By Eric Barger
There is no doubt that we live in the age of ever increasing apostasy. The authentic Church, or “remnant,” spoken of in the Book of Revelation appears to be shrinking, at least in our western culture. And growing numbers of those who remain steadfast and faithful to the Word of God are becoming acutely aware of false teaching and false teachers dotting the Christian landscape.
As many now display a “form of godliness” but “deny the power thereof," it is becoming evident that these surely are the “perilous times” the Apostle Paul warned Timothy of in II Timothy 3:1. As we watch the end-times unfold, I praise God for each and every real believer who employs discernment and is doing their best to watch for and warn about that which is counterfeit. But as one examines doctrine, practice, and those who teach throughout Christendom, one question is constantly voiced: where does a discerning Christian draw the line in determining what is false teaching and who is a false teacher? This is perhaps one of the most difficult and divisive parts of apologetics.
Where is the Dividing Line?
Recently I was part of a panel discussion on national radio that spent an hour discussing this topic. On the June 16, 2012, “Understanding The Times” program, I co-hosted along with ministry founder, Jan Markell, Jill Martin Rische (daughter of the late Dr. Walter Martin), and Executive Producer Larry Kutzler. The program was titled “When Contending Becomes Cantankerous” and the questions we posed were: When it comes to differences in doctrine and practice, at what point do we sever fellowship with another Christian? What legitimately constitutes someone being called a “false teacher?” And, at what point is error sufficient or egregious enough to deserve the tag of “false teaching” or “heresy?”
The program was born out of numerous discussions I have had over the past year with my friend, Jan Markell. Both Jan and I have become increasingly uncomfortable, even disturbed, with the tone and lack of civility being portrayed by some within the apologetics and discernment community of speakers, writers, and commentators. We’ve watched, listened, and have tried to intervene as assorted discernment ministries have fired shots at others inside Christianity over issues that fall miserably short of what has always been considered heresy. A troubling precedent has been spawned by some, lending validation to the idea that it’s perfectly acceptable to publicly rake anyone over the coals for nearly any theological reason. Jan and I are not alone in our dismay with what is happening. Other leaders have voiced the same concern to us in recent days and mind you, the issue is not concerning any rejection of the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of Christ. Nor is it related to the pseudo-Christian yet cultic Emergent heresy or the seducing web with which spiritual liberalism ensnares so many. The type of “discernment” that I’m referring to here doesn’t involve someone’s denial of the essential doctrines of the faith. Instead, what these squabbles really amount to are nothing more than disagreements on secondary doctrines, styles of worship, and peripheral practices.
I think it’s needful for each Christian to be able to express positions or hold beliefs on the so-called secondary issues, but is biblical apologetics about denigrating others and in effect besmirching entire ministries based on disagreements about side issues? For some, this is what it’s become, and worse. The field of discernment has, at least in part, become a hotbed of separatism that seems to far exceed biblical standards.
Many may not be familiar with the phrase “secondary separation” and though others may use the term differently, this is my phrasing of how we defined it during the June 16 “Understanding the Times” radio broadcast. “Secondary separation” is the breaking of fellowship with another Christian over issues not primary but secondary to one’s salvation. Such separation is often accompanied by the public renunciation of the other party. Often, secondary separation becomes a divisive issue which exerts pressure on other individuals to have nothing to do with a party deemed “unclean” or “heretical” by a particular influential writer or speaker.
The Bible certainly speaks of ostracizing individuals for a variety of reasons. To disfellowship someone who is living in sin and refuses to repent or who has denied the Gospel is indeed the proper course to take. I have no problem with biblically-based separation and I believe the radio panel would all concur. However, the brand of secondary separation being promoted by some in the discernment world today appears to be nothing more than an unseemly type of religious bigotry having precious little to do with offenses against the essential doctrines of biblical Christianity.
Nowadays secondary separation is often endorsed when a writer or teacher is, at least in the estimation of some apologists’, in error even though the issue at hand may only be concerning a minor, non-essential doctrine or practice. Perhaps worse, we’ve watched as one writer sadly blasts another in an apparent effort to forward his or her own peripheral viewpoints – all at the other’s expense. From what is sometimes only one pen or keyboard, judgment is meted out against the suspected offender as newsletters are printed, blogs are published, seminars are given, and whole ministries and reputations are possibly done irreversible harm. All this takes place no matter how flimsy the evidence presented may be, and often over non-essential theologies! This should disgust the Christian community and I fear for the next generation of apologists (and those they’ll likely influence) who are being schooled by this example.
