New Testament Scripture displays an important panorama of passages, some hortatory and some didactic, calling the believer in Christ to be a student of written revelation and to confront false teachers and false teaching whenever it is manifested in the church. Typically this is seen in the training of individuals who will stand in spiritual leadership in the local assembly of believers: Elders must 'be able to teach' (1 Timothy 3:2); Teachers will 'incur a stricter judgment' (James 3:1 NASB), as they stand as guides and shepherds to God's flock.
In the first century Church we see apostles, evangelists, apostolic representatives, pastors, and teachers. There are individuals with the gifts of leadership, teaching gifts, and prophetic gifts. When Paul provides directives for Timothy on his appointed role at Ephesus, he urges him to 'do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth' (2 Timothy 2:15). 'Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will' (2 Timothy 2:23-26).
Fact-checking is now all the rage, but it was also at work in the early Church. Luke tells us in Acts 17:11 that the Jews at Berea 'were more noble (ε?γεν?στεροι) than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.' Jewish legalism, proto-gnosticism, and various strands of Greek philosophy were all vying for acceptance, not just outside the Church, but inside the Church as well. We consistently read of the efforts of Jewish converts to pull the Church into legalism, not just in Jerusalem, but throughout Asia Minor, as there were converts to Christ in many Greek cities with populations of Jews and established synagogues. Paul battled these heresies incessantly throughout his ministry. (Paul's Epistle to the Galatians and Acts 15 are basic background reading.)
All believers are called to doctrinal purity and to be involved in the process of careful scrutiny of biblical teaching to be sure such teaching is truthful, faithful, and accurate. Since God never lies, we must be sure that we speak 'as one who speaks oracles of God' (1 Peter 4:11a). God demands truthful speech from every believer, and He holds those acting in the role of teacher to a more stringent standard.
This should cause all who are currently teaching in the Church, biblical educational ministries, and colleges and seminaries to examine themselves to be sure they are fit for such a task. False and heretical teaching is an ever-present enemy of the Church and must be battled in every generation. Since the onset of the Enlightenment the Bible has been in the crosshairs, and increasing and unrelenting attacks on the doctrine of Scripture have been the norm. Human Reason, raised up against the Revelation of God, will never cease to give up its efforts to proclaim itself sovereign over ultimate truth. Needless to say, with the Bible itself under attack, we should not be surprised that heresies of all sorts have sprung up in the past 300 years among professing believers and authored by the Church's own teachers!
The focus on doctrinal purity is expressed clearly by Jesus in Revelation 2:1-7 as He conveys through John words of commendation and correction to the church at Ephesus. Here, the Ephesians are highly commended for their stand in rooting out false apostles and false teachers: ''I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false' (v.2). 'Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate' (? κ?γ? μισ?) (v.6). Jesus' hatred of false doctrine, clearly expressed here, is backed by His powerful confrontation of the false teaching of the Pharisees and scribes, groups he regularly tangled with during His earthly ministry. (See Mark 7:1-23, Matthew 23:1-36.) This word to the Ephesians in Revelation reminds us of Paul's warning to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 where he states, 'Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.'
Such attention to false teaching, however, can often cause unintended secondary consequences. Sometimes we forget that as Jesus commended the Ephesians here for such devotion to doctrinal purity, he also saw such a serious consequence that it threatened the very viability of the fellowship as true light-bearers of the Gospel and of the testimony of Jesus in their day. What was this consequence?
'I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent' (v. 3-5).
How could a church, so steadfast to uphold the truth of the Gospel and the revealed word of God, be guilty of losing their first love? It is important to not just think of this body of believers as a corporate entity, but as made up of individuals just like you and me. Those who were advocating for the truth were drifting from Christ, and in so doing departing from fulfilling the royal law of love for their brothers and sisters. How often have I seen committed Christians, hungry to defend God's truth, devolve into angry and rude behavior, and a sickly intolerance. And sadly, Christian scholars can be among the worst transgressors. Sometimes it's just arrogance, where knowledge puffs up, instead of allowing love to edify. Sometimes we just allow the standards of the caustic, cynical world to possess our minds and our communication so that even when we try to tell the truth, it comes across with venom, sarcasm, and smugness. We call people names…they're 'crackpots,' 'nuts,' and even worse, 'unenlightened.' No, we have drifted away from 'speaking the truth in love,' 'patiently enduring evil,' and 'correcting opponents with gentleness,' to a form of communication that fails our Savior and is a mockery of the love we profess. This can be a serious sign that we may have indeed lost our first love.
In case anyone is confused here, we must grasp with clarity what Jesus is saying to the Ephesians in Revelation 2: Hate false teaching, and be passionate about the truth. But be wary of falling into the ways of the world. Remember that we are part of a body of believers that needs to constantly bring correction one to another. We have a responsibility to speak with respect, patience and grace, whether it is to believers or unbelievers.
George Eldon Ladd helpfully comments on this passage:
Their patient endurance and bearing up for the name of Christ suggest that the problem of false teachers faced by the Ephesian Christians was no temporary crisis but one that exerted a severe test of their steadfast adherence to the gospel. Here was a church outstanding for her doctrinal purity…Although their struggle with false teachers had made no inroads in the sound doctrine of the Ephesian Christians, it had serious effects on some aspects of their Christian conduct; it had led them to abandon the love they had at first. Here was a failure which undermined the very foundation of the Christian life. The Lord had taught that mutual love was to be the hallmark of Christian fellowship (John 13:35). The Ephesian converts had known such a love in their early years; but their struggle with false teachers and their hatred of heretical teaching had apparently engendered hard feelings and harsh attitudes toward one another to such an extent that it amounted to a forsaking of the supreme Christian virtue of love. Doctrinal purity and loyalty can never be a substitute for love. 1
We are all called to watch our 'life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers' (1 Timothy 4:6 NIV). At no time is our calling to correct an erring brother or sister to be an excuse for the flesh to rise with its ugly, unloving behavior and insulting words.
My dear Christian brother or sister, pastor, or scholar: do you remember the words of Paul to the Corinthians? '…think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.' Do you think you know something? If you do, who allowed your eyes to see and your mind to understand? If it wasn't for the grace of Christ to save us and for the Spirit of truth to be our Teacher, we would be lost in total spiritual darkness. So we must put on Christ, and as we share the knowledge that the Lord has given us, in humility, we will build up the body of Christ, correct the erring, and inform those hungering for truth.
Can we ever win the world to Christ by winning an argument? No, but we will win some of the world when they see the love we have for one another! We are called to advocate for the truth and to defend it, but never with the weapons of the flesh. Let us lovingly share the grace and the knowledge the Lord has given us with the sincere intent to build up the body of Christ and to help those outsiders who are asking questions about our faith. Do you know something about anything? What is the source of authority behind the knowledge you have? The written revelation of God is the sure foundation of knowledge, a revelation always affirmed by the Spirit in our hearts. Is science your ultimate source of knowledge? Are personal experiences? Are you depending on some teacher or book, or some other source of 'authority'? Let us remember the words of David in Psalm 119:99: 'I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation.' May we all stand upon the word of the Lord and hold all other knowledge lightly and humbly.
A fitting conclusion would be to reflect on comments gleaned from the third chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Colossians:
'If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you...
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony…
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom…'
1. Ladd, George Eldon
1972 A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Eerdmans. 39.
All Scripture quotations are from the Evangelical Study Bible except where indicated.