case? A careful consideration of the available data will reveal that this rather obscure incident does not afford any comfort to those who are unscripturally ecumenical in their orientation.
John, an eyewitness to the controversy, plainly stated that this man was “casting out demons” in the name of Christ. There are several crucial considerations to be noted.
- John, who complained about the man, conceded that the gentleman was actually casting out demons; there is no hint of fraud. The fact is, demons were perfectly capable of distinguishing between those who possessed true expulsion abilities, and those who merely feigned such (see Acts 19:13-16).
- The anonymous disciple was doing his work “in [the Lord’s] name.”
- There is no evidence that the man was teaching any sort of religious error, and he was not so charged by the disciples.
The Lord instructed his disciples: “Forbid him not,” or, as the Greek suggests: “Stop hindering him.” The Savior then explained why this fellow was not to be opposed. “No man who is doing a mighty work in my name will be able to quickly speak evil of me.”
Jesus acknowledged that:
- This man was performing genuine signs.
- He was doing such in the name of Christ, i.e., on the ground of the Lord’s authority (see “Name,” W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.
If the man was actually casting out demons, then he obviously was teaching the gospel, because supernatural signs were designed to confirm the truth of the miracle-worker’s message. “Signs” were never granted as mere ends within themselves; they were intended to accompany, and validate, divine instruction (Mk. 16:17-20; Heb. 2:2-4). Supernatural gifts would never have been given to authenticate a false teaching.
How can this case possibly serve as a precedent for today, justifying fellowship with those who are propagating denominational error?
Conclusions To Be Drawn
What do we learn from this episode? We are forced to conclude that this unknown disciple had, on an earlier occasion, been associated with Christ, and that the Lord had enlisted the gentleman in His divine mission.
The disciples were unaware of the man’s identity; nonetheless, he was one of the Savior’s workers. He possessed a spiritual gift. From whom else would he have received that power — if not from the Son of God? Jesus plainly suggested that though this man was not in the immediate company of the twelve, he was nevertheless “for us.” And so the disciples were not to hinder his labor.
What relationship does this episode bear to a modern situation involving folks who have never obeyed the gospel, and who are unquestionably teaching anti-scriptural doctrines? None at all. It certainly does censure an aloof attitude on the part of any disciple who would hold himself apart from others who are faithfully serving the Lord, but it does not sanction the teaching of error.
The Current Problem
What theologically liberal people need, in order to justify their interdenominational-fellowship, is a case where Jesus rebuked his disciples for not fraternizing with those advocating error.
Our current problem is this: We have men within the church (and they represent a sizable segment) who have lost all respect for New Testament authority. They have become sectarian to the very core of their souls. They desperately want to be affiliated with the denominations, but various factors prevent them from leaving the church outright and joining themselves to the sects. Some of them have already swayed the flocks with which they work — naive souls whose superficial Bible knowledge has made them vulnerable to the charms of slick-talking technicians who masquerade as gospel preachers.
Some of these feel they are “reformers.” They fantasize that they have been specially called of God to bring “the Church of Christ denomination” out of its suffocating sectarianism into the conglomerate of modern “Christendom.” They actually envision their names inscribed in the books that will chronicle the epochal deeds of ecclesiastical history.
There are a couple of crucial principles that must be kept in view in considering the issues of the current controversy.
- Accurate teaching, genuine understanding, and true obedience are essential in the salvation process (Jn. 8:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; Heb. 5:9). Just because one has experienced some form of “baptism” does not mean that he is a Christian.
- Even if one has known the truth, if he digresses into error (perhaps identifying with some religious sect), he is not to be granted approval in that state.
Those who wish to remain faithful to the Lord will not be swayed by this new sectarian mentality.
- Cope, Mike. 1997. Wineskins (April/May).
- Shelly, Rubel. 1984. I Just Want to Be a Christian. 20th Century Christian: Nashville, TN.
- Vine, W. E. 1991. Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. World Bible Publishers: Iowa Falls, IA.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.