3 Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. 4 For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. ~~Jude 3-4 (NASB95)
Have you noticed an increase in articles and podcasts lately discussing if, why and how Christians should address false teachers and doctrinal error? There seems to be a growing angst within Reformed circles regarding the topic, and not a great deal of consensus.
Regular readers of my blog know that I’ve struggled with this matter for years. I don’t know if that puts me ahead of the curve or what. And it doesn’t really matter if I was onto something before it was popular or not, does it? I guess I just find it reassuring that more and more people now question certain tactics and motives of some discernment ministries.
A recent episode of Apologetics Live from Striving For Eternity made an interesting point about how good discernment ministries can take a wrong turn. Host Andrew Rappaport explained that the vast majority of discernment bloggers start out with right intentions. They see false teachers or erroneous practices among professing Christians, and they write articles correctly addressing those problems. But when those articles get lots of clicks, likes and shares, many bloggers realize that calling out the bad guys enhances the popularity of their website. So they produce more articles, sometimes cutting corners on research and ignoring context in order to convince their followers of their position. In the end, they forfeit whatever discernment they have for the sake of notoriety.
I can attest to Andrew’s analysis because I was well on that road in this early days of this blog. I knew that controversy sells. I wasn’t above writing posts that questioned popular teachers, sometimes unnecessarily. Those posts gave me followers, yes, but I don’t believe they always pleased the Lord. I say all this to underscore Andrew’s point that noble beginnings to discernment ministry can easily degenerate into mere platforms for developing a large following. Contending for the faith gives way to simply being contentious.
Does it follow then that discernment ministry should be totally scrapped? Not according to Chris Hohnholz and Richard Story, who did a recent examination of Jude’s epistle on their Voice Of Reason Radio podcast. Richard quoted verses 3-4 (the passage I used at the beginning of this article) and emphasized that Jude directed his instructions to contend earnestly for the faith to Christians in general — not specifically to elders. Consequently, each of us bears responsibility to call out false teachers and practices which contradict the Word of God. At times, we have no choice but to warn our brothers and sisters against such dangers.
Taking bold stands against error usually invites pushback, of course. Those who are in the throes of deception resent hearing the truth, and quite often they will react with astonishing hostility. The savagery of their opposition discourages Christians from practicing discernment ministry.
Both podcasts were necessary, and the combination of the two brought out the complexities of contending for the faith. Admittedly, one can easily become confused by the tension between using discernment ministry to build your own little empire and avoiding the duty to speak as a means of self-preservation. I struggle with this tension myself.
A third position — held by someone I know personally and esteem highly — maintains that teaching sound doctrine develops enough discernment that people will recognize false teaching immediately. Those subscribing to this position almost invariably use the analogy of bank tellers who are trained to detect counterfeit bills by handling real money. The logic goes, of course, that the more we gain familiarity with the Bible, the easier it becomes to spot error. And to a point, I embrace this approach.
My problem with this line of thinking is that I’ve been in doctrinally unstable churches which used that analogy. The very men who talked about it turned around and taught things that required them to take Scripture out of context, twisting it to support their pet doctrines. Because I’ve seen this abuse first hand, I have problems with this analogy.
Sometimes people who believe we can combat false teachers without ever naming names don’t understand how truly undiscerning people are. I once knew someone who told me her favorite radio teachers were John MacArthur and Joyce Meyer. Friends, that’s quite a disparity! This woman read the Bible all the time, but her supposed familiarity with it lacked a solid system of interpretation that would have shown her the false theology of Joyce Meyer.
So how do we contend for the faith? Which approach is the most Biblical?
Each approach I’ve outlined has its merits, as long as we retain a good balance. We must avoid developing a reputation for calling out false teachers simply to build our own platforms. But we must avoid relegating the responsibility of discernment to pastors, as if they alone are qualified to speak to these errors. Finally, we shouldn’t assume that people who study their Bibles never need help identifying false teaching and dangerous trends. While sound doctrine is absolutely the key to discernment, God spoke through Jude, commissioning Christians to contend for the faith. Let’s not ignore that commission.