By Dr. Robert Lightner
The following article, written by Dr. Robert Lightner, was originally published in Foundation magazine, Volume 39, Issue 1.
Long before the canon of Scripture was completed, heterodoxy, or false doctrine, was evident. The fact is, as soon as God’s truth was given, it was distorted and opposed by some. Wherever on earth there has been truth, there has also been error. It is the mixture of the two that causes the greatest problem. The pages of Scripture and the record of secular history both verify these truths.
The longer error is condoned, the easier it becomes to compromise the truth. Somehow a conditioning process goes on. An unhealthy toleration of false doctrine usually leads to accommodation to it to one degree or another. When that which is false is left unchecked, unexposed, or unopposed, it gradually appears to be less and less objectionable to more and more people. It loses its true character and looks more and more like merely a weak and watered down form, a less desirable option than the truth to be sure, but not the falsehood it really is and was once thought to be.
At the turn of the century, J. Gresham Machen, a great stalwart of orthodoxy, apparently sensed this was what was happening to many in his day in their understanding of what liberal theology really was. He spoke to the issue most eloquently and pointedly in his classic Christianity and Liberalism. The major thesis of this champion of the faith was that theological liberalism was not in any sense a form or variety of orthodox theology. He insisted it must not be viewed as partly Christian and partly non-Christian. Rather, it was to be seen as non-Christian, heterodox, and anti-Christ, he insisted.1 Machen put it bluntly when he wrote about the modern liberalism of his day. He said it was to be criticized “on the ground that it is unchristian and on the ground that it is unscientific.… Despite the use of traditional phraseology modern liberalism not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class of religions.”2 The reason for this bold assertion was that classic liberal theology rejected and ridiculed belief in the supernatural Christ of Scripture and the supernatural Scripture of Christ.
Other great defenders of the faith shared Machen’s views. Arno C. Gaebelein, for instance, argued strongly that “modernistic” Christianity was “the most dangerous infidelity true Christians had ever faced before.”3
On the heels of the collapse of the old liberal theology of Machen’s day with its deification of man and humanization of God came Neo-Orthodoxy. This was built upon the same foundation of the Higher Critical theory of the Bible. Combined with this and in response to it, there has arisen in our day a new contemporary liberal theology. This new liberalism also rests solidly upon the very same foundation of older classic liberalism. The new breed, however, speaks with more respect of Christ and the Bible. Nevertheless, what we have today is the very same denials of old pre-war classic liberal theology in a new costume. The wrapping has changed, but the content of the package is for all intent and purpose the same.
David Wells has accurately summarized the present state of affairs in these words: “The old doctrine affirmations, the confessions of faith from the period of classical orthodoxy as well as the creeds from the patristic period that sought to summarize biblical truth, are now typically considered naïve and completely out of date. They no longer serve as the means for defining what should be confessed, even if they are retained for liturgical purposes. The whole idea of confession, in consequence, has shifted from truth with an external and objective referent to intuition which is internal and subjective.”4
How then is the Bible-believing child of God to respond to false doctrine today? What should the response of those who embrace and seek to obey the Bible be toward departure from the historic orthodox Christian faith?
The Word of God does give instruction about how the child of God is to respond to false doctrine. Five scriptural realities must be faced by those who accept the Bible as their infallible rule of faith and practice. Just what does the Bible have to say about false teaching, and how should those who embrace truth respond to it?
Prediction of False Teachers and False Doctrine
Jesus warned His disciples of those who “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7:15). Repeatedly, He alerted His own of the false teaching of the religionists of His day. He was quick to tell His own that false teachers would come and would increase in the future. “For many shall come in My name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many” (Matt. 24:5).
With a pastor’s heart, Paul put the Ephesian Christians on alert concerning the savage wolves who would come in among them and seek to destroy the flock. They would “enter in among you, not sparing the flock,” he said (Acts 20:28-32). The apostle did the same for the believers at Corinth so they would not be led astray “from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3-4). He knew some were preaching “another Jesus.” The saints in Galatia needed the same warning since some of them were already following after “another (a different) gospel” (Gal. 1:6). He is “accursed” (Gal. 1:9), Paul said of all who teach a false gospel.
