The problems facing institutional churches are well chronicled. Some in the institutional churches have awakened to the need for strong and distinctive preaching in the face of "change agents" who have sought to destroy the divine hermeneutic, and replace it with a new "non-patternistic" one. Recently, while reading the April 1998 issue of The Spiritual Sword, I ran across a quote from Alan E. Highers in his editorial "What Is Happening in the Church?" It admits to what non-institutional preachers and writers have claimed for many years about our more liberal brethren. The quote came in the context of previous polemic struggles with the denominations.
Of course, our viewpoint is somewhat different. In the 1940's and 1950's institutional issues threatened, and ultimately succeeded in dividing the people of God. The polemic struggle often was not with the denominations, but rather between brethren. As with the struggles with the denominations, truth had the upper hand. So, those who wished to retain their precious human institutions ceased debating (with few exceptions), and instead shifted their tactics to a more subtle attack upon non-institutional brethren. Instead of direct debate there were whispers shared about those "anti's" and "orphan haters"; churches which were "dying on the vine." The resultant inability and unwillingness to defend from the pattern of God's word their man-made inventions led to the indistinct preaching mentioned above. The analogy of sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind is apropos. It is precisely because of such indistinct preaching that liberal churches are having to deal with the "change agents" and the so-called "new hermeneutic."
In recent years a proposal was made to have a series of round table discussions with some preachers in the institutional churches in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. The institutional preacher designated to appoint men who took that position finally admitted (to his credit registering his personal disappointment in his brethren) that he could not marshal sufficient interest. In a meeting with some of those men one was absolutely adamant that such debate was inappropriate, and ineffectual. So much for distinctive preaching and defense of one's faith. Note that I am not claiming that no institutional preacher is willing to defend his practice, but rather I am commenting on the prevailing attitude among those men.
In the introduction of his article, editor Highers had another telling point to make. He wrote:
Such attitudes toward truth and controversy are indeed prevalent in institutional churches, and the warning of editor Highers is well taken. It compares with the warning of Paul in 2 Timothy 4:3, "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up to themselves teachers." The institutional church is indeed facing a crisis, and in many places "change agents" have gained the upper hand.
However, I perceive that a similar mindset threatens even Christians who have not been swept away into institutional error. We clearly see the problems of the institutional church, but are we blind to our own problems? I am reminded of the apostle Paul's admonition of the Jew in his epistle to the Romans. Paul opened his epistle with criticisms of the Gentile. He rightly decried the pagan and immoral excesses of Roman society. He said, in chapter 1, verse 18, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness." I can imagine the reaction of the typical Jew to this criticism. Anti-Gentile sentiment was pervasive. No doubt the Jew was in complete agreement with Paul's assessment of those pagans. Paul however soon tightened the noose on his self-righteous brethren. He said to the Jew, "Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things" (Romans 2:1). As the Jew practiced what he condemned in the Gentile, I fear that some in the "non-institutional" churches have a very similar mindset to the institutional brethren we are so quick to criticize. The applications of such a mindset may differ, and the "change agents" troubling the liberals obviously are on the extreme end of this movement, but the mindset itself is the same.
Reexamine the Highers' quote with a view toward the issues we now face. Throughout the world brethren are aware of controversy. They realize that issues such as "Romans 14", "Divorce and Remarriage", "The Nature of Christ", "The Authority of Elders", "Church Autonomy", etc. are being discussed. These brethren may not be certain what the fuss is all about, but they feel a bit disconcerted and bothered about the dissension that is present. Some of them are of the considered opinion that all the fuss is caused by a "watchdog mentality" that some "partyists" have in the church. If brethren would just let well enough alone, the problems would cease to exist. Such sentiments have been expressed time and again. It is the "in thing" now to proclaim your aversion to the "brotherhood periodicals" and to label disagreements as so many "preacher fusses." A recent conversation elicited the opinion that such issues should be hidden from our children. The individual stated that it is sufficient to preach the truth, and that error should not be discussed at all. Rather, it should be ignored. Those who stand against false teaching on these and other issues have been castigated as being "extremists who have their own cause to promote..." (Christianity Magazine, Editor's report, Nov. 1992). They have been accused of being "witch hunters" and "brotherhood inquisitors" (James W. Adams, With All Boldness, Jully 1996) among other epithets. Even among those who disagree with the false doctrines being propagated there is much apathy. The issues however are real. We must, to borrow the words of Highers, "recognize that there are grave dangers facing the church and that we must take a stand for New Testament teaching or the church will lose its distinctiveness in the world."
We have examples in both the Old and New Testament documenting the attitude and actions of the faithful toward error and sin. What we find is a profound difference between the actions of the righteous in scripture and the current attitudes being expressed toward the fellowship of doctrinal and moral sin. Notice the following examples:
Ezekiel, the Watchman
Ezekiel was commanded by God to expose error, and admonish the sinner. As a prophet of God, he had the duty to proclaim God's will to a nation taken away into sin. Jehovah God demanded of him, "Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore hear a word from My mouth, and give them warning from Me: When I say to the wicked,'You shall surely die,' and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life, that same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. Yet, if you warn the wicked and he does not turn from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul" (Ezekiel 3:17-19).
