When I started doing Christian apologetics in the early 1990s I noticed that most Christian apologists are focused much on exposing the aberrant teachings of the new religious movements like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Oneness Pentecostalism, Iglesia ni Cristo, among others who flatly deny the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. There is not much attention given by ordinary believers in correcting the “prosperity teaching” theology except for some prominent apologists like the talks of the late Dr. Walter Martin and the book Christianity in Crisis written by his mentee Hank Hanegraaf in 1993.
It seems like the eyes of many lay believers recently have focused so much on the church but not on the mission field. This is not to say that we should ignore theological discussion. However, many believers tend to be so dogmatic and legalistic on labeling a Christian preacher as a “false teacher” (unbeliever) due to wrong exegetical interpretation, or should I say because they do not agree with the other’s non-essential teaching.
Are you aware that the esteemed Reformer namely John Calvin believed that sentencing to death the unrepentant heretics was valid for him? Actually, he fully agreed with the execution of Michael Servetus who denied the Trinity and infant baptism. Will you now say John Calvin was a “false teacher” or a heretic because he approved of Servetus’s death penalty? Also, the same Calvin whom many revere believed the Eucharist can give “assurance” of eternal life. And it was even appropriate for him to criticize his theological opponents with “harsh” names. The following are some of the excerpts,
“But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he [Servetus] shall come [to Geneva], I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” – Dr. Jules, Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, p. 33
“Calvin believed that the Eucharist provides an undoubted assurance of eternal life. Calvin stated that the sacrament of the Eucharist provided the “undoubted assurance of eternal life to our minds, but also secures the immortality of our flesh.” – Dr. Frank Viola, ReGrace: What the Shocking Beliefs of the Great Christians
We have not yet mentioned the scandalous beliefs of Jonathan Edwards, St. Augustine, John Wesley, and Charles Spurgeon. [Note: If you want a full treatment of this work you may read Dr. Frank Viola’s book titled ReGrace. He wrote this book with the prompting of Rick Warren.]
Even those we considered spiritual giants of the faith are not exempted from wrong interpretation. Should we label them as false teachers? I hope we will be more gracious and civil in our behavior as we agree to disagree agreeably in the area of theology among believers. As Dr. Frank Viola wrote, “For if the ‘heroes’ of the faith didn’t possess immaculate perception, then the same is true for every child of God today – including you.”
Do you think you are theologically correct in your doctrinal interpretation? Wait till you read the works of two prominent evangelicals namely Dr. John MacArthur and Dr. RC Sproul who differ in their interpretation of water baptism. How about Dr. Michael Horton and Dr. Roger Olson who vary in their soteriological views on Classical Calvinism and Reformed Arminianism? In the case of Dr. James White and Dr. Michael Brown who strongly disagree on the practice of spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecies for today? Fine theologians like Dr. Roy Zuck and Dr. John Stott who have a difference of theological opinion in their interpretation of hell. A couple of prominent believers namely Ken Ham and Dr. Hugh Ross differs greatly on their understanding of creationism. While two known apologists, the original Bible Answer Man namely Dr. Walter Martin and his mentee Hank Hanegraaf are at variance on the doctrine of theosis (deification of man)?” What about the opposing view Dr. Leslie Newbigin and Dr. Clark Pinnock on the salvation of mankind?
Who is now upholding the truth of the Scripture among them? Who is right and who is wrong? Who is a “false teacher” and who is not? Surely, they can’t all be right. Are you saying that one of them is a false teacher because the other one disagrees with him? Aren’t these non-essential doctrines that we choose to agree to disagree agreeably because it has no bearing with the salvation of mankind?
Surely, one of them has a wrong interpretation but never will we say one of them is a “false teacher” just because we side on the other. Some of them may have a wrong biblical interpretation but never can we say their teachings are false.
How do we know if a person who teaches the Scripture is a false teacher? An individual who goes against the major doctrinal faith that the Christian church has upheld, accept, and fully embraced for many centuries can be labeled as a false teacher. The major doctrines that we should never compromise.
- Trinity doctrine which is one God in three distinct divine Persons.
- Jesus Christ full divinity and full humanity.
- The Holy Spirit’s personality and divinity.
- Salvation by grace through faith in Christ not by good works.
- The virgin birth of Jesus Christ
- The physical resurrection of Jesus Christ
- The total depravity of humanity.
In addition to these major or essential doctrines is what believers call minor or non-essential doctrinal teachings that have no bearing with salvation like spiritual gifts, manner of liturgy and worship, the practice of tithes and offerings (generous giving), church government, water baptism, soteriological views (Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism), theosis (deification of man), impeccability of Christ, eternal sonship, among others.
