Watching Silently as the Wolves
Devour the Sheep
I have had the very painful experience of reading fellowship withdrawal announcements concerning people whom I had baptized just a year or so before. While nothing compares to the exultation of watching a precious soul being washed in the blood of his Savior, few things are more agonizing than witnessing him return to the mire and slavery of sin (2 Peter 2:22; Rom. 6:16).
Religious fellowship is a condition of life that the sectarian world has co-opted and redefined. To them, it now means fun, food and frolic. But to the child of God, fellowship is spiritual and has an unrivaled sweetness to it that can not be so cheapened. It allows brethren to walk together in unity of blessing and purpose (Psalm 133:1, Gal. 2:9). It encourages the support of evangelism (Phil. 4:15) and the sharing of both joy and pain (Gal. 6:1-2 and 1 Cor. 12:26). Fellowship is not confined to a single room or event but transcends space and time to connect those of like faith wherever they are and at all times (2 Peter 1:1 and 1 Thess. 4:9-10).
Clearly, the extension of fellowship is joyous, while the severance or impossibility of fellowship is filled with sorrow. Dissatisfaction with this separation in the sectarian world has given rise to the ecumenical movement that ignores a mountain of doctrinal differences in the pursuit of a supposed peace.
While churches of Christ express public disdain for the ecumenical movement, the last 25 years have produced a number of doctrines meant to achieve a similar end, if only on a smaller scale. If some are not trying to invent a platform of unity-in-doctrinal-diversity with the sects, they are at least looking for a means to continue fellowship within the body of Christ with those living in sin or advocating its tolerance.
The fourteenth chapter of Paul's epistle to the Romans has become the hobby of those striving to bridge the fellowship gap that separates us from brethren living in or advocating error on a host of doctrinal matters. Although the entire New Testament paints sin as ugly and due exposure and rebuke (Eph. 5:11 and Titus 2:15), it is being taught that Romans 14 softens that message enough to permit the tolerance and advocacy of iniquity, worldliness and doctrinal diversity.
In a time of such great peril, the kingdom of God needs her preachers and pastors to lift up the voice of scripture and reason in opposition (1 Peter 4:11). But that plea for tolerance has so infected the body with its leaven (1 Cor. 5:2, 6), that many evangelists and elders have chosen to mute themselves and are allowing the wolves to snatch Christ's sheep at will. Romans 14 deals with matters God described as pure (verse 14) and good (16). A decision to participate in these things is acceptable to God, as is the decision to abstain (3). To put matters of immorality under this blanket of acceptance is to do damage to the Holy Spirit's masterpiece and to invite blemish upon the body of Christ. This is the devil's objective, not ours. Gospel preachers, elders and informed saints should be lifting up their voices in opposition to any doctrine that serves to increase sin, whether intentionally or not.
Unfortunately, many preachers and elders have learned to be still instead. Many of the loudest, most faithful voices of the past are suffering the laryngitis of cowardice (Rev. 21:8) and are dissuading the young from filling the yawning void of opposition. The only banner some are willing to run up the flag pole bears the moniker, "Isolationist" or the slogan, "Positive Mental Attitude."
Since the advent of the space and information ages of modern history, there has been a quixotic movement against the progress of science and society. The Survivalist philosophy (made infamous by the Unabomber) is a reaction to change and cultural digression that moves people to live in cabins in the wilderness, trying to survive by the fruit of their own hands. Such people are fleeing modern society and restricting themselves from human contact. Once called hermits, they are now isolationists.
Among Christians, and especially it seems, preachers and elders, there is a new spiritual movement in the same direction. How we deal with error and false teaching is an important consideration.
Many preachers and elders are operating on a "See no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil" precept. The brethren are praying that what they don't know can't hurt them. If only the devil were so considerate as to excuse the ignorant from his predation, but it is not so. Rather, he exploits those with their heads buried in the sand (Acts 3:17).
Many have chosen to ignore the current controversy over divorce and remarriage, turning a blind eye to the false teacher and a deaf ear to the warnings about him. Men have crossed their fingers and are hoping that his doctrine won't walk through the front door one day. And it probably won't, for false teachings tend to seep under that door like sludge. "For certain men have crept in unnoticed ... who turn the grace of God into lewdness" (Jude 4). "For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women" (II Tim. 3:6).
An isolationist ignores warnings like these and offers none of his own. Such an elder handles poorly the pastoral responsibility to protect the flock from grievous soul-snatching wolves (Heb. 13:17). He fails to watch and cry out like Ezekiel and the spirits of men are misled because of his self-imposed muteness. Proverbs tells us that "A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; He rages against all wise judgment" (18:1).
Surely, no man should go looking for fights: "He who passes by and meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a dog by the ears" (Prov. 26:17). But when the faith is assaulted by error, "Is there not a cause" to stand like a man and contend earnestly (1 Sam. 17:29 and Jude 3)?
