Why is Error Taught (and Believed)

In my last post I argued that it is not wrong to confront error. That statement presupposes that there is, indeed, error that needs to be confronted. That statement presupposes that there are those who teach erroneous doctrines, and that there are those who believe those erroneous doctrines. That statement raises the question, “Why do false teachers, and false doctrines exist?” I write today not to cast aspersions on any particular group, with the possible exception that I want to examine my own thoughts and actions first, and then let the chips fall where they may.

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I will begin with what I believe to be the most malevolent and culpable motivations, and work toward the least intentional, though perhaps not significantly less culpable.

  1.  Those who know they are promoting falsehood. This might be for financial or emotional gain, but these individuals know they are wrong, but do not care – or rather, they care more for what they are getting out of the process, not for what they are fostering.
  2. Closely related – those who refuse to stand under Scripture, but rather insist that they are somehow above Scripture. They adhere to the “assured results of modern scholarship” school of thought. The biblical authors were misogynistic, homophobic, racist, superstitious, uneducated – all of which we have been able to put behind us.
  3. Those who are blind to their own cultural influences and those who are more interested in following the crowd/garnering praise from the crowd. These may not know they are teaching/believing error, they simply assume that there is “strength in numbers,” or more correctly, that there is truth in numbers, and they do not want to risk embarrassment by asking critical questions.
  4. The fourth group are closely related – they are simply lazy scholars or learners. They just do not do their homework. They do not intentionally promote error, they just do not want to look to hard to find it, for the real reason that they would have to struggle with why is is in error, and what to do to correct it.
  5. And finally, the “innocent” promoters of error. They are simply following what they have been taught, in the honest belief that those who taught them would not, and indeed could not, deceive them. Their teachers are not only paragons of knowledge, they are paragons of virtue. Therefore, to accept what they taught is not only wise, to question these teacher would be the height of arrogance, and impertinence.

I believe that I have been in each of these positions, with the possible exception of number 1! I pray I have never intentionally taught error. I know I have taught error, for who can say with a straight face and honest heart that everything they have ever said or taught is perfectly true?? So, I would have to say that my error stems from arrogance in light of the clear meaning of Scripture (#2) to an honest and deeply felt admiration for my teachers (#5). Have I ever stood “above” Scripture? Probably – I would be a fool to deny the accusation entirely. I know I have been guilty of numbers 3-5.

So, what to do about it? False teachers – and false doctrines – exist. We all, whether we want to admit it or not, fall prey to promoting them or believing them. We cannot solve the problem by pretending it does not exist.

I have presented somewhat of an answer to this question with my “15 Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” (see the related page above). Without rehearsing each of those here, I will simply say that Christians must be alert to their own propensity to believe error, and recognize that all humans have that propensity. The only sure and safe response to any teaching – new or ancient – is to compare it to the text of Scripture.

We must stop being so naive. God did not intend his word to confuse or mislead. Contradictory doctrines cannot both be true. There is truth, and if there is truth, then anything that contradicts that truth must be error, no matter how fine sounding the argument or how popular its reception.

My question today is – are we going to be as ruthless with our own conclusions as we are with those with whom we disagree?

Is it Elitist to Challenge a Defective Theology?

A discerning eye will notice that I am writing from a clearly announced position: the life of Christian discipleship is an upside-down life. We win by losing, ascend by going lower. Some will agree energetically in regard to only one facet of the Christian life: evaluating the worth of differing, and in some cases diametrically opposed, theological positions. In this view to challenge a conclusion, or to disagree with someone, is wrong-headed. It is impolite and smacks of elitism. Apparently you can only hold a position to be in error if you are a theological stuff-shirt.

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I must plead ignorance here, as I simply do not know how this conclusion can be reached if a person reads the Bible with any kind of open mind. From Genesis 3 until the last echoes of the words of Revelation have died down, God is constantly and directly challenging bad theology. No one, from Adam to the apostle Paul (just to name a couple) is immune from adding 2 + 2 and coming up with some form of heterodoxy (if not outright heresy). Often the correction is gentle, sometimes it is severe, occasionally the correction is ironic or sarcastic. But God, and his inspired speakers/authors, never allow bad theology to go unchallenged and uncorrected.

Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in my undergraduate program came at the conclusion of a rather energetic discussion of some fine point of exegesis. A student (not me, I am not that smart) asked the professor “What do we do when someone teaches something that is clearly not true to the text?” After a moment’s pause, the professor said something like this: “We must be very careful in pointing out the mistakes of others. But bad theology must always be confronted and corrected or the text of the Bible becomes meaningless.”

I have always remembered that moment – and not because I have always followed my professors advice. Far too often I have chosen to remain silent and allowed flawed conclusions to be made, mostly with the excuse that I did not want to offend someone’s dignity. But, sad to say, I just did not want to come off as elitist. I did not want the teacher to think I was “putting him in his place” or that I was somehow superior to him.

No, I have always remembered that comment from my professor as a goad pricking my conscience.

There are times when silence IS truly golden. We do not need to correct every jot and tittle of someone’s class or sermon. We do not need to be the pronunciation police to make sure that every shibboleth is pronounced faultlessly. And, certainly, there is a huge argument to be made that any such correction needs to be done gently, and in private if at all possible.

But, theologically speaking, it is no more elitist to correct bad doctrine than it is to promote good doctrine. In fact, it is one of the main duties that Paul assigned to Timothy and Titus.

The only elitist, the only snob when it comes to preaching or teaching, is the one who will not listen to correction or a well-worded challenge. Do not be afraid to challenge when and where it is necessary – but always remember this –

The path to the heights of glory winds down the depths of service. We ascend by going lower!

Three Scriptures Christians Hate (III and summary)

So far in this series we have seen how Moses eliminates our ability to boast in our numbers. We cannot be proud to have the most numbers or that we can claim to have popular or “influential” members, nor is boasting that we are the ‘righteous remnant’ any safer. Our only security is in having a loving relationship with God. Moving just a little closer to the heart, Moses attacks our reliance on our self-reliance, our ability to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” If we are able to accomplish anything, it is because God has empowered us to do so. Many times all he asks is that we have faith, and he will do the heavy lifting.

Today Moses cuts to the core; he hits us where it really hurts. Today Moses kills our inflated, and erroneous, view of our own righteousness.

Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you . . . Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” (Deuteronomy 9:4, 6, ESV)

Before anyone rises to smite me, yes, I know. Moses is not literally speaking to “us.” He was speaking to the Israelites who had gathered to cross the Jordan and to take possession of the promised land. But I see in these three challenges, or rebukes if you will, a sermon that is as relevant today as it ever was. If there ever was a nation – or a church! – that prided itself on its numbers, its ability to create its own success, and that was overbearingly satisfied with its own righteousness, it is the United States and the populist American church. That is why I titled this series of posts “Three Scriptures Christians Hate.” It is not that genuine disciples of Christ hate these passages (although, to be honest, I am uncomfortable with them, because they cut to my own pride and self-reliance). No, what I am saying is that in the eyes of the populist American “church,” these passages would be anathema.

Moses was confronting the Israelites with three very real human sins. All of God’s people have at one time or another been tempted to rely on “group think,” or the tendency to trust in their numbers and their popularity. God’s people have been tempted to view their own strength as unstoppable. And God’s people have been seduced to think that success is the result of their righteousness. Moses told the Israelites they were wrong on all three counts. I think Moses is still right. I think we look at our numbers, at the size of our buildings, at the popular or “important” people who attend our services, and at our impeccable adherence to arcane doctrines as proof that God is blessing us.

I firmly believe God wants his church to grow. I can find no Scripture that says, “Follow me and become a loser.” The precise plans for the beautiful tabernacle and later the temple lets me know that God does take pleasure when we honor him with our wealth instead of hoarding it for ourselves, or wasting it on frivolous pleasures. And, lest we forget, it was God who said, “Be Holy as I am Holy.” Holiness is a good thing, and much to be sought after.

Its just that we can never boast of our numbers (or lack thereof!). We can never boast of our success. We can never boast of our righteousness. We can, and should, give thanks that God has blessed us, that God has given us the ability to grow and succeed, and that God has purified us and made us holy.

