Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. (Matthew 7.15-17)
We must continue to relate the subject of guidance beyond our personal lives to the great issues which confront our churches. As we saw in a previous article, God sets us in congregations to serve him alongside other believers, and requires loyalty and intelligent commitment of us. This is God’s scheme, not ours, and it would be selfish to want God’s guidance for personal decisions, while being indifferent to the life and problems of his churches. In the following pages we turn from personal guidance to church guidance, for we must play our part in seeking the Lord’s will at both levels.
Tragically, believers do not always pay much attention to the wider scene, and to what churches at large are doing, and this can have horrific consequences as we see from the history of evangelicalism in the United Kingdom. A hundred years ago Britain teemed with Bible-believing churches, chapels, missions and assemblies, fervently reaching the lost, but the last hundred years has witnessed the closure of thousands of them, and the surrender of many more into the hands of people who do not believe in an inspired Bible. Virtually all the evangelical theological colleges that once trained men to preach the Gospel have also been lost to theological liberalism.
The speed and extent of the decline in evangelical witness has been astonishing. False doctrine blew through the churches like a forest fire, swiftly bringing all the historic denominations under the domination and control of non-evangelicals. First, theological colleges of all the historic Protestant denominations were taken over by those who rejected the fundamentals of the faith, corrupting future ministers and clergy, then congregations were swayed by the new generation of non-evangelical preachers, abandoning the old faith. Today we count ourselves fortunate to have one or two Gospel-preaching churches in the average larger town.
The questions we must ask are: Did rank and file believers do anything to stop this decline, or did they allow it? And if they failed to stem the tide of error, are we doing any better today? Is the decimation of evangelical witness continuing through our indifference or lack of discernment? What are the newest, latest threats to what remains of evangelical churches?
There is no doubt that in very many churches, sound Christians put up no fight against the repudiation of evangelical Truth in their denominations, nor is there any doubt that the same failure to take a stand continues today with Satan’s current onslaught. The defenceless state of evangelicalism today is commonly sustained by an almost incredible misinterpretation of Christ’s command, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ (Matthew 7.1). Many years ago this writer experienced this after giving a sermon in which there was a warning about an example of false teaching. A visiting hearer approached me with a ‘word from the Lord’, rebuking me for having included negative criticism in the sermon. Opening his Bible, this visitor read out in a solemn, judicial way: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’
My reprover believed that we should never exercise judgement or discernment as Christians, but behave naively in the face of error. The Bible and sound doctrine must never be defended, and we are to close our eyes when tares are being sown among the wheat, or when wolves come among the flock. Is this the correct interpretation of the Lord’s words – ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’? Of course not, because vigilance and discernment is constantly commanded in the Bible, and particularly by the Lord himself. The extraordinary idea that we must put our minds in hibernation while the churches are corrupted by error, is one of the most costly mistakes ever made in the history of biblical interpretation. How long can evangelicals survive if they ban sound judgement and discernment?
If in Matthew 7.1 the Lord commands us not to discern and judge, then he contradicts himself – which is impossible – for in the same chapter he says, ‘Beware of false prophets’ – a command which obviously involves making a judgement. It should be obvious that the Lord’s words do not forbid the right use of our faculties to assess teachers and methods, and to watch out for danger, folly and sin. The Lord’s words ‘judge not’ must be understood by the words that immediately follow: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ His purpose was to condemn hypocritical fault-finding, not the right and proper exercise of Christian discernment. He condemned those who passed judgement on others for committing the very errors they themselves were guilty of. He says, in effect, ‘Do not judge another when you deserve to be judged for the same fault.’ J. C. Ryle explains the passage perfectly:–
‘Our Lord does not mean that it is wrong, under any circumstances, to pass an unfavourable judgement on the conduct and opinions of others. We ought to have decided opinions. We are to ‘prove all things’. We are to ‘try the spirits’. Nor does he mean that it is wrong to reprove the sins and faults of others until we are perfect and faultless ourselves. Such an interpretation would contradict other parts of the Scripture. It would make it impossible to condemn error and false doctrine. Heresy would flourish. What our Lord means to condemn is a censorious and fault-finding spirit; a habit of passing rash and hasty judgement; a tendency to magnify the errors and infirmities of our fellows, and make the worst of them.’
To make it absolutely clear that this important verse does not contradict the duty of making sound judgements, we need only read on to Matthew 7.3-5, where we are given the picture of a man with a very grave and obvious fault (the beam in his eye), criticising a brother whose fault, by comparison, is a splinter or speck. ‘Thou hypocrite,’ says the Lord, ‘first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’ Once the hypocrite has purged his own offence by seeking God’s help to rid himself of it, he certainly has a duty to exercise discernment in addressing the smaller offence of his brother. The threat of false teaching getting into the local church is so serious that the Lord describes it (in the very same chapter) in terms of a pack of wolves getting in amongst grazing sheep. Once in, the wolves will tear and kill the sheep, scattering the flock, and this is exactly what has been allowed to happen in so very many churches.
Biblical commands to detect error
In 1 Timothy 4.1-6 we are told that a good minister of Jesus Christ is one who reminds his church ‘that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils.’ He must not only have sound judgement himself, but he must train his people to exercise the same faculty. Timothy is also warned about those ‘having a form of godliness, but denying the power’, from whom he is to ‘turn away’, but how could he do this without exercising judgement and discernment? He is further commanded to train ‘faithful men’ to succeed him in his work. How would he know who they were without discernment? (See 2 Timothy 2.2.) Great care and discernment is to go into the selection of leaders and teachers in the churches of God, a powerful warning from Paul being recorded in Acts 20.28-31:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers . . . For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.
