On a fairly regular basis we are asked who or what gives us the right to declare a teaching false or to question the teachings of others. After all if Rick Warren writes, “Whenever God wanted to prepare someone for his purposes, he took 40 days,” what right does MCOI have to point out that none of the examples he gives in The Purpose Driven Life support his claim as we did our article “The Purpose Driven Claim” in the Summer 2004 MCOI Journal?
Or what right do we have to question Bill Gothard and his claims in his Definition of Grace that, “In the Old Testament, those who found grace possessed qualities that merited God’s favor.” In fact, many have asked what gave us the right to have written A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life? Millions have gone through Gothard’s various seminars and have accepted his claims that authority extends from the top down. In his “umbrella’ structure the higher up the “chain of authority” the less accountable they are to those under them. He even attaches out of context Bible passages to support his teachings.
This question again resurfaced as I read How Could This Happen in the PCA? on Battered Sheep.com. In the story of an individual attempting to correct a pastor (Teaching Elder) and elders (Board of Session) who were breaking federal laws for financial gain and in part 2 one of the paragraphs jumped out at me:
We were handed a paper from the session that was entitled “On the Eyre-S*** situation” The main thrust of the paper was a sidestepping of the criminal issue of the shill-bidding and instead blaming me for my supposed failure to follow Matthew 18. We were told that if the elders decided that shill-bidding was not a sin, we had to agree with them. Elder M.P. spoke at one point and talked about the fact that the combined experience of the four elders was around 100 years. He asked us, “Don’t you think the Holy Spirit is working through us?”
There appears to be a general idea that if someone is in a position of authority in the church they have by virtue of their position a stronger more infallible leading of the Holy Spirit. For example, Rick Warren is, after all, a world renowned pastor and bestselling, multi-millionaire author. What better evidence of God’s blessing on the correctness of his teaching? Doesn’t IBLP’s large amount of real estate holdings and annual revenues validate Bill Gothard’s “biblical principles” as being the most correct understanding of Scripture? Because the pastor and elders have a “combined experience” of “around 100 years” doesn’t that mean that they can be guided by the Holy Spirit to declare that fraud through the illegal practice of shill-bidding is not a sin and those under them must simply hear and agree?
This makes Pastor Brian Abshire’s question “… what gives YOU the right to determine “true” from “false” teaching?” which he posed in his July 27,2007 letter and again in his September 13, 2007 letter important to respond to. Who has the authority and what is the basis used for determining true from false teaching? We have written on an aspect of this in the article “Trapped in the Shadow of God’s Anointed: Breaking Free From an Unbiblical Concept” in the Fall 2002 issue of the MCOI Journal (beginning on page 12). But revisiting this question from time to time can be helpful.
Do credentialing, notoriety and/or degrees place those who possess them above being questioned by those who do not? Biblically the answer would be no. In actuality leaders and public figures are to be held to a higher standard and should be more closely scrutinized in their teachings and behavior. They live in glass houses and everyone around them has Windex. James writes:
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. (James 3:1, NASB)
Jesus told the crowd in Matthew 7:15 to “Beware of false prophets…” This would require that followers and potential followers evaluate the claims and teachings of those who claim to speak authoritatively, in this case prophets, to determine if they are true or false. The Apostle Paul wrote to the young pastor Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:3
As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrine.
Paul goes on to describe these teachers in verse 7:
…wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.
The Apostle also instructs Timothy not to let others try to pull rank on him on the basis of age in 1 Timothy 4:12. We also see that some who are teaching falsely may be believers but their teaching is so destructive that they are publicly named and “delivered over to Satan.” (1 Timothy 1:19-20). Of this passage Dr. Charles Ryrie writes:
I have delivered over to Satan. A remedial discipline (as in 1 Cor. 5:5), which excluded such persons from the help and fellowship of the church — a kind of last — resort punishment.
It appears that Dr. Abshire recognizes in his July 27,2007 letter that someone could be a true believer but believe false things when on page 6 he responds to the questions with “A believer, but with error…” and “A true church, but with error…” “Error” is a synonym for “false.” So saying that an individual or church is teaching something that is false or asking questions about their teaching or teachings is not the same thing as saying they are not a Christian. But how do we resolve the question of who’s interpretation is the correct one? For that I think the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646 Chapter One Of the Holy Scripture gives us some insight:
VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
VIII. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as in all controversies of religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God who have right unto, and interest in, the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the language of every people unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.
IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
X. The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
A Reader’s Digest version of the above is, the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things. Therefore anything that is “one theme in the Bible’s grand sweep of revelation” and that “faithfulness to Christ requires that it be believed, taught, and lived,” would be so clear that anyone, “…not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” Scripture interprets Scripture; therefore context is not just a novel idea, but context is king. All councils, opinions, and teachings, even of the Reformers, are to be tested by the Scripture and each individual believer is expected to do the testing using the Scripture in its normal, historical and grammatical context.
This means that by biblical teaching and the historical confessions each believer is qualified to declare teachings false by following these criteria. So, for example, we can see how patriarchy was practiced in Scripture and MCOI gave an example of that in Who Will be First in the Kingdom? If someone is teaching something that they claim is fundamental and essential to the Christian faith and it is different than what we plainly find being practiced in Scripture, the burden is on them to demonstrate another form of patriarchy that is main and plain in Scripture. If someone claims that Israel was a constitutional republic rather than a theocracy and that Saul was elected, the burden is on them to demonstrate their assertion to be true from the context of the passages not simply verses removed from their context. In both of these questions MCOI followed the flow of the historical, grammatical context to come to a conclusion. It isn’t really a matter of whether our interpretation should be accepted but rather were we faithful to the main, plain understanding of the passage and should what it teaches be accepted?