By Mike Willis
In this final article, we intend to look at the work of Paul in providing us examples for how one should conduct himself in his treatment of false teachers and in regard to church autonomy. We are doing so in order that we can follow “apostolic example” in dealing with error today. Some brethren wish to undermine the binding force of apostolic example by limiting certain conduct in addressing false teachers and false teaching to the apostles and by denying that uninspired men have the right to so address such matters.
Paul’s Conduct in Dealing With False Teachers
1. Elymas. One of the earliest works that Paul did in the first missionary journey was his opposition to Elymas who was trying to prevent Sergius Paulus from obeying the gospel. The Scriptures record Paul’s words,
Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him, and said, O full of all subtlety and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand (Acts 13:9-11).
We have previously identified that God gave to the apostles the ability to work miracles, which cannot be duplicated today. Having acknowledged that, we still consider Paul’s method in addressing this false teacher. Is the only way that one may know that one is perverting the rights ways of the Lord, a child of the Devil, and an enemy of all righteousness through inspiration? Of course not! Jesus instructed men to identify false teachers by their fruits (Matt. 7:16). Can we follow an apostolic example in addressing false teachers? If exposing false teachers as Paul did is sinful, one must ask, “Was Paul allowed to sin because he was an apostle?”
2. The controversy over circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses (Acts 15; Gal. 2). Paul participated in the conflict that arose in the church over whether or not Gentiles had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved. The issue was forced by some from Jerusalem who came to Antioch insisting that Gentiles had to be circumcised, to whom Paul refused to yield because a principle of the gospel was at stake (Gal. 2:4-5). Paul contended with these men (Acts 15:2). However, the writer never condemned the Judaizers from Jerusalem for violating local church autonomy. (Some today would lead one to believe that any brother who engaged in such contention was less than he ought to be as a gospel preacher.) The brethren debated the issue and God revealed his will to men through command, example and necessary inference.
Were Paul and the other apostles the only ones allowed to contend with such men? Is one guilty of sin when he does what Paul did? Did his being an apostle give him the right to sin?
3.Controversy at Corinth. The conflict at Corinth forced Paul to engage in spiritual “war” with his enemies, although he refused to resort to the use of carnal weapons (2 Cor. 3:3-4). The charges and counter charges are evident in these words:
That I may not seem as if I would terrify you by letters. For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible. Let such an one think this, that, such as we are in word by letters when we are absent, such will we be also in deed when we are present. For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise (2 Cor. 10:9-12).
He described his opponents in no uncertain terms:
For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works (2 Cor. 11:13-15).
Is Paul the only one allowed to make such assessments? Are we today not allowed to characterize the pope of Rome as a “false apostle”? If it is sinful to so label the pope, did Paul’s being an apostle justify his “sin” in doing the same thing?
4. The Judaizers at Galatia. Paul marveled that the Judaizers had such a rapid impact on the churches in the area in turning men away from the grace of God to a system of legal salvation (Gal. 1:6-10). He charged that these men had “bewitched” the churches (Gal. 3:1) and he called upon the churches to break fellowship with these Judaizers (Gal. 4:21-5:12). He said these harsh words about the Judaizers who tried to impose circumcision on the Gentiles, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12). Were a gospel preacher to say something similar to that today, his own brethren would condemn him. Can we do what the apostles did? Can we follow the apostles’ example? Can we call upon churches to break fellowship with teachers of false doctrine in imitation of the apostle Paul?
5. The Judaizers at Philippi. Paul warned the brethren, “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision” (Phil. 3:2). He furthermore described these brethren saying, “(For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)” (Phil. 3:18-19). Every false doctrine condemns the truth which saves our soul and thus false teachers are enemies of the cross of Christ. For this reason we can and must expose and refute every false doctrine and identify and reprove those who teach such things.
One should also notice that “concision” (Phil. 3:2) and the “circumcision” (Tit. 1:10) are used as labels very similarly to how the terms “liberal,” “modernist,” “pre- millennialist,” “unity-in-diversity advocates,” “A.D. 70 advocates,” and “one covenant brethren” are used today. Some today accuse others of sin when they use the label “liberal” to describe a brother. Yet, Paul used the “label” “concision” to describe those at Philippi. Was he permitted to “sin” because he was an apostle? The answer seems obvious: Brethren have bound some personal judgments on others as if they were “law and gospel.”
