Being a pastor is demanding. It means many things and requires several gifts. Of course, a pastor is a teacher and preacher. But what kind of teacher and preacher?
Some think a pastor should never offend anyone or take hard stands on hard issues. Instead, the pastor’s role is to encourage and edify, not condemn or judge. Thus, pastoral teaching and preaching should comfort the afflicted, instruct the ignorant, and convict the wayward of sin so that they repent.
Indeed, pastors must do all of that, but there is more. Pastors must expose spiritual errors—even heresies—whether in the Church or in the world. That task may be unpopular, but it is necessary, especially when so much false teaching is prevalent in today’s culture.
Truth vs. error in the Church
Christianity is a religion of divinely revealed doctrine found in the Bible. As Paul tells Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17; see also 2 Peter 1:16-21). Notice that Paul says the Scripture is “useful” for “rebuking” and “correcting” (the negative) as well as for “teaching” and “training in righteousness” (the positive). In another place, Paul tells Timothy how to address errors in the church.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.Opponents must be gently instructed in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
Those who teach the Bible must master its contents and defend it against distortions. The best way to spot a counterfeit is to know the genuine article. But this must be done in kindness and not in anger. Paul again writes to Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). To handle the truth correctly entails that one also correctly refute what opposes the truth.
The Barna organization and others have told us for years that many who identify as evangelicals do not possess a biblical worldview. Moreover, it found that people blend biblical beliefs with beliefs contradicting the Bible’s teaching. Barna calls these people, who are more serious about their unbiblical, faith-held beliefs despite professing to hold the Bible in high regard, “Integrated Disciples.” A 2021 Barna-Cultural Research Center poll indicated that 25 percent of these people say there is no absolute moral truth. Thirty-three percent believe in karma. Thirty-one percent contend that the Holy Spirit is not a real, living being but is merely a symbol of God’s power, presence, or purity. Forty-two percent believe that having faith matters more than which faith you pursue. Fifty-two percent argue that people are basically good.”[i]
These beliefs are not biblical, and pastors must oppose them with biblical teaching and sound apologetics. If these numbers are even close to accurate, we need to ask why this is so. One reason is likely the lack of convictional but gentle teaching against theological errors. In a pluralistic cultural setting such as America today, it is too easy to mix and match beliefs by preference instead of testing beliefs against logic and Scripture. But as Francis Schaefer and Os Guinness have told us, “Contrast is the mother of clarity.”
Pastors can address these errors in two main ways.
Contrast is the mother of clarity
First, pastors should contrast biblical teaching with unbiblical teaching to highlight the truth through that contrast. The Apostle John does this repeatedly in his first letter:
If one affirms the incarnation, one is from God. If not, then one is not from God. It is categorical and clear, an either/or. Some cults calling themselves Christian, for example, deny Jesus is divine and consider him a created being. As such, they are not from God. Saying this is not hateful but needful if we want to honor God and warn his people by teaching God’s holy Word.
To give another example, if a pastor explains the gospel message of free grace received by faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9), that pastor can contrast this teaching with the idea that we grow spiritually through amassing good karma, which is a teaching of Eastern religions, not of the Bible. Similarly, suppose the teaching is about the resurrection of Jesus or the resurrection of believers (whereby the soul is united to its eternal body). In that case, the pastor can contrast that with the Eastern concept of reincarnation (whereby the soul comes back to earth in many different bodies).
Second, one can expose false teachings for what they are in themselves. When I was a young Christian in the mid-1970s, Dr. Jack MacArthur gave a series on the cults at First Baptist Church in Eugene, Oregon. He carefully explained the beliefs of these cults and refuted them biblically and logically. Here, he contrasted truth and falsity by exposing the false doctrine and then comparing it with true doctrine (Scripture). While the central teachings in Sunday services should be on Scripture and not on deviations from it, there is a place for teaching on error as error so that Christians will not be deceived by fine-sounding words from false religions designed for itching ears (Colossians 2:1-5; 2 Timothy 4:3; 2 Corinthians 11:14).
Courage in the pulpit from God
Jesus said that the truth would set us free (John 8:31-32). Yet people oppose, ignore, or obfuscate that saving truth daily. Those who speak as “oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11) must master the truth of Scripture and oppose whatever contradicts it. Being nice and positive is not enough; sometimes, it isn’t even called for. Ask John the Baptist! As Jesus warned, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). Sometimes the truth, even when spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15), will spark disagreement and resentment. So be it. As Jeremiah said of the false prophets, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). Let us cry out to the Holy Spirit of truth (John 14:16-17) to empower us to preach and teach the truth and to oppose error, come what may. To again quote Paul, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
After John teaches us to test the spirits cited above, he encourages us: “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
[i] George Barna, “American Worldview Inventory 2021 Release #6: What Does It Mean When People Say They Are ‘Christian’?” https://www.arizonachristian.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/CRC_AWVI2021_Release06_Digital_01_20210831.pdf