By Mike Willis
In this lesson of this series, we intend to cite for our study the example of the conduct of the Apostles as models worthy of imitation. We shall call especial attention to some examples of conduct that are presently condemned by brethren with mistaken concepts about the proper work of a gospel preacher in exposing error and with mistaken concepts about the autonomy of the local church.
Typical of men’s mistaken concepts about the role of the apostles and other inspired men is the following quotation that I lifted from an e-mail that recently came to me: “I recognize that Elijah and Christ, as inspired men, were able to call false teachers’ names, and even make fun of them at times. There are no inspired men today who have that authority.” This argument clearly implies that one cannot refer to false teachers by name unless one is doing so under divine inspiration.
The Example of the Apostles in Exposing Error
The Apostles had to address the various false doctrines that threatened the first century church. Their conduct in addressing these false teachers is a model for our imitation. From a study of their conduct, we learn how to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7). We learn how to cast “down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bring(ing) into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” without resorting to using the weapons of carnal warfare (2 Cor. 10:4-5). Let us consider the example of the Apostles’ conduct.
1. The Apostle Peter. The Apostle Peter preached in Jerusalem the resurrection of Christ from the dead, which stirred up the Sadducees who insisted that he quit preaching Christ in Jerusalem. Peter refused to submit to their dictum and continued preaching in spite of their demanding that he quit (Acts 4:19). (Would the situation have been different had the ones demanding that Peter quit preaching been elders in a liberal church?) Later the high priest had Peter arrested, but even this did not stop his preaching (Acts 5:17-41).
Peter wrote one of the most scathing rebukes of false teachers found anywhere in the Bible (2 Pet. 2). He described these men:
But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not (2 Pet. 2:1-3).
. . . Presumptuous are they, selfwilled, they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities. Whereas angels, which are greater in power and might, bring not railing accusation against them before the Lord. But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption; and shall receive the reward of unrighteousness, as they that count it pleasure to riot in the day time. Spots they are and blemishes, sporting themselves with their own deceivings while they feast with you; having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin; beguiling unstable souls: an heart they have exercised with covetous practices; cursed children: which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but was rebuked for his iniquity: the dumb ass speaking with man’s voice forbad the madness of the prophet. These are wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest; to whom the mist of darkness is reserved for ever. For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped from them who live in error. While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage (2:10-19).
Could the things that Peter said about these false teachers be known only by inspiration, or can one also identify false teaching without inspiration, be able to perceive covetousness, lasciviousness, presumption, self-willed conduct, and such like things from observation? We know from experience that we can know these things in that manner as well. Can we, then, follow this apostle’s example and rebuke it in the manner that he did? Perhaps the better question is not “can we. . .” but “should we?”
The conduct of Peter with reference to the autonomy of the local church also needs to be considered. When the brethren at Jerusalem heard what had happened at Caesarea in the conversion of Cornelius, they contended with Peter about his conduct (Acts 11:2). Apparently, being an apostle did not carry so much clout that the brethren in Jerusalem were intimidated by it. Nor did “congregational autonomy” prevent them from asking what happened at Caesarea. When these brethren were convinced that Peter’s conduct was scriptural, they then held their peace (Acts 11:18).
Those who were scattered abroad from Jerusalem as a result of the persecution recorded in Acts 8 went as far as Antioch, Phenice, and Cyprus. In Antioch, brethren began preaching to Grecians. “Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch” (Acts 11:22). Did the brethren in Jerusalem violate the autonomy of the church at Antioch in sending someone to check out what was being done at Antioch? If brethren did the same thing today, some would react, “You are violating the autonomy of the local church!” Did the Jerusalem church have the right to commit sin (i.e., violate the autonomy of the local church) because it was the first church established and had apostles among its members? I remind you of what we have previously asserted: (1) “Being an apostle did not give one the right to commit sin (i.e., violate the autonomy of the local church).” (2) “The Apostles were not officers over a brotherhood of churches,” because there is no such thing as a brotherhood of churches! That being the case, surely one must conclude that some modern concepts of church autonomy are wrong.
2. The Example of Jude. Jude is probably the brother of Jesus, rather than the apostle who bore that name. Whereas Peter foretold the coming of the false teachers, Jude testifies to their having come. His words are so nearly the same as those of Peter, that some believe one borrowed from the other. He exhorted that the saints should “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (v. 3). He exhorted this for this reason: “For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 4). He went on to describe these men saying,
Likewise also these filthy dreamers defile the flesh, despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities. . . . But these speak evil of those things which they know not: but what they know naturally, as brute beasts, in those things they corrupt themselves. . . . These are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear: clouds they are without water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever. . . . These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage (vv. 8, 10, 12-13, 16).
He reminded the brethren that the apostles had previously foretold the coming of these men saying,
But, beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; how that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts. These be they who separate themselves (“divide you,” NIV), sensual, having not the Spirit (vv. 17-19).
