By Dr Paul M Elliott
Part nine of a series. Read part eight.
In each of the four possible outcomes, do the right thing, and trust God for the results.
In our last article, we saw that key number five to a Biblically loving response to apostasy is to understand the steps that God’s Word tells you to follow when you find apostasy in the church. We saw that the Bible sets forth a clear process, and that the imperative is to deal with false teaching in the church decisively, and without delay.
Four Possible Outcomes
We saw that there are four possible end results when you confront apostasy in the church.
First, there is the case in which the individual is found, on solid Biblical grounds, to be not guilty of false teaching.
Second, there is the case in which the individual is proved to be guilty of false teaching, and he admits his sin, and repents of it.
Third, there is the case in which the individual is found guilty of false teaching, but the individual refuses to repent, and the church acts in a Biblical way by putting the false teacher out of the church.
And fourth, there is the case in which the false teacher’s guilt is clear, but he refuses to admit his sin, he will not repent, and the church responds not in a Biblical way but 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?
Considering these four possible outcomes leads us to a final question, and it is a question for you personally, as a believer: What are you to do next, in each of those four outcomes? That is the question we shall answer today. And as I said, this is going to be the most important part of our study on how to deal with apostasy.
Why do I say that? The reason is that today far too many people are doing the wrong thing, the ungodly thing. But the Bible is absolutely clear in telling you what you must do in each case. So let us take up each case, with this question in mind.
When a Person is Legitimately Found “Not Guilty” of Heresy
First, how are you to respond in the case in which the individual is found, on solid Biblical grounds, to be not guilty of false teaching? This, above all, is the time when you need to demonstrate agape love.
The first thing you need to do is to thank God for His mercy. “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:11). Thank God for His mercy upon this individual. Thank God for His mercy when a person who, as it turns out, was wrongly accused, is vindicated. Also thank God for His mercy upon His church. And, thank God for His mercy upon you, if you were the one who brought the charge, and it turns out you were wrong.
And in that connection, something else you need to do is to apologize publicly for having wrongly accused someone of false teaching. You owe that to the individual, and you owe it to the church.
The one thing you must not do under any circumstances is to worry about your own reputation. As soon as you start worrying about your own reputation, you will fall into temptation. Your reputation is in God’s hands. Do what will honor Him, and He will take care of the rest.
And last, but not least, if the man you accused, who as it turns out was innocent of the charge, is your pastor or an elder in your church, you need to make it clear that you are willing to submit to his proper spiritual authority, by both word and action. The Apostle Paul said this to the Thessalonian church: “We urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)
When the Guilty Person Repents
Now let us take up the second case. How are you to respond in the case in which the individual is proved to be guilty of false teaching, and realizes his sin, and repents? Once again, many of the same things are true.
In this case you also need to thank God for His mercy upon the individual who had fallen into the sin of false teaching. Thank God for His mercy when an individual who has gone off into apostasy realizes his sin, and truly repents, and can be restored to fellowship and service. You also need to thank God for His mercy upon His church, and upon you as an individual, if you were the one who brought the charge.
Also, you need to pray for this person. Pray that he will not fall into error ever again, and that God will use this experience to grow and strengthen him and the church. Pray as David prayed in Psalm 68, verse 28: “Strengthen, O God, what You have done for us.”
One thing that you must not do is to assume a superior attitude over the person who has repented. The Apostle Paul called to mind a similar circumstance in the history of Israel when he was writing to the Corinthian church, and he warned them thus: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition… Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:11-12).
You need to respond to what God has done in humility – especially if you were the one who brought the accusation. But this also applies to the person who had gone off into false teaching and has now repented. For an example of this, we need to look no further than the case of Paul and Peter after Paul confronted Peter about his departure from the Gospel at Antioch, as we find it recorded in Galatians chapter two.
The interesting thing is that we never find Paul mentioning this again in any of his epistles. We never find Paul holding this incident against Peter after he had repented. And likewise we find Peter, near the end of his life, in his second epistle, at chapter three, verse fifteen, speaking of Paul as his “beloved brother” and commending the epistles of Paul to the church as Holy Scripture, and condemning false teachers who tried to twist what Paul was saying. Peter and Paul both acted with great humility, and we can do no less in similar circumstances.
And lastly, in these cases you need to work all the harder to seek to preserve the only basis for genuine unity – unity in the truth. We can do no less than to follow the example of Paul and Peter.
