Paul charges Timothy to “guard the good deposit” (2 Tim. 1:14), which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’re to remain vigilant in guarding the gospel because both the Scriptures and also church history remind us that many have swerved from the truth. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament reveals that upholding the truth and the purity of the gospel has been a challenge from the beginning. We aren’t facing anything new in our day, and we have the promise that the church of Jesus Christ will triumph over “the gates of Hades” (Matt. 16:18).
In this article I want to briefly consider threats to the gospel—from the left and from the right.
Dangers from the Left
Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders is the only speech in Acts addressed to Christians (Acts 20:17–35), and it’s significant that it’s addressed to leaders, to the elders and overseers in the church (Acts 20:17, 28). Paul warns them in the strongest terms about the danger of false teaching:
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Men will rise up even from your own number and distort the truth to lure the disciples into following them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for three years I never stopped warning each one of you with tears. (Acts 20:28–31, CSB)
As evangelicals we need to be alert to the danger of false teaching. Anyone who knows the history of religious universities in the United States knows that the declension from orthodoxy began with doubts about—and then rejection of—Scripture’s truthfulness.
Some might be inclined to question the concern for orthodoxy and doctrinal fidelity that animates many evangelicals. They might complain that such concerns are defensive and negative instead of positive and constructive. But any reading of the New Testament shows that such defensive concerns are fitting and imperative. We see Paul defending the truth ardently against false teachers in the Pastoral Epistles. Peter shares the same concern in his second letter, and 1 John also engages in a polemic against false teachers.
Indeed, the focus on defending the faith in the New Testament letters is emphatic and almost startling. If someone were to say that their ministry is only positive and never negative, that they only encourage and never warn, then they’ve strayed from a major emphasis in the New Testament. In Titus 1:9, Paul says an elder must “hold to the faithful message as taught, so that he will be able both to encourage with sound teaching and to refute those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
A faithful ministry encourages and warns, strengthens and refutes, builds up and tears down.
The danger from the left is that concern for orthodoxy is lost, that the task of defending and correcting truth is abandoned. The tendency is to mock and ridicule those who uphold the truthfulness and inerrancy of Scripture.
At the same time, there is a danger from the right as well.
Dangers from the Right
Even though Roger Olson and I would disagree on a number of matters, I think he rightly warns us about “maximal conservatism.” Maximal conservatism draws lines on virtually everything. Defending the faith is understood as holding the most conservative position on every issue. The danger is that we become like the Pharisees who erected a fence around the law.
Many examples could be given, but we can think of the debate between those who are Reformed and those who are Arminian. I’m unapologetically Reformed soteriologically, and I think Arminian teaching is defective. Still, there’s a difference between being defective and being heretical, and I gladly acknowledge that Arminians are within the circle of orthodoxy. Indeed, the word “Arminian” is anachronistic, for Arminian theology has a long history. Anyone recognizes this who has read John Chrysostom (AD 347–407), and if Chrysostom isn’t orthodox, then the number of those who are orthodox is few indeed!
It’s tempting to charge someone we disagree with of being unbiblical and unfaithful when the debate we’re having is actually within the circle of evangelicalism—whether the matter is spiritual gifts, the doctrine of the Trinity, or counseling. All of us, of course, are unbiblical and unfaithful to some extent, unless we want to say that our doctrine is perfect. Beware of charging that someone is outside the bounds of orthodoxy when in fact the only issue is that they disagree with you.
Such zeal on the right can actually drive people away from the truth, because if we charge them with being unorthodox (when they aren’t), they may begin to find friends on the left who don’t caricature their views. Or, they might begin to think, Well, if that’s orthodoxy, then I guess I’m not orthodox. If the lines are drawn too rigidly, we might unwittingly throw friends into the arms of those who are truly unorthodox.
Also, if we regularly condemn as unorthodox those who are orthodox, we’re in danger of crying “wolf!” When the real wolf comes, no one pays attention to us anymore, because we’ve so often criticized others. If we’re negative about everything except our own views, people will begin to think we’re cranky and will ignore us when there’s a real problem.
The devil is in the details, and in a short article like this I can’t get into specifics. We live in a world, as we see in the political realm, where those who disagree are quickly demonized, where partisan concerns are ramped up. As Christians, we mustn’t follow the same path. We need to be vigilant for the truth and to defend the faith. At the same time, we need to be careful about drawing lines too tightly, and to beware of pulling out the heresy charge too quickly. We need to ask ourselves if the brother or sister simply disagrees with us and with our theology.
As Roger Nicole once said about some who were disputing, “They think they are Martin Luther, but what we really need is Martin Bucer.” The balance we need comes from putting both men together. In other words, we simultaneously need the vigilance for truth of a Martin Luther, and the love for peace and harmony of a Martin Bucer.