Pillar Journal

Handling Error in the Church


Martin Downes interviewing Joel R. Beeke:

As you reflect back to your days in seminary and early years in the ministry, were there men who started out with evangelical convictions who later moved away from the gospel? How did you cope with that?

I can only think of a few men with whom I had some personal acquaintance who have fallen from evangelical convictions. Initially, these rare situations shook me—particularly one Reformed brother with whom I studied at Westminster Seminary who embraced Roman Catholicism. Praying for their awakening and return, and for myself that I might not stumble nor look down haughtily upon them, has helped me cope. Then, I suppose, so have the daily challenges of the ministry which press me to keep my hand on the plow and not become overly distracted by an erring brother or two. I know far more ministerial colleagues—numbering well into the hundreds—who have moved from non-evangelical positions to a solid evangelical and Reformed stance. Many of them suffered greatly, losing large portions, if not all, of their congregations in the process. I have often been profoundly encouraged by their courageous stance to contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3).

Have you ever been drawn toward any views or movements that time has shown to have been unhelpful or even dangerous theologically?

By the grace of God, no.

How should a minister keep his own heart, mind, and will from theological error?

  • Keep yourself deeply immersed in the Scriptures, and pray daily to be willing to surrender all to their inerrant truth.
  • Surround yourself with sound, godly colleagues and lay people who love you sufficiently to be honest with you, so that iron will sharpen iron.
  • Read the best, sound, scriptural, classic books, especially those by the Reformers and Puritans, that address your mind with clarity, convict your conscience with poignancy, bend your wills with conviction, and move your feet with passion.
  • Meditate on those truths preached that do your people the most good; in every case, you will discover that they are biblical truths.
  • Develop the hide of a rhinoceros so that you won’t be tossed about with every criticism and wind of doctrine while maintaining the heart of a child, so that you will be a tender undershepherd to the needy.

Calvin said that ministers have two voices. One is for the sheep and the other for warding off the wolves. How have you struck the right balance in this regard in your pulpit ministry?

I suppose that one can never be absolutely certain that he is striking the right balance on this critical subject, but here are four guidelines that I find helpful:

  • Pray daily for biblical balance in all areas of ministry.
  • Love your sheep. Love has a way of balancing out our often imbalanced personalities. Those in error can receive much more from a minister who obviously loves them than from one who comes across as combative.
  • Be patient with your sheep. Be willing to teach them the same truth repeatedly, just as the Lord has done with you (cf. Phil. 3:1; 2 Peter 3:1–2).
  • Let your “voice for the sheep“ always receive the primary accent of your ministry. Truth must ultimately be positive in nature to win the day with a congregation. Many ministers have focused too much on polemical and apologetical theology, often setting up and beating upon straw men in their congregation to the detriment of the flock. Polemics and apologetics must have their proper place of a minor accent in the ministry, so that no error is left unexposed.But the minister must expose error wisely, forthrightly, humbly, compellingly, not by lording it over the sheep (2 Tim. 4:1–2; 1 Pet. 5:2–3).

Why do old heresies persist today? Why do men possessed of fine intellectual gifts end up embracing and believing significant theological errors?

Heresy is the product of the mind of “the natural man,” as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 2:14, that is, “the unrenewed man” (Charles Hodge), who must necessarily receive and understand Christian truth without the illumination of the Holy Spirit and without a renewed mind. As a stranger to “the wisdom of God” revealed in the gospel, he must also consult and depend on “the wisdom of this world” (1 Cor. 1:19–24). Compounding the problem is the vanity of his mind, his darkened understanding, his ignorance and blindness of heart (Eph. 4:17–18). Such a man can have at best only a shallow, imperfect, distorted view of the truth, and it is not surprising that he conceives and propagates a multitude of errors and falsehoods.

The root of our English word “heresy” is the Greek word hairesis, meaning “choice” or “opinion.” Note that the word implies the activity of both the mind and the will of man. Having come to a misunderstanding of the truth or having concocted or embraced a falsehood in its place, the natural man cleaves to his errors and zealously asserts and advances them precisely because they are his own opinions.

