It has been tried across the centuries — in public arenas, through mob violence and by official banning.
In the first 300 years of the New Testament church, ten massive persecutions took place, and the Roman emperor Diocletian even had a medal struck — inscribed with the boast, ‘The Christian religion is destroyed, and the worship of the gods is restored’.
But — as Bishop William Greer of Manchester once told his critic during a TV interview — ‘The church will stand at the grave of the BBC, the ITV and all other institutions knocking around the world today’. Those might sound like brave words only, were it not for the assurance of Jesus Christ that the gates of hell itself will not prevail against the church.
Critics’ failure to learn
We Christians today are astonished, not so much at the ever-continuing advance in the 2.3 billion-strong family of Jesus Christ worldwide, but rather at the amazing failure of our critics to learn from history. Naturally we weep when a Janani Luwum (Uganda), or a Mehdi Dibaj (Iran) is martyred. Such martyrs are numbered by the thousand today, as they were 20 centuries ago. But the sweep of civilisation indicates that the greater the pressure on the church from its outside persecutors, the stronger tends to be its growth.
The atheist Philip Pulman has declared: ‘Without a doubt Christianity will cease to exist in a few years’. He might have done better to heed the historian, T.R. Glover: ‘The final disappearance of Christianity has been prophesied so often as to be no longer interesting’.
Danger from insiders
And yet a church can be wrecked. To read the letters of the New Testament is to understand that although persecution from outside was bitter and powerful, the real dangers arose from men within the church’s boundaries, who — like others of ‘broad’ outlook who were to follow them — ‘creep into the ministry, but they are generally cunning enough to conceal the breadth of their minds beneath Christian phraseology’ (C.H. Spurgeon, college address, 1874).
A prime example of the New Testament warnings occurs in Paul’s letter to Titus, appointed to lead the church in Crete. Writing of such false teachers, the apostle declares: ‘They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good’ (Titus 1.16).
‘Detestable…’ Paul is not writing of the Roman Empire (of which Crete became a part in 67 AD). Nor was he fearful of other religions. Zeus was supposedly born in Crete, and Bacchus was also worshipped there — but Zeus and Bacchus, together with Osiris, Jupiter, Artemis and a host of other deities would all have to move aside with the preaching of Jesus. The real enemy was from within. The false teachers within the church were plausible in their appearance — ‘claiming to know God’; they were human in their authority — presenting ‘the commands of men who reject the truth’ (the correct reading of v.14)); they were rebellious in their attitudes — ‘rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers’.
The character of false teaching
What is it about false teaching? First, it dazzles, finding its ways into magazines and onto TV news programmes and book displays. Secondly, it deceives — drawing the unwary half a degree off course. It then distorts, for the principle of the ever-widening angle will eventually see church members ten years down the line embracing teachings that are far removed from Scripture. And, finally, it destroys. Congregations slowly die. And the brilliant shooting star that had once drawn gasps from admirers drops into the darkness and is forgotten. The books end up in Oxfam shops, but the damage has been done.
The identikit of Crete’s false teachers is not uncommon throughout the story of the church. The teachings may vary across a wide range, spanning between the blatancy of a Bishop Charles Bennison of Pennsylvania (‘We wrote the Bible; we can re-write the Bible’) to the extremism of semi-sectarianism that asserts, ‘Yes, the cross is important — but we’ve moved on further now’. How do false teachers come across?
Recognising false teachers
Titus was urged to recognise them as the big talkers (1.10); also as the peace-breakers, upsetting and dividing whole households and fellowships. They were to be recognised as the truth-warpers, with their twisting of a single issue into a major mandatory tenet. Such has always been the case. Ultimately they were the death-brokers, for, just as all things that the pure ever touch tend to result in purity, so all that the ‘corrupted’ deal with will end in corruption (1.15).
That, very largely, is how a church becomes wrecked. It happens from within.
How to resist
The question always lies before Bible people and gospel people: how are false leaders in the church to be resisted? The answer is the same as that given to Titus. First, we are to silence them by our teaching (v.11), and never to give in — but rather to out-preach them. We are also to correct them by our firmness (v.13) with the aim of winning them around. This may have to include ‘fencing’ the pulpit, monitoring the bookstall and guarding church leadership appointments (vv.5-9). Further, we are to expose them by our very lifestyle (v.16). As often as not, false teaching will finally betray its nature in its boasting, lying, sexual deviation, cheating and avarice (v.12).
Self-control and self-vigilance on our own part are vital, ‘so that in every way we may make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive’ (2.10). The alternative is …detestable.
Richard Bewes OBE is former Rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, and Prebendary Emeritus of St. Paul’s Cathedral. He is a member of Anglican Mainstream’s Steering Committee. Website: http://www.richardbewes.com
This article was first published on the Anglican Mainstream website (http://www.anglican-mainstream.net) and is used with permission.
(This article was first published in the December 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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