If there is one point of contention that rises more often than any other in opposition to myself and my ministry, it is that I hold too many doctrines as essential. I do not deny this, I readily state that every doctrine has a level of essentiality, and I would even state that the division between essential and non-essential doctrines can be an essential doctrine.
Let me give some examples, eschatology is generally considered to be a non-essential doctrine, and I agree, I have no problem calling everyone from pre-mil to a-mil to pre-trib to post-trib my brothers. However, full-preterists have stepped away from biblical teaching and should be confronted as to their sin; similarly, arch-heretic Mike Bickle has an “over-realized” eschatology which calls for believers in this age to be the John the Baptists who will usher in Christ’s Second Coming.
The second example is the relationship between God’s love and hatred of sinners. There are varying views on how God can simultaneously hold wrath and charity towards the same person, and by and large this is a non-essential doctrine. But when someone denies that God has any enmity towards sinners, then they deny the essential nature of God’s Word (Psalm 1:5, 3:7, 5:5, 7:11, 11:5), and thus God’s love and hatred becomes an essential.
The third and last example is the phenomenology of prayer, which is another doctrine generally considered a non-essential, but if someone claims that prayer can be heard apart from Christ or that prayer earns favor with God, then they have associated the doctrine of prayer with the essentials of soteriology and Christology (John 9:31, Psalm 34:15-16, Isaiah 59:1-2, compare: Privilege of Prayer), and prayer becomes an essential doctrine. Generally when someone elevates a non-essential into blatant heresy, it is not their only heresy; a non-essential gone terribly awry usually points to much deeper problems in essential doctrine.
As I’ve written recently here, what we ought to be looking for is not a check-list of doctrinal beliefs, but rather we ought to be looking at the fruit borne out of such beliefs. We can declare Mike Bickle to be a heretic because of his cult-like organization. He is not just wrong on one doctrine, but on the corpus of his beliefs, and these are a result of his lack of regeneration. He claims to be fleeing from the wrath to come, hastening the day of Christ, but he is not bearing fruit keeping with repentance, and so on biblical authority, we can declare that his religion is worthless and that he is a false-prophet and deceiver.
But not every wrong belief should be looked at so strongly, for there are sins that do not lead to death, there are non-essential doctrines that if wrong (such as dispensationalism) do not instantly mean that the holder of such doctrine is unregenerate and a false teacher. Does that mean that we ought to just let these errors go unaddressed? By no means, we ought to be seeking biblical fidelity in every facet, and call those who believe wrongly to conform their beliefs to match the Bible. For example, those who baptize babies are WRONG, but they will not lose their souls for such wrong belief, but the result of their wrong belief often results in future generations thinking baptism saves and thus losing their souls for lack of faith in Christ. Therefore this non-essential, or any other, should not go ignored.
So what does the Bible say about biblical fidelity? Why should we preach the truth? There are several reasons why we must not allow small heresies into our churches, these range from damage to man, to an affront to God. Some of these cost their hearers their souls, some merely damage growth in grace, but all are damnable, worth crying over, and to be avoided at all costs.
A Little Does a Lot
Jesus tells the parable, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” – Matthew 13:33
This parable is twice exposited by the Apostle Paul to say, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump,” (Galatians 5:7-9, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8) describing the leaven as sin and false teaching; elsewhere leaven is always allegorically representative of sin. Recently I heard the worst sermon I’ve heard in person in a church, it attacked the doctrine of scripture, God’s sovereignty, Christ’s glory, and salvation by grace alone. It was truly a wicked sermon, but seemingly I am the only one alarmed to the danger that such sin can have on a church. It was only one bad sermon, but there is no telling what sort of heresy will flow out of those who heard and embraced it, or the preacher who preached it.
Probably the best example of the power of sin to corrupt and destroy is the heresy of free-will. A belief in free-will does not preclude a person from being regenerate, but every great heresy in history has its foundation in free-will, of desiring to do something to earn God’s favor. Whether that thing be choice, religious service, or humanitarian service, the leaven of free-will is found worldwide, inside and outside of the church. Some claim to be inside, but are clearly outside, one needs only to look at the Roman Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses as examples; these are all utterly captured by the lie of man’s free-agency.
“Avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.” - 2 Timothy 2:16-17
Not only does false teaching lead away from holiness and Christ, but it also quickly infects those who hear it. These hearers see that their teachers approach the Bible flippantly and with disregard to teaching it faithfully, and have no problem doing likewise. This sickness will lead to crippled church bodies and members who are unable to function and are actually a hindrance to ministry.
False Teaching Hinders Service
“You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” – Galatians 5:7
False teaching puts the focus everywhere but where it should be. When the focus is on an idol, then work done towards that false-god is directly contradictory to obeying Christ, for he says that you are either gathering with him, or scattering (Matthew 12:30).
