Is Our Church a Healthy Church?
Is Our Church a Healthy Church?
This series is called Transformed by Truth. It's about creating change by confronting reality—the reality of who Christ is, of who you are without Christ, and of who you are called to be in Christ. In the last few weeks we've talked about how knowing Jesus is the key to receiving from God, it's the key to victorious living, it's the key to experiencing transformation. We've talked about how you must make it your priority, you need to measure your progress throughout your journey and you need to maintain your perspective — recognizing that God's work in you is a process that takes time. We looked at one of the most powerful promises in all of scripture, where Peter says if you will add these things to your faith, you will be productive and effective for the glory of God. What things? I hope you memorized the list. Goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love. Last week we talked about the need to remind ourselves of three things: remember what really happened at salvation—we are saved by grace, not by works; remember who we're dealing with—Jesus is the Lord of all, the majestic and eternal Son of God; and remember what he plans to do—bring us all together to be with him in everlasting joy for all eternity.
On this upbeat note, chapter 1 of 2 Peter closes. In the second chapter, Peter gets a little negative—necessarily so. He issues a warning about false teachers, and let me tell you: he doesn't have anything good to say about them. Even in the early days of the church they had already become a problem—people who were distorting the words of Jesus and the teachings of the apostles in order to manipulate and control people, and, ultimately, squeeze them out of their money. Some false teachers taught you had to follow all the Jewish laws in order to be a Christian; others taught you could live as immorally as you wish and still be a Christian. Just like today there were a lot of different preachers preaching a lot of different things that bore no relation to the revealed Word of God. That's why some of the New Testament epistles were written: to defend truth against error. For example, Galatians, 1 John, and 2 Peter. Today we'll look at the entire second chapter of second Peter; I want you to pay attention to what he says about these false teachers.
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority.
Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not bring slanderous accusations against such beings in the presence of the Lord. But these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish.
They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—a beast without speech—who spoke with a man's voice and restrained the prophet's madness.
These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: "A dog returns to its vomit," and, "A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud."
Pretty powerful, isn't it? I want us to spend a few moments thinking about this issue of false teachers. As a preacher, I find this passage terrifying—I don't want to be the man that Peter describes. I also find it a little frustrating because Peter isn't very specific about what exactly these guys are teaching. Several times in the gospels Jesus challenges the Pharisees point-by-point. In Galatians, Paul does the same with the Judaizers, as does John with the Gnostics in his first epistle. Peter, however, is a little vague. He gives a few clues, but he doesn't get specific. There's a reason for this. False teaching, throughout the ages, may take different forms and may contain varying content, but it tends to follow the same pattern. In chapter 2 Peter gives us the pattern for knowing how to recognize—and how to avoid being misled by—false teachers. The idea here is not only being able to spot them, but making sure that we don't act like they act. Here are some general observations I want you to consider. First of all, and this applies to us...
• While we acknowledge that false teachers do exist, they are not the focus of our ministry.
Under the very broad label of "Christianity" there are many churches (most, I would say) with whom we agree on all the basic, fundamental tenets of the faith: the authority of Scripture, the Lordship of Christ, humanity's separation from God by sin, the atoning death of Jesus, and his bodily resurrection. These are the fundamentals. Even though we have a few minor differences with some churches, we agree on the major issues, and the differences are, for the most part, insignificant. This applies to the majority of churches in existence throughout the world.
But there are a few exceptions.For example, the Jehovah's Witnesses. They are considered to be outside the circle of orthodox Christianity because they don't believe most of the things I just mentioned. They believe only their version of the Bible is correct—even though it is different than every other translation in existence. They don't believe in the divinity of Jesus, or in his atoning death, or in his bodily resurrection. Now, there are millions and millions of Jehovah's Witnesses scattered throughout the world (some of them are probably ringing doorbells in your neighborhood at this very moment) — so what are we to do? Since they fall under the category of false teachers, should it become our mission to put them out of business? We could spend our entire missions budget printing anti-JW literature, passing it out on the streets. We could gather outside the local Kingdom Hall carrying picket signs. And I could devote every future sermon to the topic, "Beware of the JWs."
Sound silly? Not to some Christians. Some Christians completely define themselves by who they're against—and it's not limited to just cults. I don't know if this is still happening, but years ago when Tony Campolo was scheduled to speak in a city, weeks before his arrival a certain ministry would send "anti-Campolo" packets to all the churches. If you do an internet search on James Dobson, you'll find dozens of sites devoted to criticizing him and his Focus on the Family ministry. The same can be said about Promise Keepers, Purpose Driven Life, Prayer of Jabez, and countless others. There are ministries that do nothing but fight Mormons, or Catholics, or Pentecostals--and that's just not what we're called to do.
What then, are we called to do? We're called to share the gospel, to make disciples, to serve others in the name of Jesus—feeding the poor, ministering to the sick, loving the lost, and glorifying our Lord and Savior. Nowhere in this entire chapter devoted to recognizing false teachers does Peter say, "You need to argue with these guys, and you need to preach against them." There are those who, in different ways, bring dishonor to the name of Christ, but attacking them will not be the focus of this ministry. Instead, our focus will be doing the work of Jesus.
Here's a second observation.
• God is aware of who the false teachers are, and he's taking care of the situation.
He's also aware of who the righteous teachers are, and he's taking care of them, too. Peter uses the example of how God punished the wicked in Noah's day but saved Noah, and how he punished the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah but saved Lot. Then he says...
(v. 9-10) If this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority.
Peter also says that false teachers...
(v. 2) bring swift destruction upon themselves...Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.
He later says...
(v. 12) They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish.
(v. 13) They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done.