Usually, some believers attacked several Christian preachers, not because of the major doctrines but non-essential doctrines. Some preachers are heavily criticized and condemned because of their altar-call practice, seeker-sensitivity, and worship-style. We may disagree with some of these practices but never should we be critical but leave room for respect. Let’s be reminded of Rupertus Meldenius’ words when he once stated, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In everything, charity.” Beware of divisive believers who tend to think they alone have a corner of the truth.
We may not probably agree with many of the teachings of Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, Myles Munroe, Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, Joseph Prince, Benny Hinn, Pat Robertson, Creflo Dollar, and others which is our theological conviction. As long as they are not attacking the orthodox Christian faith then we should not place them under the category of a false teacher. If we disagree with some of their non-essential teachings with regards to the atonement, the deification of man (theosis), and their understanding of biblical prosperity and suffering, it’s because we have a different theological opinion and exegetical interpretation than theirs. It’s our prerogative not to embrace it which is acceptable.
It’s understandable if we do not endorse their ministries, audios, and literature but to label their works as “false teachings” just because of differing biblical interpretations concerning Christian living or study of some passages is truly judgmental and unfair. Some of their doctrinal understanding could be a wrong biblical interpretation but not false teaching. If we find it to be unbiblical then we can engage with them in a theological discussion to show them the proper biblical interpretation just how many of our fellow theologians and apologists do in the public square.
This is what Aquila and Priscilla did when they notice that Apollos was so zealous with his faith but had some inconsistencies in his theology. They taught him the way of God more accurately since he only knew the baptism of John. (see Acts 18:24-26) Can we be like Aquila and Priscilla who are so patient in teaching and correcting some “Apollos-type” believers around us?
As the late Christian apologists Bob and Gretchen Passantino states in their book Witch Hunt, “Christians are attacking Christians, charging one another with heresy. But are the accusations fair? Is the reasoning valid?” When Christian apologist Dave Hunt indicted Pastor Casey Treat on a number of teachings especially the latter’s interpretation of the “little god” doctrine Hunt fully misrepresented Treat by placing him alongside Mormons and Hindus. Fortunately, Timothy Brown of the Colossians Fellowship steps in to help clarify this issue. He had Hunt and Treat meet for a discussion. As a result, the Passantinos concludes, “What is our perspective on the tangled Casey Treat situation? Like Colossian Fellowship, we do not like defending someone who promotes error, especially when they do it in the name of Christ. However, also like Colossian Fellowship, we do not believe Hunt has properly defined or proved Treat’s ‘little god’ teaching, or shown adequate concern for doing so.” The Passantinos also rightly observes, “But there is a problem cult watchers often encounter: when is a teacher actively promoting error and when is he theologically ignorant, ill-advised, untrained, or sloppy? In other words, heresy and ignorance are two different causes although both can produce bad beliefs. Our response to deliberate heretics should be swift with the stern judgment of God’s Word. Our response to ignorance and irresponsibility, however, should be with gentle exhortation, lovingly explaining the truth to a brother in sin.”
Indeed, Christian ministries and denominations around the world may not achieve unity in the non-essential doctrines because we have our own exegetical opinion but someday Christian believers will be united when Jesus Christ comes. It’s our prayer that we will still be united despite some non-essential doctrinal differences so the world can see Christ in us. What is important is we uphold the gospel of Christ which according to Dr. Rice Broocks,
“The gospel is the good news that God became man in Jesus Christ. He lived the life we should have lived. He died the death we should have died in our place. Three days later he rose from the dead proving he was the Son of God and offering salvation to everyone who will repent and believe the gospel.”
We can choose to disagree very strongly with each other but let us not throw mud by becoming worldly in our character. As one theologian says you can embrace a theology with a lesser problem. Surely, it is not wrong to engage in a healthy, loving, and civilized theological discussion among believers because this helps clear the theological discrepancies but let us not forget the great mandate of Jesus Christ which is to make disciples of all nations.
“Beware of anything that competes with your loyalty to Jesus Christ. The greatest competitor of true devotion to Jesus is the service we do for Him. It is easier to serve than to pour out our lives completely for Him. The goal of the call of God is His satisfaction, not simply that we should do something for Him.” – Oswald Chambers
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. – Ephesians 4:11-14
And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. 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
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, – Matthew 28:19
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. – Romans 14:4
- Conviction Without Compromise by Dr. Norman Geisler and Dr. Ron Rhodes
- ReGrace by Frank Viola
- Point-Counterpoint Series by Zondervan Publishing (31 Volumes)