Answering Jacobs’ Questions On False Teaching and Teachers


I think this is the standard blog image for false teaching posts. No watch-blogger should be without it.

What follows is a reply to the always-thoughtful Alan Jacobs who replied to Andrew Wilson who replied at TGC to his follow-up to a post by Steve Holmes after ETS. Go ahead and read those before proceeding.

Jacobs says Andrew has avoided the most important questions he raised about how we adjudicate disputes about sex ethics in the Church. Jacobs then lists five rather lengthy ones. Andrew has responded a bit on Twitter, but since I’ve gotten too big for my britches lately, I figured I’d give it a bit of a go myself.

First, though, I’ll answer as proposed, but I want to offer a re-situation or two at the end that I think matter. So do please stick around. 

Q & A on Protestant Problems

Jacobs #1: How do we distinguish between error in interpreting Scripture, which we are all guilty of, and “false teaching”?


But seriously, this basically goes back to the very old issue of establishing what deviations in teaching count as heresy as well as the importance of dogmatic rank (first tier, second tier, etc.) as a concept in theology. At that point, the question is sifting how nested a particular teaching is within the broader fabric of Christian theology, and what implications it has for our basic gospel confession. It’s not an easy one, but presumably the same process that is used for sifting through disputed matters in Christology can likely apply here as well.

It takes deep study of Scripture, discernment, listening to the Church through history, prayer, and patience. Because this teaching hasn’t been challenged for nearly 2,000 years of church history, we maybe haven’t had to explicitly draw all the lines between these doctrines, but the process is not new by a long shot. 

Jacobs #2: How do we distinguish between error in interpreting Scripture and sin? (Presumably not all errors are the product of sin, though some are.)

Again, carefully.

The problem is that the question is so fuzzy. Your error in interpreting Scripture might be a result of a willful desire to avoid what Scripture says–a somewhat conscious suppression of the truth a la Romans 1–or it might be much softer. Your sin may lie much farther back, layered over with broader plausibility structures, family dynamics, and personal histories that have levels of guilt within them, but are not directly leading you to twist the truth. Unraveling that mess takes more insight into the human heart than most of us have.

Now, I do think there are smaller, mid-level, “non-sinful” errors. But the question I wonder about for Jacobs is whether we are ever culpable for our “good-faith” beliefs? So we might, through a series of unfortunate educational events, come to believe the Bible teaches polytheism. And we believe this “honestly” and in “good faith.” This is an “error” in interpretation. All the same, this belief is materially gross idolatry and sin, despite the fact that you arrived at it in conscious honesty. The belief itself is what is objectionable and culpable beyond the processes by which you arrived at it and the earnestness with which you pursued the question. 

It takes care, then, but it seems that sort of judgment can and must be made at points.  

Jacobs #3: How do we distinguish between the accountability of those who promote erroneous interpretations and the accountability of those who believe those interpretations? (The argument that those who affirm same-sex unions are “leading people onto the highway to hell” implies that God will damn people for being badly catechized. That’s an implication that requires some scrutiny.)

As Andrew pointed out online, James 3 has some things to say about this. I would also think the pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, etc), which lay out the qualifications for elders and teachers in the church, do as well. Applied more broadly, theses might be expanded to include theology professors as “doctors” of the church.

The distinction between teachers and others matters and I’m glad Jacobs raised it. There is a great deal of difference between those who are confused in the pews and those doing the confusing. But honestly, I don’t think this is as complicated as Jacobs seems to imply by raising it as an issue Andrew has just brushed past. Presumably Andrew has a functional theology of teachers and eldership that’s in play. 

Beyond that, Jacobs raises the point that Andrew’s position might suggest that someone could end up damned because they were badly catechized. I think Jacobs has put the question badly and brought us back around again to the previous answer. Will people be held account because they were badly catechized, or rather is it because of the grievous practices they engaged in, in part, because they were badly catechized?

Yes, Scripture holds teachers to a higher account. But it seems to hold everyone to some account. God warns Ezekiel that he will be accountable for the blood of anyone he does not warn, but he never says that he will be accountable in the place of that person (Ezekiel 33). He will be accountable alongside them for the sin of not holding them accountable for the grievous sins he should have.  

Now, I do think Lewis’ comment in Mere Christianity likely is on the mark. God will judge us differently according to our time, place, upbringing, socio-historical context, and so forth. It’s plausible to think that for many in the pews, and even some in the pulpits, the intellectual conditions under which we live make certain errors more likely and less culpable than if they were made in other times and places. But not entirely.

This brings us to Andrew’s article listing out the various consequences for flagrant disobedience. The point wasn’t simply to argue against “antinomianism” in general, but rather to call attention to the fact that Scripture connects the violation of specific commands with the threat of disqualification from the kingdom of God in a way that presumably doesn’t violate sola fide, in which case Holmes’ appeal to it doesn’t quite settle the matter.

It may be that there is a different level of culpability in God’s sight for certain violations according to time, place, and so forth. But that’s not anything to bank on when we have very forceful, very direct texts on the subject.

Jacobs #4: While, as Andrew points out, there are many passages in Scripture that emphasize the importance of correcting erroneous teaching and calling out sinful behavior, under what circumstances may we say that someone who teaches error, or who commits certain sins habitually, is not a Christian at all and that we must say so? If we do believe that we can and should make this judgment, how then do we interpret the parable of the wheat and the weeds?

