Recently I listened to an internet-based talk show interview with a Bible scholar. The host of the program was earnestly contending for the truth. While I liked what I heard from the Bible scholar, the host-interviewer creeped me out a bit, not by what he said but by his manner. Not only was he melodramatic, he sounded smugly sure of himself. When I react negatively to someone who is concerned about theological discernment, I can't help but wonder how others react to my preaching, for my messages also seek not only to encourage, inform, and inspire in a positive way but also to divide truth from error.
At those times when I clearly call error error, do others perceive me as a "fundamentalist" on a crusade? As a self-appointed authority trying to police others? As insecure, angry, or arrogant?
I hope not. I want to be generous. I want to be humble.
But I also want to be good.
For several months I have been reading and rereading the Book of 1 Timothy, and one verse that has caught my attention—and gives me pause—is Paul's words to Timothy in 4:6: "If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed."
Our fallen nature is such that we want to add what is true while clinging to what is false.
According to this verse, in order to be "a good minister of Christ Jesus" I must teach certain truths and correct certain errors with the people entrusted to my care. Paul implies that if I fail to teach these things, I am not a good minister; I am—gulp—a bad minister? In this passage, the curriculum that Paul has in mind are his warnings in 4:1-5 concerning the teachings from the dark side that forbid marriage and the eating of certain foods. Paul saw these ascetic teachings, which reflect an unbiblical dualism, as so harmful to believers that for pastors to fail to inoculate the flock against them was apparently a case of neglect, an oversight that disqualifies them as good ministers. It doesn't take much imagination to see why Paul required this for pastors, because not only were sound moral standards at stake in this false teaching, but also likely the nature of the gospel: could someone be saved who ate bacon sandwiches and tied the knot with her main squeeze? The false teachers probably said no.
Today, while legalism always beckons, the legalistic demand for asceticism is not a prevailing heresy, at least not in Western culture. That doesn't make this text irrelevant for "good ministers," though. The clear implication is that we must recognize the toxic teachings of our day and address them.
Paul knew precisely what false teachings threatened the Ephesian church where Timothy pastored. Can I list the ideas that threaten our church in Chicago? What I realized as I reflected on 1 Timothy 4 was that I had never thought through this question intentionally and determined the ideas that I and others regarded as most dangerous. Nor had I made plans to be sure I did hazmat duties on these ideas recurrently in our church. So I made a list and began a sermon series titled "The Most Dangerous Ideas in Your World." Here are some of the ideas I covered in that series:
Jesus is not God.
If you are a good person, God will accept you.
Everyone, or almost everyone, will be accepted by God and live in heaven forever.
There are many paths to God, and all religions lead to him.
We cannot know truth.
Forces That Muzzle Our Voices
The rationale for Paul's directive to Timothy is airtight, of course. If the Center for Disease Control knew of a virulent flu carried by a number of people in Brooklyn but said nothing, medical heads would roll in Atlanta. If the CDC tried in vain to get media outlets to make an emergency announcement about the virus, but the media execs all refused to interrupt their entertainment because it might hurt their ratings during sweeps week, the public outcry could be heard by the deaf. For people in responsibility to fail to warn those in their care about a grave danger is gross negligence that merits immediate dismissal and criminal prosecution. What's more, in the case of spiritual leaders, what is at stake is not a few more years of carbon consumption on earth but an eternity in paradise or perdition.
Still, as obvious as this is, Western culture is slogging its way through moral fog and quicksand. Our culture frowns upon calling a dangerous teaching what it is. Do that specifically from the pulpit, and some in the congregation think hate-speech, mean-spirited bloggers, the Salem witch hunts, and the Inquisition. Unity is found in centered-set categories, not bounded-set categories. Can't we all get along? Can't we be positive and constructive, agree to disagree, and hold tolerance and pluralism dear? What will this do to attendance? Aren't you being an uptight fundamentalist? Cool people don't act as though they are right and others are wrong, at least when it comes to ultimate truth. Who gives you the right to tell the world's story? There is no universal truth. Morality is relative to each society. On and on it goes.
At the bleak shore of this swelling tide of quicksand stands the apostle Paul telling pastors to oppose certain doctrines. These doctrines are so hazardous to the true faith that pastors must warn people to avoid them just as an 80-year-old would avoid kissing the moist lips of a feverish, red-eyed, runny-nosed, sneezing, coughing carrier of swine flu. No less diseased in our day, for instance, is the seductive idea that human beings are basically good.
Isaiah 56 says, "Israel's watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark." According to this text, and 1 Timothy 4, even in a postmodern world, there is a time for watchmen to bark.
Some argue: "If I emphasize the positive and teach the truth about the gospel, people will see heresies for what they are. I don't need to preach negatively against falsehood." That seems to make sense, but apparently Paul didn't believe it, nor did Jesus. Both explicitly warned people against dangerous ideas (see for example Matthew 16:11-12; Matthew 23; Matthew 5-7; 1 Timothy 6:20; Titus 1:9-14). Both regarded false ideas as toxic (see Matthew 7:15; 2 Timothy 2:16-18). Clearly, while both Paul and Jesus taught in constructive, inspiring ways, they also engaged in the negative deconstruction of error.
And there's an enduring, culture-transcending reason for that: syncretism, the attempted fusion of what cannot fuse. Our fallen nature is such that we want to add what is true while clinging to what is false. We want right and wrong (our personal wrongs, at any rate) to be compatible. We don't realize that error compromises truth.
So in this confused Western culture, is there any way to be a good minister of Christ Jesus without being shunned?
For one thing, we have to engage the quicksand of ideas that says we can't call some ideas false. That's a huge topic all its own, naturally, so we can't do it at length in many sermons. But if we just ignore that assumption of many who hear us, we will be shrugged off.
In addition, our hearts must be right. We need to be walking closely with the Lord in a spirit of humility, love, and joy, which of course are minimal aspects of godliness that should characterize Christian leaders at all times, but are especially important to disarm those who see those who refute error as arrogant, bigoted, cold, grim, and mean. This is a topic all to itself that I can't develop further in this article, but suffice to say here that true Christlike maturity cuts the ground from under those who have good cause to dislike unwinsome preachers.
We must be bold and unapologetic. Faithful interpreters of Scripture are on the side of truth, and sooner or later, in his own time, God will make sure that truth wins out. The responsibility of the preacher is simply to proclaim the truth always and openly regardless of the response, to attempt to persuade if possible, and to do so in love, in humility (because it's God's truth, not ours), and, yes, with authority (seriously, firmly, strongly). Humility and confidence about the knowability of truth are not mutually exclusive.
While correcting major errors is crucial, it is not everything. In some seasons of the church, in some environments, in some sermon series or classes, this aim will necessarily prevail over all others, as was needed by Timothy in Ephesus. After all, it does little good to preach a comforting sermon from Psalm 23 to a raving heretic. But pastoral preaching that feeds the flock a balanced diet of the Word is not just a cult-watching ministry. One hesitation I have about those who take this ministry seriously is the way some can seem to be predominately negative, very good at finding fault but handicapped at positively equipping believers to live radiant, compassionate, Spirit-empowered lives in their daily world. Pastoral preachers must positively comfort and encourage, inspire and give hope.
Finally, we must recognize the difference between (a) the central doctrines of the faith historically shared by orthodox believers, such as the deity of Jesus Christ, (b) the doctrines important or distinctive to our own wing of the orthodox church, such as the cessation or continuation of some spiritual gifts, which true believers may disagree on and thus find it difficult to organize ministry together and share regular worship, and (c) the doctrines that have traditionally been called matters of indifference, the teachings that should not break fellowship among believers of any stripe, such as beliefs about the tribulation. We address each category accordingly.
When Jesus spoke about his role in the world, one of his most important self-designations was that of shepherd for the sheep, and one of the shepherd roles he highlighted was that of offering protection. Nearing the end of his life, Jesus prayed about his disciples in John 17 and said, "While I was with them, I protected them." That is one reason why, when Jesus called himself a shepherd, he could add the word good.
Craig Brian Larson is the pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, including The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan). He blogs on Knowing God and His Ways at craigbrianlarson.com.