Paul exercised constant vigilance in protecting the churches and the Truth, and some people had to be rejected because of their apostasy. To Timothy, Paul wrote the following words commanding clear judgement and discrimination:
This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare; holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme (1 Timothy 1.18-20).
The apostle John’s command to give no co-operation to opponents of biblical doctrine (also mentioned in a previous article), reads –
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 (2 John 9-11).
Who is it today who denies that Jesus Christ (God the Son) has come in the flesh? Obviously, atheists, cults, and non-Christian religions deny Christ’s deity, but so do many who claim to be Christian ministers. They say they believe Christ is God, but if they think that he was unable to perform miracles, that he was not infallible, and that he did not know what he was talking about when he spoke of atonement and new birth, and such matters, they clearly do not really believe that he was the living God from Heaven. True belief in the deity of Christ includes unwavering acceptance of his divine power, and of all his utterances, and so John’s words condemning those who deny that Christ has come in the flesh, apply to present-day theological liberals. We are commanded by his words to have no fellowship with, and to give no recognition to, the overwhelming majority of ministers in the historic denominations, because this is exactly their position.
The letter of Jude (verses 3-4) provides this exhortation:
Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. 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.
The Bible commands us to have spiritual fellowship only with fellow believers in the Gospel. Concerning those who teach ‘another gospel’, we should certainly be concerned about their spiritual state, and wish to bring them to salvation, but we must never extend to them recognition as true Christians, nor join with them in Christian work, because to do this is to break the clear command of Scripture and confirm them in the delusion that they are true Christians.
Today, however, evangelicals are being urged by some of their leading preachers to join hands with Catholics, especially charismatic Catholics, even though they worship Mary, celebrate mass, and deny the central doctrine of justification by faith alone. Catholics are described by these leaders as truly saved Christians, even though they have no belief in or experience of the new birth, and obey the authority of Rome rather than the Word of God.
The importance of judgement and discernment in maintaining the doctrinal and moral soundness of churches is constantly emphasised in the New Testament, an example being Titus 3.10, ‘A man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject.’ How can we obey this text without exercising discernment? Hebrews 12.15 tells us to watch carefully to ensure that the fellowship is not put at risk by seriously backslidden, apostate or embittered members. Once again we ask, how can this be obeyed without discernment? The excommunication of the Corinthian sinner is an obvious biblical example of how church judgement is to be applied in the case of a serious moral lapse.
The battle for biblical doctrine in the main British church denominations was lost before World War II, as by this time the overwhelming majority of Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and Congregational churches were no longer evangelical. For a time, in the post-war decades, the remnant of Bible-believing churches, most of which were outside the old denominations, maintained a good stand, but by the 1970s new strategies were being deployed against them by Satan. While continuing to insinuate anti-evangelical teaching, he began a major offensive in which godless activities would be introduced, activities which would gradually corrupt and bring about the spiritual decline and fall of churches. Innovations were introduced into worship and witness such as worldly entertainment-style music, the shallow Gospel of the seeker-sensitive churches, and more recently the sub-biblical teaching of the ‘emergent church’ movement. Will we accept them blindly, as so many believers accepted theological liberalism, or will we apply scriptural judgement to the various new methods of worship and service, in accordance with the command of 1 Thessalonians 5.21-22, which reads: ‘prove [test] all things; hold fast that which is good; abstain from all appearance of evil’? Tragically, in many churches these destructive influences sweep in unchallenged.
We should expect Satan’s ancient policy of infiltrating churches to be operating today. Paul warns of ‘false brethren’ coming into the church by stealth, to spy and to ‘bring us into bondage’ with subtle and false teaching (Galatians 2.4). He did not give an inch of ground to such teachers, refusing to recognise their ministry and their viewpoint, unlike many believers today who think that it is unnecessary to take a stand for the Truth. May we pray for help to become a discerning generation, jealous for God’s Truth, God’s glory, and God’s great and gracious name.
Men and women are needed, and particularly young men and women, who will abandon the fickle, undiscerning way of accepting anything and everything, and take their stand on the authoritative Word of God, ready to safeguard and proclaim both the message and the lifestyle of true servants of Christ. Only then will churches fulfil their role as ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’, and only then shall we see once more the blessing of God in the conversion of many souls.
May our desire for personal guidance always include a willingness to be guided by God’s Word in matters of the church, particularly its separateness from false teaching, and the spirituality and purity of its worship and witness. The guidance of God comes in a special way to those who live for the spread of the Gospel, and for the safeguarding of the Truth. The Lord himself has said so, through the lips of Isaiah:
And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday: and the lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in (Isaiah 58.10-12).
May this be the experience of every reader!
 For example: The Nottingham Statement, to which 1000 Anglican evangelical clergy assented in 1977, under the chairmanship of John Stott, which included the declaration: ‘Seeing ourselves and Roman Catholics as fellow-Christians, we repent of attitudes that have seemed to deny it.’ (Church Pastoral Aid Society, London.)
1. Does the Lord Really Guide?
2. Six Biblical Steps for Guidance
3. Guidance in Courtship and Marriage
4. Guidance for Activities, Possessions and Leisure
5. Guidance on Wealth and Ambition
6. Imagining the Lord’s Interventions
7. Guidance and Loyalty to the Local Church
8. Guidance in Church Decisions
Appendix: Tests for Amusements and Recreations (Richard Baxter)