“…refuse ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels …” – 1 TIMOTHY 2:23
The purpose of this article is to recognize the legitimacy of certain religious conflicts.
The teaching of the early church fathers is not authoritative or binding in the same way as Holy Scripture; yet, their sermons give us insight into the earliest interpretations of the Bible and how Christians are expected to behave. After all, some of them walked and talked with the Lord’s Disciples. For this reason their instruction should not go unheeded.
The church was at an early period deeply disturbed by heretical speculations and theological perversions. They also had a greater talent, conviction, and boldness in refuting them. Their efficiency in condemning false teachers has never been surpassed, even in modern times. Conversely, despite the fact that present Christendom in America has more theological resources than all of church history combined, we are less skilled in the Scriptures than those who came before us. We are therefore unable to recognize aberrant teaching until it is too late. Furthermore, if we weak-kneed Americans do happen upon an error we are afraid to stand up to it. It wasn’t always this way.
Shortly before his death in A.D. 110, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch [i], known by some as Theophorus, sent a commendation letter to the Ephesian church extolling their faithfulness in rejecting false teaching: “… I have learned that certain people passed your way with evil doctrine, but you did not allow them to sow it among you. You covered up your ears in order to avoid receiving these things…” [ii]. Apparently the Ephesian church still obeyed the instructions sent by the Apostle Paul decades before. To the Magnesians he wrote, “… do not be deceived by strange doctrines or antiquated myths since they are worthless…” [iii]. Ignatius, himself a student of John the Apostle, went so far as to say that anyone who is called by any other name than “a Christian” does not even belong to God Almighty [iv]. Ignatius did not show tolerance toward false teachers. Since he was a disciple of an original Disciple, his declarations should not be ignored. Ignatius was a first generation Christian elder; he would possess first hand knowledge what the Apostles’ believed and taught. We can learn from him.
One of Ignatius’s last warnings was to avoid heresy as if it were toxic: “These [heretics] while pretending to be trustworthy, mix Jesus Christ with poison, like those who administer a deadly drug with honeyed wine, which the unsuspecting victim accepts without fear” [v]. Men perish from drinking heretical doctrine just as surely they will die from sipping sweetened cyanide.
Why was the early church less tolerant of heretics than we are?
America is an ideal place for religious entrepreneurs. We do not require theological precision. We take pride in this open-mindedness, but sometimes our leniency causes more discord than it prevents if it encourages sloppy scholarship and obvious contradiction. America’s theological inconsistencies are everywhere: there are signs on buildings that claim they are Bible churches, but they do not preach the books of the Bible. Its members genuinely think of themselves as “Bible-believing Christians” yet most could not give you a brief summary of the sixty-six books even though they have been carrying a Bible to church each Sunday for decades. The American Evangelical style of preaching is to seek proof texts and develop a sermon around a verse that supports the teacher’s message; the surrounding context is simply ignored, and the entire counsel of God is consequently abandoned. Evangelical leaders seem surprised that their flock is not growing in their faith.
Many Evangelical leaders believe they can correct the ignorance by installing additional technology or organizing a yearly Bible workshop. Some will make plans for a conference. Still others have given up on the idea that extensive Bible reading will keep the flock from falling asleep – it offers uplifting music, clever story-telling mixed with motivational speeches or humor in its place. Generations pass and eventually the people become ignorant and are thereafter unable to detect theological error despite these genuine attempts to reverse illiteracy in the church.
Sadly, a man can bring his Bible to church in this age and have no reason to open it. Many Reformed churches have no idea what the Reformers taught or believed. Evangelical Christians no nothing of church history and could not refute the simplistic philosophies of our time even if confronted by a mere bag boy at the corner store. We have some meager ability to talk big: church members proudly call themselves Calvinists or Arminians but could not tell you what the acronym, TULIP, stands for — much less briefly define each point and put up an argument defending their position, or even accurately describe their opponent’s position.
We have no one to blame but ourselves for this ignorance. We have more Christian resources and knowledge at our fingertips than ever before. Why, then, are we less informed than those who came before us? Why are we afraid to challenge the unbelievers and debate the false teachers? I would answer this by saying our culture of tolerance has betrayed us.
Our military was afraid to confront the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan. No one wanted to offend the religion of peace, Islam. America’s intelligence agencies had plenty of information that Hasan was a threat, but they could not prevent the murders. Likewise, American Christians have all the information they need to root out heresy in our churches but cannot do anything about it. We prefer to be known and loved as a peaceful, tolerant religion instead.
But American Christians should not be tolerant to the point we become afraid to confront the many adversaries among us. Ironically each man and woman in our land is armed spiritually and intellectually like no other “soldier” in the history of man. God has provided His people with various defensive weapons. Unfortunately, few Christians know how to stand firm and use these spiritual armaments in order to protect themselves from the schemes of the devil [vi].
How is it that we do not know the Scriptures as well as those who came before us despite the fact that many households own multiple Bibles, complex Bible software on our computers, concordances, teaching videos, Christian radio and TV, internet access to free sermons, and shelves of study tools and other resources? We do little to shield ourselves from the trickery of deceitful teachers. We are afraid to do so for the same reason we were afraid to confront Nidal Malik Hasan. We would rather be tolerant instead.
To be continued …
[i] Born circa A.D. 35 or 50 and martyred between A.D. 98-117. He was supposedly a student of the Apostle John, and considering the date we have no reason to disbelieve this.
[ii] Letters of Ignatius
[v] Ibid. Letter to the Trallians
[vi] Ephesians 6:10f