This question is a good one, but again, I’m somewhat puzzled by it, simply because it’s just the question, “How should we practice church discipline?” under a different form. It seems relevant to point out that the same Jesus who told the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13) is also the one who gave us instructions for how to deal with a sinful brother in the context of the Church and gave the disciples the power to bind and loose (Matt. 18). He also empowered his apostles to give some instruction on the matter (1 Cor. 5, etc.). I personally have found Calvin’s warnings against ecclesial perfectionism or libertinism to strike a pastoral and eschatologically-realistic balance (see the Institutes Book 4, chapters 1 & 2). 

Of course, these are prudential judgments on the basis of Scripture to be made with fear and trembling. What’s more, they’re best made in an ecclesial setting. And thankfully, most ecclesiastical traditions with ethicists, ecclesiologists, canon lawyers, etc. seem to have a lot of material on the books in that respect. 

Jacobs #5: Presumably those who denounce interpreters who affirm same-sex unions as false teachers who are leading people on the highway to hell would readily acknowledge that they themselves are sinners — but redeemed sinners; people not on the broad path that leads to destruction but on the narrow way that leads to salvation. How do they distinguish between their sins and those they are denouncing? Why does Jesus’s contrast between the speck in your brother’s eye and the long in your own not apply to them?

I think Jacobs muddies things a bit with a general appeal to “we’re all sinners” moving to “what makes your sin different from theirs?” There may be all sorts of things. Two seem particularly relevant.

The first is that those doing the denouncing may be sinners in all sorts of ways (arrogant, angry, boastful, etc) and yet not actually be teaching anybody to do such things. At least not explicitly. They may be awful examples, but given that the conversation is about false teaching, there is a relevant difference between being a glutton and an Arian. And so with respect to the charge of false teaching, that their sin is not a species of teaching (true or false) seems important.

The second and main answer to this question–and I do wonder somewhat at its status as a question and not a rhetorical jab–is whether those sins are being repented of or not. That’s probably the biggest and major difference between them. Hopefully the teachers who are doing the “denouncing” are not falling afoul of Paul’s warning in Romans 2 against hypocritical condemnation. 

In the context of teaching, that means that if someone comes to them and corrects them on a point of doctrine and interpretation where they are wrong, then they will repent, turn from this teaching, and teach something else. So if they find out about a speck or a log, hopefully they’re plucking it out–even if it feels like taking an eye–in order that they might not lead any of Christ’s little ones astray.

Of course, that doesn’t settle the question entirely, because we’re still left with the issue of “who says?”

But this is where I have to admit I’m just a bit puzzled over all the questions in general. For taken together they are essentially the question of Protestantism, Scripture, and ecclesial authority. They’re real questions, mind you. (And if you don’t mind, here’s a shameless plug for my advisor’s new book on just that issue!) But they’re not new by a long shot. I have a suspicion it’s mainly the pastoral difficulty of the presenting issue (sexual practice) that makes it seem very different and tempts us to pose them that way.

Warning Brothers Who Teach Falsely Against Becoming False Teachers

Now, I have been talking as if I am very strong and rigid and clear on all of this. In practice, I’m not really. I have friends and acquaintances that I love talking to and engaging who believe all sorts of things I disagree with–heresies, false teaching, variances of opinions, etc. I’m not very interested in running around and labeling them heretics, cutting them off, or wagging my finger at them. I like getting along and I haven’t found that waving a big stick is all that effective in conversation anyways. (Though, a good scrap from time to time…) 

I too am skittish about drawing a straight line between someone teaching something false and calling them a “false teacher” in an absolute sense–as if that is the determinative judgment upon them for now and into eternity. I’m reminded of the fact that Abraham Kuyper was once a resurrection-denying heretic in school and that gives me pause. It also gives me hope to patiently pray, argue, and engage with people I have profound disagreements with on serious issues. 

That said, my question for Jacobs is whether it’s possible for us to look our friends in the eye, the ones we honestly believe love Jesus deeply, and say, “Look, I’m not calling you a false teacher, but what you are teaching is false–dangerously so. And if you persist, if continue down this course, instructing others in this way, you will indeed be a false teacher. And that is a heavy thing for which God will hold you eventually accountable. This is not simply an ‘agree to disagree’ issue.” (Incidentally, that’s part of what was at issue in ETS having a panel that, intentionally or not, functionally treated the issue of same-sex relationships as if it was in that category.)

I think we have to be able to say something like this warning to our friends who are teachers, or we ignore the weight of the warnings against false teaching in Scripture. One text I have been thinking of is Romans 1. Not verses 26-28, but verse 32 which follows the broader vice list condemning the Gentiles, not only for practicing all the vices listed, but precisely because they “give approval to those who practice them.” It is against such things that Paul says the wrath of God is being revealed. 

Or again, I think of Galatians 2, a text which Jacobs rightly raises in his first post. He uses the example of Paul confronting Peter as an example of lovingly confronting someone in deep error, not walking in conformity with the gospel, but yet confronting him as a brother. I want to say that’s a good word and an excellent example.

But what I wonder about is what would have happened had Peter persisted in that error and enabled the Judaizers to mislead the sheep? What if Peter continued to refuse fellowship with the Gentiles even if only for fear of the Judaizers and not even agreement? Do we not think Paul would have eventually looked at him and said, “You are falling under the anathema of God for denying the Gospel and giving place to those who do” (Gal. 1:8-9)?

Those are the questions I’d be curious to see Jacobs answer. Indeed, they’re the questions all of us with teaching voices in the Church will eventually have to answer.

Soli Deo Gloria