Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Necessity of Harsh Words for False Teaching

I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!
-- Galatians 5:12

How can Paul justify such language? And does this kind of language teach us anything about how to respond to false teaching? Or is it completely an apostolic privilege, off limits to us mere Christians?

Let's step back and see what Paul is doing. Anyone familiar with Paul's letter to the Galatians knows it is punctuated with this kind of exclamatory language. The shepherd is perplexed and heartbroken over the Galatians' apparent departure from the gospel once established, and he is livid, indignant toward the Judaizers who are leading them astray. If this were written today, we would be very tempted to chastize Paul for his tone -- and indeed, some do reject Paul's teachings today for this reason, among others (like alleged misogyny, etc.)

Galatians 5:12 shows us that Paul is being both rational and angry. It is possible to be both. Paul has not lost his temper, as harsh as his call for the heretics to castrate themselves is. (And let's not say it just sounds harsh. It is harsh.)

Paul's harsh words here are rational because he's working from logic previously established: “If you accept circumcision, you must obey the whole law" (Gal. 5:3). Using that logic, then, he's asking, “Hey, if circumcision justifies you, why not just castrate yourself altogether?”

Paul is being rational, but not coolly rational. Having anathematized the false teachers, repeated several times that they bear the penalty, that they will be accursed, he is hot with the wrath of God owed to teachers of false gospels.

But isn't he coming across . . . mean? How can this be justified?

First of all, Paul didn't invent harsh language for false teaching. They stoned such people in the old covenant. Jesus in his mercy only verbally lacerated false teachers, calling them sons of hell, whitewashed tombs, etc.
The Bible never speaks kindly of false teachers.
It suggests to restore those who fall into falsehood gently. But it never suggests treating offenders gently. Indeed, you can see throughout Paul's letter that he is pleading with the Galatians even while rhetorically punching the Judaizers. His tone when referring to the Judaizers is angry; his tone in referring to the Galatians' susceptibility is sadness. Galatians 4:8-20 is the most vivid example: you can practically hear his tears.

Here is the bottom line, assuming Galatians is a good test case, kept in the context of all the Scriptures show us about dealing with false teachers: Protecting the sheep from wolves often involves roughly handling wolves.

“Isn’t that unloving? Isn’t that hateful?”
No, in fact, it shows real love for the sheep. It shows real love for Jesus!

Real love stirs active affections, both positive and negative. Because I love my wife, for instance, I give her physical affection. Also, because I love my wife, I will do physical violence to anyone who attacks her.

Do you see how that works?

Because God loves justice he hates sin.
Because God loves the truth, he hates lies.
Because God loves his Son, he hates teaching that demeans his Son, and legalism does that. Heresy does that.

Therefore, because God loves his children, he hates false teaching. And we ought to take the kid gloves off with false teachers, if our love for Christ and his church is real.

There is gospel to be found in this harsh language. Because God loves sinners, he does the harsh thing of sending Christ to suffer violence, to deal harshly with sin by being dealt harshly with by sin, and laying his life down for the sheep.

Christ was cut off, cursed, made sin, made heresy, that we might be brought into the truth. The cross is the ultimate harshness to sin. What a loving thing to do to conquer that sin and rescue sinners.


TW said...

This is very awesome. True, and well said. Lots of people think that being harsh is always wrong, but you build a great case here for why that isn't true. I've seen people jump to the conclusion too often (mostly on blogs and micro blogs) that someone else is a false teacher, when really they are just a misled person, and it seems to me that most of the "wrong harshness" we see springs from that mistake. I'd love to see a post on how to determine false teachers from people in error. Thanks again for the excellent post!

Pastor Bruce Tegg said...

“The fathers, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Chrysostom, explain it, “Would that they would even cut themselves off,” that is, cut off not merely the foreskin, but the whole member: if circumcision be not enough for them, then let them have excision also; an outburst hardly suitable to the gravity of an apostle. But Galatians 5:9-10 plainly point to excommunication as the judgment threatened against the troublers: and danger of the bad “leaven” spreading, as the reason for it.” ~ Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary
Many, if not most of the early church fathers were corrupted by their Roman Catholic mindset and did not rightly divide the Word of Truth. Use great caution when following in their steps, they lead down a path which is both dark and wide.

Unknown said...

May God, in HIs mercy, cut out the false teachers in our churches today. And may He help us to identify them.

Anonymous said...

Yes, he castigates the Judaizers in Phil. 3 but he promotes unity in Phil. 1. The key is knowing what is major error and minor error.

Jared said...

Anonymous, would you say the Judaizers' error was minor?

Jamie said...

Here's a curious thought. Should we be "thankful" for false teachers? Church history seems to show that heresy awakens the Church to solidify her doctrines and answer nagging questions definitively.
It reminds me of God as the vinedresser. He cuts off the dead branches and creates a healthier vine.
Isn't heresy a pruning of the church?
Secondly, doctrinally there closed hand and open hand issues.
What style of worship music do you have? Open hand.
Was Jesus the son of God? Closed hand.
The confusion comes when someone tries to move a closed hand issue to an open one or the other way. That's were discernment matters.

Jared said...

Jamie, yep.

Also: Go down about 8 posts from this one on the main page and you'll see one titled "Why I'm Thankful for False Teachers." ;-)

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Excellent article Jared.

By any chance have you ever heard of this story by John the Apostle, the disciple whom Jesus loved:

"John went to the public baths in Ephesus and saw the gnostic Cerinthus there. Immediately, he rushed out of the bath house, shouting, "Let us flee, lest the bath house fall down! For Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within""

Looks like John, the Apostle of Love, found it necessary to use harsh words for false teaching and for false teachers, calling Cerinthus an enemy of the truth.

Anonymous said...

Thoughtful article Jared. Thanks for sharing.

I believe this is true with all my heart and we should confront false teachers. My problem is not that I disagree, but where do you draw the line? I guess I have the same question as TW.

I have a hypercalvinist friend who views passages like this one in Galatians and Matt. 23 as normative for our Christian walk. He then defines as a false teacher anyone that disagrees with him. Any comment on a discussion thread constitutes false teaching and deserves public ridicule. He routinely blasts believers and non-believers alike that question him and tells people that the message we should be telling people is, “God hates you with a passion.”

So much of the discourse on the web these days is rancorous and divisive and I routinely see those people use this line of reasoning to justify their tone. How DO we reconcile the meek and gentle savior with the one who confronted the Pharisees in Matthew 23? I know as a Christian it’s important to find that balance, I’m just not sure how to define it.

I can’t get this to post using my google account because it says it won’t accept cookies so I have to post it anonymously, sorry for that.