Dealing With Doctrinal Error
Most are aware that a controversy exists among Christians today regarding what the Bible teaches about fellowship. Included in the differences expressed by brethren is a disagreement on the bounds of Christian unity based on differing understandings of Romans, chapter 14. Some believe the instruction of the chapter, "Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things" (vs. 1), to be inclusive of some sinful practices and some doctrinal error. Others, rightfully I believe, limit the context of the admonition to matters of liberty.
Another area of disagreement is found regarding the true designation of a false teacher. Some limit the term to those who are dishonest in heart. They take the description of the false teacher in 2 Peter 2, which describes false teachers as being willful, and deceitful, as excluding a brother who teaches error, but who himself is sincere and honest. Others, rightfully I believe, identify the false teacher by his doctrine, and believe God desires us to judge his works rather than his heart (cf. Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:1).
Those conversant with the controversy are aware of its genesis in the defense of Homer Hailey in the late 1980's. Ed Harrell, in the November 1988 issue of Christianity Magazine, gave his written, "personal defense of Homer Hailey as a man who has earned the respect and esteem of the Christians in our time." He rightly described Hailey as one who "believes that those who are baptized into Christ may remain in their present marital state." Of course, that statement would be inclusive of those who have divorced and remarried outside of the parameters set by Jesus in Matthew 19:9. Harrell wrote of Hailey, "I judge him to be one of the most godly and learned men I have ever known.", and with that estimation of Hailey's character wrote, "In my mind, that is not the stuff of which false teachers are made." Harrell attempted to give a scriptural rationale for his defense in his series of articles, beginning in February 1989, entitled The Bounds of Christian Unity.
Though it might be a matter of dispute as to whether the present views held by many in regard to fellowship are a direct result of thinking too highly of a particular individual, it is rather obvious that the genesis of the issue centers upon the defense of Hailey as a man worthy of Christian fellowship. Many stubbornly held to their fellowship of the man until the time of his death, despite his subsequent published work on the subject, The Divorced and Remmarried Who Would Come to God, publihsed in 1991.
After Hailey's death, another manuscript has been published, Gods Judgment and Punishments, Nations and Individuals, in which Hailey has taken the position that the soul of the wicked ceases to exist, as it is destroyed in hell. This false position (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:9), is another example of a departure from God's Word by this well respected man.
As the years have passed, a mindset has developed among some Christians that is very tolerant of doctrinal error, and critical of those who would publicly expose it and stand against it. Some mimic Harrell, claiming such refutation of error as being "unheroic" attacks against godly men. Others simply do not want to hear about it at all. Some go on the attack themselves, talking about "secret watchdog societies", a "new Phariseeism", and judging the hearts of those who defend truth. Another group seeks to minimize error as being "matters that are non-essential" to our Christian fellowship. Regardless of the rationale, it is indicative of a mindset Paul warned Timothy about in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, "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 for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables."
It is interesting that the attitudes that have developed over the last 15 years do not mirror the published views of Homer Hailey regarding the treatment of error and the errorist. I quote a passage from Hailey's Comment (Vol. 2), compiled and published in 1985. The context of the quote is found in the contrast Hailey makes between Catholicism, Protestantism, and Christianity. He rightfully points out that the failures of Catholicism and Protestantism are found in the man-made errors they espouse. The Catholic claims the Bible is insufficient. The Protestant superficially claims to accept the authority of Christ and the Bible, yet preaches that sincerity is sufficient, thus making every man his own standard. In contrast to these erroneous concepts, Hailey discusses Christianity:
The discerning reader will note that Hailey's call to expose error through preaching makes no distinction between the error which exists "without", and that which is among us. Contrary to those who apologized for him, Hailey's call was to "Quit apologizing for certain false teachers among our number, but expose their error as readily as that of any other." Further, you may note that Hailey advocated as a legitimate and desirable thing the utilization of such instruments as periodicals and colleges to the "uprooting of false doctrine and sin." It is perhaps a bitter irony to those who are presently advocating such a timid treatment of false doctrine that a primary one they defend does not agree with their tactics.
How is the teacher of error to be treated? Hailey had it right on this one. We should, "concentrate our efforts, and legitimate instruments such as periodicals and colleges to one definite end: the complete uprooting of false doctrine and sin, and the establishing of Christ's principles in the hearts of men." In the pursuit of truth, again Hailey states, "Quit apologizing for certain false teachers among our number, but expose their error as readily as that of any other."
As Paul wrote to Timothy and warned of those who would not endure sound doctrine, he clearly established what must be done, "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2). It is valid to watch for, and root out error. It is valid to expose the false teacher, and establish truth in the hearts of men. Though in so doing we will feel the wrath of those who seek compromise rather than victory, we must continue to "Convince, rebuke, exhort."