In other words, God wants us to succeed, to be blessed, to climb higher. But we ascend by going lower. We win by losing. We live by dying. It is all up-side-down. And that, I believe, is exactly what Moses was trying to say.

Three Scriptures Christians Hate (II)

In my last post I pointed out how Christians are so enthralled with numbers that we hate to think that God is really concerned with more than numbers. While numbers do represent people, what God is concerned about is a relationship. Deuteronomy 7:7-8 confronts us in our numbers-centric thinking.

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“Upping the ante” somewhat, and shocking us even more, Moses even had the temerity to minimize human accomplishments. If we cannot boast in our numbers, even less are we to boast of our human strength:

Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth. You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. (Deuteronomy 8:17-18, ESV)

The specific issue to which Moses was speaking was the temptation for the Israelites to think that it was by their own strength and military power that they had achieved their economic dominance. That is application number one, and one that I believe needs to be addressed in our money-and-image hungry culture. However, today I want to address a more insidious temptation to pride regarding our human power, and that is the temptation for us to think we are building God’s kingdom, God’s church.

We see the results of this thinking in the myriad of ways that our speech betrays us. We speak of evangelistic “campaigns” (originally a military term, now used almost exclusively with politics). We attend “soul winning workshops.” In fact, “winning souls” is virtually synonymous with evangelism today. Ministers are measured by the number of baptisms they perform, or at the very least, are performed in “their” church. Youth ministers record baptisms at summer camps like notches on their biblical six-shooters. “How To Do Evangelism” seminars and books are legion.

The surest way not to draw a crowd is to title a seminar, “How To Grow A Church By Doing Nothing” (Exodus 14:14; see also Exodus 14:25, Deuteronomy 1:30; 3:22; 20:4; Joshua 10:14, 42; 23:3; 2 Chronicles 20:13-17; Nehemiah 4:20; Isaiah 30:15; Acts 2:41 (God did the adding!) Acts 2:47; 1 Corinthians 3:5-8).

No, in today’s church it is all about me, my power, my ability, my skill, my program or book, my ability to “win souls” and to “close the deal” and to “expand the kingdom of God.” (Brief aside – as if God’s kingdom could be expanded, how in the world do we think that we mortals could do it??)

The passage I quoted above is actually towards the end of a longer section that begins in Deuteronomy 8:11 with the words, “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God” and continues in v. 14, “. . . then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God . . .”

You see, when we try to ascend by climbing higher, when we try to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, when we try to convince ourselves that it is by our own strength or power that we achieve any goal, the only way we can convince ourselves that we are successful is by forgetting God.

When we remember the LORD our God by obeying his commandments and by submitting to his will, we WILL become victorious! We will be blessed!

But we can only ascend by descending lower.

Three Scriptures Christians Hate (I)

For the most part Christians love to assert that they love the Bible. We buy Bibles, display Bibles, carry Bibles around so that others will know just how much we love the Bible. Occasionally we even read the Bible, but (because I am kind of a sceptic at heart) I wonder just how much of the Bible we actually read? And, beyond that, how much of the Bible that we read do we actually like?

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I think there are three passages in the Old Testament that we as Christians do not like very much, if we spend much time reading them at all. Today I will mention the first, and will discuss the other two in quick succession.

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8, ESV)

Today there is almost a pathological interest in numbers among Christians. We like to point to Luke, our beloved church historian, for our emphasis on numbers and church growth. But Luke was not using numbers or the rate of church growth as proof that the early Christians were right about their politics or their theology. Luke recorded that when people were confronted about their sin and guilt, the Spirit acted to convert them and they were therefore added to the number of the redeemed.

Today we look at church growth/numbers with one of three responses: (a) “See how big we are! God is certainly blessing us! Come be with us!” (b) “Hey, that church over there is growing and we are not. Let’s do what they are doing so we can grow too!” or (c) “The fact that we are not growing is just proof that we are really the ‘righteous remnant,’ because everyone knows that ‘the way to life is hard and the gate is narrow, and few there are that find it.'”