6. The Gnostics at Colossae. Paul warned the brethren, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). He described their apostasy (Col. 2:18-23), showing how their false doctrine was an indictment of the all-sufficiency of Christ for salvation.
7. The Threat at Thessalonica. In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul warned brethren of a “falling away” that had the potential of leading them also into apostasy. He described the nature and work of the “man of sin” (2:4) and foretold his destruction at the Lord’s second coming. He also warned that those brethren who did not have the love of the truth were threatened by these false teachers (2:10-12).
8. Paul’s Instructions to Timothy. In the two books addressed to Timothy, Paul exhorted the young preacher to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5). Doing that work included teaching men not to turn aside to other doctrines (1 Tim. 1:3). Paul specifically identified Alexander and Hymenaeus as two who had made shipwreck of the faith and had to be delivered to Satan (1 Tim. 1:19-20). He warned Timothy of a coming apostasy that would include in its doctrines forbidding to marry and commanding to abstain from meats (1 Tim. 4:1-3). Was he warning Timothy about “trends of a new apostasy”? He admonished Timothy not to turn aside to “oppositions of science falsely so called” and other profane and vain babblings (1 Tim. 6:20). He told Timothy that Phygellus and Hermogenes had turned away from him (2 Tim. 1:15). He told him that Hymenaeus and Philetus had erred from the truth teaching that the resurrection had already passed (2 Tim. 2:17-18). He described the conduct of wicked men who would come in the perilous times that lay ahead for the brethren (2 Tim. 3:1-9) and instructed him to turn away from such men (2 Tim. 3:5). He told him of the apostasy of Demas (2 Tim. 4:10), the damage that Alexander the coppersmith did to him (2 Tim. 4:14), and other threats to the faith.
9. Paul’s Instructions to Titus. Paul told Titus to teach elders to stop the mouths of false teachers (1:10-11) and told him to rebuke such men sharply (1:13) so that men may be sound in the faith. He told him to avoid foolish questions that engender strife and contention. He instructed, “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him” (Tit. 3:10, NIV).
From this study of Paul’s conduct toward false teachers, we derive these conclusions: (a) The gospel preacher has the moral responsibility to resist false doctrine. Preaching a “positive” message does not sufficiently address the false doctrines and false teachers that come among us. (b) The false doctrines of men need to be addressed specifically and directly. (c) On some occasions, the false teachers need to be directly confronted, exposed by name, and their false doctrines challenged. Human judgment must be used as to when this should be done, but one can certainly see that one is not guilty of sin for following an apostle’s example in so resisting false teachers and false teaching.
Paul’s Conduct With Reference to Local Church Autonomy
This material is presented to help correct mistaken ideas about church autonomy. Unless one takes the position that the first century church was a brotherhood of churches over which the apostles served as officers, one may be forced to re-think some modern concepts about local church autonomy currently circulating among us, such as that the autonomy of the local church is violated by sharing information (like Chloe did at Corinth, 1 Cor. 1:11), by a preacher sending teaching to a church of which he is not a member (as Paul did to Corinth, not only in his canonical letters, but also in his non-canonical letters, see 1 Cor. 5:9), by addressing in public teaching dangerous problems that are confronting local churches, etc. We do not believe that the apostles had a divine right to commit sin — that is, to violate church autonomy. We do not believe that they were officers in a brotherhood of churches. Consequently, what the first century saints did with divine approval can be done today with divine approval. Let’s consider some of Paul’s actions.
- Working With the Churches at Lystra, Iconium, etc. The text says, “And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed” (Acts 14:21-23). Were I to visit the churches where I have previously preached and offer to help them to appoint elders in every congregation, I would firmly and politely be told to mind my own business and move on because that congregation is an autonomous church. Did Paul violate the autonomy of these churches?
- The Church at Corinth. Years after Paul labored at Corinth, he received word through the household of Chloe of several problems in the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11). Did Chloe sin by so communicating this information to Paul? Did Paul sin by involving himself in the work of a local church of which he was not a member in addressing their problems? The Scriptures do not condemn either Chloe or Paul! Paul addressed the church at Corinth, giving them specific information about how to address the problem of divisions at Corinth (1 Cor. 1-4), the fornicator who was living with his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5), the problem of brethren going to law with one another (1 Cor. 6:1-8), problems about divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7), problems related to eating meats and attending banquets in idols’ temples (1 Cor. 8-10), the Lord’s supper (1 Cor. 11:16-34), spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14), the problem of some among them who denied the resurrection (1 Cor. 15), etc. He expressed his intentions to come to them to address these problems and told them that their conduct would determine whether he came with a rod or with love (1 Cor. 4:21). Were a gospel preacher to send teaching instructions to a church of which he is not a member today, citing for them what the Bible teaches on any subject, he may be subjected to severe criticism for injecting himself into problems that were not his own and violating the autonomy of the local church!
