False Teaching in the Church


Titus 3:1-11

This is the third sermon I have devoted to the opening paragraph of Titus chapter 3. We spoke the first time of the ethics described, that is the positive account of Christian behavior that we are given. We spoke the second time of the theological basis for that life as it is given in vv. 4-7. And now we turn to the polemics of the last three verses where Paul sets himself against ideas and behaviors that were not faithful to the gospel or the Christian life as he has described it in the previous verses and the letter so far and as he preached it to the Cretans when he was among them.

Text Comment

v.9

It is interesting that remarkably similar warnings about foolish controversies and the myths that spawn them are found also in 1 and 2 Timothy. Obviously Paul regarded the growth of false, irrelevant, or simply useless and unimportant teaching as a pressing danger to the church in that time and those places. But because the letters are not controversial treatises – that is, meant to counteract certain specific teachings – but are rather semi-private letters written for the guidance of friends, Paul assumes that Timothy and Titus know what he is talking about and what teaching they are to avoid and oppose and why. For us, these many centuries later, it is not easy to determine precisely what the nature of this false teaching was. [Bernard, xlv]

So far as the evidence goes, however, it can be said that it does not seem that this teaching amounted to direct denials of cardinal Christian doctrines. There was something near to that, such as in the case of Hymenaeus and Philetus, mentioned in 2 Tim. 2:17-18, who had been teaching that the resurrection had already occurred. Paul does not say that all the teachers he was concerned about taught outright heresy. The impression in all three pastoral letters is that of teaching that was foolishly speculative and irrelevant. “Foolish and stupid arguments” is how Paul describes such teaching in 2 Tim. 2:23. It amounts to “quarreling about words,” Paul says in another place (2 Tim. 2:14). The teaching was Jewish in origin as Paul has already said earlier in Titus 1: 10 and 14. But it was not apparently the heresy of the earlier judaizers which Paul so sternly condemned in Galatians. It was rather a kind of speculative and mystical teaching, drawing conclusions from very little, building much on genealogies and so forth. Apparently, fanciful theories about the origins and descendants of certain persons, perhaps especially biblical personages were thought to have some religious significance. But this kind of unnecessary speculation proves to be genuinely mischievous because it produces arguments, because it distracts attention from the central teachings of the gospel, and because, in some way, it seems to have been fostering at least absurd if not immoral practices. What is more it had the inevitable effect of dividing Christians from one another. Apparently, in some cases, these teachings were employed to commend an ascetic lifestyle, as Paul complains in 1 Tim. 4 of teachers who forbid God’s people to marry and command them to abstain from certain kinds of food. That would explain the reference to quarrels about the law here in v. 9. In another place, Paul talks about people who have a “form of godliness but [deny] its power.” [2 Tim. 3:4-5] In any case, esoteric teaching that emphasizes subtle distinctions that can only be understood by an enlightened minority always tends to spiritual pride and to contempt for those who have not received this higher enlightenment. In several places in the pastoral letters Paul warns that this tendency will only get stronger and must lead eventually to a departure from true Christianity altogether. The inevitable consequence of emphasizing teaching that is speculative and detached from the central affirmations of the gospel is that the life that comes from this teaching is not the same life as the gospel is designed to produce.

So it is quite natural that in all three of the pastoral letters, Paul urges his ministerial assistants to hold fast to what they had been taught, to “guard the deposit that was entrusted to you,” and to “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it…” [1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:13-14; 3:14] What can be known has been revealed by God in Holy Scripture and the teaching of the Apostles. We are to remain content with that, teach that, and live that! It is not the minister’s business to invent new doctrines! Theological creativity is not an asset in the Christian minister.

v.10

The word the NIV translates “divisive,” is the word “heretic,” but the NIV rightly indicates that the term didn’t mean then what it came to mean later. In those days the term did not mean “one who holds to false doctrine” but, as one scholar puts it, “an [opinionated] propagandist who promotes dissension.” Of course, in this instance, the man was fractious and caused division precisely because he did not submit to the teaching of the Apostles.

The instructions given here recall the Lord’s instruction as to what to do with an unrepentant sinner in Matt. 18:15-17. It is useless to continue to beat a dead horse. If after two efforts to recover the man to a sounder faith he remains stubbornly unresponsive, let him go. Whether formal excommunication is meant is not certain, but if the church followed the instruction given here something like that would have occurred in any case.

v.11

His unwillingness to heed counsel based on the faith once and for all delivered to the saints proves both his rebellion against the Lord and the true faith and the danger he poses to the congregation as a whole. He has condemned himself.