(v. 17) Blackest darkness is reserved for them
Part of Peter's point here is that God is well aware of the damage that can be done by false teachers, and he is taking care of it. We don't need to try to do God's job for him. Let's just do our job--what he's called us to do--and let him take care of the bad guys.
A third observation.
• Most of the characteristics of false teachers have to do with character, not theology.
Now, Peter did warn against their "destructive heresies" — in other words, their teachings that can lead you astray—but most of what he says applies to what the teacher does, not what the teacher believes. As I mentioned earlier, under the broad umbrella of the Christian label there are a number of different types of churches, and most of our differences are rather insignificant. However, also under the broad umbrella of the label Christian are a number of teachers and preachers whose theology may not be necessarily suspect, but whose behavior is like that of the false teachers. I've seen this happen a few times. A pastor or evangelist or teacher or preacher will begin managing his ministry in the way that Peter mentions here, and this so corrupts the character of the ministry that it ultimately leads him into doctrinal error. In the ministry, bad character spawns bad theology. There are guys who started in the right place theologically, but their teaching has become unreliable because of the compromising way they do ministry.
Earlier I said that I find this to be a frightening chapter because I don't want to be this kind of teacher, and I don't want us to be this kind of church. I am confident in where we are theologically; we believe what orthodox Christians have believed for 2000 years—it's not a question of theological accuracy for us, it's a question of character in ministry. We need to especially careful not to act as they act, so that we will never be at risk of becoming what they've become.
In these last few minutes we'll look at what Peter says are the characteristics of false teachers. As we review this list, rather than thinking about whether they apply to Benny Hinn or Bill Hybels, let's instead consider whether or not they apply to this ministry, to the pastors and leaders here in this church.
Some characteristics of false teachers are...
1. An exaggerated emphasis on money.
(v. 3) In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up.
False teachers are motivated by greed. In verse 14 Peter says, "They are experts in greed." The Greek word translated greed means, literally, lust for more. Now, the fact is that it takes money to operate a ministry, and this is a reality we must deal with. There are times when we have to ask people to give, but I have always felt that a preacher's attitude toward preaching about money should be the same as preaching about hell—sometimes it's necessary but it's never enjoyable. (I'm being a little facetious, but not completely.) Peter isn't referring to money used for the purposes of ministry; he's referring to teachers (there were many then as there are now) who collected big offerings and spent them on a lavish lifestyle. We need to ask ourselves, "What is our motivation?" Is it the lust for more--more money, more glory, and more recognition? Or is it the desire to bring the peace of Jesus into the lives of others?
Another characteristic of false teachers is...
2. A refusal to submit to authority.
(v. 10) This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority.
False teachers have a tendency to set themselves up as the supreme rule in their ministries; they tend to hoard all the power for themselves. You've heard the saying, "Absolute power destroys absolutely." It's true, especially in kingdom work. A good rule of thumb is to trust no one who answers to no one. Every person must be accountable.
Just like the U.S. government is designed with checks and balances to guarantee a balance of power, we must make sure our ministry is, too. No one person gets their way all the time here; we all yield to the leadership of the various groups who oversee different areas of ministry. No one calls all the shots here. This is as it should be. We are not called to be rugged individualists; we are called to submit to one another as unto the Lord.
Another characteristic of false teachers is...
3. They don't walk the talk.
(v. 10) This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature...
Those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature. Douglas Moo tells us that these words in the Greek are not as mild as they sound in English. He says, "Peter piles up some very strong words; a literal rendering is 'going after flesh in a passionate longing for defilement.' The reference is to sexual sin..."
(v. 14) With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning.
Barclay tells us this phrase is, literally, with eyes full of an adulteress — meaning that they see in every woman an opportunity to satisfy their lusts. In other words, they view members of the opposite sex as mere objects.
4. They are outside the mainstream of Christian thought and fellowship.
(v. 15) They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way Balaam son Beor, who loved the way of wickedness.
Balaam was an Old Testament prophet who came perilously close to selling out Israel for the sake of money until he was rebuked by his donkey. False teachers have sold out Christianity for their own selfish gain; they have left the straight way and have wandered from the truth. In other words, they are outside the mainstream of Christian thought. The natural defense for being in this position is to claim that you are right and everyone else is wrong. I am suspicious of pastors and churches and ministries who insist that their approach, their teaching, their methods are superior to the rest.
False teachers tend to separate themselves from the rest of the group. They do it by saying, "We're the only ones that are right; everyone else is wrong." But when you examine their teaching, you see that they are the ones who left the beaten path; they are the ones who have deserted what Christians have believed and taught for centuries.
In the book of Acts it says about Athens...
All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. (Acts 16:21)
That's the way many Christians are today. They've become tired of historic Christian doctrine; they want to be entertained with something new. They don't want to hear about prayer, Bible study, witnessing, being a servant, being faithful, or being obedient -- they want to hear something they've never heard before. That's why off-the-wall preachers find it so easy to build a following. And that's why they are so likely to stray from straight way of the gospel truth.
When it comes to the subject of false teachers, Peter was pretty plain about it:
(v. 1) ...there will be false teachers among you.
It's just a fact of the spiritual life. Even though we don't need to become obsessed with these people , we do need to be aware of their existence. You can't trust every person who talks in the name of religion. You have to learn to practice discernment. You have to know what to look for.
Next week we will talk about how to prevent yourself from being misled by false teaching. Today, please take this with you: false teachers exist, and their heresies are destructive. You may not be able to silence them, but you can protect yourself from their teaching, and you can focus on doing what God has called you to do: serving Jesus by serving others.
© Steve May
A resource of Christianity Today International
Steve May has been a pastor to pastors for more than 20 years, helping preachers and teachers to become more effective communicators of the gospel.