Jude instructed the saints in how to salvage saints from their influence: “And of some have compassion, making a difference: and others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (vv. 22-23). In none of these texts did he imply that one should have an on-going and never-ending fellowship with those men who preached these false doctrines and were leading men’s souls into sin and, ultimately, damnation.
If I were to write about false teachers in the same terms as Jude used, some today would say, “You’re not an apostle.” But, then of course, neither was Jude! He was the brother of the Lord, not an apostle! They would react, “You’re not inspired.” Do we mean that inspired men were allowed to do things that, should we do the same today, are sinful? Do you mean that inspired men had the right to sin? “No! We don’t mean that,” they would reply. Then, their conduct was not sinful. It was righteous conduct to be imitated by other righteous, God-fearing men. The example of inspired men such as Jude was given for our instruction and learning, that we today might imitate them in how they addressed false doctrine and false teachers.
3. The Apostle John. This apostle is generally described as the “apostle of love” because he wrote so much about love. Yet, one would be hard pressed to find one who did more to attack the false teachers and false doctrines of his day than did John. In addition to the gospel which bears his name, this apostle wrote 1-3 John and Revelation.
In 1 John, the apostle wrote to correct the impression that one’s sins did not affect one’s relationship with the Lord (see 1:5-6). He insisted that one could know that he had fellowship with the Lord only as he abides in the commandments of the Lord (1:7; 2:3). He wrote, “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). This statement was not a judgment about the person’s personal integrity who said such (that is, he is not stating that he willfully and intentionally is telling a falsehood), but a comment about the truthfulness of his message. He judged these false teachers saying, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (2:19). They had departed from apostolic teaching and those who followed it.
A number of years ago, I made a similar statement about a brother who “went out from us.” Some brethren criticized my saying so, stating that I am not an apostle. Does it take inspiration to know whether or not a person has departed from apostolic teaching and those who follow it? If one has left us and is influencing others to go with him, should we imitate the example of the “apostle of love” and say about him what he said about those in his day?
John continued, “Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). Was John passing judgment on the moral integrity of these men when he described them as “liars”? He was not saying, “These men’s word cannot be trusted. They do not tell the truth. They are insincere, dishonest, immoral, and covetous.” Rather, he was saying, “Their message is not the truth.” John could know this about any teacher who denied the humanity of Christ and proceeded into gnostic teaching. We can know the same thing about those who deny the deity of Christ and proceed into modernism just as certainly. In John’s usage of the word, all such men are liars.
John further instructed his followers in how they could identify false teachers. “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother” (3:10). “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world” (4:1-3). “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (4:6). They could identify who these false teachers were without the need of divine inspiration. Being able to identify false teachers, they should follow the apostles’ example and oppose their false doctrines and sinful ways.
In 2 John 9-11, John commanded brethren not to have an on-going and never-ending fellowship with those who transgressed the doctrine revealed through Christ. He said, “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.”
In his book of Revelation, John directly confronted false doctrine and false teachers. He commended the church at Ephesus who, without having an apostle in its membership, “tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars” (2:4). He specifically stated that he and the church at Ephesus hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans (2:6). The specific mention of this religious group by name is no different from one of us saying, “I commend the brethren in Salt Lake city who hate the deeds of the Mormons, which I also hate.” Yet, some brethren would condemn a preacher for saying such a thing because he was not manifesting love. Some would even say, “You’re not an apostle.” But the “apostle of love” is the one who said this and his example is for our emulation!
John condemned the church at Pergamos saying, “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate” (Rev. 2:14-15). He condemned the religious “denomination” by name and condemned the local church, of which he was not a member, for having them in its membership. Were I to do the same thing today, I would be condemned on two counts: (a) not showing love; (b) violating congregational autonomy. Men would say, “You’re not an apostle.” Did being an apostle give one the right to sin by not showing love and by violating congregational autonomy? Surely, everyone can see that such an argument is erroneous.
John condemned the church at Thyatira saying, “Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols” (Rev. 2:20). This is a rather specific identification of someone at Thyatira who the brethren there would recognize as specifically condemned by John. He drew her picture in such a clear manner that they did not need for him to put her name on it for all to know of whom he was speaking. Can we follow this apostle’s example?
The main thrust of the book of Revelation is aimed at attacking another form of false worship of that day — emperor worship. He described this false religion under the image of the beast that comes out of the earth who “causeth the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast” (13:12). This false religion is described as being under divine judgment and sentence of damnation and death.
Can one know these things with reference to false religion only by inspiration? The purpose of 1 John was to let us know how we could know the same things about false religion and that without the present possession of miraculous, divine revelation. Having recognized something as false religion, can one follow the apostles’ example and treat false religion as they did? Were they guilty of sin in treating false religion and its proponents as they did? Of course not! Their conduct is recorded as divine guidance for all gospel preachers and brethren to know how to confront false doctrine.
We will conclude this series in the next article with a consideration of the example of the Apostle Paul.
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