Moses told the Israelites, “Don’t look at the numbers, whether they are big or small. God promised Abraham to make his descendants innumerable, and they will be. Let God fulfill his promise in his good time. Meanwhile, do not think you are special because you are many or few, but recognize your relationship with God because he loves you” (Okay, I paraphrased just a little.)

It is tempting to boast of our numbers when we are growing, or are the biggest. It is tempting to even boast when we are few in number because we are more spiritual than the masses (more on that in installment #3). Moses, and certainly Jesus many centuries later, forbade the practice of boasting of any size of numbers entirely.

We are who we are by the love of God exclusively. Let us revel in his love, not in our numbers.

Become Like Children

In light of my focus on “Ascending Lower,” I was struck today by a section of a commentary on the gospel of Matthew I am currently working through. The passage is based on Matthew 18:4, and really needs no further explanation:

The vital difference, however, between the child and what Jesus calls for is that for the child this is a natural state, but what the kingdom of God calls for is a deliberately chosen (‘turn and become’) stance of humility. It is a form of self-denial that has its counterpart in the taking up the cross of 16:24. The challenge is to replace the assertion of one’s own importance with a deliberately chosen posture of subordination. (John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Greek Testament Commentary), p. 732.)

Cogitate on that for a while.

Give Me the “Christian Combo,” but Hold the Cross

“I have been crucified with Christ . . . ” (Galatians 2:20a, ESV)

I cannot tell you how many times I have read that passage, heard that passage, even sung that passage. But something just dawned on me the other day that put this verse in an entirely new context. To make a potentially long post much shorter, let me cut to the bullet points –

  • The apostle Paul here clearly identified himself as a crucified Christian.
  • The apostle Paul was a Roman citizen, and used that citizenship to avoid certain mistreatments. (Ref. Acts 22:22-29)
  • Rome did not crucify its citizens. Foreigners could be crucified, but not Roman citizens.
  • The apostle Paul was a Roman citizen.
  • The apostle Paul clearly identified himself as a crucified Christian.

To put it another way, the one form of capital punishment that the apostle Paul did not have to fear was the one that he willingly chose to identify himself. It was not just Jesus that suffered the ignominy of crucifixion, but it was the apostle as well.

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How different it is in our highly cultured and sanitized Christianity today. Everybody wants to be a Christian, but nobody wants the cross. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. We all want to sing about how many stars will be in our crown. Jesus’s crown did not have stars; it had thorns.

It is hard to critique something that you are a part of, and yet that is exactly what I feel like I am doing. I do not really want that cross any more than anyone else. I am utterly a child of my time. I want the “Christian Combo” but please hold the side order of the cross.

The apostle Paul would later write to another group of people, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20, ESV) That helps to put Galatians 2:20 into focus for me. As a citizen of Rome, Paul did not have to fear crucifixion. To be a citizen of the Kingdom of God he had to welcome it.

Therein lies the heart of the matter. What matters is, where is our heart?

Needed Words from an Ancient Prophet

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The prophet Jeremiah struggled with being who God called him to be. Mind you, he was a great prophet, and some of the most beautiful words in the English language come from his pen. But, he was not afraid of complaining to God about his lot in life.

God was pretty direct in responding to Jeremiah:

If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? (Jeremiah 12:5a ESV)

Now, if God had disciplined me in this way, I don’t think I would have recorded those words for all generations to read. Probably would have filed them away under “Unfair job review.”

Jeremiah, however his weak moments, did have the strength of his convictions, and this record of God’s rebuke demonstrates that strength, as well as his humility.

Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight’ declares the LORD. (Jer. 9:23-24 ESV)

 

Notice God did not say there were no wise men, no mighty men, no rich men. All things considered, I would much rather be wise, strong, and rich as opposed to stupid, weak, and poor. But wisdom, strength, and wealth are not to be our refuge. God is our strength, our refuge. And what God is concerned about is love, justice, and righteousness.

One of my favorite verses from a country and western song comes from an album by Charley Pride. The second verse of the song, “I’m Just Me” begins, “When people say that life is rough, I wonder: Compared to what?”

