Monday, June 25, 2018

When is a church right to censure a teacher?

I am sometimes fascinated by the efforts people sometimes take to bend Scripture into the service of their own narrative. There are many contemporary examples I can cite but I am most interested in the biblical justification some leaders put forward for combating doctrinal error. I am seriously interested in your feedback on what I am about to write.

As a parallel example for what I will argue, I cite King Solomon's murder of Joab.

When King David was old and on his deathbed, Prince Adonijah, made a move for the throne. Adonijah collected some high-profile supporters in this move including David's military general Joab and David's priest Abiathar. The prophet Nathan recognized that Adonijah becoming king would threaten the lives of himself, Solomon and Solomon's mother Bathsheba (1 Kings 1:12). As we know, Solomon finally became king and his coronation became a threat to Adonijah's life.
1Ki 1:50-53
Adonijah, fearing Solomon, got up and went to grasp the horns of the altar. Solomon was informed, “Adonijah is afraid of King Solomon; see, he has laid hold of the horns of the altar, saying, ‘Let King Solomon swear to me first that he will not kill his servant with the sword.’ ” So Solomon responded, “If he proves to be a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the ground; but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die.” Then King Solomon sent to have him brought down from the altar. He came to do obeisance to King Solomon; and Solomon said to him, “Go home.”
It turns out that Solomon watched Adonijah closely for any hint of intrigue. He found intrigue when Adonijah asked for David's concubine Abishag the Shunammite to be his wife (1 Kings 1:3; 2:21). Solomon ordered Adonijah's death and he banished the priest Abiathar. When Joab heard of it, he feared for his own life; so he ran to the altar and took hold of its horns (1 Kings 2:28). Indeed, Adonijah's execution set off a bloodbath of those who allied themselves with Adonijah during the struggle for succession of King David. Here is the text of the account:
1 Kings 2:28-34
When the news came to Joab—for Joab had supported Adonijah though he had not supported Absalom—Joab fled to the tent of the LORD and grasped the horns of the altar. When it was told King Solomon, “Joab has fled to the tent of the LORD and now is beside the altar,” Solomon sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada, saying, “Go, strike him down.” So Benaiah came to the tent of the LORD and said to him, “The king commands, ‘Come out.’ ” But he said, “No, I will die here.” Then Benaiah brought the king word again, saying, “Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me.” The king replied to him, “Do as he has said, strike him down and bury him; and thus take away from me and from my father’s house the guilt for the blood that Joab shed without cause. The LORD will bring back his bloody deeds on his own head, because, without the knowledge of my father David, he attacked and killed with the sword two men more righteous and better than himself, Abner son of Ner, commander of the army of Israel, and Amasa son of Jether, commander of the army of Judah. So shall their blood come back on the head of Joab and on the head of his descendants forever; but to David, and to his descendants, and to his house, and to his throne, there shall be peace from the LORD forevermore.” Then Benaiah son of Jehoiada went up and struck him down and killed him; and he was buried at his own house near the wilderness.
This account is fascinating to me and, I think, instructive. Solomon had decided to kill Joab because Joab had been a political ally of his devious brother Adonijah. Solomon was not able to execute Joab for political reasons because Joab had taken hold of the horns of the altar (Exodus 21:12-14)! What was Solomon to do? Here is what he did. He changed the reason for ordering Joab killed. Joab was protected from execution as long as he held on to the horns of the altar; but if Joab had blood guilt, he could be executed even while he grasped the altar horns (Exodus 21:14)! Thus, Solomon ordered Joab's execution because he had murdered Abner and Amasa (2 Samuel 3:23-27; 20:10). Just to make the point clear: Solomon wanted Joab killed for political reasons; but for scriptural reasons, he could not order the execution. Yet, Solomon found a scriptural reason to have Joab killed: blood guilt. Solomon had politics for his personal reason to kill Joab; but he gave a different reason to actually have the execution carried out: blood guilt!

