Set for the Defense
Harry R. Osborne
The apostle Paul proclaimed his steadfast resolve to stand with the truth of God by saying, "I am set for the defense of the gospel" (Phil. 1:17, v.16 in ASV). Was such a responsibility for Paul in his unique place as an apostle or did other Christians also have the same responsibility? Since that gospel was defended by apostles in the first century, are modern Christians free from the task of defending it from present day assaults? Can preachers, elders and saints of our time legitimately excuse current failures to use the Spirit's sword to expose error by claiming that modern Christians lack the apostolic credentials to undertake this task?
The culture around us disdains those who defend Bible truth as an absolute. They teach, as fundamental, the tenets of relativism. They assure us with absolute certainty that we cannot know anything for certain. To assert that the principles and actions of another are wrong is to commit the cardinal sin of our age: intolerance. In many schools, our children have been taught that "diversity" should be celebrated. That acceptance of "diversity" was, at first, limited to accepting those of diverse races and economic backgrounds. If it had stayed at that point, all of us could give a hearty "AMEN" to the concept because such is clearly taught in Scripture (Acts 10:34-35; Rom. 2:7-11; Jas. 2:1-9). However, the proponents of accepting and celebrating "diversity" went on to include adultery, fornication, homosexuality, false religion, and a host of other sinful actions in the category of "diversity" and "alternate lifestyles" which are to be accepted and celebrated. It is at this point that the child of God must see the shift in definition and oppose any movement to accept sinful principles and action. God has always demanded His people to hate, reject and oppose every evil way (Psa. 119:128; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:11; Eph. 5:6-12; 2 Jn. 9-11).
We expect the fact that the world which loves sin would seek to justify its evil action and silence the opponents thereof (Jn. 3:19-20; 7:1, 7; 15:18-21). Isaiah pronounced, "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness" (Isa. 5:18-23 cf. Ezek.15:22-23). The wisdom writer of old noted God's condemnation of those who would justify evil and tolerate its continuance (Prov. 17:15; 18:15; 24:24). Solomon later notes the response characteristic of the one set for the defense of truth:
They that forsake the law praise the wicked; but such as keep the law contend with them (Prov. 28:4).
It is a sad day in spiritual Israel which has brought all too many brethren to the point of praising the wicked, justifying their acceptance, quelling their tongues from the mandatory rebuke of evil, and, instead, pronouncing condemnation upon those who do contend with the wicked as charged by God. The contender with wickedness is now labeled a "watchdog," a "self-proclaimed guardian of orthodoxy" or a "Pharisee." From pulpits to dining room tables, from Bible classes to college campuses, from "gospel papers" to preachers of repute, a growing cry is being heard for tolerance of "diversity" in doctrine and practice, even when sin is involved. It began its current momentum from brother Ed Harrell's plea for continued acceptance of brother Homer Hailey despite his teaching and application of error on divorce and remarriage (Christianity Magazine, Nov. 88, pp. 6-9). It gained steam when none of the editors of that paper challenged brother Harrell's error. The speed of the movement increased further when esteemed brethren stepped in to defend the concept that we should praise our "historical practice" of accepting those who teach some doctrinal errors and practice some sins. It has clearly gone beyond the sound (2 Tim. 2:13; 1 Tim. 6:3f) barrier as some have now begun to praise our doctrinal diversity as a proof of rightful congregational autonomy.
Brethren, it is past time that we realize there is no violation of congregational autonomy in preaching the truth! Conversely, we must see that the Bible recognizes no legitimate autonomy for a church to do that which it has no authority to do. A congregation of God's people is protected against the assaults of the devil and his forces only to the degree that each individual Christian hears and heeds the whole counsel of God.
A Study of Context
The same gospel message that brought people to salvation and protected them therein was the focus of Paul's interest. He was even thankful for the persecution brought upon him because it ended in "the progress of the gospel" (Phil. 1:12). That focus on the gospel can be seen in the words used by the apostle as he spoke of his work and the Philippian brethren's part in it. Paul, the saints at Philippi, and Timothy all had "fellowship in the furtherance of the gospel" (Phil. 1:5; 2:22). Since Paul was faithfully declaring the truth of the gospel, the saints properly had fellowship with him in supporting him financially so that his work might continue (Phil. 1:3-7; 4:14-17). If Timothy was to take a stand for the truth, he also needed to stand with such an one who was faithfully declaring the gospel (2 Tim. 1:8). If one is faithfully declaring the gospel in our time, the same fellowship together is possible since we are united in holding to and declaring the same truth.