Although clear boundaries and sharp distinctions are not popular in our day they are very much the interest of Holy Scripture. The Bible devotes a great deal of its space to polemics. It is not enough for the Holy Spirit to commend the truth to the readers of his book. He carefully and emphatically condemns falsehood and takes care to distinguish the truth from its imitations and corruptions. We learn in the pages of Holy Writ not only what is right and true but what is wrong and false. We are commanded to avoid, to shun false teaching and to expose it for what it is.

Controversy is difficult work and it requires a great deal of its practitioners. There are, it must be admitted, orthodox controversialists who are an embarrassment to the truth and to our Christian faith. They often make, for example, no distinction between views that true Christians hold and errors that amount to a denial of the faith. They practice controversy with a mean spirit and with a zeal that suggests a love more for combat than for truth. Anyone who reads church history knows how often a controversial spirit in the defenders of the faith has muddied the waters and even sometimes made heresy more attractive than the truth!

Jerome, the 4th century church father, was a wretched controversialist and often entered the lists on what he took to be the cause of the truth as little more than a grumpy, cantankerous, hostile man who, in defense of his own opinions and his own reputation, didn’t hesitate to blacken the reputations of men as worthy as Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Augustine. Or think of the tasteless, bitter and acrimonious warfare between Augustus Toplady, the Calvinist, and John Wesley, the Arminian that had the gospel’s friends on both sides of the Great Awakening shaking their heads in dismay.

Protesting his distaste for controversy, Wesley, on one occasion, condensed and severely distorted Toplady’s 134 page book, Absolute Predestination, into a 12 page tract, ending with these words:

“The sum of all is this: One in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected; nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will; the reprobate will be damned, do what they can. Reader believe this or be damned. Witness my hand, Augustus Toplady.”

Of course Toplady had written no such thing and believed no such thing, but Wesley printed the tract as if it were Toplady’s own. Toplady replied in kind, to which Wesley refused to reply, saying

“I do not fight with chimney-sweepers. He is too dirty a writer for me to meddle with. I should only foul my fingers.” [Stephen Tomkins, John Wesley: A Biography, 170-171]

This he said of the author of Rock of Ages Cleft for Me and one of the Awakening’s great preachers of salvation through faith in Christ. But Toplady was no better. In a comment on this 18th century controversy in the 19th century, the saintly bishop J.C. Ryle, who was, of course, much more sympathetic to Toplady’s theology than Wesley’s, nevertheless said of Toplady,

“Never, I regret to say, did an advocate of truth appear to me so entirely to forget the text, ‘in meekness instructing those who oppose themselves…’ – a reference to Paul’s admonition to Timothy in this very same context, found in 2 Tim. 2:24-25. [Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, 380-381]

No wonder Alexander Whyte should say, “If we cannot [conduct theological controversy] with clean and all-men-loving hearts, let us leave all debate and contention to stronger and better men than we are.” [Bunyan Characters, i, 141-142] And John Newton said something similar.

“There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us. [Calvinists, of all men, are] bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation.” [Letters, pb ed., 102-104]

I know men and know of others who love intellectual combat and demonstrate over and over again a relish for controversy. That is not what Paul is talking about here.

Nor does he here help us to distinguish between the sort of errors that we must expose, contradict, and seek to exterminate in the church and those that we must bear with in hopes of bringing mistaken folk to a better mind. Paul mounted a full scale attack on some falsehood and was willing to endure other errors. Which are which? I mentioned earlier Hymenaeus and Philetus who taught that the resurrection had already taken place. That sounds pretty bad. It is bad. It fundamentally mistakes the nature of the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead as that event is described in Holy Scripture and believed in Christendom. If the New Testament means me to believe that the resurrection of the dead has already taken place then I must surrender all hope of understanding anything the New Testament teaches.

But do you know that there was an evangelical pastor in England in the 19th century who published a book, The Parousia, whose argument was precisely that the resurrection of the dead took place at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction in A.D. 70. He built his case on the single text in the Olivette Discourse, where Jesus said that this generation will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled. We are today, according to J. Stuart Russell, living in the age of the resurrection. I won’t take the time to explain what Russell thought that meant.

