If one of the significant responsibilities that elders have is to protect the flock from false teachers and false teaching then how should we go about it? I want to make a few practical suggestions here.
1. I firmly believe that you need to start with a healthy teaching diet. So, the best thing you can do is commit to regular expository Bible teaching. This should help guard against one or two people pushing their own hobby horses. It also means that the whole church are rooted in Scripture. They don’t just hear the preacher’s thoughts based on a few scattered proof texts. Expository teaching means that we show our working out. Every application arises from the text in its context.
2. We need to know where our own risks are. This is about the preacher exegeting his own heart and mind. This is important because I think each particularly theological tradition has its own risks and weaknesses. A few years back, a visitor asked us how much time we gave to addressing the “Word of Faith/Prosperity” heresy. I said that we had responded to things as they arose. However, it wasn’t something we hit every week. He would have preferred more attention to this including more detail, warnings about the names of prosperity preachers and exposure to all of their weird ideas so that people could grasp the full horror of it. I understand that because this was an area where he had seen first hand the damage that a particular false teaching could do. He was keenly aware of that danger and had made it his business to understand it and warn about it. However, that wasn’t the pressing issue for us at the time. In fact, by focusing on “prosperity “errors I could miss the point that those from a Reformed background face other dangers including Hyper Calvinism and Federal Vision.
3. Be aware of the risks within the congregation and the wider culture. Having said what I did two years ago, I found that over the past two years I’ve had to give more and more attention to the Word of Faith/Kingdom Faith problem. Why? Well because the demographics of our community and our congregations are changing and increasingly we have people coming along who have had significant exposure to that type of teaching. Often, they come with some awareness of the damage it does but aren’t fully aware of why it is so wrong and so damaging. The other thing is this. I may think of myself as being from a particular theological tradition but that does not mean that the church itself is part of that tradition. In fact, at Bearwood Chapel, we have always said that our focus is Teaching God’s word and proclaiming the gospel rather than identifying with a given label and so we do welcome people from a variety of church backgrounds who are united in the Gospel. Different backgrounds may bring different strengths but also different weak points too.
4. In the context of an expository diet, it is right to stop and focus on a specific issue from time to time. For example, at Nueva Vida, we’ve been working through John’s Gospel but just before Easter we stopped and looked at some important topics. I specifically picked up on the issue of being afraid of evil spirits. There were some specific issues and questions arising and so it was right to address them. However, we were able to do that by linking in to the ongoing application that had been arising from the week to week expositions. What we were doing was moving that application to the surface and saying “Look these points that keep coming up are of particular relevance to this.”
5. I agree with the visitor mentioned in point 2 that we will need to name names. It’s important to know where danger comes from. However, we cannot always name every single false teacher and every aspect of their error. So, I would explain the issue with some key people and then I would want to make sure that Christians are able to think systematically to identify the links and explanations. I want people to be able to spot error for themselves not just reject the things we have told them are wrong.
6. This lead to my final point. There is the need for church discipline as well. Church discipline is not just for gross sin when someone acts wrongly but for gross sin when someone believes and teaches wrongly. This is not about witch hunts or expecting everyone to be perfect. Rather, it is about concern for the individual so that they are challenged and warned of the danger that they are in and protecting the church. Paul talks about warning a divisive person and then having nothing to do with them and a key area that division is sown is in false teaching. So, I would first of all want to warn the individual who is promoting error. I would take some time with them to talk through what Scripture says and why what they’ve been saying is wrong. This also gives me the opportunity to find out what is going on. Is this just someone getting a bit muddled? Are they in fact being manipulated by others? Are they naturally contentious -enjoying controversy? Are they seeking to use false teaching to manipulate and control others? They key thing I’m looking for is teachability. Are they willing to learn from God’s Word? If they are, then that’s good. We can invest time in them. However, if that teachable spirit isn’t present and if in fact we are dealing with something much more sinister, then we need to warn them very firmly that they are to stop teaching falsehood and that if they continue then we will go to the Church members meeting and we will name them and their false teaching so that the church is warned. We will also remove them from church membership to make it clear that they do not speak/act for the local church or for the Gospel. The aim is to call them back to their senses if they are a believer -to see them lovingly restored but it is also to safeguard vulnerable people. This is important because so often, this is not just about communicating ideas but seeking out those who are vulnerable to emotional and spiritual abuse.
Our response to the danger of false teaching should be loving, humble but also firm and clear.