The account of Joab's death is a case example of conscripting scripture into the service of one's own private agenda.

Christians seem to love total agreement. They love certainty about all things Bible. They want to be a part of a faith community (church) that agrees in lock-step on everything. They say they believe that minor disagreements can be treated as "We can disagree without being disagreeable." But if there are any other difficulties included—such as personality conflicts, then the minor disagreement inflates to a new perception of serious doctrinal error. They then go to the Bible to show that they are in the right to rebuke the error.

This bait-and-switch tactic rears its head again when Christians from different denominations try to work together in a ministry. Sage leaders on the side-lines are quick to point out the doctrinal disagreements and argue that joint effort ministry cannot happen until the doctrinal disagreement (read: error) is resolved!

I am not certain why the motivation is there to put doctrine in the forefront of any contact with people from other denominations. It really looks like the motivation is to keep everybody at the home church walking in doctrinal lock-step with one another. The real reason may have more to do with jealousy against the one(s) that are working together in God's work. If jealousy is involved, I must warn, that bad attitude can get a person in trouble with God (James 3:13-18).

In either case, or for any other reason that someone harps on doctrinal differences that must be resolved before any ministry can be done, Scripture is enlisted to support such fussing.

Here is an example of how it is done.
Gal 1:6-9
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
The contemporary exegesis continues something like this: "There is only one gospel; so if somebody is preaching something different from what is in the Bible, then that preacher is teaching a different gospel and therefore should be accursed. Yes, Paul has in mind the Judaizing teachers; but by extension, any doctrinal error should be treated the same way. We can have no fellowship with anybody who teaches doctrinal error until such time as the error is corrected."

One problem with that exegesis is the assumption that the speaker has figured out the right way to read every doctrine that is in the Bible.

The larger screw-up in that narrative is in misunderstanding the word "gospel" to apply to the whole New Testament. Gospel means "good news" and it applies to the message of salvation. "Gospel" is articulated best by 1 Corinthians 15:3-9; 20-23.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
How much more concise can you get? How about
1 Timothy 1:15
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.
Acts 1:9-11
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
John 3:16
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Acts 17:30-31
While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Gospel is not a terribly difficult concept. If the message of salvation is so central to Christianity, how can we refuse to share ministry with people from other denominations?

Returning to the text in Galatians 1, we ought to reconsider what Paul's real concern was: Judaizing teaching. The problem with that teaching was that the teachers said converts to Jesus must be circumcised! No wonder Paul said, "It's really not another gospel" (Galatians 1:7, CEB). It is not good news at all! By requiring circumcision, the false teachers were actually compromising the truth of the gospel. Teaching that compromises the gospel really needs to be handled. That is the role of the church.
1 Timothy 3:14-15
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.1
It is also the role of church leaders to refute doctrines that compromise the gospel.
Acts 20:28-30
Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.
We must stop assuming that when two people draw different conclusions from their Bible study, then one is in error and must be corrected. Doctrines that demand correction are doctrines that compromise the gospel.2

1. It is worth noting that the error Paul means for the church in Ephesus to resist taught that the resurrection had already taken place (2 Timothy 2:16-18), that believers must not marry (1 Timothy 4:3, and maybe that they should behave as though they were not married), and they were developing doctrines based upon speculations about genealogies (1 Timothy 1:3-4). This odd collection of doctrines was a direct affront to the gospel. In fact, Paul even began his epistle by confronting the post-eschatology feature of the heresy (1 Timothy 1:1) by asserting that Christ Jesus is our hope (that is, the resurrection is yet future).

2. I am not advocating a reunion of all the denominations. There are some conflicting doctrines that are very difficult to coexist under the same roof. For example, Premillennialism and Amillennialism have difficulty mixing in a single congregation. Calvinism and Arminianism/Wesleyism don't mix very well. I am advocating that people who hold conflicting doctrines ought to still be able to enjoy gospel fellowship together and work together in ministry. The apostle Paul would agree.

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