Confronting Apostasy: The Biblical Steps

By Dr Paul M Elliott

Part eight of a series. Read part seven.

You need to understand the Biblical steps in confronting apostasy — and how apostates’ allies and enablers may try to block, complicate, or circumvent the process.

We have now come to the fifth and final key to a Biblically loving response to apostasy: You need to understand the steps that God’s Word tells you to follow when you find apostasy in the church. We shall see that the Bible is very clear about this. There is no guesswork involved. God’s Word sets forth a clear process; it tells you exactly and precisely what to do.

Implementing Key 5: Three Vital Principles

Now before we consider the process itself, I believe it is important to emphasize three very important principles once again. We have discussed them before, but I want to stress them because they relate directly to this process.

First, love must be your motivation in confronting apostasy. If you have in mind any motivation other than the preciousness of Christ, the preciousness of His truth, and the preciousness of His true church, then you need to think twice. Now, I do not say that to discourage you from doing what the Bible says you must do. Your duty is clear. But you must constantly, continually check your motivation and make sure that by God’s grace you keep it pure. And that motivation must be love for Christ, and His church, and His truth.

Second, self-sacrifice must be this love’s demonstration. Confronting false teaching and apostasy is not the easy thing to do. Let me speak to you from experience. If you find that God has put you in the place of having to confront false teaching, you will find that it is going to be exceedingly time-consuming. It will take much prayer. It will take much effort. It will require you to spend much time in God’s Word. You will find yourself spending much time in dealing with people on both sides of the issue — people who are for the truth and people who are against the truth. It will take much discipline to stay the course.

You will need the whole armor of God. This is a spiritual battle of the most intense kind. Once again, I say this not by way of discouragement. Your duty is clear, and God will bless you for doing that duty in ways you may not immediately understand. But you must constantly, continually rely upon the Word of God as your authority and the Spirit of God as your teacher, and guide, and strength during the entire process. You will need to constantly check yourself for any danger signs that you are operating in the flesh. Remember that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Remember that the work is done “not by might nor by power but by My Spirit saith the Lord” (Zechariah 4:6).

The third principle I want to reiterate is this: Biblical truth is the issue. We are to speak the truth in love. The issue in confronting apostasy is always God’s truth. The issue is not persons, or personalities, or reputations, or creeds, or confessions, or anything else. Do not let any of these other things become the issue. Do not do that yourself, and do not let anyone else do it. If anyone tries to do that, you must endeavor to bring the focus back to the issue of truth and error. The Lord Jesus Christ said in John chapter 17 that God’s truth is that which sanctifies. It is truth that sets the genuine believer apart from the imposter. It is God’s truth that separates false teachers from the faithful ones.

The Process of Matthew 18:15-17

So let me now come to the process itself. We find the process for dealing with apostasy, in fact for dealing with offenses of all kinds, given to us in Matthew 18:15-17. We find there a process set forth by the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Jesus said this:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

Here we find a four-step process:

  • First, go to your brother alone and make his offense known. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. The force of the original language is that if your brother will pay attention to what you are saying and will repent, you have helped your brother to escape from evil.
  • Second, if he will not hear you, take one or two others with you and speak to him again.
  • Third, if he still refuses to hear, bring the matter before the church as a body.
  • Fourth, if he refuses even to hear the church, then treat him not as your brother, but as an unbeliever.

Private Versus Public Situations

Before we go into specific cases, I want to make some comments about the application of these verses.

If a man says something once that is in error doctrinally, you may find that he simply made an honest mistake. The preacher or teacher is a human being. You have every right to question him about it in a respectful and loving way. And you may well find that it was in fact simply an honest mistake. Perhaps he was not careful about the way he said something, or perhaps he did not mean to say what he said. Perhaps he did not even realize at the time that he had said something that was quite wrong. Now if you find that this is the case, and if he gives evidence of the fact that he knows it was wrong, and if he demonstrates that attitude by being willing to make it right — for example, if it was said in a public meeting, he willingly makes a public correction — then let that be the end of it. I have known men who were very glad that someone came to them and pointed out that kind of a mistake, so that the man could correct it.

That is probably the happiest case you could have. But then there are other situations that become more difficult. If it becomes obvious that the man has said something that is heresy, and you confront him privately about it, and he is unrepentant, then you need to go to step two, and if necessary, steps three and four, as we find them in Matthew 18.

A second point I want to make is this: You need to make a distinction between private matters and public matters. The Biblical principle is that private sins need to be confronted privately, but public sins need to be confronted publicly. We find a number of examples of this in Scripture. In the epistle of Third John the Apostle John said he was going to publicly confront Diotrephes, the pastor of a local church, about his falsehoods. In Galatians chapter two we find that the Apostle Paul publicly confronted the Apostle Peter at Antioch when Peter publicly strayed from the one true Gospel into legalism.

If someone has persisted in false teaching from the pulpit, or in a Sunday school class, or in a home Bible study, or has persistently written false teaching in books or other publications, this is a public matter. It is not a private sin. And so it immediately becomes a matter to be dealt with by the church as a body, and not on a private basis. That is because there is more than the spiritual welfare of one individual or a even handful of individuals at stake. The spiritual welfare of the entire church is at stake.

Sinful Man Often Complicates the Process

The process that we find in Scripture is not complicated. But most of the problems in confronting apostasy come when sinful human beings complicate the process. Some churches have written thick books of procedure that are supposed to be instruction manuals for carrying out the Biblical process. But in many cases, in a very real sense these books of procedure add man-made regulations to the Word of God. Far too often, the focus is on the man-made procedures and not on the simplicity of Scripture. In other cases, churches arbitrarily make up the rules of procedure as they go along, without resort to Scripture.