- The Churches of Galatia. Paul addressed the churches of an entire Roman province when he addressed the several churches of Galatia. (Were one to do the same today, some would charge him with believing in a brotherhood of churches, an association that was unscriptural.) He lamented the influence of the false teachers in the region and then instructed the churches that they should remove the leaven of their influence from their midst (4:21-5:12). Were one to do the same today, some would say that he was violating the autonomy of the local church.
- The Church at Philippi. Paul instructed the church to help Euodias and Syntyche, two women in conflict with each other, come to the same mind (4:2-3). Was he intruding into the matters pertaining to the local church when he so wrote? Could a brother do the same thing as Paul did today?
- The Church at Colossae. Paul instructed that church to read his letter to the church, cause it to be read at Laodi cea, and to read his letter to the church at Laodicea to the brethren at Colossae (4:16). Was he intruding into their autonomy when he so wrote?
- The Church at Thessalonica. When Paul warned the church at Thessalonica about a coming apostasy, was he violating their autonomy (2 Thess. 2:1-12)? Did he violate their autonomy when he commanded them to withdraw from the disorderly (2 Thess. 3:6)?
- Timothy. Paul sent the evangelist Timothy to Ephesus with this charge: “As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine, neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do” (1 Tim. 1:3-4). What impact would a gospel preacher sending another gospel preacher to a given congregation with such specific instructions have on brethren today? Would we send him away telling him to mind his own business and respect the autonomy of the local church, or if we know him to be a faithful brother, would we be willing to give a fair hearing to what he had to say?
- Titus. Paul wrote, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Tit. 1:5). Would one gospel preacher send another gospel preacher to a given church with specific instructions to help them ordain elders in that local church? If so, how would it be received?
Were the apostles authorized to sin — to violate the autonomy of local churches? Or have we become so sensitive about the autonomy of local churches that we condemn men who do much less than what the New Testament gives examples of the apostles doing? Some among us condemn men for violating the autonomy of local churches when (a) they warn churches about apostasies that are developing (2 Thess. 2; 1 Tim. 4); (b) have communication with members of a church about problems in that church (1 Cor. 1:11), (c) preach about false teaching, specifically mentioning the false teachers who are threatening churches (1 Tim. 1:18-20; 2 Tim. 2:17), (d) suggest Bible solutions to problems and how to handle false teaching/false teachers (1 Cor. 5; Gal. 4:21-5:12). Indeed, brethren do have mistaken ideas about the autonomy of the local church when they become so righteous that they condemn as sinful that which is authorized by apostolic example!
“You’re not an apostle,” is being used to undermine the legitimate work of gospel preachers who are addressing congregational problems today. The Lord himself charged men to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). There is not a man living who has the right to limit or countermand the Lord’s charge by appealing to some mistaken concept of the autonomy of the local church.
The charge to preach the gospel still protects the autonomy of the local church, just as it did in Paul’s day. When Paul instructed the church, yes, even commanded the church, to withdraw from the Corinthian fornicator, that congregation still exercised its autonomy in deciding whether or not to obey that divinely revealed commandment. When preachers preach on subjects of relevance for churches facing problems today, the autonomy of the local church is not violated. Those saints still have their autonomous power to decide whether or not to obey the Lord’s commandments. A person’s and a church’s autonomy is not violated by preaching to them.
Jesus spoke of the Pharisees who honored the prophets but were guilty of the very sins that led to the death of the prophets (Matt. 23:34). There are those among us who honor the apostles, but whose attitudes toward those who walk in the footsteps of the apostles is such that their conduct confirms that they would dishonor those very same men were they among us today.
Let others do what they will, but I do not intend to let someone’s misunderstanding of the apostleship stop me from obeying the Lord’s command to preach the gospel to every creature. I will preach what I perceive to be God’s Word to any and every individual whom I have opportunity to teach, without regard to which local church he may be a member of. If that violates someone’s mistaken concept of the autonomy of the local church, so be it. I am under a greater charge, that of the Savior himself who said, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
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