Nor is it surprising that when a false prophet or teacher begins to proclaim his erroneous views to others, there are many willing to receive and embrace them. Fallen men are hostile to the truth of God and prefer to believe a falsehood rather than submit to that truth. The wonder is not that there are many heretics, but that there are not many, many more.

Because the mind of the natural man is finite, there are only so many erroneous or heretical views it can conceive or embrace. Because that mind is corrupt and the corruption is inherited by succeeding generations, there is a tendency to resurrect or reproduce the errors of the past. After 2000 years, it is only to be expected that the errors and heresies of the present day all seem to have their historical antecedents, often reaching back to the earliest history and experience of the ancient church.

Ignorance always serves the cause of error. Christians who do not know what the Bible says and have no knowledge of the history of Christian doctrine find themselves unequipped to detect and refute these resurrected errors and heresies of the past. As a result, it is all too easy for false teachers “to creep in unawares” (Jude 4) and launch campaigns to subvert congregations and denominations that historically embraced the apostolic Christian faith.

In America, wealth and business acumen have also been called upon to advance some of the most ancient and obvious falsehoods and errors. The Church of Latter-Day Saints, better known as “the Mormons,” is a huge and highly profitable business enterprise devoted to promoting polytheism on a scale that rivals Hinduism, a “gospel” of salvation by works righteousness, continuing revelation, “baptism for the dead,” “eternal marriage,” and a secret temple cultus modeled on Free Masonry.

Finally, we must reckon with the activity of Satan as “the father of lies” (John 8:44). Wherever men call into question the truth and trustworthiness of God’s Word, handle the Word of God deceitfully, and love and make a lie as a substitute for the truth of God’s Word, we can see the hand of the enemy of souls at work.

How can a minister discern between those who are thinking their way through doctrines on the way to greater depth and clarity, and those who are questioning doctrines in a way that could lead to significant error?

First of all, we must follow the example of Christ and the apostles, who openly invited and urged their hearers to prove or test the truth and worth of what they proclaimed and taught. Reformed Christians have asserted and maintained the liberty of the Christian and the liberty of conscience. “The requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 20.2).

Every minister must learn to defend the faith without being defensive or combative. “The servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves” (2 Tim. 2:24, 25a). We should encourage our people to “prove all things” (1 Thess. 5:21). Rather than rebuking someone for asking questions, we should devote our energy to finding answers to those questions from God’s Word. The Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions, and the vast theological literature connected with them, are also great helps to a right understanding of faith and practice.

On the other hand, as those who watch for the souls of God’s people, we must be alert to any sign of straying from the truth. We must warn against embracing any notion or doctrine that requires one to set aside the clear testimony of Scripture. We must resist efforts to reinterpret Scripture in order to accommodate sinful practices or lifestyles. We must expose the sinful tendency of the fallen man to exalt himself and make himself a judge of God’s Word, rather than submitting to its judgment.

We must use discernment. A true Christian will gladly receive faithful instruction from the Word of God. A man who is merely dabbling in theology or looking for an intellectual sparring partner deserves to be rebuked. And “a man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself” (Titus 3:10–11).

How do you cope with men who are sound in many ways, and whose ministries have been beneficial, but who, nonetheless, have held harmful views?

One of the consequences, or benefits, of being known as a Reformed Christian who adheres consistently to the teaching of Scripture as summarized in the Reformed Confessions is that one is seldom put in such a position. Such men as you describe in your question seem to find the Reformed faith to be a pill they can’t or won’t swallow—perhaps because for all their strengths, these men are generally pragmatists and averse to consistency.

Even so, our people often find something attractive in the ministries of such men, and we need to take time to know their positions—both strengths and weaknesses—so that we can speak intelligently and helpfully about them. The difficulty is that these men and their ministries, broadcasts, and books are many and various. There is almost always one big name at a given moment, the man whose sayings and doings and nostrums are being widely discussed and hotly debated. We should beware of being drawn into endless and useless debates. These men come and go and have surprisingly little impact over the long term.

