Misnomer and Overreaction
Occasionally, after a teacher or speaker has conducted a thorough investigation and rebuttal of a false doctrine, a few may wonder, “Why should we spend time studying error?” “Why not just study truth?” This is a fair question that deserves an answer, which is the goal of this article.
First, although surely unintended, it should be noted that there is a misleading element, a misnomer — maybe even a straw man and a false dilemma in this question. Generally, people do not advocate “just studying error”. Whenever gospel preachers and Bible class teachers publicly refute error, they study truth to answer error. Consequently, the above question may represent more of an imagined straw man than concrete reality.
Second, people do not alternatively “just study truth” despite their claims to the contrary. Inevitably, they will eventually offer some correction, explain some misunderstanding, or challenge an opposing thought, even if only to protest “studying error”.
Third, is there no middle ground? Can not a false teaching be presented for the express purpose of combating it? Furthermore, can we not alternate examination of error with other spiritual needs and Bible topics? Obviously, it is unfair and self-contradictory to present only these two extreme options: “study error or study truth”. Therefore, a middle ground should be sought. The optimal position of such a middle ground may move closer to one extreme or the other at various times, depending on the needs of the students as identified by those responsible for the teaching, but it nonetheless exists.
Ultimately, this question represents an issue of priority, emphasis, and judgment. Responsibilities vary, but each one must decide how much time to invest into answering error for one’s self and for those under his care, even if the threat is not evident to most. Since this issue is in reality a question of degrees, let us dispense with unclear and misleading terms of extremes and false dilemmas.
Like Jesus and the Apostles
As we have studied previously (Can We Understand the Bible?, “Do All Things According to the Pattern”, “Do All in the Name of the Lord”, An Introduction to Bible Silence, and Do Silence of Scriptures Prohibit or Permit?), the ultimate source in understanding how to study and teach the Scriptures are the Scriptures themselves! Should we not use the Scriptures as those inspired used them?
A brief survey of the New Testament Scriptures reveal that combating error and correcting misunderstandings was an ever-present occupation of inspired writers. Outside of the the little epistle to Philemon, virtually every New Testament book prominently confronts or exemplifies confronting error! For example, New Testament writers and Jesus frequently directly quoted and answered prevalent error and incorrect thought:
“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to those of old ... But I say to you ... (Matthew 5:20-22; see also, 5:27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44)
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? (Matthew 23:16-19)
And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. ... (Acts 15:1-2)
And why not say, “Let us do evil that good may come?” — as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just. (Romans 3:8)
Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (I Corinthians 1:12-13)
Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (I Corinthians 15:12)
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; ... Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (I John 1:6-10)
Beyond confronting imminent threats, they also anticipated and answered in advance the arguments of error, false teachers, and the obstinate:
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. ... And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? ... Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, ... and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law. You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? ... (Romans 2:1-3, 17-21)
But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unjust who inflicts wrath? (I speak as a man.) Certainly not! For then how will God judge the world? (Romans 3:5-6)
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? (Romans 6:1-2)
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” (Romans 7:7)
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! ... You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” (Romans 9:14, 19-20)
For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. ... You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.” Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. (Romans 11:13-14, 19-20)
But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe-- and tremble! (James 2:18-19)
They also cited the false teachers’ own internal accepted sources as evidence of inconsistency and fallacy:
“... for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising. (Acts 17:28-29)
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 the faith, (Titus 1:12-13)
On some occasions, these exemplary writers called out influential false teachers by name:
“Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered.” And as He said these things to them, the scribes and the Pharisees began to assail Him vehemently, and to cross-examine Him about many things, lying in wait for Him, and seeking to catch Him in something He might say, that they might accuse Him. In the meantime, when an innumerable multitude of people had gathered together, so that they trampled one another, He began to say to His disciples first of all, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 11:52-12:1)
... by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. (I Timothy 1:18-20)
And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some. (II Timothy 2:17-18)
Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May the Lord repay him according to his works. You also must beware of him, for he has greatly resisted our words. (II Timothy 4:14-15)
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church. (III John 1:9-10)
Finally, they frequently warned brethren to beware false teachers and avoid extending fellowship to them and their corruptive influence:
Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. For me to write the same things to you is not tedious, but for you it is safe. Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation! ... For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame — who set their mind on earthly things. (Philippians 3:1-19)
Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer ... (II Timothy 2:14-17)
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber. ... as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; (II Peter 2:1-3:18)
Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds. (II John 1:9-11)
Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ. ... These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; ... These are grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage. But you, beloved, remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ: how they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts. (Jude 1:3-23)
“I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake and have not become weary. ... this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. ... Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. (Revelation 2:2-6, 20)
Many more examples could be provided, but these should be sufficient to prove that inspired teachers never “just studied truth”, while ignoring error that was rampaging around them or dismissing preparations for threats anticipated. Instead, Jesus and His inspired apostles and prophets frequently referenced, exposed, and corrected false doctrine. Therefore, if by divine example or inspiration, they understood, addressed, and corrected dangerous errors of their day, should we not do the same in our day?