Timothy, the young preacher, was told that “in the latter times some shall depart from the faith” (1 Tim. 4:1), that is, they would fall away from the truth. Those who do would give heed to the “doctrines of devils.” Like Hymenaeus and Alexander, who had already made “shipwreck” of the faith, others would arise and do the same (1 Tim. 1:19-20).
“Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines,” the saints addressed in the book of Hebrews were exhorted (Heb. 13:9). Peter (2 Pet. 2:1) and John (1 Jn. 4:1) both reminded the people of God whom they served about “false prophets.”
Command to Separate
That false teachers and teachings were present already in the early church and would continue and even increase in the last days is a clear teaching of Scripture. Specific commands are also given in Scripture instructing the child of God to separate from these false teachers and this false doctrine.
The child of God is told to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness,” but instead he should “reprove” or expose them (Eph. 5:11). The word “fellowship” carries the idea of being “a just partner with.” The command seems clear enough. Eadie’s comment on the meaning is to the point: “A line of demarcation was to separate the church from the world; and not only was there to be no participation and no connivance, but there was in addition to be rebuke.”5
Those who had only a form of godliness but denied its power Timothy was told to avoid (2 Tim. 3:5). The phrase “turn away” is in the present tense and the imperative mood and therefore represents a command to continue to turn away from false doctrine. All who name the name of Christ are to abstain from wickedness (2 Tim. 2:19). Those who teach and promote false doctrine are likened to vessels of dishonor by Paul. The obedient believer who cleanses himself from such is described as a “vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the Master’s use” (2 Tim. 2:21). “Purge” from Ekkaqairw means to cleanse, to clean thoroughly. “Timothy is to separate himself from communion with ‘these,’ the vessels of dishonor spoken of in verse 20. . . . The reference here is to the separated life a Christian should live. Here it has direct application to the obligation of a pastor to refuse to fellowship in the work of the ministry with another pastor who is a Modernist.”6
Christians at Corinth were charged with the solemn responsibility to be apart from idolatry and idol worshippers (2 Cor. 6:14-16). The principle of separation from error of any kind cannot be removed from this passage. The command was unmistakable: “Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you” (v. 17). From verse 14 through verse 16 Paul made several references to Old Testament passages where the truth of separation from false teaching is taught. With verse 17 he draws practical implications from the truth that believers are the temple of the living God. “The older shrines were separated off from the world around them: so the Christians must be spiritually and morally withdrawn from the pagan society in which they have to live. Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians to make this withdrawal is given in words originally spoken by God to His people through Isaiah when He called them out of exile. They were to leave in Babylon everything that was unclean, taking only the sacred vessels of the temple, so that they might continue to be a people whom God could receive, i.e., whom He could look upon with favour (see Isa. 52:11).”7
God, through the apostle Paul, pronounced a curse upon those who proclaimed a false gospel (Gal. 1:8-9). It would seem to follow then that the child of God should not be in fellowship with that which stands under the judgment of God. Surely those who reject such foundational doctrines as the absolute deity of Christ and the divine authority of the Bible do not stand in God’s favor but rather are under His disfavor and judgment.
The apostle of love also had some strong words of exhortation for the believer in regard to his relation to false doctrine. John’s chief concern was with the Person and work of Christ. He said, “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God” (2 Jn. 9). In this way he made clear the total falsity of the view he described. But what is to be the believer’s response to such false teachers and teaching? Of such a one John said, “Receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed” (v. 10). An official coming may have been in view and not just a casual visit from a stranger. To disobey the injunction was to share in the false teacher’s evil deeds (v. 11).
There is an interesting contrast to the above in 3 John. There the apostle wrote of the need for believers to receive the faithful believers who were itinerate evangelists so that “we might be fellowhelpers to the truth” (3 Jn. 8). This is the exact opposite response that the believer is to have toward false teachers. In 3 John the fellow believer is to welcome and give hospitable support in contrast to the avoidance taught in 2 John.
The biblical teaching seems clear enough. The issue of separation from apostasy is settled for those who claim allegiance to the Word of God. The believer’s responsibility is now to obey. And that is not always easy to do; yet God expects His children to obey.
