Fight Valiantly! The Ongoing Battle
Posted by Lee Gatiss, 5 Apr 2019
Over the next few days, we will begin to apply the biblical teaching expounded so far in our series on contending for the faith, to the Church of England. Watch today's episode on our YouTube channel.
Many of the heresies combatted in the pages of the Bible are now dead and gone, though by no means all. Yet we continue to observe embodiments of the heretical impulses identified by Scripture in all kinds of modern incarnations. Variants of the false teachings about salvation tackled by Paul are always popping up, for example, as well as the creation-denying gnostic heresies which were popular in certain places in the second century. Accommodation with local customs, either social or commercial or religious, is a perennial problem; wherever we are, the surrounding culture exerts a subtle and persistent pressure on the church (and sometimes not so subtle).
The battle against heresy was not won once and for all at some point in the past, but is an ongoing concern. Paul’s words have proved prophetic in every generation: “after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).
Heresies about the Trinity or about the person of Christ remain a perpetual source of error in the church. That is why we must hold firmly not just to Scripture but also to “such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.” Use of the Creeds in Sunday gatherings is a powerful and effective way of immunising congregations from the deleterious effects of the false teachings which ripped apart the early church.
The prosperity gospel, which plays on our greed and covetous desires, is a huge problem in many parts of the global church. As is the syncretistic mixing of other religious ideologies and practices into the teaching of the church, and the universalism this often fosters. The Western idolatries of sex and celebrity have torn the fabric of the church almost everywhere. Identity politics in our surrounding culture has infiltrated the church and overturned not simply basic doctrines such as creation, the Fall, and repentance, but also attacked fundamental building blocks of human flourishing such as marriage, family, and the long-established sexual ethics which gave Western civilisation its stability.
The existence of heresy can help refine our understanding of the truth. Having to combat error forces us to deepen our grasp of God’s revealed word in ways we might not otherwise have thought to consider. Yet heresy also robs Christ of his glory and his authority, a theft which no true Christian can endure.
So how can we now apply the scriptural lessons that we have seen so far to the situation in the Church today? It is a sad necessity that such a question needs to be asked, but no church is perfect. One of the great slogans of the Reformation movement was Semper Reformanda — even Reformed churches must continually be reformed, by the word of God. We cannot rest content with the church as it is.
Over the next few days, I want to try and apply these things to my own church, the Church of England in particular, but they will have multiple implications for many other groupings and denominations as well. Yet as Sean Michael Lucas perceptively says, from a Presbyterian standpoint,
“The greatest danger comes from those who are simply not willing to be troubled to care about the denomination, who are content in their own smaller networks (whether formal presbyteries or informal affinity groups), and who will not engage in the issues of the day… And so, that is why I believe that utter indifference to the plight of denominations is the major danger we face today. Because when doctrinal challenges do come from ministers who are doctrinally deviant, many ministers, elders and laypeople simply tell themselves, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter; we can do our own thing over here, use the denomination as a branding and credentialing agency, and not be affected.’ Meanwhile, important biblical truths to which God calls us to witness are being questioned in our churches and among our young people.” (See Martin Downes (ed.), Risking the Truth)
So, we must contend in our denomination for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of the people in our churches. Paul did not tell Timothy to simply allow false teachers to steal away the sheep without challenge. Avoiding their errors, as we must, does not mean keeping our heads down and pretending they do not exist, while we seek purer and purer communities of true faith that wolves will supposedly never bother.
Paul wrote to Timothy precisely to encourage him to remain in Ephesus and to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3). In the same way, he told Titus in Crete that the heretical party in the church there “must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:11). Equally, the apostle told the local church in Thessalonica that they should also have a care for the Church of Macedonia more widely (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10). We can’t just focus on our own thing, but must engage with others, both to encourage and to warn.
Of course that means we have a duty of love towards Christians in other denominations and countries too. But that doesn’t diminish our duty to the denomination of which we are actually members. Indeed, given its significant place in the life of the nation and the Anglican Communion globally, it is surely right not to give up the Church of England entirely to the wolves without a serious fight.
Contending without compromise, and contending without contentiousness — this is the delicate line we are called to walk in the Church of England today, as we seek to promote the gospel lovingly in the 21st century context.
Questions for Reflection
1. How can we make sure we don’t simply re-fight old battles from centuries past in the church today?
2. Do you agree that “utter indifference to the plight of denominations” is a major danger that we face today, or should we just keep our heads down in one local church?
3. What are some of the ways in which you feel your denomination needs to be reformed and renewed today?
Catch up with the whole series so far.
Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.
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