Heresy-hunting gets a bad rap nowadays. If there's one thing that nobody wants to be, it's a "heresy-hunter." And who can blame them? I mean, cruise around the Internet and you'll find any number of "discernment" ministries dedicated to finding anybody who doesn't line up with their particular, historically-contingent, possibly cultish understanding of Christianity and placing them on the "list" with a page dedicated to listing their dubious tweets.
Or again, there's that guy (and it's almost always a guy) who spends his time listening to local pastors' sermons just so he can find that damning 2-second analogy he can email you five pages of footnotes about. Nobody wants to be him, so there's an understandable recoil. And this is on top of our general cultural aversion to being doctrinaire about matters of religion (unless it's a food religion, in which case we're simply being "healthy," and one can do no evil in the name of health).
All the same, one of the interesting fruits of reading G.K. Beale's New Testament Biblical Theology a while back, was realizing that there's a proper place for heresy-hunting in the church. In fact, we have a church office whose task is, in large part, to oversee, guide, and prevent against creeping false doctrine in the church: the Elder. According to Beale, Paul's teaching on the office of elder in the Pastoral Epistles is connected to the reality of false-teaching in the end times or "latter days" (p. 820).
Of course, in Beale's telling, "the latter days" is a description of this time between the first and second coming of Christ. In other words, the many exhortations to guard against false teaching are a permanent and essential function of the elder in Christ's church (Titus 1:5-16; 1 Tim 1:3-7, 19-20; 4:1-7; 2 Tim. 2:14-18; 23-26; 3:1-13). Shepherds keep sheep from wandering astray, and they guard the sheep against wolves who would ravage them with cunning and destructive teachings about Jesus that would rob them of comfort, joy, holiness, and peace.
How To Correct Your Opponents Like Paul
The question becomes, how are we supposed to do so that? For that, I have found Paul's exhortation to Timothy instructive:
So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Tim. 2:22-26)
This caught my eye because all too often those who are keenly aware of the call to defend the gospel from damaging distortion, since they're not afraid to back down from a fight, are often the quickest to fight dirty. In their holy crusade against heretics, they end up putting out a few wolves, but there's also the danger they've left a number of wounded sheep in their wake as collateral damage.
Paul begins, then, with a warning against youthful hot-headedness, and encourages the pursuit of righteousness. Apparently, not all passion in these matters is holy and there's a way of engaging in this work without faith, love, and peace that comes from a pure heart. This is the kind of thing that lures you into "foolish, ignorant controversies" of the sort that "breeds quarrels." I know for myself, while I'm not as bad as I used to be, the conversations that have gone poorest are those that I later realized I had entered in with more of a desire to win, to conquer, or to show off, than from any holy desire to preserve the truth. And it didn't even matter if I was right (which happens occasionally).
Instead, Paul gives Timothy a profile of two qualities that ought to characterize the "Lord's Servant" as he properly goes about his business.
1. Kind and Gentle. First, he must be "not quarrelsome but kind to everyone." C. S. Lewis rightly warned against reducing God's love to "mere kindness"–kindness, after all, is what puts dogs out of their misery when they're sick. All the same, in some circles, kindness is often an underrated quality, as if "jerkiness is next to godliness", especially in the task of correcting false doctrine in the church. Paul tells us that those who set themselves–or are set to–the job of guarding doctrine should be known for their gentleness, not only with the members of the flock that are docile but also to their "opponents." In this, they imitate Paul who, for all his forcefulness in his letters, was quite gentle in the context of conflict (1 Thess. 1:7).
St. John Chrysostom points us to the wisdom of gentleness in correction:
"A strong rebuke, if it be given with gentleness, is most likely to wound deeply: for it is possible, indeed it is, to touch more effectually by gentleness than one overawes by boldness… How is it then that he says, 'A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject '? He speaks there of one incorrigible, of one whom he knows to be diseased beyond the possibility of cure" ("Homily 6"; NPNF 13:497)
2. Able to Teach and Withstand Evil. Second, he must be able to teach. This implies a couple of things. First, make sure you know what you're talking about and how to communicate it. Churches, take care to appoint elders who know doctrine, and not simply someone who can administrate well and balance the books. Not only that, are they competent to teach it? Do they have the necessary skills, character, and relational abilities to communicate that truth to others in positive, helpful fashion? In this case, Paul fills in the meaning of "able to teach" with the phrase, "patiently enduring evil."
If you're going to correct false teaching in your opponents with gentleness, you're going to need to be able to withstand misplaced anger, contradiction, arrogance, and maybe even personal abuse. Much confusion with regard to doctrine comes from sin, but it also gains a foothold in the lives of those who have been sinned against and are nursing wounds and grievances against the churches they've grown up in. You might have to be the one who bears the brunt of this, suffers for the sins of others, in order to lovingly reach the lost with the truth.
The Hope of Gentle Correction
Finally, we might ask, "Why do we do it? Why go through all the trouble of patiently training our emotions, enduring reproach, dealing kindly and gently with all, while maintaining the courage to engage over truth?" Because there may yet be hope. We have to remember that our battle in these matters is not against flesh and blood, but ultimately against the principalities and the powers who hold people ensnared through lies about God (Eph. 6:12; 2 Cor. 4:4). But we have reasons to hope that God may grant them the gift of repentance and faith, and liberate them from the devil's clutches. It is, after all, the reason the Son of God appeared: to destroy the works of the evil one (1 Jn 3:8). Don't be surprised if he chooses to apply his work through you.
One final word: this teaching assumes that the most important correction happens in the church before it does anywhere else. Which means that before you set yourself the task of correcting every stray commenter on a Facebook post, or flaming that false teacher up the street in a blog post, tend to your own house first. You're more likely to exercise the gentleness and care Paul commands in person with those you know than online with someone's avatar anyways.
This content originally published here. Used by permission.