When the Unrepentant False Teacher is Put Out of the Church
This brings us to the third case. How are you to respond in the case in which the individual refuses to repent and is found guilty, and the church acts in a Biblical way by putting the false teacher out of the church?
You certainly once again need to thank God for His mercy in purifying His church. It is also right and proper for you to thank God, in humility, for using you as a channel to bring about such a cleansing of His church, if you were the one who confronted the false teacher. And once again, you need to guard against the sin of spiritual pride. Remember, the victory was God’s, not yours.
How should you deal with the one who refuses to repent? First of all, you should pray for him. Pray that God will yet bring that person to repentance. But at the same time, you are to have no fellowship with him. It is up to God to bring the individual to repentance. This is a person who needs to be evangelized, not fellowshipped with. Paul said this to the Corinthian church: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5)
You also need to pray for those who are left behind in the church, for those who have remained true to the faith, that they would remain true.
When the Church Sins By Not Putting Out the False Teacher
This brings us, finally, to the fourth case, and it is the one in which Christians most often fail to do what the Word of God tells us to do. How are you to respond in the case in which the false teacher’s sin and guilt are clear on Biblical grounds, he refuses to admit his sin, and 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 actually protects him and allows his false teaching to gain a stronger foothold and spread?
Here is the Biblical principle you need to follow: God says that you need to get your fellowship priorities right. Your fellowship with God comes first. Your fellowship with people comes second.
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6-7)
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. (Ephesians 5:8-11)
Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds. (2 John 9-11)
Your ability to have legitimate fellowship with other people is based on their relationship with God and their obedience to the truth. You cannot have fellowship with people who are false teachers. You cannot have fellowship with those who deliberately enable false teachers. You cannot have fellowship with people who act in an ungodly way by not taking any action against the false teacher at all, or worse yet actually protect him and allow his false teaching to gain a stronger foothold and spread. As soon as you do that, you are no longer in right fellowship with God.
Today, most people are unwilling to follow this principle, and that is why so many churches are in such a sad condition. We find this principle stated for us in no uncertain terms, in Second Corinthians chapter six, beginning at verse fourteen:
Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial [or Satan]? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty.” Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1).
Dear friend, God’s commandment to you could not be more clear. When you find yourself in this last kind of situation, where the church is clearly in the grip of apostasy, the worst thing you can do is to ignore God’s clear direction. You must leave such a church. You cannot stay. God’s Word simply does not permit it. God cannot possibly bless you if you stay.
Notice how God describes those who do not remain in the truth, in verse 17. He describes them as “unclean.” The sense of that word in the original language is that these are people from whom you must separate yourself, because they are corrupt in their way of thinking and living, and being around them will corrupt you.
So what must you do? First of all, thank God for making the issues clear. Thank God for exposing the situation for what it really is. Thank God for clear direction. Thank God for protecting you and your family. And, come out from among the apostates, be separate from them. Do so without delay. Separate yourself unto the God who redeemed you. Separate yourself into the fellowship of others who are knit together in the unity of the truth in love. Seek to re-associate in fellowship and worship with those who hold to the truth. Find another church. Or help to start one, if you need to. By God’s grace, many people are doing that today.
Note what God promises only to those who obey His command to separate. He says, “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God and they shall be My people. Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
Seek Honor From God, Not Men
If you really love Christ, if you really love His church, and if you really love His truth, this is what you will do when you find that there is false teaching and apostasy within the church, and the church refuses to deal with it. Before God, you cannot ignore the problem. Tolerance is not the answer. Neutrality is a myth. God’s commandment is clear.
You may not receive honor from men, but you will receive honor from God. You need to have the same attitude that our Lord Jesus himself had. He said this in John chapter eight: “I do not seek My own glory… If I honor Myself, My honor is nothing. It is My Father who honors Me” (John 8:50, 54).
Let me close this series with a word of admonition and encouragement from the book of James, chapter five:
My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord – that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful. (James 5:10-11)
If God places you in the difficult circumstance of confronting apostasy in His church, remember that your all-knowing, all-wise Savior is in charge of the situation. He is compassionate and merciful. Let agape love motivate you, and let God’s Word infallibly guide you. Do the right thing, and trust God for the results. Remember that the results may be of different kinds in the near term and in the long term, and some of the results that glorify God most may not be visible you this side of Heaven. Honor your Lord. He will not let you down.
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