It is hard. As Christians today, we are experiencing something that no other generation of Christians has had to face before. What is it? Access to all sorts of teaching - both good and bad. In the New Testament, house churches dealt with false teachers either trying to gain access to the gathered believers, or professing Christians from within the church trying to spread false teaching that picked up somewhere from someone. For generations, the level of threat was basically the same.
Things may have become more complicated over time as churches became more established. Maybe you visit a church with bad teaching. Maybe a new church comes into town teaching things contrary to the Gospel. Today, however, any and every teaching is at our fingertips. Whether through radio, TV, or online, you can access just about any and every Bible teacher in the world.
On the one hand, this is a blessing. I do not have to travel to access sermons by some wonderful preachers. I can listen in every week to Tullian Tchvidjian, Alistair Begg, and even consume sermons by great preachers like Leonard Ravenhill and A.W. Tozer, now gone on to glory. On the other hand, there are at least as many bad teachers in the world who can be accessed just as easily.
The New Testament presents us with a timeless principle for handling these issues. Consider Jesus. Jesus was blunt in confronting the Jewish leaders. In fact they are really the only people that Jesus "beats up on." For the most part, all of the Epistles are written for the sake of teaching - either confronting wrong doctrine that has crept into the church (such as Galatians) or confronting sinful behavior that has overtaken a church (such as Corinthians).
What can we learn from these examples. First of all, the Bible does not recommend that we ignore false teaching. However, it does give us an example of how to deal with false teaching.
As we look at Jesus, it is interesting to note that He is only harsh with the Jewish leaders. Now, most of the people Jesus interacted with were influenced, to some degree, by the religious leaders. But Jesus never deals harshly with those people. Rather, He teaches the truth of the Kingdom of God.
Do we see this same principle played out in the Epistles? Yes and no. On the one hands, Paul can be more harsh with people in specific churches over the acceptance of false teaching. But, even with that, his focus still leans more heavily on teaching what is true.
So, how does all this apply today? There are many who seem to make it there primary of pointing out all the bad teaching that is in the world. They feel it is their duty to "name names." There are some who mock and ridicule false teachers. There are some who beat up and condemn people who like these false teachers. And there are some who don't care and ignore the situation completely.
Let me start by saying that just because someone is a false teacher, it does not give me license to mock and ridicule them. The fact that they are teaching something contrary to Scripture does not make it OK for me to do something against Scripture in the way I talk about them. If their teaching is as bad as I think it is, I should be deeply concerned for them and those who listen to them. If their theology is like a sickness, my making fun of them wouldn't be much different than making fun of someone with cancer.
So, what about "naming names?" Is it my duty to call out, by name, anyone who is teaching something false? It depends. What is my motivation? Am I just looking for a chance to take a stab at someone? Am I going to condemn someone who may enjoy this teacher? There is a popular preacher who denies the Trinity and holds to a belief called Modalism. Namely, this teaching is that God is either Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, but never all at the same time. I know many Christians who enjoy this man's books and sermons. However, I also know that these believers hold to an orthodox view of the Trinity. My guess is, they just haven't seen this or heard this from the preacher. Should I condemn them for following this preacher? No. Is it OK to give them the heads up about his belief concerning the Trinity? Yes. Do I have to mock the preacher? No. Have I been guilty of doing this? Yes. Do I need to exhort the person to have nothing to do with this preacher ever again? Not necessarily.
Well, that doesn't sound right! Here is the problem. Where does this slippery slope end? In order to be consistent in this, I need to be fully aware of every preacher. I cannot do that. Also, am I in the position of being the theology police? Or, do I teach the people under my care the truth of God's Word and allow them to compare that truth with what they are reading? And what best fosters an attitude of openness within the church? If I make known my top 10 list of bad preachers, I have now shown the door to anyone who likes any of those preachers.
As I look back on my 25 years as a Christian, there have been preachers who I listened to or authors I read who would now be on my "list" as someone to avoid. But somehow I survived my exposure to them. In fact, I can see ways in which they actually were used in my journey of growth.
That being said, let me explore one other scenario. If there was a false teacher/teaching that was being widely embraced within my church, I would take a different approach. Yes, I would name that specifically. I would make mention of what was false, but more than anything, I would build a foundation of what is true. Beyond that, I cannot get into the practice of policing everyone that is being listened to or read.
The old example is with money. In order to identify counterfeit, experts study what is genuine. Then, knowing what is genuine, they can easily spot what is false. To take the other approach would be to point out every specific way in which money can be counterfeited. That is an endless and hopeless cause.
But, isn't the most loving thing we can do for a believer to point out what is false? I don't know about "most loving" but certainly it is loving. However, we must be careful how we define love. Let's say Sam is a man in your church who is reading an author that you would identify as a false teacher. What is the loving way to address the situation? To make them feel stupid in public for liking that author? Is it to talk to them in a way that basically comes off as, "You idiot, how can you not see that person is bad?"
For a long time, I heard some people warn me to stay far away from N.T. Wright. So much so that I fault naughty when I actually started reading one of his books. It was even to the point where I was telling people not to read him without actually knowing why. I read a book by N.T. Wright. And, you know what? He actually makes a lot of good points. Does he make some points I disagree with, or feel he takes too far? Yes. Is he is the greatest danger to the church today? No.
So, going back to Sam. If I know Sam is reading a book by an author I have concerns about, sure I can bash the author or make Sam feel bad for reading the book. Or, do I love Sam enough to say, "I've heard some concerns about that guy. But would you mind if I read the book along with you and we can talk about what we see that is good and what we see that is concerning?" Maybe I find that Sam doesn't agree with everything the author says, but has found some things in the book that have helped him grow as he wrestled with the issues.
Let me address one other issue before I close. Many use Matthew 18 as their mandate for exposing false teachers. They say, "I sent an e-mail to their ministry first, but they did not respond or refused to repent." Well, in all fairness, that probably wasn't the best approach. That preacher probably gets hammered every week with hate and fan mail. And if you e-mail was "strongly worded," they were defensive from the start.
So, what should you do? Pray for that teacher. Pray that God bring someone into their life who can teach them and help them see their error. The reality is, you are unfortunately not in a position to have an impact on that person's life and teaching. But, God by His Spirit through prayer is able to do a better job than you could have.
Next, don't be paranoid about Sam. If he is reading a book that denies that there is a hell, buy him a book that teaches the Biblical truth about hell. One of the best experiences I had was going to Bible college and seminary. Not because of what I was taught there. Rather, because while I was there I was exposed to a variety of beliefs on issues. Many warned me not to go to the seminary I went to because it was seen as leaning to the liberal side. Between the two schools, I spent 7 years with some very conservative and very liberal professors. I read some solid books and some liberal books. I wrestled with some issues personally. And after 7 years, I had a more conservative theology than when I started.
The question for me is do I trust God's Spirit in a believer or do I trust my own policing efforts? False teaching is serious. Doctrine is important. There is a healthy way to deal with it and there is an unhealthy way to deal with it. There is a way to teach the truth in a way that leads people to trust you and your view and there is a way to deal with it that gets under peoples' skin and causes them to keep their mouth shut around you.
I am not trying to say "do this" and "don't do that." I am trying to invite you to wrestle with which extreme you may be falling into - ignoring false teaching or trying to control everything that everyone is exposed to. Where is the healthy balance?