An example of disregard of this teaching is to be found in an effort to have Protestant evangelicals and Roman Catholics join hands in the task of world evangelization. Two major contentions of the group led by the late Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries and Father Richard John Neuhaus provide the reason for the new effort. One is that for too long, division between these two groups have obscured Christ and the one mission which both share. Also, there has been “proselytizing” and “sheep stealing” which, it is argued, must cease.
To think that Protestant evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church both give the same allegiance to Christ and both share the same mission is simply not true. The goal of this new agreement between Protestant evangelicals and Roman Catholics is to “affirm together,” “hope together,” “search together,” “consent together,” and “witness together.”8
Throughout the document discussed above there is a startling omission of any serious discussion of two very important doctrines which have always divided Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. The sincerity of the framers of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the 3rd Millennium” is real and obvious throughout its paper. This must be lauded. However, for whatever reason, those who formulated the statement, and apparently those who signed it, overlooked the two most basic differences between Rome and the Reformers which differences have always divided the two, still divide them, and probably will continue to divide them unless evangelical theology capitulates to Rome. There are some signs that the latter has already begun.
What are these two cardinal doctrines? They are sola Scriptura and sola fide. These are what compelled Luther to pen and post his 95 Theses on the door in Wittenberg.
Rome, at the time of the Reformation, did not reject the authority of Scripture, but she did not believe that only, sola, the Bible was authoritative. Tradition was elevated to the same level as Scripture. Neither did Rome reject salvation by faith at the time of the Reformers. What she did reject was that salvation was by faith alone, sola. Human works were elevated to the same level as faith.
Both of these errors are still embraced by the Roman Catholic church today. There has not been any change in Rome’s view of these two cardinal doctrines. Therefore, for evangelicals to cooperate with Rome in propagating the “gospel” is to compromise the faith at the most basic level.
A more difficult biblical truth for many to accept and obey is separation from Christian brothers who persist in walking in disobedience. God’s Word addresses the question of the believer’s fellowship with other believers who embrace false doctrine. Two passages bear especially on this point: 1 Corinthians 5:13 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6.
The Corinthian Christians were told in a clear, unmistakable command to “put away from among yourselves that wicked person” in their assembly who was guilty of immorality and refused to confess it (1 Cor. 5:13). The person guilty of the sin was called “wicked” and was to be removed from them (v. 13). The saints at Thessalonica were told also to “withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (2 Thess. 3:6).
“Paul enjoins them to remove themselves from such. The verb stellesthai was used earlier in its history for such activities as furling sails. It signifies the withdrawing into oneself, a holding oneself aloof from the offender in question. This is not to be done in a spirit of superiority. The appeal to brotherliness shows that it is part of a man’s duty to the brotherhood that he should not condone the deeds of any who, while claiming the name of brother, nevertheless denies by his actions what the brotherhood stands for.”9
Interestingly, when Paul wrote to the same Christians in Corinth and Thessalonica concerning two specific doctrines which were being denied by some among them, he did not command the faithful to separate. Some in the church at Corinth were denying the doctrine of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12). The Thessalonian Christians were being taught that the predicted Day of the Lord was already present. They were being deceived (2 Thess. 2:2-3). And yet in neither of the above cases was separation from those teaching the false doctrine taught. This leads us to ask two questions. First, must God tell us to separate from brethren holding false doctrine every time He gives revelation about the subject? Second, over which doctrines of the faith are we to break fellowship with other believers? The Bible does not give specific answers to either one of these questions. However, in response to the first we do know God only needs to tell us anything one time for it to be true.
Proper Attitude in Separation1
Too often, separatists forget that the biblical doctrine of separation is both positive and negative. The time sequence of these opposites is imperative. Unless there is first of all separation unto God, all separation from apostasy will be meaningless. The scriptural commands to “earnestly contend for the faith” (Jude 3), to “hold fast the form of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) refer to the body of truth committed to us and not to our own personal views. This requires complete dedication to the Lord and His Word. Determination to defend an organization or one’s own views often replaces the command to contend and “continue in the faith grounded and settled” (Col. 1:23) and to abound in the “work of the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Opposition to and separation from something is indeed often accomplished by a lack of love, humility, and prayer toward those ensnared in false doctrine. Human nature is such that it is easier to lash out at someone than it is to love, easier to be harsh and to hate the erring one than it is to be humble in spirit, and easier to pronounce judgment than it is to pray for those in error. Yet Scripture clearly reveals that we should exercise love for those from whom we separate, love for God and His truth and not for our own selves (1 Tim. 1:5). Prayers are to be made for all men, even those who hold false doctrine and oppose God’s Word. Humility should characterize those who seek to restore one “overtaken in a fault,” whatever that trespass may be (Gal. 6:1).