Danger of Too Little
There is an understandable aversion toward wrapping one’s mind around a foreign concept, especially when our initial instinct is to immediately disregard what is different. Dedication is required to understand another’s beliefs, sift it, and prepare a response (I Thessalonians 5:21-22; I Peter 3:15). However, such commitment is essential, since the Scriptures are replete with warnings against the real danger of false teachers and doctrine:
Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. (Romans 16:17-18)
But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. ... For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works. (II Corinthians 11:2-15)
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9)
that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:14-16)
Now this I say lest anyone should deceive you with persuasive words. (Colossians 2:4)
The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. ... Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (II Thessalonians 2:9-15)
For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; ... But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. (II Timothy 3:6-13)
Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace, not with foods which have not profited those who have been occupied with them. (Hebrews 13:9)
False teachers and their teaching are deceptive, misleading, subtle, cunning, and scheming! They come as “ministers of righteousness” and as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (II Corinthians 11:13-15; Matthew 7:15). They skillfully mix truth with error and compliments with presumption. Furthermore, we are too easily deceived through flattery, lusts, ignorance, and prejudice. Often we think we understand very well, but because we have not been tested, we may be easily cast down. (Like the Corinthians, “Therefore, let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall”, I Corinthians 10:12. Also consider the example of Peter in Matthew 26:33-35, 69-75, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble”.) Like those “Spot the Differences” puzzles in the newspaper, we may think we know truth through an almost exclusive study of it only to awaken to the sudden realization that we are unprepared to recognize a distinction. Even worse, in our simplicity and naivety, we may never awake. We may be unknowingly carried away with the error of the wicked through too little preparation (II Peter 3:16-17).
Danger of Too Late
Furthermore, false doctrine does not float on the wind. It is carried by a proponent, who can lobby for its sympathy. Regrettably, people may develop an early prejudice in favor of error, because of a false teacher’s charm. Therefore, it is important to address false doctrine before it becomes entrenched through socialization, emotional familiarity, and institutional dependencies. Why would we assist error’s agenda by offering it the element of surprise by allowing it to find a host in our own company before confronting it? For example, consider this wisdom advocated by one, who too late recognized the failure of many to denounce false teaching before it was embedded:
“The fact that no church is to assume the oversight of more work than it can support seems crystal clear to me now as I look back. My hindsight is clearer than my foresight! I am in no position to boast, because I was not among the wise ones who saw the danger in the sponsoring church idea at first. I was not among those who preached before this plan of centralization was introduced in the latter part of the forties. We failed to do that which should have been done very effectively in those earlier days. We failed to discover and teach the simple, local government for the church as God ordained. Enough teaching before and during the war could have immunized the church against the complicated plans men set up as substitutes for God's pattern. We had the opportunity; but, in our simple ignorance, we failed in this significant way.”
“I, and many of my brethren, soon saw that the sponsoring churches were unscriptural; but by then they were already set up and were collecting millions of dollars to do great things. As they made their big splash they grew in popularity. What could we do when we saw the error? There was not much we could do but raise our faint voices in protest, and then be crushed by the logrolling tactics of the big machines. Our opportunity to do effective teaching was before the powerful machines were set up and thrown into high gear. Several good men saw the danger before I did, and they tried to awaken the brethren, but even they were too late. They were given such names as antis, fanatics, the lunatic fringe, mossbacks, etc. They could not preach to those who did not want to hear them, because they closed their eyes, stopped their ears, and hardened their hearts. The followers of the promoters of the big machines would not endure the sound doctrine of these good men who tried to point out the unscripturalness of these central agencies. A remnant did awaken to the danger, but the larger mass of people turned back toward denominationalism by opening the door to apostasy. The sponsoring church was the first step in a long march down the path of digression. The floodgate was opened, and none could close it. It has not been closed, and it will not be closed in time to bring safety to the great mass of people who have rushed headlong after these promoters. Many are now disillusioned by the present absurdities of these rich and powerful congregations; but they are still in the crowd that followed the promoters, and are going from one new error to another.” (Preaching In A Changing World, Irven Lee, 1975, p. 43-44)
In every given area, there is some set of false doctrines that are more popular and widely held than others. If we love our Lord and those whom He loved, then why would we not want to prepare ourselves in advance to answer their questions to strengthen our evangelistic outreach? If we are aware of doctrines that are prevalent in our area, then why would we not try to inoculate those around us? If we spend too little time preparing ourselves and others to answer error, it may be too late by the time we begin in earnest.