Maybe, just maybe, when we get tired enough of tilting at windmills, at trying to make ourselves look big and smart and impressive and rich, maybe at that point we can take a step down and accept what God has called us to be in the first place: heirs with his son Jesus the Messiah of the coming Kingdom.

Is it any wonder, then, that the apostle Paul wrote, “I [want to] know him, and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…” (Philippians 3:10 ESV)

The apostle Paul, just like the prophet Jeremiah before him, ascended much higher than he ever would have on his own, by descending lower into the strength and power of knowing his God. May we have the courage to share in their ascension!

The Struggle of the Crucified Life

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“Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

Anyone who has tried to live the Christian life, who has really tried to follow Jesus, knows the truth of that statement. It is just really hard to live a life when you are called to die. The apostles had a hard time getting it, the apostle Paul had to sit blind for three days to get it, the Constantinian church flatly rejected the idea. We just recoil at the thought that we might be called to die in order to live.

And, yet, the great examples of our faith did eventually understand the message. Paul prayed that he might become like Christ in his death, so that he might receive the “upward call” of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8-14). Peter, too, exhorted his readers to accept a life of suffering for Christ (1 Peter 2:21-25).

The form of Christ on earth is the form of the death [Todesgestalt] of the crucified one. The image of God is the image of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is into this image that the disciples life must be transformed. It is a life in the image and likeness of Christ’s death (Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:4f). It is a crucified life (Gal. 2:19). (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 285).

The problem for Christians in the democratic and capitalistic West is that we have no paradigm, no blueprint, for what a crucified life should look like. We know success – boy do we love and honor success! Humility, meekness, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, forgiving “70 x 7” – these are all obscure, even opaque, concepts. Why, we might as well even be called on to die.

And, that is exactly what Jesus called on us to do. “Take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 10:38, 39; 16:24).

Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, p. 87)

Living the crucified life is a struggle. Anyone who would argue otherwise is either a fool or has never attempted to do it. Everything within our human nature rebels against it. And that is why our fallen human nature must die. We must die so that God can send his Spirit within us and make us new creations (Romans 6:1-14 again).

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10, ESV)

I can’t do it on my own. Only God can make me ascend lower. This I must learn. This I must accept. To this I must surrender myself.

God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (Luke 18:13, ESV)

Ascending Lower – A Call to the Crucified Life

Things never stay the same. Kittens become cats. Babes in arms eventually march across commencement stages and down wedding aisles. You never step in to the same river twice.

Perhaps some of you will know me from a previous existence in the realm of blogs. You will no doubt hear strains of that old presence – it is still very much a part of me. However, I hope this set of presentations will be much different. That, at least, is my goal.

A word about the title of this new blog. Jesus said those who wish to save their life must lose it. We win by losing. Paul said he was made strong in his weakness. The apostle wanted to live by being crucified. We climb higher by going lower. This image has been used by countless fathers and mothers of the church even down to the present. Henri Nouwen suggested that Christians are to be wounded healers. Richard Rohr (OFM) described it as “falling upward.”

I want to suggest – or to proclaim, rather – that the church of Christ, and individual Christians within it, must ascend by becoming lower. We become more like our Lord when we are given a towel, not a trophy. For too long we have been singing about “stars in our crown” instead of bowing to rub calluses on our knees.

So, I have three major goals for this space. One, I pray I can speak to the church of Christ, and individual members of that universal church, in a manner as to encourage a renewal of spirit, a revival of passion for Christ and his church. Two, I want to present the gospel of Christ as clearly and as powerfully as I can, both in its invitation and in its warning. Finally, to achieve those two related goals I want to promote what I believe is a healthy theology that leads to healthy practices. I must by definition confront what I believe is bad theology, incorrect exegesis, and sick practices (see 1:10 – Jeremiah had to pluck up, break down, destroy and overthrow before he could build and plant!)

My goal is to be irenic – to aim for peace – but I will not shrink from honest and forthright engagement with error. With Jesus as my savior, and the apostle Paul as my example, I pray I can ascend lower, and by doing so that I can be lifted into the new heaven and earth.