It should be a rule with us to have nothing to do with any man or ministry that errs in regard to the way of salvation in Jesus Christ. Whatever good a man may do along other lines, he has done the greatest conceivable harm if he errs at this point. “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).

Many Christians would be surprised to learn that major heretics like Pelagius and Faustus Socinus were known for scrupulously moral living, when perhaps they would have expected them to be openly immoral. How did Paul’s assertion that false teaching leads to ungodliness manifest itself in the lives of these false teachers?

It is a misreading of Paul to suggest that false teaching must always lead to ungodliness or immorality, although it often does. Paul was keenly aware of the life he had lived as a Pharisee, so zealous to observe the traditions of the elders that he claimed to be “touching the righteousness of the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:6). He likewise bears record of his fellow Jews that “they have zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:2–3). It is simply a fact of human experience that men often do the right things for the wrong reasons.

It is therefore essential to the Christian notion of ethics to considermotive or “the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12), aswell as outward appearance or conduct, when determining whether one’s works are good or not. That which is not done out of true faith, in obedience to God’s Word, and for the glory of God, is not, in the most important sense, a good work (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 91). According to the Word of God, Pelagius and Faustus Socinus were both “as an unclean thing,” and all their good works were “as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6).

However much these men may have lived an outwardly moral life, Scripture describes them in very different terms: as “grievous wolves…speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30). In the balance of Scripture, the sins of the mind and heart are more heinous than the sins of the flesh. It is gross wickedness to mislead others concerning the way of salvation, to destroy faith in the truth of God’s Word, and to corrupt the worship of God.

At the same time, many Christians are guilty of failing to “adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things” (Titus 2:9)—that is, by a consistent Christian manner of life and conduct. Because of the depravity that still cleaves to us, there must always be a gap between our profession and our conduct. We are called upon nonetheless to crucify the old nature, to walk in newness of life, and, in dependency on the Holy Spirit, to make every effort to narrow the gap between profession and conduct, for the sake of Christ and the gospel (cf. Rom. 8).

What would you consider to be the main theological dangers confronting us today, and how can we deal with them?

Some dangers have been with us for a long time, and some are just beginning to loom on the horizon. “The Battle for the Bible” has been with us for more than one hundred years, and it has proven to be a great setback for the cause of Christ in the world. The apostasy of the Protestant churches in Europe and Great Britain; the disorder and corruption of evangelical churches in North America; the extension of much of that disorder and corruption to newly planted churches in Latin America, Africa, and Asia; the resilience of corrupt bodies such as the Church of Rome, and the sway it holds over so many millions; the propagation of cults of many kinds—all this may be attributed in very large measure to ignorance, false views, and rank unbelief concerning the unique character, content, and authority of Holy Scripture as God’s written Word.

In the community of Reformed churches, we must deplore the rise of what can be called “boutique” versions of the Reformed faith: little groups centered around some novel idea or practice, such as paedocommunion, that sets them apart from other Reformed Christians. Equally distressing is the widespread defection from the faithful observance of the Second Commandment regarding the regulation of the content and manner of Christian worship; many Reformed Christians have forgotten that the Reformers were as much concerned to regulate Christian worship according to Scripture as they were determined to establish Christian doctrine from the Word of God. Rightly understood and practiced, Christian worship is profoundly theological, spiritual, and practical.

Nothing, however, is more astonishing than contemporary denials or disclaimers concerning faith as the sole instrument of our justification before God. Nothing was more basic to the Reformation, and nothing is more essential to the gospel, than justification by faith alone. Scripture acknowledges only one way of salvation, and it has nothing to do with covenant status, church membership, sacramental administration, Christian education, or progressive sanctification to acquire salvation. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).

Almost as disturbing is the rise of the “postmodern” school of thought or mind-set, and the inroads it is making among Christians in North America. As the name implies, postmodernism is a reaction to the modernism so dominant in Europe and America in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. One would think this rejection of modernism would work in favor of the historic Christian faith, but that is not the direction postmodernism has taken. Fundamental to postmodernism is the rejection of rational systems of thought and any kind of meta-narrative. Reformed Christianity has a rational system of thought, summarized in its historic creeds and confessions; its meta-narrative is nothing less than the witness of Holy Scripture to the history of redemption in Christ, and its summary in the gospel.