If one fails to faithfully uphold, declare and defend the truth of the gospel, how can a congregation of God's people or individual saints justifiably receive and support such an one? Yet, some well known preachers today are teaching lessons which seek to justify congregations which financially support preachers of error to work in their midst or elsewhere. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that such action is contrary to the will of God (2 Jn. 9-11). Those participating in such praise and support of the wicked ought to repent of this evil and to summon the courage necessary to contend with the wicked as commanded in God's word. When Paul defended the gospel in the presence of the saints at Philippi and they supported his work, they were all partakers with Paul of grace (Phil. 1:7). What "grace" is found in supporting and working with preachers of error? Are precious souls brought closer to our Lord by setting aside the sword of the Spirit and refusing to defend the blood-bought gospel in order to accept "doctrinal diversity" and adapt to the plea for "tolerance" of wickedness?
After Paul proclaimed that he was "set for the defense of the gospel," he made it plain that defending the gospel was a responsibility shared by every saint. He called upon the bishops, deacons and all saints addressed to "stand fast in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel; and in nothing affrighted by the adversaries" (Phil. 1:27-28). Peter confirmed that all Christians have the same responsibility to "give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear" (1 Pet. 3:15). Thus, when we have the meekness which submits to God's will and the reverence for Him which causes us to submit, we will answer for our hope to every man - including popular preachers of error, college professors, elders leading people to apostasy and old soldiers of the cross who have switched allegiance. The word "answer" from 1 Peter 3:15 and the word "defense" from Philippians 1:17 are both translated from the same Greek word, apologia, which refers to "a speech of defense" or a "reply" upholding something in the face of conflict. The gospel was the object of both Peter and Paul's repeated defense though opposition to that truth arose through persecution, error and other adversaries. It was not merely the responsibility of apostles to meet this charge, but it is one given to faithful Christians today as the situation arises necessitating such.
Some today argue that faithful brethren cannot emulate the examples of the apostles defending the truth against the assaults of error because we are not apostles. This argument is not only false, but it strikes at the very heart of how we establish authority. Those who are making the argument will be forced to make a "new hermeneutic" of their own as they have denied the fundamentals regarding the scriptural concept of establishing authority. If we cannot imitate the example of apostles in all approved action which is not unique to their place as apostles (i.e. inspired revelation of truth and the miraculous confirmation thereof), how can we claim that we believe in the binding nature of "approved apostolic examples"? If these brethren are correct in their argument, we must believe the opposite! That is, if an apostle is involved in it, we cannot do it! In their quest for a positive gospel which tolerates doctrinal diversity and negates the need for the controversy inherent in defending the gospel, the new thinkers among us are, indeed, headed where no faithful brethren remain. They have a new mind set which is headed to a new hermeneutic which will end in the black hole of apostasy.
The Jerusalem Church
Acts 15 shows an approved example of the elders in one church taking part in sending a teaching regarding the truth of God's will to other churches. They did not act in order to make a decision for any other church, but to defend God's will as stated in His revealed truth. They saw the need to do this because brethren had gone out from Jerusalem teaching error (Acts 15:23). In the letter, they warned brethren in other places about those teaching error (v. 24). They commended the teachers of truth to brethren in other places (vv. 25-26). They sent men with the written message who would declare the same points in an oral fashion unto brethren in other places (v. 27). In the written message, they declared the principles of truth which had been revealed by the Holy Spirit (vs. 28-29). While it is true that the Spirit inspired the content of the message, that does not change the fact that these actions were taken. God does not use a wrong means to declare a right message. Everything about the context suggests that the action was approved.
If those elders had taken it upon themselves to bind their decision on another church about who was to be allowed to preach for that other church, such a violation of autonomy would have been rebuked. However, providing teaching to brethren in other places does not violate their autonomy. Brethren have rightly acted upon the same principle when bulletins with the teaching of truth were sent from one church to another during the defense of the gospel against the errors of institutionalism. The same is true when brethren have acted in a parallel way to that in Acts 15 by making provision for the local preacher who has an opportunity to hold a meeting for another congregation. A church so doing is acting in accordance with the pattern of truth as seen in Acts 15. They are not violating the pattern of truth. They are showing love and concern for the souls of brethren in other places.
The Case of Colosse
In Colossians 2:1-8 and the following context, we may see that it is proper for one to defend the truth to those in another congregation (of which that one is not a member) without violating the autonomy of that congregation. Clearly, Paul taught the brethren at Colosse though he was not a member of that local church. He warned the brethren in Colosse of specific errors and of those who taught error though they had "not seen [his] face in the flesh" (Col. 2:1). In doing so, Paul did not violate the autonomy of the church in Colosse. Again, God does not use a wrong method to deliver a right message. Yes, Paul taught by inspiration of the Holy Spirit which no man has today as he teaches. Yes, Paul had the unique place of an apostle which no man has today. This fact is noted in 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 where we are told of that unique place. If one tried to teach those in another congregation by assuming the place of apostolic authority, he would be acting wrongfully since no man today can assume the place of apostolic authority.
However, when we consider the actions of Paul, he says that we are to imitate him. "I beseech you therefore, be ye imitators of me. For this cause have I sent unto you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, who shall put you in remembrance of my ways which are in Christ, even as I teach everywhere in every church" (1 Cor. 4:16-17). One imitates action, not place. We cannot imitate Paul's unique place in the kingdom as an ambassador of Christ to reveal and confirm of the truth, but we can imitate the action of his teaching in method and content. He told Timothy to do so. He told Timothy to teach others to do so.
