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Paul warned the elders of the church in Ephesus, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you…and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).

These “twisted things” often were not outright denials of the Bible. Rather, they were Scripture reinterpreted to fit the widely accepted beliefs of the culture.

More theological battles have been lost to enemies inside the church than to those outside. The evil one has targeted us for deception. Nothing less than the welfare of God’s people is at stake.

Paul also wrote, “If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing” (1 Timothy 6:3-4).

Why is false doctrine connected with conceit? A proud person elevates self over God, believing he is smarter than God’s Word and can improve on it.

In reality, we can’t change what is and isn’t true, but the truth can and should change us. As Christ the living Word is truth, so His written word is truth. Though heaven and earth will pass away, God’s truth never will. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).

In a recent post, I shared Joe Carter’s article on Broken Wolves. Today’s guest post is a follow-up to Joe’s article from Kevin DeYoung, one of my favorite bloggers. He offers some important points to consider about false teachers:

What Can Church History Teach Us About Wolves?

By Kevin DeYoung

Last week Joe Carter (not that Joe Carter) published an insightful article on the allure of broken wolves. It got me thinking about false teachers in the history of the church.

And by “false teacher” or “wolf” I don’t mean everyone who disagrees with me on a point of theology. As a Presbyterian, I think Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals are wrong about some important things, but deviating from Westminster Confession of Faith does not make you another Arius or Pelagius. A false teacher or a wolf is someone who snatches up sheep (John 10:12), draws disciples away from the gospel (Acts 20:28), opposes the truth (2 Tim. 3:8), and leads people to make shipwreck of the faith and embrace ungodliness (1 Tim. 1:19-20; 2 Tim. 2:16-17).

Several years ago I did a series on heresies and heretics. Preparing the messages helped me understand church history better and more carefully articulate the orthodox faith. It also helped me notice some patterns (and non-patterns) related to false teachers. I discovered that church history can teach us a lot about wolves.

1. Wolves don’t usually know they’re wolves.

While some false teachers are knowing hypocrites who borrow religious language to fleece the flock, most errors in church history have been promoted by those who sincerely thought they were doing the work of God. As far as we can tell, Pelagius was not a big jerk. The Donatists were entirely earnest about the faith. We shouldn’t think that wolvish teachers and bloggers are trying to lead the sheep astray. People can be entirely sincere and still genuinely mistaken.

2. Wolves can quote the Bible.

It’s hard to know for sure what ancient heretics were like because most of what we know about them comes from the orthodox opponents writing against them. And yet, judging by the controversies left behind, we can assume that Arius knew his Bible. The Trinitarian and Christological debates of the early church, not to mention the soteriological controversies of the Reformation, involved people on both sides quoting Scripture. That doesn’t mean every viewpoint was right. It means that theology can come with Bible verses and still be wrong.

3. Wolves tend to be imbalanced.

Imbalanced may not be the right word. I’m not suggesting truth is always the golden mean between obvious extremes. What I mean is that false teachers have a tendency to let the big themes of Scripture silence specific verses. Wolves ignore the whole counsel of God. They like to take themes like love or justice or hospitality or law or grace and then round off all the edges of Scripture to fit this one big idea. The problem is not in trumpeting glorious truths. The problem is that their understanding of the truth gets truncated, and the application of the truth gets one-dimensional. This often leads to unbiblical conclusions that can sound biblical. Such as: If God is love, then we can’t have hell or moral demands that make me (or my friends) feel uncomfortable or unfulfilled. If Jesus ate with sinners, then we should not be overly concerned about sin. If God is sovereign over all things, then we shouldn’t evangelize. General truths pressed through to unbiblical conclusions.

4. Wolves are impatient with demands for verbal clarity.

False teaching thrives on ambiguity. It eschews careful attention to words and definitions. The Arians were willing to live with doctrinal imprecision. It was Athanasius and the orthodox party that insisted on defining terms. And they insisted on saying not just what was right but what was wrong. Good shepherds are willing to define and delimit. Don’t trust teachers who love to emote more than they love to be clear.

5. Wolves come in different shapes and sizes.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to settling theological disputes. We will not be discerning if we imagine that false teachers are always Pharisees or always libertines. Or if we assume they are always too rigid or always too loose. Sometimes the truth is either/or: there is only one God, salvation is by faith alone, there is no other name under heaven. But sometimes the truth is both/and: one God in three persons, fully God and fully man, divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Sometimes error comes because we pay insufficient attention to an important issue. At other times, the problem is wasting time on “foolish controversies.”

We can’t solve all our problems the same way. We can’t always assume the more conservative answer is the best, or that the liberal answer is always true.  If we are flexible in some places, it doesn’t mean we should be flexible in every place. If we are rigid over there, it doesn’t mean we need to be just as rigid with this issue over here. Wolves and false teachers don’t know how to use wisdom to settle different disputes in different ways.

Kevin DeYoung is the Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, right across the street from Michigan State University. He has been the pastor there since 2004.

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commented on Jul 13, 2017

In one respect, Kevin has said very little about wolves other than that they come in all shapes and sizes. But this is itself useful because others unhelpfully believe you can easily identify wolves eg from their smooth man-pleasing style. (In fact too many wolves are man-haters, keeping their flock in fear with rigid strictures) Where Kevin does specify characteristics of wolves, I think he may be wrong. In his para 3, I agree 'imbalance' is the wrong word, indeed it is an essentially subjective notion - Jesus was after all radically imbalanced. Kevin elaborates saying that wolves tend to allow themes to 'silence' specific verses. But surely wolves often use specific verses as proof texts against gospel themes. In para 4, Kevin suggests that wolves hide behind ambiguity. But one man's ambiguity is another man's antinomy. I often hear that God's sovereignty and man's free will must be held in 'tension' which I might say is simply hiding behind an ambiguity If the early church were primarily, though not solely, facing heresies about the person of Christ, I think we now face heresies about (i) the work on Christ (on the cross) and (ii) the 'work' (or otherwise) of the Christian man, and (iii) the work of the Holy Spirit. On (i) we still have the very real debate about atonement theories and whether they can be reconciled as easily as people suggest, and on (ii) we face not just the crass heresy of legalism but, more dangerously, the subtle heresy of covenantal nomism (starting by the Spirit and continuing in the flesh - Gal 3.3, hardly ever preached on) I think the label of 'antinomian' is used too quickly of some, often by nomists. If I were to hear teachings that were generally anitnomian, I think i would recognise them much more easily than the many shades of teachings that are nomist/legalistic. I think we know that the Law sends us to Christ, but we then take people from Christ back to the Law because we don't entrust people to Jesus and to His Holy Spirit to perfect the faith He has authored. In fact, with respect to (iii), we now have a very withered pneumatology, relying on an infused dollop of battery-power grace to enable us to become improved old men, rather than a new creation. I now know I will be labelled 'antinomian' though I have taught no such thing

commented on Jul 13, 2017

For some reason, all paragraphing has been lost in mine above. Where I write 'simply hiding behind an ambiguity', there should then be a new paragraph starting 'If the early church...'

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