It is open to question whether there is any such thing as postmodernism, at least anything that can be expressed in positive terms. Even so, there are many important self-identified postmodern thinkers, writers, and shapers of popular culture. Their blend of radical skepticism, unbelief, eclecticism, and nihilism is making its impact on our world and the people to whom we must preach the gospel. It must also be admitted that these trends in the culture around us often have a profound and often destructive impact on the Christian church. We ministers should be alert to the ways in which the young people in our own churches, much more attuned to and involved in popular culture than we may like to think, may be embracing the stances and ways of postmodernism.

Knowledge is power, and we need to know and understand the world we live in and the churches we serve. Even more important, we need to grow in our knowledge and practice of the things taught and commanded in Holy Scripture. The man who knows the Scriptures well is “throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16), including in particular the good work of proclaiming the great truths of the Christian faith, wielding God’s Word as a mighty spiritual weapon, “casting down imagination, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5)—in order to save both himself and his hearers and to build up the church of Christ unto all generations.

It is natural that a younger generation can find it harder to navigate the theological currents in the church. With all your ministerial experience, what advice would you give to younger ministers as they assess and handle various movements today?

Younger ministers are sometimes the victim of the particular bent of their theological training. Since the rise of the so-called “Church Growth” movement, there has been an increasing emphasis on technique and methodology at the expense of the disciplines that once were the “meat and potatoes” of seminary education, namely, biblical languages, exegesis, systematics, apologetics, church history, and the history of Christian doctrine.

Where this shift in emphasis has taken place, the seminary graduate will not have the tools he needs to use Scripture effectively and to wield it with ever-increasing knowledge and skill as “the sword of the Spirit.” He will not have sufficient access to the Scriptures themselves, nor the comprehensive and analytical grasp of Christian truth, to be a true minister of the Word in today’s world. He will find himself captive to the winds of the moment. As a preacher, he will be reduced to repeating the ideas of other men, gleaned from commentaries and popular books.

The minister who finds himself in this unhappy position should take action to make up for this deficit of knowledge and skill. He can go back to seminary and make a better choice of a place to train. He can seek advice and direction from other ministers and enter on a course of self-study. The important thing is for him to realize what he doesn’t know and needs to know, and for him to seek out the best kind of books and study helps. Conferences and seminars are also helpful, and the guidance and encouragement of older and betterequipped ministers of the Word will be invaluable.

In sum, here are three short guidelines:

  • Become and stay well versed in the Scriptures, in confessional Reformed theology, and in the great classics of Reformed, experiential theology.
  • Summarize the errors of various movements succinctly from the pulpit when the scriptural text you are expounding pertains to them. Enlarge upon your exposure of error, perhaps, in catechism classes (because young people are the church’s future) or weekday classes (because those who attend have, in general, greater appreciation for apologetics than does your average Sabbath attendee and because your teaching situation is less formal).
  • Remember that you cannot study every false movement in depth, nor should you. Study in depth for yourself those that directly affect your congregation. Otherwise, read the best book from an evangelical perspective that refutes a particular error. In some cases, reading one good article may suffice.

Younger ministers should beware of being so caught up with the trends, debates, and crises of the present that they neglect to reinforce their knowledge of Christian history and Christian doctrine. It is important that they know what they are up against in terms of the challenges of today, but it is even more important that they know precisely what the Christian faith is at its roots, what the authentic gospel of Jesus Christ is, and how it is to be proclaimed, according to its Author. God does not change, His Word cannot change, His mercy is from everlasting to everlasting, and His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

This article is reprinted from Martin Downes, ed., Risking the Truth: Interviews on Handling Truth and Error in the Church (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2009), 165–176. Twenty other ministers are similarly interviewed in this book, including Carl Trueman, Michael Horton, Mark Dever, Derek Thomas, Iain D. Campbell, Tom Ascol, Conrad Mbewe, Geoffrey Thomas, and Ligon Duncan.