“12 And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. 13 “’I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’” Revelation 2:12-17
In picking back up our series on discernment (See: Discernment Now, Discernment Defined, Discernment Applied), which we paused while reviewing some things from the Desiring God conference, it seems logical to look next at the dangers of lacking discernment, specifically within the Church. There is a sense today that is prevailing within the modern everyday church that accepts any and everything published, spoken, sung, or written with the label of “Christian”. In fact, this lack of discernment is not something new, but instead is a prevailing attitude that dates back to biblical times. The Apostle Paul faced this in Galatia, “6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7), in Colossae, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ,” (Colossians 2:8) and warned of great apostasy within the Church as written in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 and 1 Timothy 4:1-3. Just as it was in Paul’s day, so it was with Augustine, Luther, Calvin, the Puritans, Whitfield, Spurgeon, and this battle rages on among professing Christians to this day. In fact, it was Spurgeon when faced with the “Downgrade Controversy” concerning the Church of England penned the following:
“We live in very singular times just now. The professing Church has been flattering itself that, notwithstanding all our divisions with regard to doctrine, we are all right in the main. A false and spurious liberality has been growing up which has covered us all, so that we have dreamed that all who bore the name of ministers were indeed God’s servants – that all who occupied pulpits, of whatever denominations they might be, were entitled to our respect, as being stewards, of the mystery of Christ. But, lately, the weeds upon the surface of the stagnant pool have been a little stirred up and we have been enabled to look down into the depths. This is a day of strife – a day of division – a time of war and fighting between professing Christians! God be thanked for it! Far better that it should be so than that the false calm shall any longer exert its fatal spell over us!”
Charles Spurgeon was exhorting the true Christians of his day to stand up and fight against those who professing the name of Christ had invaded churches and pulpits and were preaching those things contrary to the Gospel. Several hundred years before Spurgeon, John Calvin wrote, “A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.” The necessity to weed out those false teachers, writers, speakers, et.al has never been more necessary than today, because just as the Apostle Paul warned, apostasy will increase in latter days. Yet despite the battles fought by faithful men in the past, today our discernment within the Church has become so lax that false teaching is rarely recognized, though more often embraced. In his book The Truth War (review forthcoming), John MacArthur points out that “The Church today is quite possibly more susceptible to false teachers, doctrinal saboteurs, and spiritual terrorism than any other generation in Church history. Biblical ignorance within the Church may well be deeper and more widespread than at any other time since the Protestant Reformation.” He adds, “I am convinced that the greatest danger facing Christians today has infiltrated the Church already. Countless false teachers already have prominent platforms in the evangelical movement; evangelicals themselves are loath to practice discernment or question or challenge anything taught within their movement; and many leading evangelicals have concluded no doctrine or point of theology is worth earnestly contending for.” Our age of tolerance and acceptance has impacted Christianity to such extremes that to question or refute false teaching within the Church is to be considered antagonistic or divisive.
Which leaves us with 2 options, 1) Become more spiritually discerning, such that those who defile Christ will be identified and removed thereby instituting Church discipline or 2) Face the warning of Peter, “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” 1 Peter 4:17 I fear that we may instead face the latter and be joined with the likes of those at the Church of Pergamum mentioned above in the passage from Revelation
In this letter, which Jesus is instructing John to write, the church has compromised herself allowing heretical doctrines to invade. In verse 14 we read of those in the church holding to the “teaching of Balaam”, or that which the King James Version calls the “doctrine of Balaam” which is synonymous with the “doctrine of the Nicolaitans” mentioned in verse 15. John MacArthur identifies this teaching as the attempt of Balaam to prostitute his prophetic gift and curse Israel by having Moabite women seduce Israelite men into intermarriage resulting in a blasphemous union of Israel with fornication and idolatrous feasts. Interestingly, Jude, who specifically addresses contending for the faith against apostasy and false teaching, mentions this attack of false doctrine promoted by Balaam in verse 11 of his epistle.
In his commentary, Matthew Henry makes the following observation of the Church at Pergamum and subsequently those churches of today that lack discernment and have fallen prey to false teaching, “1) The filthiness of the spirit and the filthiness of the flesh often go together. Corrupt doctrines and a corrupt worship often lead to a corrupt conversation. 2) It is very lawful to fix the name of the leaders of any heresy upon those who follow them. It is the shortest way of telling whom we mean. 3) To continue in communion with persons of corrupt principles and practices is displeasing to God, draws a guilt and blemish upon the whole society: they become partakers of other men’s sins.” As Henry points out, corrupt doctrine, i.e. false teaching, infiltrates the Church in such a way that it corrupts not only teaching, but worship, and subsequently our interactions within the body. Likewise, he asserts that we who sit under false teaching are held accountable and therefore wear the label of the heresy of the leaders we follow.
Note again the warning of Jesus from the passage in Revelation, He is not singling out merely the leader of the Church, but the entire Church. He rebukes them and threatens war against them with the sword of His tongue unless they repent. Those that do he will absolve from guilt and restore communion. Discernment is not something to be taken lightly; it’s serious business when the Word of God is defamed and false doctrine is allowed to cultivate and spread within the Church. Not only are those that teach it held accountable, but those who sit under such teaching. Lack of discernment defiles the Church body from within and when it goes unchallenged as MacArthur points out, “breeds more confusion and draws still more shallow and insincere people into the fold.”
Therefore as Christians we have an obligation to develop spiritual discernment within ourselves and within our congregations. Even more so those in leadership positions have this responsibility as the Apostle Paul points out in Titus 1:9 to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Study the Word, devote yourself to it, “practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” 1 Timothy 4:15-16