Correction or Coercion? |

McMahon, T.A.

Spiritual discernment is a necessity for every true disciple of Jesus Christ. Without it we would indeed be “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Eph:4:14). We can be thankful that even in these days of spiritual information overload, we know from the Scriptures that we, as believers, have all that we need through the Holy Spirit and God’s Word to personally discern what is of the Lord and what is not. Fearfulness over being swept away by false teachings, or intimidation by false teachers, should not be the state of mind of those who belong to Jesus and who desire to grow in their relationship with Him. Hopefully, last month’s article was an encouragement to those who may have allowed such fears to establish a foothold in their lives. But what about the application of discernment—particularly when it comes to addressing the teachings and actions of others?

In the September ’96 TBC, Dave shared his grief over some recent and very disturbing occurrences of compromise by leading evangelicals, some of whom he knows well and for whom he has great personal affection. While there were a few strong objections to portions of what Dave wrote, the overwhelming response has been that of empathy by readers who are also grieved. Writing to encourage discernment and to help bring about correction is a task often akin to running a gauntlet. Even if one’s course is straight as an arrow, rarely does anyone make it through unscathed. Nevertheless, discernment leading to prayerful correction where necessary—and the willingness to be corrected—are the responsibility of every believer.

Paul had a great deal to say about discernment and correction, and he practiced what he preached. He discerned that some of Peter’s actions were not only contrary to the gospel but were forms of hypocrisy that caused Jewish and Gentile believers alike to stumble in the faith. Paul administered correction. His rebuke of Peter seems harsh according to today’s psychologized and “religiously correct” mindset. Yet the Holy Spirit presents it as God’s standard and the absolutely righteous thing to do. Paul saw that Peter, his beloved brother in Christ (as well as his co-worker, Barnabas), in reverting to the law, “walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel” (Gal:2:14). They and others, in fear of Jewish legalists, withdrew from the Gentiles, who were considered unclean under the Mosaic law. Rather than a private dialogue which could have protected Peter’s prestige, ministry and self-esteem, Paul, “before them all,” opposed “him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Gal:2:11-14). If one is willing to believe God’s Word, one can only admit that Paul did the very best thing for Peter. “Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head,” the Psalmist wrote (Ps:141:5).

So how did Peter respond to Paul’s “attack?” Was there a “counterattack?” Did Peter complain that Paul was causing untold damage to his ministry? Wasn’t Paul aware that his public correction could cause a severe drop in financial support for Peter’s work? Wouldn’t unbelievers be put off by the “airing of dirty Christian laundry” or this public demonstration of discord among Christians? And wouldn’t Peter take the personal bitterness generated by Paul’s public “attack” to his grave? No!

Instead, some time later, Peter called his public disputer “our beloved brother Paul” and proceeded to commend “all his epistles,” which he tells us were “accord- ing to the wisdom given unto him” by the Holy Spirit (2 Pt 3:15-16). Amazingly, especially from today’s ego-sensitive, self-esteem-nurturing perspective, Peter included the very epistle which displayed for all time his own public “embarrassment” at Paul’s hands. Rather than causing emotional trauma, Peter’s experience affected him in a way foreign to the teachings of today’s deterministic and humanistically oriented “Christian” psychotherapists.

Roman Catholics have trouble reconciling Peter’s obvious though indirect denial of the gospel of salvation with their view of  his alleged papal infallibility. On the other hand, they couldn’t accuse Paul of hurting “Peter’s ministry” either financially or numerically, since Peter’s so-called successors and flock have few superiors in numbers—and none in wealth.

Paul’s approach to discernment and correction was faultless. Peter and Barnabas weren’t the only ones he admonished. To them we can add Hymenaeus, Philetus, Demas, Phygellus, Homogenes and Alexander (see 1 and 2 Timothy). The beloved John makes the readers of his third Epistle aware of the problems caused by Diotrephes. It ought to be clear to all that such warnings and public correction were what God desired. And we are to do likewise—with one important qualification. How we do something in obedience to the Lord is just as important as what we do. Paul made that clear to Timothy: “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will” (2 Tm 2:24-26). Gentle to all, able to teach, patient, and showing meekness in dealing with opposing views are qualities in too short supply today. Sadly, the church, professing or otherwise, has had problems throughout the ages in correcting heresies Paul’s way. Most, if not all, of the early church councils were just as much attempts to halt the bloodshed over theological differences as they were attempts to arrive at a unity of doctrine. At the Council of Nicea, for example, which addressed the heresy of Arianism, Constantine issued an imperial order for the execution of all those who were concealing books authored by the heretic Arius. Augustine, recognized by his con- temporaries and by many today as the Church’s great apologist against heresies, was not above condoning physical coercion in defense of the faith.
Many of the Reformers did not adhere to sola scriptura when it came to correction. Martin Luther had a bit more to say regarding the Catholic Church than he acknowledged in his theses affixed to the door at the Castle Church of Wittenberg. In Against the Falsely Called Spiritual Order of the Pope and the Bishops he writes,

It were better that every bishop were murdered, every [monastery or convent] rooted out, than that one soul should be destroyed....But if they will not hear God’s Word, but rage and rave with bannings and burnings, killings and every evil, what do they better deserve than a strong uprising which will sweep them from the earth? And we would smile did it happen.

