Do We Really Need to Wage War Against False Doctrine?

Article: (original source here) Do We Really Need to Wage War Against False Doctrine? . . . and how evangelicalism’s refusal to fight for the faith destroyed the movement by Phil Johnson

I answered an e-mail this week from someone who suggested that we should not concern ourselves with people who teach false doctrine. “After all,” this person said, quoting Gamaliel from Acts 5:38-39, “if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God.”

My reply? an excerpt from a chapter I wrote for Reforming or Conforming?: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church:

Christian leaders in particular are charged with the task of defending the truth against those who would twist it (Acts 20:28-31). As politically incorrect as this might sound to postmodern ears, there are abroad and within the church “many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers . . .. They must be silenced” (Titus 1:10-11). Or, in the more picturesque imagery of King James parlance, “[Their] mouths must be stopped.”

How false teachers are to be silenced is one of those things in Scripture that is crystal-clear. It is not by physical force or auto-da-fé. But they are to be refuted and rebuked by qualified elders in the church who are skilled in the Scriptures, “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (v. 8). The duty assumes that vital truth is clear enough that we can know it with certainty. And in the battle against falsehood, Scripture prescribes a clear strategy involving exhortation, reproof, rebuke, and correction.

This is to be done patiently, not pugnaciously: “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 escape from the snare of the devil” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

And yet even within those boundaries, the defense of the faith sometimes requires a kind of spiritual militancy (1 Timothy 1:18; Jude 3). The Christian life—especially the duty of the leader—is frequently pictured in Scripture as that of warfare (2 Corinthians 10:3-6; Ephesians 6:10-18; 1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 2:3-4).

So the defense of the faith is no easy task. But it is an indispensable duty for faithful Christians. Again, Scripture is not the least bit vague or equivocal about that.

Nevertheless, the defense of the faith is a duty the evangelical movement as a whole has mostly shirked for at least two decades. Since the formal dissolution of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in September 1987, evangelicalism as a movement has never fully mobilized for the defense of any point of doctrine—even in the wake of seismic challenges to the doctrine of God in the form of Open Theism—and despite recent assaults on the penal, propitiatory, and substitutionary aspects of Christ’s atoning work. It is no longer safe to assume that someone who calls himself “evangelical” would even affirm such historic evangelical nonnegotiables as the exclusivity of Christ or the necessity of conscious faith in Christ for salvation. Recently, it seems, the evangelical movement’s standard response to that kind of doctrinal slippage has looked like nothing more than cynical insouciance.

Such trends represent nothing less than the abandonment of true evangelical principles. Historic evangelicalism has always had the gospel at its center. The name itself reflects that, and it also denotes a particular stress on the doctrinal content of the gospel message. Yet the typical message proclaimed in many mainstream evangelical churches—including some of the best-known and most influential megachurches—was long ago reduced to a set of simplistic, solipsistic aphorisms (“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”; “accept Jesus as your personal savior.”) The message is sometimes overlaid with moralistic platitudes and a conservative, mostly-secular political agenda. In fact, a lobbyist’s commitment to a handful of morally-related political issues is about as close to anything serious as you will find in the average evangelical community. So the message communicated to the world at large sounds like a social and cultural commentary driven by Republican-party politics. Gone are the clarion notes of personal guilt, the redemption of the soul, and the real meaning of the cross—which, after all, Scripture says is the one message worth proclaiming (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Why fight for a message that doesn’t even have Christ crucified at the center anyway? Contemporary evangelicals have utterly neglected and virtually forgotten almost everything truly distinctive about historic evangelicalism. They have broadened their boundaries to include beliefs they once viewed as beyond the pale. They have now forgotten what the boundaries were all about in the first place. Meanwhile, with the gospel no longer at evangelicalism’s heart and hub, the entire evangelical subculture has begun to seem like a kind of spiritual black hole, where bad ideas spawned at the fringes are sucked one after another into the void at the center.

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