Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church

Guy Davies Articles

Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church
By Martin Downes
Christian Focus (July 2009)

You emerge from the darkness, eyes blinking. Before you there are two chairs, black leather. A fierce spotlight illuminates the scene. Seated on one chair is the Interrogator. His job is to question the "guests". One by one they file in to face the man who wants to get at the truth at all costs. You get to watch and listen from the shadows. You take it all in. The Interrogator fires a question. The man sitting opposite him carefully ponders his answer before speaking. He knows what's at stake. This is 'Risking the Truth'. The question master is Martin Downes and his "guests" are a wide range of theologians, church historians and pastors. Some hail from the UK, others from the States and one from Africa. They share a common commitment to Reformed theology, but each is his own man with his own way of putting things, his own insights and experiences.

In reading this book you get to eavesdrop on a series of conversations ranging around the theme of handling error in the church. You don't think that's important? Think again. Error kills. Heresy, defined as 'teaching that contradicts saving biblical truth' has the capacity to damn people to hell. Am I being alarmist? Yes, in the same way that the Old Testament prophets raised an alarm against the false prophets who cried, "Peace, peace!" where there was no peace. Also the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ warned the churches about false teachers who would pervert the gospel and lead many from the truth.

But how are we to deal with error when it rears its ugly head? This is the big question that drives Downes as he quizzes his top notch interviewees. Taking their turns in the hot seat are Carl R. Trueman, Derek Thomas, Iain D. Campbell, Conrad Mbewe, Joel Beeke, Michael Ovey and others. The answers elicited from the contributors evidence a clear grasp of Reformed theology, sound biblical wisdom, and real life experience of handling people who have been in danger of drifting from the gospel.

Special attention is given to some specific erroneous teachings. Opposition to penal substitution is clearly refuted in the light of Scripture. The 'New Perspective on Paul' and 'Federal Vision' are weighed in the balance and found wanting. Biblical inerrancy is robustly defended by Greg Beale. In a sobering chapter, Robert Peterson argues against annihilationism in favour of the eternal punishment of the wicked. The errors of Roman Catholicism are indexed and rejected. But this is no 'Horrible Book of Heresies' where false teaching is sensationalised and set forth in the most lurid colours as a perverse form of entertainment. There is a seriousness and thoughtfulness about these conversations that is welcome and appropriate. If you are looking for pat answers, you won't find them here. Neither will you find misguided expressions of heresy hunting zeal. Heresy isn't something "out there" that we can safely keep at arms length. The best of us is liable to fall prey to false teaching if we are not careful. A common theme in the interviews is the need for each of us to keep a close watch on ourselves and our teaching. This applies especially to pastors. A question that recurs again and again is, 'What are the signs of spiritual and theological decline in a minister?' The varied answers prompt watchfulness and self-examination. For instance, Sean Michael Lucas responds by saying, 'the root of ministerial decline is the loss of genuine communion with the Triune God that is rooted in Scripture.'

The pastoral orientation of these interviews is especially helpful. Calvin is cited to the effect that the minister has two voices, one for teaching the sheep and another for warding off wolves. Advice is sought on how pastors may best keep the flock from error. Familiarity with heresy and the orthodox response to false teaching has value. However, we must not become professional controversialists. The best way to guard ourselves against heresy is not to obsess over errors old and new, but to be steeped in the truth of Scripture. We will be able to spot false doctrine a mile off when we are thoroughly familiar with the true biblical teaching. For that reason, pastors should major on the positive exposition and application of Scripture in the life of the church. The historic creeds and Reformed confessions are also an important safeguard against error. We neglect our confessional heritage at our peril.

Pastoral wisdom is needed to distinguish between a wrongheaded believer whose doctrine is a bit confused and those who deliberately teach heresy. People in the first category need to be patiently corrected and brought to a better understanding of the truth. Those in the second camp must be dealt with more firmly. We must speak the truth in love, but if false teachers persist in their views, they must be subject to church discipline, lest their errors spread like a cancer.

Contending for the faith once delivered to the saints is a matter that concerns every believer. But pastors will find it especially profitable to lurk in the shadows as the Interrogator questions his "guests". The book began life as a series of interviews on Martin Downes' blog, 'Against Heresies' The conversational format adds to its value. "As iron sharpens iron so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend". (Proverbs 27:17). Each interview is distinctive and fresh. While some questions recur in each conversation, others are specially addressed to the subject's area of expertise. The interviewees are not identikit Calvinistic clones. They are individuals who bring their own styles and personal experiences to bear in their responses. There is something of a Presbyterian bias amongst the contributors, but a few Baptists and an Anglican are also given a say.

As Downes acknowledges, being against heresies is not enough. Jesus rebuked the doctrinally discerning church at Ephesus for losing her first love and called her to repent and do the first works (Revelation 2:1-7). Cold orthodoxy is not the antidote to heresy. May our hearts burn with love for Christ as we arise to defend his truth.

Guy Davies is joint pastor of Penknap Providence Church and Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Guy Davies, "Review: Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church", Reformation 21 (July 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at AllianceNet.org

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