Danger of Too Much
In almost every matter, there is a danger of moving toward extremes. This matter is no exception. Devoting too little in preparation may lead to weak, vulnerable, arrogant, and lethargic Christians; however, there is also danger in devoting too much time to examining error! Please consider the following possible pitfalls:
- Although much of the New Testament writings are focused on recognizing and answering false doctrine, a significant portion is spent on other aspects of Christianity, like growth of personal character, refining inner attitudes, maintaining moral purity, and such like. As Paul was only held guiltless by declaring “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27), so must we spend time studying and teaching God’s Word upon every matter. Ignoring any aspect of God’s Word leaves us susceptible to the enemy (Ephesians 6:10-18; I Peter 5:8-9); therefore, no part must be overlooked.
- Just as teachers develop among mature, experienced Christians (Hebrews 5:12-14), and just as stronger, more spiritual Christians help those who are weak (Galatians 6:1), so we also must take great care not to expect too much, too soon of young, inexperienced, or struggling Christians. Requiring too much effort in combating false teaching may discourage those whose responsibilities are already overflowing because of their own needs.
- Although one may benefit from the “sharpening” effect (Proverbs 27:17) of interacting with those of opposing views, it is ill advised to spend the bulk of one’s time reading opposing views. We are impressionable, and although we should be open to questioning and self-examination, too much exposure to any one side of a matter - especially the wrong side - will inevitably soften our stand against error, if not convert us unto it (I Corinthians 15:33; Proverbs 18:17)! Even worse, some have deliberately turned to false teachers as experts, hoping to learn from them in matters that are central to their error! Like those long ago, they “have changed their Glory for what does not profit” and “have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns — broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:11-13, see also: II Peter 2:15-22; Jude 12-13).
- There is a diminishing level of return associated with answering any error. Once the strongest, fundamental, and common points of a false doctrine are countered, there is little need in examining the lesser points (Ecclesiastes 10:10). At some point, one’s time is better spent examining other topics, once the wisdom of men has been exposed on a given topic. New questions may trickle into view and merit further consideration, but provided the original effort was zealously undertaken, follow-up efforts should not consume nearly as much time.
Some amount of judgment must be exercised to determine how much time must be spent examining error. Just because dangers exist toward one extreme, we should not ignore the dangers of the other.
For those who are busy with the Lord’s work of teaching the lost, there is no need to explain the value of examining and answering error. Such people are busy persuading others, wrestling with difficult questions, errors, and misunderstandings of Scripture; therefore, they greatly value and relish the insight of those who have already crossed such waters. Others, who may be struggling with a brother “drifting away” or a sister nursing a “root of bitterness” (Hebrews 2:1-3; 10:23-39; 12:12-17), do not require motivation to take time to prepare answers for false doctrine. They are living it! They appreciate the help! How can we minimize the need for such teaching without directly undermining the effectiveness of evangelism, jeopardizing teetering saints, and exposing our shame?
Even if it is wearisome to investigate errors foreseen, the inspired text demonstrates an ongoing mission to examine, confront, and answer threatening false doctrines. Even errors that were only anticipated were still cut off by teaching in advance. This preparation is needed, because false teachers are extremely deceptive, and it takes time to disseminate truth, dismantle error, and steady unlearned and unstable minds. As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Let us not fall into the seduction that we are prepared, if we have invested little time into answering the arguments of error. In contrast, let us not become so enamored with false teachers that we invest too much time answering them — or even worse, expect to directly learn from them! May God bless with wise elders and evangelists, who have the knowledge to grow in knowledge and to adequately prepare those whom they serve for God’s work of evangelism, teaching, and restoration.
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