Because some fail to manifest love, prayer, and humility as they preach and practice separation from false doctrine, an erroneous connotation has been created in the minds of many. Unfortunately, separation from false doctrine is not seen as a biblical doctrine because surely a loveless, prayerless, and proud attitude is not condoned in the Bible. True, a bitter and harsh attitude, a failure to pray for enemies of Christ, and pride are wrong. But because these attitudes are sometimes associated with some who separate from apostasy does not make the doctrine of separation unbiblical. What is needed in these days of church-union attempts and widespread adherence to false doctrine is simple obedience to the commands of God—obedience not only to separate from these but also to be completely separated unto God. This latter separation in turn will create within the separatist the biblical attitudes of love, prayer, and humility. The fact is, the commands of Scripture to separate are not completely obeyed until those qualities characterize the believer. Paul put it bluntly when immediately after his exhortation against false doctrine he said, “Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, of faith unfeigned” (1 Tim. 1:5).
Purpose of Separation
First and foremost, obedience to the Word of God is the purpose of separation from false doctrine. That is a given. Are there any other answers to the question, Why separate? Yes there are. Here are three which I consider major. First, both God and His Word are honored when the child of God obeys. It is a privilege and honor to submit to Scripture and the God of Scripture. Second, obedience to the exhortations of Scripture to separate from false teachers and their teachings also provides a means of defending the doctrinal purity of the church and its testimony. When the church departs from its biblical mandate, it really has no reason to exist. The Holy Spirit of God desires to work through the people of God to restrain sin and Satan’s work in the world. This cannot be fully effective where there is compromise and alliance with those who reject and are opposed to the truth of God.
Third, there is at least one more purpose of separation from false doctrine. Erring brethren can be helped and even restored when the Scripture command to separate is obeyed. Those who are older in the faith have the responsibility to show to the new and immature Christian the seriousness of their faith. Affiliation with the enemies of the cross spells a lie to all who claim to believe the truth.
Francis Schaeffer bluntly stated the issue of the believer’s responsibility toward false doctrine and those who promote it: “Thus it must be said that in spite of (and even because of) one’s commitment to evangelism and cooperation among Christians, I can visualize times when the only way to make plain the seriousness of what is involved in regard to a service or an activity where the gospel is going to be preached is not to accept an official part, if men whose doctrine is known to be an enemy are going to be invited to officially participate. In an age of relativity the practice of truth when it is costly is the only way to cause the world to take seriously our protestations concerning truth. Cooperation and unity that do not lead to purity of life and purity of doctrine are just as faulty and incomplete as an orthodoxy which does not lead to a concern for, and a reaching out towards, those who are lost.”11
1 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian Guardian, 1923).
2 Ibid., p. 7.
3 Arno C. Gaebelein, The Conflict of the Ages (Arno C. Gaebelein, Inc., 1933), p. 64.
4 David F. Wells, No Place for the Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), p. 118.
5 John Eadie, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), p. 382.
6 Kenneth Wuest, The Pastoral Epistles in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952), pp. 139-140.
7 R. V. G. Tasker, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), pp. 99-100.
8 The key document upon which this new effort is based is “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” dated March 29, 1994. Thirty-nine scholars and Christian leaders endorsed this 25-page statement. Some of the better known signers were Colson, Neuhaus, Pat Robertson, J. I. Packer, Os Guinness, Kent Hill, Richard Land, John White, Bill Bright, Avery Dulles, John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop Francis Stafford, Bishop Carlos Sevilla, George Weigel, and Michael Novak.
9 Leon Morris, The Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), p. 144.
10 The following is taken in part from the author’s Church Union (Des Plaines, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 1971), pp. 128-129.
11 Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Chicago: Intervarsity Press, 1968), p. 169.