Pastors cannot avoid being theologians and apologists. Perhaps theologian and apologist did not appear on the job application, but as a teaching leader in the church, the pastor has the sacred duty of instructing the flock in the living truths of the faith and defending these truths from false teachers and false doctrines. This posture may be uncomfortable in a day when many are both easily offended and seldom instructed in the things of the Lord. Yet the church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), and its teachers are called to speak “as oracles” for God (1 Peter 4:11). Therefore, sounding forth truth against error is non-negotiable.
Pastors must speak this “truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), because speaking truth without love becomes arrogance, and speaking love without truth becomes squishy sentimentalism. “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). After considering a passage from Paul, I will offer some advice on how pastors can better discern false teachings and edify their congregations with biblical truth.
Paul exhorts his young friend Timothy to guard the Gospel and to refute those who oppose it. “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (2 Timothy 1:13-14).
After discussing those who have distorted Christian teaching by claiming the resurrection had already occurred, Paul writes:
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 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: 23-26).
Some issues are not worth addressing from the pulpit, since their foolishness is not amenable to argument, and preaching time is better spent on other matters. Flat earth adherents are in this category, despite their growing popularity (fueled by the Internet). Paul instructs Timothy to take up more consequential matters in a spirit of gentleness (see also 1 Peter 3:16). The stakes are high, and the matter is serious when it comes to false teaching. Those who deny essential biblical teachings have been “trapped by the devil,” who has overpowered them. Twisting the Gospel is so serious that Paul warns the Galatians strongly:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Galatians 1:8-9).
Those who teach false gospels may be persuasive and seem godly. Paul also warns the Corinthians of these counterfeits.
For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
Given these warnings, how might pastors equip themselves to know and teach biblical truth and be aware of defections from it?
First, pastors should pray earnestly for doctrinal discernment (James 1:5). We cannot take it for granted that we are standing for truth and are aware of theological errors. Searching their hearts and bringing themselves fully before God as living sacrifices, pastors must not be conformed to the fallen patterns of this present darkness (Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 6). Every pastor should likewise receive prayer support from his congregation. The Apostle Paul was not so great as to forgo his need for prayer.
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should (Colossians 4:2-4).
Second, although pastors are often overburdened with duties apart from Bible study, they should guard their time to give adequate attention to careful study of God’s living and active Word (Hebrews 4:12). Pastors need more than an office; they need a study. I recently asked a very intellectual pastor if he had time for sufficient study. He gladly remarked that one of his elders helped “guard his time” by making sure others did their share of ministry. We need more elders of this stripe. As Paul writes in the context of defending the Gospel against false teaching, “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; see also Titus 2:7-8).
Finally, pastors must be aware of theological falsehoods. Biblical studies that produce sound doctrine involve developing a knowledge of what is true and what is false. This can be done in two ways. First, God has preserved His truth through the history of the church’s disputes with heretics. Studying church history helps ground a pastor in the contrast between orthodoxy and heresy. Bruce Shelley’s modern classic, Church History in Plain Language, is worthy of study as is Robert Bowman’s Orthodoxy and Heresy. Second, pastors can consult evangelical ministries that specialize in doctrinal discernment, ethics, and apologetics. I have written for The Christian Research Journal for over thirty years, which specializes in these matters. Many of their wide-ranging articles are free online, but their magazine is well worth a subscription.
The journal is sponsored by the Christian Research Institute, founded by Walter Martin in 1960. Martin’s book, The Kingdom of the Cults, was a landmark book on cult apologetics and remains a significant resource. I cut my cult-apologetics teeth on it in the late 1970s. Ron Rhodes has many books on cults and false doctrine, which are apologetically engaged, biblically thorough, and theologically sound. As a young man, I wrote a number of books that critiqued the New Age movement (which is still with us, sadly), such as Unmasking the New Age (1986) and Confronting the New Age (1988).
Pastors must be theologians and apologists in this world awash in false doctrine, theological confusion, and spiritual deception. As shepherds of the church, they must guard the flock. They must shoulder the duty and take up the privilege of being truth-tellers about what matters most. No one should expect popular culture or liberal Christianity to rise to that titanic challenge.