Dealing With Error

John Whitfield
Owen Sound, Ontario


It is never pleasant to the sincere preacher of the gospel to condemn the sins of the people and expose the teachers of religious error. Such exposures never add to the popularity of the preacher and are often embarrassing to the audience, particularly if their own sins are being condemned, or if they have friends who are espoused to the error in question. We should not be surprised when many brethren object to such preaching. Sometimes they object so strongly and condemn the preacher so forcefully that they become guilty of doing to the preacher that which they say is wrong for him to do to others.

It would almost appear that there is an unwritten law, teaching that it is a sign of virtue to remain silent in the face of every opposition. There is an old adage to the effect that "Silence is golden". Much has been written about the evils of the tongue and every care and caution should be exercised with reference to our speech. Possibly no subject is any more frequently discussed in the word of God than the control of the tongue, and what we say.

On the other hand, however, saying nothing when something ought to be said often does grievous wrong. Mordecai told Esther, "For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time" then relief and deliverance would come to her people from another source and she and her father's house would perish and "who knoweth whether thou art not come to the kingdom for such a time as this" (Esther 4:14). Truer words of wisdom never were spoken and they immediately prompted that noble lady to speak up on behalf of her people and saved them from the wicked Haman. There are rare occasions when silence is golden but too often it is the refuge of the coward and the compromiser with sin. Early Christians on many occasions spoke out against the religious error of the day and were often forced to deal with error both within and without the body of Christ.

Those who contend that all criticism should be confined to the congregation to which the critic is a member need to be reminded that the body of Christ is not just one congregation but the sum of all the congregations. What one body is and does, under the Lord Jesus Christ, is what all congregations should be and do. Error is error and must be opposed regardless of who teaches it (I Timothy 5:20). There are times when silence is best but as well, there are times when it is sinful and wicked.

In pointing out error, exposing and refuting it, we are often charged with not having the love, the attitude and the spirit of Christ. A pulpit or a literary display of arrogance and abusive language that reflects upon the intelligence of those in the wrong is not contended for and will not be indulged in by one whose only desire is to see the souls of others saved. Jesus loved the lost and his entire life exemplified that love; but never did he compromise with error or gush over those embracing it. The true spirit of Christ is displayed in the denunciatory woes pronounced upon the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 fully as much as his discourse on love to his disciples in John 15. These two examples are not paradoxical or contradictory but give the complete picture of Christ's attitude — the one toward those that practiced error, the other toward those who were doing his will. Hence if we are going to be imitators of Christ as Paul admonished (I Cor. 11: 1), this is the answer to the soft, compromising, sentimental attitude of brethren towards error and their feelings that Christ-like love can settle all religious differences even though they be a direct conflict between truth and error, the teaching of God's word and the traditions of men.

In dealing with error it sometimes becomes necessary to name the persons involved, the purpose being to warn brethren lest "their hearts be beguiled by smooth and fair speech" (Rom. 16:18). If it were right to commend good and those doing it, it can also be right to condemn error and name the guilty party. Jesus said, "A tree is known by its fruit" and false teachers by their works (Matt. 7:15-20). Narcotic agents are able to curb those who engage in the dope racket when they know who it is that is peddling it. Jesus warned his disciples against the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matt. 1 6: 11, 12).

Paul, in writing to Timothy, names certain ones who had made shipwreck of the faith (I Tim. 1:19, 20; II Tim. 2:17, 18). When Timothy finished reading those epistles, he knew that Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus were men guilty of the error he was discussing. Paul named these men in order that young Timothy would beware of their teaching. This purpose is expressed in 2 Timothy 4:14, 15, where Paul mentions Alexander again and says, "Of whom do thou also beware." Foy E. Wallace, one of the most faithful teachers of God's word in former days, said in reference to calling the names of false teachers and their aids and their sympathizers, that it is neither "undignified nor discourteous," and "when a paper develops better manners than the New Testament, and a preacher becomes more dignified than the Apostles neither is worth anything to the defense of the truth nor to the cause of Christ."

To oppose contention for the truth and constant and unceasing opposition towards error changes the whole order of God's law in its vital point. It condemns Jesus and all the apostles and betrays the truth of God. It is to suppress the truth, be silent rather than incur the displeasure of man by revealing his error, warning him of his danger and eternal ruin. This was not the spirit of Christ nor any of God's servants. Hence we must "contend earnestly for the faith." "Them that sin reprove in the sight of all that the rest also may be in fear (I Tim. 5:20). Genuine love for lost souls will permit neither less nor more.

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Author: jfm

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