I can testify to these things from personal experience, as can many other people. I have been involved in bringing a charge of heresy against an individual on two occasions. On several other occasions I have been placed in the position of having to consider the evidence and to take part in adjudicating the guilt or innocence of individuals. I have also heard from many other people about such experiences, which are all too commonplace in the church today.

Three Main Possible Outcomes of the Process

Having said these things, let me take up some specific cases. When someone brings a charge of false teaching against an individual, there are three main possible outcomes.

Outcome number one: The individual is found to be innocent of the charge of heresy, on sound Biblical grounds.

Outcome number two: The individual is proved to be guilty of false teaching, he realizes his sin, and he repents.

Outcome number three: The individual is clearly guilty of heresy, but he refuses to admit his sin, and he will not repent. Within this third possible outcome, we find that the church may respond in three different ways.

The first and most desirable possibility is that the church will act Biblically. The church does the thing that the Lord Jesus tells us to do. It treats the false teacher as an unbeliever. It puts him out of the church. But sadly in our postmodern time this is becoming increasingly rare. Everyone wants to find excuses for not doing it. We need to praise God, and we need to commend a church and its leadership, when a church has the spiritual fortitude to do the right thing, to do the only thing Scripture says we are permitted to do, and that is to reject the false teacher, have no fellowship with him, and treat him as an unbeliever who needs to be evangelized and come to repentance and faith.

The second possibility is that the church may not act at all, even though it is clear that there is a heretic within the doors. This, sad to say, is the most frequent outcome today. Titus 3:10 gives us clear instruction: “Reject a man who is a heretic after the first and second admonition.” Not the fourth or fifth or the tenth or twentieth. God’s Word commands us to deal with the issue of heresy decisively and without delay. But in far too many cases today, the church refuses to do this.

Then there is a third possibility: The church does act, but it acts in an un-Biblical way. This is also an increasingly common outcome today. What we often find is that a church does one of the following kinds of things, or it does more than one of them in combination —

First of all, and most commonly in this case, a church will put adherence to a man-made process above adherence to Biblical truth. The leaders of the church will tell you, for example, that you did not make your case in the right way. You did not submit your charges against the heretic in the proper form. Your evidence was not in the right format. Some of your evidence goes back beyond some artificial statute of limitations. And so on. What is clear in such circumstances is that following a man-made process has become more important than the truth of the Bible. If you do not follow that process in just the way the church leadership decides you must (and far too often those judgments are quite arbitrary), then the leadership can hide behind that alleged fact and refuse to act against the heretic.

Secondly, and this is especially true in denominational churches, leaders may actually destroy or suppress evidence in order to protect a heretic. I have seen firsthand and I also know of several other cases where it has happened. Incriminating details are left out of the minutes of meetings. Incriminating documents are conveniently lost or even altered. Do not let those things shock you. We need to face the fact that false teachers are often able to operate because they have allies and enablers within the church. And those allies and enablers are not above doing the most sinful kinds of things to protect the heretic.

Thirdly, and this is also especially true in denominational churches, the church will in some cases protect the heretic by declaring that his false teaching is within the bounds of a man-made confessional statement or a denominational pronouncement. One purportedly conservative seminary recently did this in order to justify hiring a professor who is a theistic evolutionist. They defended this by pointing to a study report that their denomination issued ten years ago. The report said that evolutionary interpretations of the book of Genesis are acceptable within the bounds of the church’s confession of faith. And therefore the seminary said that it had the right to hire this false teacher. Never mind what God’s Word said on the subject, the important thing was what man’s word said in a denominational study report. Doctrinal standards were simply swept aside. [For details of this case, see Knox Seminary and Bruce Waltke: Can a Theistic Evolutionist Believe in Biblical Inerrancy?]

How Must You Respond in Each Case?

Now, what I have given you is a very brief practical discussion of some of the things that can happen when you confront apostasy in the church — both the godly outcomes and the ungodly outcomes. I am sorry that I cannot paint a more favorable picture of the state of many Evangelical and Reformed churches today. But the facts are the facts, and I believe it is my responsibility as a minister of the Gospel to warn you about the kinds of things that are happening today in many, many situations.

All of this brings us to a final consideration, a final question — a question for you personally, as a believer: What are you to do next, in each of these situations, each of these outcomes, that I have described?

How does God’s Word say you are to respond in the case where the individual is found, on solid Biblical grounds, to be not guilty of false teaching?

How does God’s Word say you are to respond in the case where the individual is proved to be guilty of false teaching, and he admits his sin, and repents of it?

How does God’s Word say you are to respond in the case where the individual is found guilty but refuses to repent, and the church acts in a Biblical way by putting the false teacher out of the church? What should you do next?

How does God’s Word say that you are to respond in the case where the false teacher’s guilt is clear, but he refuses to admit his sin, he will not repent, and the church acts in an ungodly way by not taking any action against the false teacher at all, or worse yet the church actually protects him and allows his false teaching to gain a stronger foothold and to spread? What are you to do next?

What must you do in each of these situations? Well, that is going to be the subject of our next article, which will be the final one in this study of the 5 Keys to a Biblically Loving Response to Apostasy. I believe this will be the most important part of this series, because how you respond and what you do next in each of these circumstances affects the purity of the church. It affects the unity of the church in the truth.

Next: Confronting Apostasy — The Final Steps

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