Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How to deal with false teachers in the church

The infant churches of Crete were being infiltrated by false teachers. The effect of this was devastating. Entire households were being overthrown by error.

What was the apostle Paul's strategy for dealing with dangerous error in the churches?

1. Appoint sound teachers who can handle a fight

Titus is to appoint men to the office of elder/overseer of godly character and proven track record. These men must be unshakeable in the doctrine of the gospel and able to teach the truth so that the church is built up (1:5-9a).

Not only must they give instruction in sound doctrine, they must also be able to refute those who contradict it (1:9b). Calvin wrote that "a pastor needs two voices, one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means for doing both". Godly teachers must oppose error. They must have the stomach for a fight and skill in theological combat.

2. Silence the false teachers

Paul's words read like a memo to a hitman, "They must be silenced" (1:11). Those who contradict the gospel must not be given a platform in the church, instead, they must be excluded. The gospel is the hope of eternal life, but their message is man made. Can you be saved through believing a false gospel? The love of souls compels us to silence false teachers. Let them go on the internet, write books, start up a "church" in the next street. But don't let them be recognised as valid teachers of the gospel.

3. Rebuke straying believers sharply

Paul knew the local temperament, he knew that this brand of false teaching was bringing the worst out of the Cretans (1:12-14). The goal of this rebuke was not their humilation but their soundness in the faith. Paul handles straying believers in different ways depending on their needs and situations. On Crete a firm hand was needed to stop the spread of this nonsense.

4. Teach and enforce the gospel of God's grace and its impact on holy living

Turning from the heretics Paul deals with the content and method of true teaching (2:1-15). It is doctrine and ethics, grace and commands. Different groups in the churches are addressed according to their age and sex. The motive for right living is the intelligent response to the work of Christ crucified, risen and returning. True doctrine is essential to the life of the church. And Titus is to "declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority" (2:15). Titus must keep on teaching the doctrine of the gospel because this is the way to wise godly living in the here and now (3:4-8).

5. Warn divise people twice and then exclude them

Patience has its limits. Titus is not to waste his breath on foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions and quarrels about the law. He can afford to be dismissive about them since they are a complete waste of time and don't build up the church. Then there are people that Titus is not to endlessly try to win over. A person who stirs up division must have two warnings. If that person is unrepentant they are to be kicked out of the church. Their actions show that they are warped, sinful and self-condemned (3:9-11).

Paul's objective standard for judging on these matters is the gospel, the apostolic teaching. The kind of false teaching that he is dealing with in this letter is a contradiction of the authentic gospel. This is the criteria for assessing factionalism and doctrinal divisiveness. Heresy is the cuckoo's egg laid in the church. Once it hatches, and grows, it will seek to takeover.

6. Keep world mission driving the agenda

False teaching is a obstruction to the work of the gospel. It takes up time and valuable resources. It is a distraction to the main work of the ministry, which is the preaching of the gospel and the planting and establishing of churches. Therefore false teachers and their influence must be dealt with decisively. Titus needed to follow Paul's instructions on this to the letter. Failure to do so would have increased his troubles and would not have curbed the damage being done to the churches.

The letter to Titus, dominated by the need to teach the truth and refute error, ends with a travel itinenary. A replacement will be dispatched and Titus will head further West with Paul to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. That is the goal that must not be lost sight of when dealing with heresy.

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