But you might be surprised to learn that none less than Charles Spurgeon wrote a commendation of the book. He didn’t agree with it, but Russell was a friend, he knew him to be an earnest Christian, there was worthwhile material in Russell’s book, and, I suppose, he didn’t imagine he would convince very many people of his esoteric interpretation, as proved to be the case. What was the difference, then, between J. Stuart Russell and Hymenaeus whose teaching Paul said would spread like gangrene?

Well, that is a question not so much of biblical law or of theology as it is a question of Biblical wisdom. Obviously one man’s deadly heresy is another man’s innocent mistake that might be corrected over time and, even if not, certain errors of thought does not pose any great danger to the heart and life of the church.

Charles Spurgeon said of Wesley that he taught doctrines that Spurgeon detested with all his heart, but that as a Christian man and as a Christian minister he esteemed Wesley second to no Wesleyan. But there are Reformed Christians who have accused me of heresy for advocating the participation of covenant children in the Lord’s Supper.

There is no simple rule provided in Holy Scripture by which we distinguish errors that we must eradicate and errors that we must bear in hopes of bringing folk to a better mind. As long ago as the early 6th century, Gregory I, often known as the first pope, the Gregory of Gregorian chants, said,

“The holy church corrects certain things with fervor, she tolerates others with meekness, and she closes her eyes on still others and bears them with reflective attention.” [Cited in Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, vol. i, 485]

Knowing which is which is sometimes difficult. Paul clearly bore with a great deal of nonsense in the thinking of his churches, anxious to bring them to a better mind. Only at a certain point did he throw down the gauntlet.

But here he is throwing it down. He is drawing the line at this doctrine that, though in itself was not apparently in most cases a direct denial of gospel truth, subverted Christian thinking and Christian living. According to this principle, it is absolutely right for orthodox Episcopalians all over the world to make a great issue about the American Episcopal church’s ordination of a practicing homosexual man to the office of bishop. The teaching invoked to support that step – its view of Holy Scripture, of masculinity and femininity as divinely created orders of being, of the law of God as a rule for our lives, of the transforming power of the gospel of Christ – I say the teaching lying behind and beneath is not only false, it not only departs from the clear and emphatic teaching of the Bible, but, as did the teachings of some on Crete, it produces false living. A life based on such teaching, behavior that flows from it, will not be the pure, holy, and godly life to which the gospel is to bring every believer. This teaching subverts faith in Christ and obedience to him.

It is not a theoretical issue that exercises Paul in Titus or in the other pastoral letters. It is not simply a love of truth that impels him to speak against these errors and to warn against their spread in the church. It is not enough to say that such teaching does not agree with the faith once and for all delivered to the saints and enshrined in Holy Scripture. The issue is the consequence of this teaching, its inevitable implications for life. People who live out false teaching – and we all live out our beliefs; as a man thinks so he is, the Bible says – people who live out such false teaching will live lives that are displeasing to God, subject to his judgment, and radioactively dangerous to others.

If you want to speculate about a biblical figure’s genealogy, go right ahead. If you want to wonder out loud about the life of angels, by all means, go ahead. But don’t ever, ever draw from your speculations inferences or conclusions about what it means to be a Christian or how the Christian life is to be lived. These things are too important, the consequences are too immense. Our knowledge of such things must rest, must only rest on the sure foundation of the revelation of God. Salvation and Christian living are not matters about which we can or will entertain your novel ideas and your creative speculations. “To the law and the testimony.”

The dismal fact of the matter is this: a large part of Christendom today lives in spiritual darkness and death because teachers like these Paul is speaking of in Titus 3 were allowed to spread their teaching through the body of Christ until it was believed, first alongside that of the Bible, and then instead of that of the Bible. Ignatius, who came to his adulthood when some of the apostles were still living, speaks of those in his day, within the church, who were denying the incarnation of God the Son. Irenaeus wrote in his day, in the later 2nd century, of those Gnostics who had sought to combine the Christian message with their Greek philosophical speculations with the result that Christianity in their hands became something fundamentally unchristian. Arians in the 4th century and Pelagians in the 4th and 5th centuries, ritualists during the medieval period, rationalists in the 16th and 17th centuries, social gospelers in the 19th and 20th centuries, and all manner of theorizers in our modern day have reshaped the gospel and the Christian life to fit current tastes and, in every case, the gospel was lost and the Christian life corrupted. And in every case this happened from within. The influences may have been taken from the world around, but they were embraced by people in the church, wedded to Christian ideas and Christian language, and offered as a better form of the ancient faith. It was precisely the appearance of Christianity that made the heresy so appealing and so popular to Christian congregations. It is the presence of this teaching in the church that worried Paul so much and should worry us. All of the Bible’s concern with false teaching, all of its warning as to its danger, all of its urging that false teachers be exposed and their teaching be contradicted and exterminated is addressed to Christians and to the church. The world can think what it will. But the church, the pillar and foundation of the truth as Paul calls it here in 1 Tim. 3:15, must hold fast to the truth as it has been revealed. If she loses it, it is lost to the church and to mankind too. And with it is lost the way to God and to heaven and the way to the fullness of life that is found only in Jesus Christ.