When the focus is on the individual, then selfishness ensues, and loving God and loving neighbor fails. The Bible contains great and lasting promises that the believer may know that they are saved (1 John 5:13); one of the reasons it does this is so that the believer can stop fretting over his own self, and set his affections fully on Christ. When I teach on how to know you are saved, I conclude with, “Once you know you are saved, you can stop worrying about your salvation and start focusing on seeing others saved.”
False Teaching Quenches Love
“Many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” – Matthew 24:11-12
The pendulum swings two ways under false teaching, either to legalism, which will be discussed in a moment, or to libertinism, the throwing off of the law, living for oneself, and lacking the charity and lovingkindness towards others to seek their highest and best benefit.
This lawlessness masquerades under the titles of love and tolerance, claiming that it just wants people to be happy, but it ignores skyrocketing depression rates, decreased lifespans, and Christless eternities.
False Teaching Crushes
“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” – Matthew 23:4
Legalism imposes laws upon hearers that cannot possibly be kept. Instead of recognizing that the law is perfect and holy and good, that it points to an infinitely holy God, they edit it to be attainable, changing commands and imposing strange requirements for those unfortunate enough to be burdened by an impossibly righteous law. The end of the law is ignored, for the law is meant to lead the hearer to Christ and exhort them to shoulder his burden, which is light.
For if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.
False Teaching Enslaves
“They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption.” – 2 Peter 2:19
Perfect love drives out all fear, for fear has to do with punishment. All of the false religions claim that if you do good, something good will happen to you. But under these religions is that nagging question of whether or not you have truly done enough. These efforts can never cleanse a conscience, for how thoroughly must you wash your hands in order to cleanse your soul? (cf. Mark 7:20-23)
Idolatry Stifles Growth
“I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” - 1 Corinthians 3:1
Elsewhere it says that certain people should have been teachers by now, but that they were still babes (Hebrews 5:12-13). False teaching that exalts man, wisdom, eloquence, free-will, or any false doctrine will result in spiritually immature members who cannot articulate their faith, nor go among unbelievers to seek to persuade them to trust in Christ. Like a ship without an anchor these will be blown about by every wind of false doctrine, human cunning, and deceitful scheme.
False Teaching Shipwrecks Faith
“They are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.” - Titus 1:11
Elsewhere it says that these teachers make shipwreck of their faith (1 Timothy 1:19); biblical infidelity does not strengthen a church in unity, but destabilizes it in disunity. It may claim to have noble intentions, but its end-result betrays this claim. Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17:11) This can only happen through the sanctification of the Word of Faith (John 17:17,20-21, Romans 10:8-17), therefore the person who misrepresents the Word of Christ destroys unity, and leads hearers down a dangerous path.
Their Last State is Worse than their First
“For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” – 2 Peter 2:20-21
Many believe they are rejecting Christianity, when what they have actually rejected is not Christianity at all, but a weak counterfeit of it. The false teacher says, “Come to Jesus so you can be healthy, wealthy, and powerful,” but when such things do not happen, the sinner flees from Christianity. When powerless free-will sermons are preached and the person “asks Jesus into their heart” twenty-three times and nothing happens, they have no qualms with walking away from the Bible and their perception of God forever.
These false-converts, backsliders, and cold-coal have been effectively murdered by those who claim to represent God but who have no part nor lot in his kingdom.
God is Dishonored and His Name Blasphemed
“If you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the nations because of you.’” – Romans 2:19-24
False teachers profess to represent God and his law, but in so doing they fail to show how transcendent God is, that he is high and lifted up, holy and righteous, just and justifier. They usurp some of his glory, teaching salvation and/or sanctification by works, and in so doing are looked at as being failures in such works, and hence the God they represent is looked at as unjust and inept.
The truth is precious, because it points at the only begotten Son of God; Christ promises that his saints will know the truth and the truth will set them free. Every Christian ought to be concerned with rightly representing Jesus Christ in thought, word, and deed: never speaking or doing anything that may bring him reproach.
There are such things as essential and non-essential doctrines, but beloved, always err towards essential, looking for the ramifications of heresy and whether the doctrine in which you are in disagreement over radically misrepresents God or points hearers towards destruction. When the issue is non-essential, look at it again to be sure that it is not a symptom of a larger problem. Many a humanist betrays his heart by preaching Christ merely as a means to the happiness and eternal bliss of man, instead of as the only God and Saviour, just and justifier, righteous and true, faithful, gracious, and sovereign. In you confronting this person it could be that God peradventure grants him repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.
For the sake of Christ and his church: preach the truth, confront error, correct in love, strive to present every member mature in Christ. Proclaim Christ as a firm anchor of the soul, strive to present every member in the full measure of stature in Christ, that they may not be blown about like a ship adrift.
Augustine said, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” Let us keep these in mind, recognizing that true love strives for maturity in Christ. The most unloving thing we can do is let someone continue in a grievous error, knowing that potentially the soul of the fallacious teacher is on the line, and certainly the souls of his hearers.
“Therefore let us put away falsehood, and share the truth with our neighbor.” – Ephesians 4:25