The problem with isolationism is that it is a decision of convenience and is alterable when it suits the man. It is alarming how many so-called isolationists are selling Bible class materials, holding gospel meetings all over the country and writing for their preferred fraternal journals. For whatever motivation, the isolation is pragmatically incomplete. It is an impregnable fortress when unpleasant duty calls but cracks appear when the prospects become more palatable.
While we are studying Romans 14 and deciding whether to sound the warning about all the error swirling around it, it might be wise to focus a little on verse 7: "For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself." Isolationism is a fantasy, an illusion. You can never isolate yourself from having influence on the souls around you. But what influence will you have?
Where is the Isaiah to cry "Enough!" (1:11)? Where is the Jeremiah to expose that peace wrought by ignorance and unity-in-diversity is false and offensive (6:14)? Where is Ezekiel to preach the word no matter the consequences (2:5)?
We have come to a time in which the false teacher has gained victim status and all the perquisites that accord to this lofty designation. He cannot be tracked; he cannot be bothered; he cannot be called to answer. If you ask him a question, he may hide behind a misapplication of church autonomy and a company of sympathizers, who do not agree with his doctrine, but will defend to the point of tears his right to teach it without interference. All the while the blind teacher is permitted to lead the blind student into the ditch (Matt. 15:14) and no one can be found to intercede.
When men are telling us that a certain amount of sin is tolerable under the blanket of Romans 14, we understand that men don't hate sin the way they should (Psalm 119:104, 128). Is not the indirect advocacy of sin something to be exposed (Rev. 2:14-16)?
When men are repealing God's simple marriage law (Matt. 19:3-9) in favor of that legislated by the state, is it not time to object? Would we not be well served to know who the wolves are?
The Bible tells us to show forbearance and to work to resolve the disagreements that arise among us, not to be satisfied with a false unity-in-doctrinal-diversity (1 Cor. 1:10). However nowhere does the Book instruct us to compromise with or protect error from open examination and rebuke (1 Thess. 5:21, 1 John 4:1-3).
While the wolves are running rampant, the pastors of the churches of Christ are challenged all the more to watch the sheep in their charge and scan the horizon for predators (1 Peter 5:2-3). The Hebrew writer promised the precious sheep of God that you would watch out for their souls (Heb. 13:17). Will you? He also warned that you would be called to give an account of your service. You are a steward and it is required that you be found faithful to the duties of your office (1 Cor. 4:2 and 1 Tim. 3:5). Letting the wolves invade the fold before you even consider stepping in their way is a dereliction of duty. Your spiritual vision must be keen and unimpaired by sinful habit (Matt. 7:1-5). It must be sharpened by careful study and aware of the need for both exhortation and conviction (Titus 1:9).
You preachers must also be watchmen as God ordained (2 Tim. 4:5, 1 Thess. 5:14). Your occupation involves staring down the penetrating eye of error, uncowed by the sharp teeth of false doctrine. The mouths of the insubordinate to Christ, the idle talker and the deceiver must be stopped lest they subvert whole households (Titus 1:10-11).
In Christ, we are blessed with unmatched liberty, a freedom from the mastery of Satan and the just consequence of our sins (Rom. 6:22). "Stand therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage" (Gal. 5:1). Liberty should not be confused with license to indulge the flesh (Gal. 5:11). We drift into that devil's bone yard when we forget that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, the courage to cry out when danger threatens.
The apostle Paul instituted a practice in his first century epistles that has fallen into disdain as the second millennium of Christ begins to fade. He had the audacity and compassion to expose false teaching and identify the teachers who were responsible.
There were myriad errant doctrines in Paul's day, including the Judaizing and Gnostic taints of Christianity. Some were even teaching that the resurrection had already passed. "Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth," he wrote to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:17). Paul's motivation for marking the men who taught error is revealed in verses 17-18: their false doctrine had the potential to spread unchecked like cancer and overthrow the faith of precious souls. Paul named the wolves that the sheep might not be harmed (Acts 20:29). Some object to exposing error and identifying false teachers, finding it distasteful and even unchristian. I suppose they would have sympathized with Hymenaeus and Philetus and held Paul in contempt for his candor.
We live in the information age, in which both truth and error travel at rates measured in fractions of seconds. No longer is the false teacher confined to horse and buggy. Now, he can wreak havoc with a magazine or a modem, in locations which he could never visit, perhaps even continents away. It is not wise to contend that an error on the east coast is not dangerous to folks on the west coast. Though we may think ourselves safe in "the mountains of Esau" (Obadiah 3-8), the forces of destruction can invade like a bolt of lightning.
This is no request for the appointment of "brotherhood directors." We intend to be directed by the Chief Shepherd alone in the universal church (1 Peter 5:4). This is a plea for elders to pastor the flock that is among them. That involves keeping an eye on the horizon where false teachings slink and plot. This is a plea for preachers to mark and expose error by the gospel light (Eph. 5:11), so that precious souls are not so easily destroyed by the tempter.
e-mail this author at SmithJeffS@aol.com
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