A while back I posted a longish essay on the problem with “consequentialism” in doctrinal evaluations; essentially, how we should and shouldn’t use Jesus’s fruits test for recognizing false prophets (Matt. 7:15-20). Used as an evaluation of prophets, it eventually holds up, but as a test of doctrines and their fruits, the issue is trickier. I won’t repeat myself, but you can read it here.
This morning in my Scripture reading I remembered a text that makes a kindred point from a different angle: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:2-3). Jesus will go on to critique many of their actual doctrines, but his opening gambit concedes that much, if not most, of what the Scribes and Pharisees taught was doctrinally sound, but an empty confession. (One of the benefits of recent scholarship is highlighting just how close Jesus was to Pharisaic teaching in many respects.) They did not practice their teachings, nor did they teach in such a way as to enable others to enter in themselves. And yet, that did not mean their teachings were actually wrong through and through. Insofar as they sit in the chair of Moses and actually expound the Law truly, their false lives don’t actually invalidate the Law.
Similarly, Paul points out that “some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry” (Phil. 1:15). They have bad hearts. They strive for power, for position, possibly money, and clout. They don’t care sincerely about the gospel, they just want to strike at Paul while he’s in prison (1:17). What’s Paul’s response, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (1:18). He is unflappable. “Look, I know they’re trying to dunk on me, but they’re doing exactly what I’d love to be doing–getting the message of Jesus out–so I’m happy.” Don’t miss it–their bad motives, their sinful use of the gospel-preaching to try and get at Paul, doesn’t falsify their gospel. It’s still true no matter the bad faith of the preacher.
In a time when more than a few favored teachers sitting in the chair of Moses have taken a moral tumble, or have had their fleshly motives exposed, it’s worth remembering that neither morals nor motives actually make what is true false, any more than the good motives and sterling behavior of an Arian makes his doctrine true. There ought to be consistency between life and doctrine, but there is often not, and so the Scriptures warn us of this, giving us reason to cling to the gospel beyond the preacher, the message beyond the vehicle by which we have heard it.
Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that our faith really is in Christ alone.
Soli Deo Gloria