And all that is easy to lose, as the Bible attests countless times. Heresy is usually, at least at the outset, a mixture of much truth with only some error. It usually draws as well from the prevalence of certain widely held and popular ideas in the culture. It breathes the air of its time. It is always easy to believe heresies. In the nature of the case they are a form of Christianity intended to be easier to believe. It was so in Titus’ day and it is so in ours. But the presence of the error, unchallenged and uncorrected, eventually, like a little leaven, corrupts the whole. And so it was that Israel which first simply wanted to worship Yahweh in ways more suitable to the conventions of their time, eventually were found bowing down to wood and stone and sacrificing their children to Moloch in the Valley of Hinnom. And so it was that missionally-minded earlier twentieth century Christians who did not want theological arguments to get in the way of reaching the world have left behind a church that has no message to give to the world, no missionaries to take it in any case, and no passion for the gospel likely ever to produce such missionaries. An article from the New Yorker that one of you sent to me described the present day American Episcopal church this way:

“The Episcopal Church is committed to a Gospel so vague and spectral that false teaching is impossible. The only heresy is to say that there is such a thing as heresy.” [New Yorker (April 17)]

But no church can be committed to a vague gospel and be Christian in any biblical sense. Paul won’t have it. And first for this reason: no lives will be transformed in such churches, no hearts drawn to Christ, no sins forgiven, no feet set on the way to eternal life, no lives cheerfully surrendered to the authority of Almighty God. All has been lost: truth and the people who depend upon it. In countless churches all over this land, where once the gospel was preached with faith and power, it is now denied. There you will find and, in many cases, for generations you have found people who “have a form of godliness but deny its power.” You will find a life that is not the Christian life, whatever claims may be made to the contrary. I know that some of you are thinking: this sermon is not very relevant to my life. I need to be encouraged in my faith. True enough. But this matter of holding fast to the truth will have more to do with your salvation and your eternal life and that of your children than any spiritual encouragement I might give you today.

To stand for the truth, to defend it against corruption and denial, to expose error and refute it, was the calling and the glory of the prophets and the apostles and continues to be our calling today. And to stand for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints is one of the greatest, the most valuable things we can do for the world and for other human beings.

In his Introduction to St. Athanasius [9], the great fourth century church father who defended the biblical faith against its many and powerful Arian detractors within the church, C.S. Lewis wrote this:

We [British] are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world. Athanasius did the same. He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, ‘whole and undefiled,’ when it looked as if all the civilized world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius – into one of those ‘sensible’ synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.”

Well we are joyfully to embrace the same calling, no matter how many we must stand against. It wasn’t, after all, the entire world even in Athanasius’ day. It only seemed like he was standing against the whole world. It is work we must do ourselves and it is our duty to support the same work faithfully done by others. It will not surprise us that it must be done over and over again, for the Bible prepares us for that. And it will not surprise us that there will be those adamantly unwilling to give up their speculations to return to divine revelation. But if it is the truth that sets us free, then it is the truth that we must have and others with us. We cannot love our own souls or those of our children; we cannot love the world in hopes of its salvation; and we cannot love God who revealed his truth to us if we are unwilling to stand up and be counted for the truth he has disclosed to us through Jesus Christ his Son.

Let us, you and I together, recommit ourselves to the faith as it has been revealed to us by God’s prophets and Christ’s apostles and written down for us in Holy Scripture. We will believe what God has revealed. We will know nothing else with the same certainty and invest in nothing else the same measure of ourselves. As Spurgeon put it to his own congregation:

“It is our ambition to be great believers rather than great thinkers; to be child-like in faith…. What the Lord has spoken he is able to make good; and none of his words shall fall to the ground.” [MTP, 36, 304]