Before anyone misinterprets my statement about "non-essential theologies" to say that I think some doctrines don't matter, let me set the record straight. There are doctrines that each and every person who correctly calls himself or herself a Christian must align with. These are clearly and simply outlined in the two great creeds of the Church: The Apostles Creed and the larger Nicene Creed. However, there are many issues that are not "heaven and hell" or essential doctrines that are not mentioned in the Creeds.
Are these other doctrines important? Yes. Should we study and develop our own positions on these secondary issues? Without question. Should we passionately defend our positions and also occasionally disagree with others inside the Body of Christ concerning non-essentials? Of course, as long as it is done in a right spirit and presented for the ultimate unification of believers.
Should a disagreement about any individual secondary doctrine by itself lead to the termination of calling someone else a brother or sister in Christ, possibly followed by a public expose' against them? Absolutely not, and if someone is doing this and calling it "discernment," I suggest it be flatly rejected! Until the Church rejects the venomous battering of Christians by other Christians merely pushing their pet theologies, we will continue to exist in various "us and them" camps where some are simply intent on impugning others for the sake of making points with their followers and proving themselves "right."
With that said, let me add this important caveat. While The Apostles Creed embodies the non-negotiable beliefs of the faith, it should be noted that an over emphasis on, or an abandonment of, any number of the non-essential beliefs and practices can lead to corrupted -- even cultic theology. I'm not intimating that non-essential beliefs and practices should be ignored by discerners. But as I've stated here and elsewhere, how we conduct ourselves in disagreement with other Christians must be governed by a genuine spirit of love. The point in citing the Apostles Creed here is that it provides a good starting point when examining one's beliefs and in determining if teachers, churches, or even entire denominations or fellowships are orthodox or aberrant.
So-called “secondary separation” has spread throughout the apologetics world like a brush fire in dry timber. Its flames have licked at the heels of almost everyone who speaks or writes on discernment issues. The fear of reprisal and rejection by their peers has probably silenced some who are uncomfortable with what might be called “discernment separatism.” I’ve watched as this has nearly become expected of apologists because of the unfettered promotion by some of the other teachers. Obviously, I didn’t get the memo. I don’t believe it’s of God for me to live out the conviction of others about whom they think is fit for me to associate with, be interviewed by, share a speaking platform with, or befriend. If I succumb to shunning others over disagreements of peripheral doctrine or practice (so as to gain acceptance or avoid the ire of my peers), am I then no better than a double-minded politician who’s willing to ignore his conscience for a vote?
Frankly, this kind of sniping directed at others inside the Body of Christ sets off alarm bells in me. As passionate as I am for sound doctrine, I wonder if it could be that we are watching an actual fulfillment of what Jesus spoke about concerning some of the perils of life in the end of days?
“And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” (Mathew 24:10-12, emphasis added)
Betrayal in the Body is running reckless and some of it stems from the very ones who we have looked to for discerning truth from error. In an effort to expose actual false teachers some of my discernment brethren have constructed a criterion that extends dangerously outside of the essential doctrines of the faith. Once again, let me repeat: In effect, they have changed the rules of discernment based on their own non-essential beliefs – and seem intent on vilifying anyone whom they determine doesn’t fit their mold. As evil rises, the same “take no prisoners” approach that our society now exhibits has been adopted by some once-respected discernment and apologetics teachers. While it may be debatable as to whether or not all of those who’ve adopted this approach understand what has happened, I certainly don’t see much love being displayed when it comes to those they’ve determined need to be “exposed.”
Considering the criteria some use to ascertain who is a “false teacher” or “false prophet” and how flippantly those devastating titles are ascribed today, I strongly suggest that when we hear such statements we stop and carefully evaluate if, in fact, those words have any biblical basis for being used. Not everyone has all understanding on every doctrine or at any given point in time. I’m reminded of the story of the young evangelist, Apollos, in Acts 18. He didn’t have the complete theological picture but instead of finding himself publicly excoriated, he was encouraged and nurtured in his faith by two more mature saints. Instead of doing a public expose’ on Apollos, Aquila and Priscilla reflected true Christian love and took him aside to help him. Rather than just prove to the Christian world how right they were and how ignorant and incorrect Apollos was, they built him up when it appears by the standards of some today they could have torn him apart. I shudder to think how many like Apollos have been crushed by some discerner bent on being right more than acting in love.