John & the Churches of Asia
The second and third chapters of Revelation addressed individual churches and the problems thereof. The apostle gave specific teaching to each congregation intended to exhort and correct their specific situations. In the face of a variety of assaults against the truth, John's teaching served as a defense of the gospel which protected the saints individually and as a congregation. The saints in all seven churches read the letters addressed to the other churches. As the book was circulated to other churches beyond the seven addressed, saints in other places also read about their problems and the teaching done to correct those problems. When the saints in other places had the same or similar problems in their midst, they could be protected from error by the defense of the truth recorded in the letters to the seven churches. When saints today face problems in our midst, we also can find instruction and correction when the principles taught in the first century are applied to our situations, thus, protecting against sin and error by the modern defense of the truth.
John did not violate anyone's autonomy by writing these letters, even though he was not in their presence. John did not violate anyone's autonomy nor did he violate their right of privacy by dealing with the problems and identifying those in sin and error. The brethren who read these letters did not violate anyone's autonomy nor did they act unethically by reading letters addressed to others in order to help them understand and apply principles of truth. The things being written by John in these letters were merely applications of the same truth he proclaimed openly and universally. When we read these letters, we are not violating anyone's autonomy nor are we guilty of wrongdoing for reading correspondence addressed to others. When we examine the books comprising the New Testament, we are reading that which was written to others, but the principles of truth and examples of error given in that correspondence help protect us against evil.
When we read these letters to the seven churches, what examples do we find of teaching which can help protect us against sin and error? A quick examination of the things said help us see that John's defense of truth in his time is timeless in that it can help saints today recognize the familiar patterns of error and warn us of the encroachment of evil:
John commended the church at Ephesus for not bearing evil men
as well as for trying some who were false and finding them so (Rev.
2:2). John did not chide such brethren as "brotherhood
watchdogs," "self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy" or
"creators of a creed." Thus, we may follow that example and
do the same thing without being "watchdogs" guilty of
"creedalism" today. Those who condemn efforts to examine
and expose teachers of error need to look again at this element of
John's defense of the gospel. John even called the name of one group,
the Nicolaitans, so that all would know the identity of the evil
doers. It may also be seen that this group had an effect beyond
Ephesus that reached into Pergamum (Rev. 2:15). False teaching of the
first century or the current one is rarely seen to affect only one
group of God's people. The wider the rebuke of error and those who
would spread it, the more souls will be spared the devastating
effects of its infectious growth. Are we to expose the perpetrators
of evil today? If we follow John's example in defending the truth, we
will do so. If we determine our ways are better than God's revealed
way, we will bar such from a gospel paper or pulpit. Which path do
you commend and practice?
All of the equipment necessary for us to fulfill the charge to defend the gospel has been provided by God. The equipment requires no redesigns to meet the modern age. It is as complete today as it was almost 2000 years ago when provided to the first century Christians. Paul spoke of it in these words:
Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Wherefore take up the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and, having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; withal taking up the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:10-17).
Those are instruments of battle. Had God wanted us to passively tolerate doctrinal diversity and sinful action, we would have no need for instruments of battle. However, when we are charged to defend the gospel, expose the defender of evil, and contend with the wicked, battle armor is needed. Warfare is never pleasant, but it is necessary. As long as we have the wicked and those who praise the wicked, there is a need for those who will contend with such (Prov. 28:4).
Jude described his purpose for writing in these words: "Beloved, while I was giving all diligence to write unto you of our common salvation, I was constrained to write unto you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3). That charge clearly puts the responsibility of contending for the faith (the gospel) upon the saints to whom that faith was delivered. We must not shirk, refuse or neglect that responsibility.
The gospel is under attack from without from relativism, Calvinism, Mormonism, materialism, Methodism, Catholicism, atheism, charismatic teaching, Baptist doctrine, immorality, and a host of other false ways. As Christians, we must be "set for the defense of the gospel" against all such foes. The preaching and pressing of truth is the means of protection God has given individual saints and the body collectively from the dreadful effects of these evils.
The gospel is also under attack from within as some have previously obeyed the gospel have begun to drift from it. Error is being taught regarding fellowship, divorce and remarriage, worldliness, the deity and humanity of Jesus in the flesh, the A.D. 70 doctrine and other matters. The only way we can be set for the defense of the gospel is to study the truth, preach it, and contend with those who promote error. We cannot hide in a corner and wish the enemies of truth would cease their evil campaign. If we fail to stand for truth and oppose the error, we will answer to God in judgment concerning our disregard for the gospel, lack of love for the erring, and the neglect of our own soul. May God help us to stand with courage and fight the good fight of faith as those set for the defense of the Gospel.
e-mail this author at HarryO777@compuserve.com
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