Contrary to Paul’s teaching, Luther added, “All who contribute body, goods, and honor that the rule of the bishops may be destroyed are God’s dear children and true Christians.” Incredibly (or perhaps not), in his later years Luther turned even more vicious in his reviling of the Jews.

Though John Calvin attempted to set up a biblical utopia in Geneva, he had some rather glaring lapses regarding biblical correction. Capital offenses in Calvin- ruled Geneva included many theological doctrines, which finally did one Spanish physician in. Michael Servetus was a refugee who had narrowly escaped being tortured to death at the Catholic Inquisition in Lyon, France. His freedom flight to Geneva, however, was short-lived. A few weeks after his arrival, the City Council found him guilty of Anabaptism (the rejection of infant baptism) and Anti-trinitarianism, and burned him at the stake. Another champion of the Reformation, Ulrich Zwingli, condoned the drowning, for doctrinal differences, of one of his former disciples turned Anabaptist.

To the abuses of so-called Christian doctrinal correction we can add the genocidal Catholic Inquisitions throughout the Middle Ages. Thankfully, the Reformers rejected many of the false teachings of Roman Catholicism, but in their approach to stamping out heresy they remained very Catholic. In England, the Anglican Church heavily persecuted the Separatists, and the Separatists in turn persecuted the Baptists over doctrinal differences. In North America, Puritans hanged Quakers and corrected sin through the Salem witchcraft trials and the ensuing death sentences.

The arena of doctrinal differences sometimes fell short of being killing fields. The acid tongue was often used in personal attacks and ridicule of alleged heretics, opening the door for persecution by those who very likely needed little excuse. For instance, the biblical scholar Jerome called one adversary a “corpulent dog weighed down with porridge.” Martin Luther, after dialoging with the humble peacemaker Caspar Schwenckfeld over their differences regarding the Lord’s Supper, referred to Schwenckfeld as Schweinfeld, the German term for pig.

As I hope we all know, none of the above has one jot or tittle of support from the whole counsel of God’s Word. It is contradictory to attempt to force biblical truth on anyone. Biblical Christianity is the antithesis of coercion in any form. Why, then, do we still see many such “corrections” carried on today in the name of Christ? Catholics and Protestants continue to kill each other for their religious beliefs in Northern Ireland, Latin America, Bosnia and numerous other places. Where civil laws offer protection, current persecutions within professing Christianity take less drastic forms, but even here the effects are often devastating to the victimized.

While we are hardly unique, TBC’s vantage point regarding correction in the church today is at least an interesting one. Short of physical injury, we have experienced nearly the entire gamut of “Christian correction.” Christianity Today took us to task for being a self-appointed “Inquisition,” and followed that a few years ago with the charge that we were a part of “Christian McCarthyism.” Television’s most popular “evangelist” accused the co-authors of The Seduction of Christianity of writing a book that was literally “demonic, satanic, a work of the devil.” On another occasion he stated that “Dave Hunt is a devil!” A well-known pastor told his congregation that it was “proven by credible sources that [The Seduction of Christianity] was written strictly for money so please do not buy it.” A leading Christian apologist told his audience that “Dave Hunt is the most dangerous man in Christendom.” The co-founder of Christian psychotherapy clinics told us personally that we were “murderers of Christians who need psychiatric help.” TBC’s work and Dave personally have been banned from much of Christian media and from numerous churches. Dave’s books, when not completely excluded from some Christian bookstores, may be found under the counter, sometimes enclosed in brown paper bags.

TBC’s mail is roughly 90 percent supportive and encouraging, even when corrections are included. However, we continue to be staggered by the content of letters written by those who claim to be Christians, who tell us in no uncertain terms that some of our views were hatched in hell. While they are certainly entitled to differ with us on biblical issues, and we welcome correction, the “terms” include incredibly vile language, vitriolic attacks on Dave’s person, not the issues, and the most arrogant and self-righteous attitudes one could imagine—all this in the “name of Christ”!

Sébastian Castellio, a school teacher in Geneva during Calvin’s theocracy, despaired as he witnessed trials, tortures, and even death sentences of those who disagreed with Calvin’s doctrine of predestination or his view of election or infant baptism, etc. He wrote, “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine; it is simply to kill a man.”

This meek Reformer wasn’t capitulating to Rome for the sake of peace and safety; nor was he conforming to his brother-in-Christ’s teachings and practices for the sake of unity (he fearlessly challenged Calvin’s doctrines on occasion—until he was banished). He simply expressed what he understood the Scriptures to clearly teach us: the way we are commanded by the Lord to correct, rebuke, or reprove in matters of doctrine. Therefore, how we go about it is a critical factor in our obedience, and subsequently our fruitfulness. To libel, slander, belittle, abuse, denigrate, or intimidate is not to “defend a doctrine,” it is simply to play the Christian hypocrite and to grieve the Spirit of Truth who bids us speak the truth in love, meekly and with longsuffering (1 Pt 3:15; 2 Tm 4:2).

These are perilous times; we are buffeted by every wind of doctrine. Nevertheless, by His grace our Lord Jesus Christ provides all that we need for discernment, self-correction and the prayerful, loving correction of others. Pray that all of us who call ourselves His disciples will truly abide in His Word, and that we may have a testimony similar to that of Enoch: that we pleased God in all our ways (Heb:11:5). TBC