Elders have a dual responsibility. There is the positive duty to feed the sheep by teaching God’s Word. This can often feel like the easy and enjoyable part. In fact often those who are called into leadership are recognised because of their ability to communicate effectively. However, the second responsibility is just as important. This is the requirement to guard the flock, confronting false teaching and protecting the church against error.
Error comes in a number of guises. Here are a few ways that I believe it can come into the church
1. The preaching of a different Gospel. The most obvious example today would be the Prosperity Gospel. This is a different Gospel because it presents a different problem/need. We are not sinners who need God’s forgiveness rather this Gospel offers us prosperity and health if we do, say and believe the right things.
2. The outright denial of truth. For example, in the early 20th Century people like Steve Chalke denied that Jesus bore our penalty on the Cross whilst throughout history people have denied things such as the virgin birth, the humanity and/or deity of Jesus and the physical resurrection. Open-Theism denies the Sovereignty of God whilst Liberal Theology denies the infallibility of Scripture.
3. Adding requirements to the Gospel. Now very rarely will someone overtly say that you need to do these extra things to be a Christian but they will add a tier to Christian faith distinguishing between disciples and believers, Spirit filled and carnal Christians etc. The additional thing may be the exercise of specific gifts, receiving a special blessing, belonging to the right church etc.
4. Leaving things out of the message. Subtraction is treated as sternly as addition. This is challenging because obviously, we cannot deal with every detail of doctrine in every sermon. However, it may be that over time we are shying away from covering difficult and/or controversial subjects such as Creation, Eternal Judgement and the Second Coming. We also maybe failing to deal with sin in its full horror as we seek to be loving and welcoming. The result is that over time the church suffers from this poor diet, its immune system is weakened and it is at risk.
5. Overemphasis on something which may be good in itself but is being emphasised at the cost of other aspects of teaching and in a way, that distorts the Gospel. This may also include the tone with which we say things. For example, if we come across as over harsh then we may distort the message. Similarly, we can attempt to teach truth but ni a way that seeks to soften the blow when it needs to be told straight.
6. Over-emphasis on something that is a minor issue in itself but that becomes a central issue. One example I’ve seen of this has been when a group of Christians became particularly obsessed with free market economics, capital punishment and home-schooling. Each of those positions on their own and even collectively may well be things we can choose to disagree upon. However, when adherence becomes the boundary marker for who truly belongs to the group and who is out then you are in trouble. Now those particular examples are associated with right wing politics but we could equally make the cultural boundary markers in our churches liberal or left-wing positions on things like state benefits, defence, the EU etc. We are creating a situation where people need to believe in something additional to the Gospel.
7. Reshaping of a doctrine so that we appear to be talking about the same thing but actually mean something different. This is very subtle and so particularly dangerous. For example, we can use words like “justification” and “grace” and mean very different things. This goes to the root of the Reformation. People like Calvin and Luther challenged a church that talked about “grace” but meant a substance infused at baptism and maintained by works and rituals like penance and confession.
8. Promoting a position that is only kept in check by the advocate’s inconsistency. However, the potential trajectory of the position is towards a denial of the Gospel message. For example, one extreme version of infant baptism insists that when a baby is baptised, it is united with Christ as part of God’s elect on the basis that it is the child of a confessing Christian. Now, most of the people I’ve heard argue this don’t want to be guilty of promoting baptismal regeneration and yet that is where this argument logically leads. So what protects them? Well, I think two things. First of all, they seem to have a genuine passion for evangelism means that they continue to preach the Gospel. However, this must create a consistency because you are left with two Gospels, one to the children of Christians and one to the children of unbelievers. Secondly, some of them have attempted to make distinctions for example between eternal election to salvation and temporary election/faith to church membership. The position becomes confusing and I submit is unstable and untenable in the long term. This generations confusion will lead to a second or third generation of assumed Christians and the gospel will be lost to that Generation.
9. Some error is just down right weird. In fact, to be honest we could was a lot of time investigating and worrying about some of the more obscure and weird beliefs of some of the most obscure and weird heretics. I could spend a lot of time investigating what prosperity teachers say in their books and talks. However, my time would be much better spent meditating on God’s Word, loving and caring for my fellow believers and proclaiming the Gospel to my friends and neighbours.
10. Error is about practice and well as doctrine. I think it is possible to hold to orthodox doctrine intellectually but if this is not lived out then we put our churches in danger.
A Couple of further comments are in order. First of all, none of us is infallible and we will all make mistakes. This means that it is important that we remain accountable and teachable. At the same time, we should be wary of witch hunts and those who are always looking to detect the hidden false teaching that brothers and sisters in Christ supposedly hold to. Half the time, the supposed heresy is so well hidden that the alleged proponent isn’t even that they believe it or how on earth it could be logically implied from what they teach. Secondly, we will distinguish between error -referring to the mistakes we make and false teaching by which we mean the serious and intentional teaching of a different or distorted Gospel. Though note that someone may teach this with all sincerity believing that they are not distorting the Gospel but are restoring the truth.
Church leaders need to take their responsibility seriously and to act wisely in their care for the flock. This should remind us that the position of elder is a crucial and precious calling and one of the most important things we can do is pray for our church elders.