After Paul concluded his third missionary campaign, he finally arrived at Jerusalem. When certain Jews saw the apostle in the temple, they stirred up the crowds and seized him.
Paul was accused of being a false teacher and of desecrating the temple; allegedly, he brought Greeks into the sacred precincts. The basis of the charge was this. Earlier, Paul had been seen “in the city” with Trophimus, the Ephesian. Consequently, with an incredible leap of logic, “they supposed that Paul had brought [this Gentile] into the temple” (cf. Acts 21:27-29).
This debacle resulted in the great apostle being taken into protective custody, and, eventually, being imprisoned unjustly for more than four years (cf. 24:27; 28:30). What a travesty!
When men entertain a lynch-mob mentality, truth and evidence matter little; the coveted result becomes paramount. As one reflects upon this divine narrative, he may be reminded of the disposition that, tragically, has consumed some who profess to be Christians.
The Root of the Problem
There is no question but that the church of today is in the throes of apostasy. There are those who clamor for a “fellowship” that is broader than allowed by the New Testament. Some are inclining toward the charismatic practices of neo-pentecostalism. Others are campaigning for an expansive role for women; ultimately they aim for a female preaching ministry. Some contend that “pious unimmersed” believers are Christians. It is argued that there is “no pattern” by which to regulate Christian worship, etc. These are not isolated pockets of doctrinal aberration; rather, they represent widespread departures from the faith, with an accelerating momentum.
It definitely is time for the people of God, who still respect the “old paths,” to be concerned. We need voices of reasoned moderation who will address these issues with calmness and compassion. And while there are militant leaders within this digression who need to be reproved sharply (Tit. 1:13), there are others, with superficial backgrounds, who are caught up in the movement, but who, if approached properly, might be reclaimed. Spiritual people must work toward this end (Gal. 6:1).
The Climate of Fear
In times such as these, when long-cherished, biblical positions are being assaulted, it is easy for a climate of fear or panic to develop. Sometimes sincere folks, who mean nothing but good, over-react and become suspicious of almost everyone. In their zeal, they respond harshly and irresponsibly, and, in the final analysis, end up being more of a hindrance to the cause of truth than a help. This is where older, more seasoned saints should try to help well-meaning reactionaries bring a sense of balance to their attempts at stemming the tide of digression.
Unfortunately, during periods of doctrinal confusion a peculiar sort of antagonist is prone to appear. There is that type of brother who can be described only as a professional heretic hunter. Frequently he is looking for a name and a following. He capitalizes upon the brotherhood’s fears by becoming, at least in his own mind, the savior of the church. He rushes forward to ferret out every “unsound” person he can locate. The “heresy” could be anything from citing a scripture reference from a “modern translation,” to having attended a lecture program on which a speaker of questionable soundness has appeared.
It is a very dangerous thing to become obsessed with routing out and exposing false teachers. There is, of course, a legitimate place for protecting the church from those who would compromise the faith with dangerous doctrines. However, when a brother virtually makes a career of this sort of activity, he almost invariably becomes fanatical. He is ever searching for new victims with which to fuel his reputation. When church bulletins and journals are devoted almost exclusively to exposing others, it is unhealthy.
The Chain-Reaction Phenomenon
The sort of radical disposition that is described above is reflected in a variety of manifestations, not the least of which is what might be styled the “chain-reaction” phenomenon. It operates something like this. A brother conducts a gospel meeting for a church. He faithfully preaches the truth. The host church, however, is known to have used other men of questionable soundness in the past. Hereafter, the brother will be labelled as “an associate of liberals.”
Here is another case. The editor of a respected journal publishes an excellent article by a brother who, in the opinion of some, is supposed to entertain a questionable view on a certain topic. Immediately, reactionaries attack the editor, charging him with promoting a false teacher. With radicals there is no room for individual judgment. Everyone must march to their drummer or he is out of favor.
Some while ago a minister announced that he has a list of several hundred preachers who are worthy of disfellowship. He also implied that anyone who continues to associate with those on his “black” list likewise ought to be “marked.” This suggests that this self-deputized vigilante now will have to compile a new list, castigating those who do not disfellowship everyone on his initial “hit” list. This, of course, could lead to even further lists. Where does it end? Can we not see that this sort of disposition will damage the cause of Christ?
It is unquestionably true that fellowship should be withheld from proven false teachers in the church. Those who place no restrictions upon brethren who flagrantly advocate serious error have no respect for New Testament instruction.
On the other hand, it is radicalism in the extreme to suggest that if one does not disfellowship every person on someone’s “contract,” then he must be censured. There are those on the radical fringe whom I would not recommend, nor invite for a lecture program; that does not mean, though, that I am ready to disfellowship every soul who may associate with them in some manner. Not all people will have the same judgment regarding the danger of certain teachers, the time frame for warnings, etc.
Those who are in positions of influence must help to restore some sense of sanity to the mainstream brotherhood. Christians who are irresponsible in the way they deal with others must be called to accountability. We must let them know that we are not intimidated by them, and we will not tolerate this tooth-and-claw attitude in the name of “soundness.”
It is time for a return to an era of fidelity that is seasoned with common sense and brotherly concern. May God bless us to this end.