Scripture indicates that the early Church leaders experienced sharp disagreements but were able to work through their differences without maligning each other. The second chapter of Galatians reveals that Paul rebuked Peter at Antioch because Peter had operated hypocritically and his actions had caused even Barnabas to backslide. Interestingly, this episode involved separatism and Peter’s fear of reprisal if he didn’t conform. Note that Paul’s rebuke of Peter was done in a private setting and not in public. Notice too that, even though it involved issues critical to salvation, Paul didn’t go out and publicly ridicule and harangue Peter and those with him.
In Acts 15 there arose “dissention” and “much disputing” (v. 3 and 7) over circumcision as a prerequisite for salvation. The council at Jerusalem resulted, and the means of salvation by faith alone for all who believed was affirmed. Later in the very same chapter, Paul and Barnabas, who had stood in solidarity against imposing elements of the Law upon new converts, were at complete odds over whether to include John Mark in their next missionary journey. Their division on this was so serious that they completely split from one another. But did they try to destroy each other by constructing long diatribes about the other’s alleged faults, or by criticizing the supposed poor choices in the other’s companions, or by trying to generally undermine the other’s ministry? No! Now think about our day. Perhaps having a website, a sizeable mailing list, or a radio program aren’t always such good things if we use them as the means for undermining and perhaps destroying other authentic, blood-bought Christians. How can God be pleased with that?
Understand that I am not saying we shouldn’t write on and point out things we disagree about, but, frankly, it is disgusting to see how those who hold to the extremes on these three - and other assorted issues - treat one another. Those who claim that the gifts and working of the Holy Spirit have ceased (cessationists) claim the charismatics are only into experiences and conversely the charismatics look down their somewhat superspiritual noses at the cessationists as if they are lacking something. Believers in a pre-trib rapture often act as though people who see the catching away of the Church as a post-trib event are nearly cultists and vice versa. And if you don’t see eternal security, predestination, and election in the specific way that either hard-core Calvinists or their antithesis, the Wesleyans, do, then they question your salvation!
Enough! Yes, teach your viewpoints with vigor, but refrain from character assassination. Unless someone disavows or adds to items listed in the Apostles Creed, they are our brother or sister in Christ and should be treated with respect, compassion, and love. How much clearer could the early Church Fathers have made it? Some doctrines are non-negotiable and some are not. Why are we trying to tack our particular peripheral beliefs onto the essentials, creating division instead of unity in the process? How refreshing it would be to witness ministers and groups that align on the essentials and learn to disagree agreeably on the peripheral issues.
Obviously, if I didn’t think that we desperately need a reset of our attitude within the apologetics community today, then I wouldn’t effectively pin a target on my back by writing this. Please pray that those who have a voice in these matters will return to majoring on the majors and minoring on the minors.
In response to a person who contacted me after reading one of my recent email updates, I wrote, “As for me, I’m going to conduct our ministry with a hard line on heresy concerning the central/essential doctrines. I’m going to expose cultic beliefs and I’m going to name names when wolves masquerade inside the Church. But before I set out to ‘expose’ another, the general rule of thumb will be to ask myself the following question: Is the perceived error in question an addition to or a subtraction from the central, essential, non-negotiable doctrinal themes found in the Apostles Creed? If not, I’m going to proceed with great care, caution, and prayer before I dare drag what ever is in question out into the public arena on secondary issues alone. Additionally, if there is going to be any exception to that rule, I am going to go out of my way to make contact and have genuine dialog with the party involved before any such public expose’ is undertaken.”
As I told the individual who emailed me, I’m not advocating a less virulent approach when it comes to real error and apostasy. But let’s not confuse what error is and who the enemy is. I’m still going to do as my ministry name suggests – “Take A Stand!” I just don’t want us to become known as “Take A Shot!” or “Take A Stab!”
 The broadcast is available on demand at www.olivetreeviews.org/radio/historical-archives
(c) copyright 2012, Eric Barger
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