God does not demand of the watchman that he turn the wicked from his way. That is the sole responsibility of the one caught in sin. I am not culpable for the sins of others. However, the watchman does have the responsibility to warn. If we fail in this we are not actively loving our brother.
I recognize that some object to our taking the example of Ezekiel and claiming the same responsiblity of watching for ourselves. Some have gone so far as to claim that such is usurping the place of a prophet. Such is not true. Ezekiel was a prophet, and as such had the responsibility of telling Israel of God's revelation. We today have the word of God completed (cf. 2 Timothy 3;16-17; Jude 3), and are given the same responsibility to warn our brethren. Notice the following passages which establish this truth very clearly. "But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Timothy 4:5). "Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:19-20).
Mentioned previously is the attitude expressed by some stating that we should preach the truth, and ignore the issues. God dealt with this attitude as well in Ezekiel 3. Consider verses 20 and 21, "Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and comimits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because you did not give him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless if you warn the righteous man that the righteous should not sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live because he took warning; also you will have delivered your soul."
These verses clearly indicate that our obligation is not fulfilled when we have finished admonishing the sinner. We must warn the faithful as well. Too often brethren who actively warn about sinful digression are castigated for their efforts. The exhortation Jehovah God gave to Ezekiel resides in stark contrast to current expressions of distaste levelled against those who are militantly standing for truth in our struggles against darkness. Such things ought not to be.
Paul the Apostle
Paul's ministry serves as another wonderful example concerning how error is faced. When sin was present Paul dealt with it clearly and forcefully. He admonished the church at Corinth for tolerating sin in their number (cf. 1 Corinthians 5).
He named names in the case of Hymenaeus and Philetus (cf. 2 Timothy 2:16-18), as otherwise their message would "spread like cancer." He identified their doctrine, "the resurrection is already past"; and pointed out the serious nature of such teaching, "they overthrow the faith of some."
Paul named Demas as one who "has forsaken me" (2 Timothy 4:10); and Alexander the coppersmith who "did me much harm" (2 Timothy 4:14). Concerning Alexander, he warned Timothy about him, saying "You also must beware of him, for he has greatly resisted our words" (vs. 15).
In describing the elder's responsibilities in Titus 1, he warned (again by name) of the Cretans, saying "One of them, a prophet of their own, said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.' This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in faith" (Titus 1:12-13).
Paul practiced what he preached, as recorded in Galatians 2, where he wrote the Galatians concerning his public rebuke of Peter. This despite Peter's standing as an Apostle. Of this Paul stated, "Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed" (verse 11). He revealed the the rebuke was "before them all..." (vs. 14).
Please note here that the tact taken by Paul was different from the instructions given by Christ in Matthew 18 regarding how to deal with a brother in a private matter between you and him. There, Jesus gave instructions, "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector" (vs. 15-17). Paul did not disregard Jesus' teaching in his admonition of Peter, in this case Jesus' words did not apply. This was not a private matter between Paul and Peter. The sin was not against Paul. This was a public matter, and had public consequences. Paul revealed that because of Peter's sin, "the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy" (vs. 13). Brethren need to cease demanding that Matthew 18 be applied when it is not applicable. There is a difference between a private offense and the public proclamation of error. The example Paul gives us in dealing with false teachers and their leavening influence is to expose and refute. This we must do if we are to remain true to scripture.
Jesus, our Best Example
Our Lord, too, named names and publicly rebuked sin. There are many examples of this in his ministry. One such example is found in Matthew 23. He named the names of those in sin, "the Scribes and the Pharisees." He harshly criticized them as being hypocrites. He then delineated their sin, sparing them not a whit: "they say, and do not do"; "all their works they do to be seen of men"; they "shut up the kingdom of heaven against men"; they "devour widow's houses, and for a pretense make long prayers"; they "travel land and sea to make one proselyte, and when he is won, they (you) make him twice as much a son of hell as them (your) selves"; they "swear" and do not keep their oaths; they "pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith"; they "cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence"; and on and on. His rebuke was harsh, "Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?" (vs. 33).
In Matthew 15, he offended the Pharisees with his teaching (cf. vs. 12). However, he did not express any remorse, answering instead, "Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch."
These few examples (Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus) serve to show the proper attitude and action regarding those who propagate error. It may not mirror common attitudes in our day, but we "ought to obey God rather than men" (cf. Acts 5:29).
I dare say that no one in our fellowship would deny that Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus had a love for the souls of men. And yet, their manner was often confrontational, always uncompromising, and sometimes even derisive toward those who would make shipwreck of our faith. The common criticism of those defending truth as having improper motives and a lack of love often speaks more to the mindset of the one offended by such criticism rather than the one delivering the rebuke. Instead, spiritual Israel ought to heed Jehovah's command to Isaiah to "Cry aloud, spare not; Lift up your voice like a trumpet; Tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins." It is only in this that a true love for souls can be adequately expressed.
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