Dear Church Family,
G.K. Chesterton once said, “Tolerance is the highest virtue for those who have no others.” He’s quite right. Tolerance ought to be a virtue to which we hold; however, if one is tolerant of all behaviors, affections, and ideas, then he is unable to make judgements and therefore cannot hold to any other virtues. If tolerance is a person’s highest virtue, then giving to the poor is the same as stealing, remaining faithful to one’s spouse is the same as adultery, and justification by faith alone is the same as justification by faith and works. That’s why the Reformation, the 500th anniversary of which we celebrated this year, was so important. (Yes, I recognize the irony of quoting a Roman Catholic to defend the Reformation; still, it applies).
An online seller of audio books (christianaudio.com) has a special deal this month. You can download (free for the month of December) the audio book Why the Reformation Still Matters by Tim Chester and Michael Reeves. I’ve just begun listening to it. So far, I’ve found it to be very interesting, helpful, and accessible. In the course of the eleven chapters of the book, the authors cover such important doctrines as: justification, Scripture, sin, grace, the theology of the cross, union with Christ, the Holy Spirit, sacraments, the church, and the every-day life believers.
According to the description found on the website (see link above), the book asks: “What if the Reformation still has something to teach us? What if the doctrines so vigorously debated and defended by the Reformers still matter today?” I, for one, am convinced that these doctrines still matter today, and that it’s essential for bible-believing Christians to know the doctrines of faith as taught in Scripture, as well as the false teachings that have been promulgated throughout church history, and in many instances, still must be dealt with today.
Yet, in some quarters of Christendom, drawing these types of distinctions between truth and falsehood is viewed as unnecessarily divisive. Some even claim that drawing attention to such differences is a direct violation of Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity (John 17:20-21). This is certainly a danger, and I’ve previously written about the necessity of “theological triage.” However, drawing distinctions (or knowing the difference between truth and error) is a necessary precursor to proper discernment.
The Biblical Call to Discernment
Maybe we need to back up first, though. It’s important, I think, that we first recognize that the Bible teaches us that discernment is a necessary component of the Christian life. For one thing, discernment is necessary for the proper ordering of our loves. That is to say, we learn to love the proper things – and grow in that love – only through learning discernment.
For example, the Apostle Paul prays for the Christians in Philippi that their “love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment” so that they would be able to approve the things that are excellent (Philippians 1:9-11). Likewise, the writer of Hebrews speaks of the importance of growing in one’s knowledge of Christian doctrines (able to eat solid food and not just milk) by having their “senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:12-6:3).
In addition to the proper ordering of our affections, discernment is also an important component for the spiritual protection of the church. The Apostle John admonishes believers to be watchful for the many deceivers who have gone out into the world who deny the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He even warns that if we do not keep watch, we may be in danger of stunted growth, or even moving backward (2 John 1:7-8). Peter warns for us to be on the look out for false prophets and false teachers who “secretly introduce destructive heresies,” leading many into divine judgment along with them (2 Peter 2:1-3).
Christians are called to be discerning, but in our day, “toleration” is a by-word that characterizes our pluralistic society. To be sure, being tolerant of other people and what they believe is important for living peaceably with other human beings in this world. And, of all people, Christians ought to be examples in loving our neighbors. Yet, as is more and more often the case today, toleration has come to mean the absence of judgment and therefore the opposite of discernment. Yet, one can be discerning and make judgments while still loving his neighbor.
The Necessity of Making Distinctions
Perhaps it’s obvious, but in light of the biblical call for Christians to be discerning (to distinguish between good and evil, and between truth and falsehood), it is necessary to be able to actually distinguish good from evil and truth from falsehood. This link between discernment and the ability to make distinctions is implicit in the Apostle Paul’s teaching on one of the qualifications for elders in the church. Elders must be men who are “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).
Let’s consider this admonition for elders to both exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. When teaching or preaching, sometimes I will draw attention to the different views that are out there concerning certain doctrines. Sometimes, I draw attention to the false beliefs of those outside the church (non-Christians), and other times I draw attention to the false teachings of those inside the church (particular individuals, churches, or denominations).
Whenever I do so, I try very hard to not violate the ninth commandment by bearing false witness and misrepresenting someone’s views. So, I endeavor to directly quote what a person has publicly taught, or reference the official teaching of a particular denomination or church.
Sometimes when I’ve pointed out these differences, however, I have had people ask me why I would do that: “Why are you highlighting the differences between what we believe about baptism and what Baptists or Lutherans believe about baptism?” Or, sometimes I have had people ask if I’m condemning everyone who is a part of that particular church: “You said that the Roman Catholic Church teaches heresy with regard to the doctrine of justification; do you believe that there are no believers in the Roman Catholic Church?”
To be clear, even if the teaching in question is a heresy, I am not necessarily speaking to the state of an individual’s soul. They may teach false doctrine, but actually be inconsistent in their beliefs – I can’t know that. But, what I can deal with is what a particular individual or church says or teaches. And, it’s actually necessary to point out such things and to draw such distinctions between what we and others believe.
Drawing such distinctions is necessary not only because it is part of an elder’s calling (Titus 1:9), but also because it is an essential aspect of learning. Let me give you an example from parenting. Suppose a mother wants to teach her child about animals, but she never makes any distinctions. The child points in a book at a picture of a dog, and the mother says, “It has four legs, a tail, and a head. That’s a dog.” They turn the page and the child points at a picture of a cat, and the mother says, “It has four legs, a tail, and a head. That’s a dog.” The next page shows a giraffe, and the mother says, “It has four legs, a tail, and a head. It’s a dog.”
Or, on a more serious note, my wife and I will sometimes be watching a movie or a television program with our children and help them make distinctions. For instance, we were recently watching a television show in which one of the characters explained his view of Christian baptism. He said, “As I understand it, getting your baby baptized means that he’ll get into heaven.” My wife quickly interjected, “Um…Not true!” We sometimes press pause and discuss the issue, but our catechized children recognized the error right away, so we just kept watching.
We actually do this all the time with our children. We take advantage of “teachable moments” where we try to help them develop theological and moral palates, palates that are able to distinguish truth from error, good from evil, and right from wrong. It’s one of the ways that we seek to love our children: by teaching them to make distinctions, which is a necessary component of discernment.
I once heard a talk from a woman affiliated with “Great Commission Publications” – the publishers of the resources that we use in the Sunday school classes at our church. She was promoting their materials, and one of the things that she said at the beginning of her presentation struck me, and has stuck with me for many years. She said, “We consider it our role and our responsibility to indoctrinate your children.” To some, indoctrination carries negative connotations; however, she went on to explain that she meant it quite literally: to indoctrinate our children by teaching right doctrine in order to get that right doctrine “in” them.
Pastors and elders have a biblical mandate to make distinctions in order to teach sound doctrine and refute false teachings and contradiction (Titus 1:9). And, it’s one of the ways that pastors and elders seek to love those in their care: by teaching them to make distinctions, which is a necessary component of discernment.
If you slowly turn up the heat on the proverbial “frog in a kettle,” it never realizes the danger that the water he’s in will soon boil and kill him because he doesn’t recognize the subtle changes in temperature. In the same way, when I make distinctions, pointing out the false doctrine that is held and taught by others, it’s not because I hate them. Actually, it’s because I love you. I’m desirous to love you as a mother and father loves their own children (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12).
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch