As our Lent series on contending for the faith continues, we look today at how we can guard congregations against false teaching.
All clergy have a responsibility to avoid false teaching and teachers, to set these things before their people, and refute them (1 Timothy 4:6; Titus 1:9). It is no good if they know the ins and outs of contemporary heresies affecting their flocks but never take the time to alert them and equip them to handle such challenges to the faith themselves. This is a core responsibility of any shepherd, that they hold firmly to the trustworthy word and are able to instruct others in sound doctrine, refuting those who contradict it (Titus 1:9, 13).
Yet ministers are often afraid of stirring up controversy by teaching clearly on these subjects. They keep their views to themselves and hardly ever mention such things in their teaching, because they don’t want to alienate people or scare them, or seem to be a negative person. Too rarely do congregations proactively request such teaching. Yet as Carl Trueman says, “we must continually fight liberalism within our own soul and within our own churches… for this battle is nothing less than one particular outworking of our love for God in Christ.”
Personally, I have so many heresies hidden in my heart already, which pull me away from pure devotion to Christ and his truth, I absolutely need those who preach to me to warn me and admonish me all the time. As someone who has been an ordained minister for nearly 20 years, an academic theologian, an itinerant preacher, and a public figure, I can honestly say I know this isn’t easy. But I can also say, as an ordinary member of a congregation, that I have needed such refutation of false ideas and false practices to be applied to me at every stage of my Christian life. God has kept me from shipwreck and despair, from mis-directed zeal and licentious comfort, from negligence in duty and over-reliance on myself, from heresy, apostasy, schism, and immorality — through the regular ministry of the word, applied both positively and negatively to my heart, soul, and mind. I have needed to be told “This is the way”, but also, just as often, to be warned “Don’t go there.” God has graciously rescued me from side-tracks and silliness through the clear and compassionate boundary-markers put down by faithful servants of his word. It would not have been loving of him, or of them, to have left me to discover the dangers on my own.
Part of this vital spiritual discipline of applying and promoting the gospel lovingly in a context of opposition, is for ministers to guard their flocks from wolves and teach them how to respond. Canon Law says of a bishop that “it appertains to his office to teach and to uphold sound and wholesome doctrine, and to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions; and, [be] himself an example of righteous and godly living” (Canon C18). Presbyters too are required in the authoritative Book of Common Prayer Ordinal to make a promise to do this also: “Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word; and to use both publick and private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, within your cures, as need shall require, and occasion shall be given? I will, the Lord being my helper.” Indeed, in the sense that we have established in this series, all the promises in the ordination service are about contending for the faith.
This is not only the responsibility of the ordained clergy, and never has been. So in the early church, Cyprian of Carthage (200-258) made the point that the laity have a duty to disassociate from bishops and presbyters who do not preach the truth, and should not be “lending consent to the unrighteous and unlawful Episcopate of their Prelate.” Indeed, he says, we are “not to mingle in unholy communion with profane and polluted Priests, but with religious awe uphold the firmness of your faith stedfast and sincere.” St Augustine (354-430), a bishop himself, was also clear that it was incumbent on us all to take care in this regard. He wrote that, “We should not obey those bishops who have been duly elected, if they commit errors, or teach or ordain any thing contrary to the divine Scripture.” Luther was echoing this same idea when he wrote that,
“wherever there is a Christian congregation in possession of the gospel, it not only has the right and power but also the duty – on pain of losing the salvation of its souls and in accordance with the promise made to Christ in baptism – to avoid, to flee, to depose, and to withdraw from the authority that our bishops… and the like are now exercising. For it is clearly evident that they teach and rule contrary to God and his word… it is a divine right and a necessity for the salvation of souls to depose or to avoid such bishops… and whatever is of their government.”
This is why section 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration (2008), which underpins the GAFCON movement, says, “We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed. We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord.” This is not a novel approach to such things, but entirely in keeping with patristic and Reformation precedents for dealing with false teaching. Private errors of private persons may be dealt with quietly and privately; but public errors by public persons (e.g. ordained ministers or people who speak and write in public) can be dealt with publicly. Individual ministers and congregations can take practical measures in some of these areas without having to rely on moribund formal and institutional processes.
If congregations have rights and responsibilities in this area, therefore, they need to be taught about them. We won’t want to make contending against false teaching the main thing we preach about every single week; although visitors and those who are not Christians do need to hear their objections and reasonable questions on these sorts of issues addressed, especially if there are high profile false teachers operating in your area or in the national arena. An occasional aside to clarify a disputed issue can be extremely beneficial and clear up common confusions about what Christianity really is. Ministers have a duty to equip their congregations on the issues facing them and on how to fight valiantly as a soldier of Christ. They must also keep lay leaders and church councils up to speed on the details of what is happening in the wider church.
I can think of a very obvious way of helping to do that: Why not encourage people in your church to join Church Society, or subscribe to their magazine, blog, or podcast?
Questions for Reflection
1. Can you look back and thank God for times when he has saved you from doctrinal or moral errors because of the ministry of your church?
2. How could your church be better guarded against false teaching?
3. Do you think the clergy should avoid all mention of controversial issues in their sermons?
Find links to all the 2019 Lent blogposts and videos in this series here.
Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.