The men of the modern Auburn Avenue heresy and their defenders have used similar tactics. They argue that we should not fight against one another when the real enemy is secular humanism and its fruits in society; that it is uncharitable to accuse other ministers of heresy when they are simply clarifying and advancing certain doctrines; that these men have been outstanding defenders of Christianity for years; that attacking their teachings is hurting the body of Christ and is a bad witness to the world. These false teachers are very clever. They want their teachings to leaven the church quietly and insidiously. They do not want anyone to raise suspicions or expose their teachings for what they are. These men and their apologists have been very effective at raising a smoke screen to obscure their real intentions.
Beloved, “take heed and beware”. The man who converts to Roman Catholicism, leaves the Reformed church and worships the virgin Mary is not the greatest threat. It is the men who depart from the faith, yet who hide their intentions and remain in the church, who are dangerous. Their doctrine works like yeast in the body corrupting this man here, that family there, this elder over here and that seminary student over there. It is our biblical duty to refute those who contradict (Titus 1:9); to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3); to exhort men to teach no other doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3) than the one received from Christ and the apostles.
Leaven has a natural tendency to leaven the whole loaf. The historical pattern is quite clear. False teaching moves from bad to worse and false teaching if left unchecked eventually penetrates the whole body. The corrupt Pharisaical church in Jesus’ day did not arise overnight. The process of apostasy took centuries; false teachers brought in their human innovations slowly. A human tradition was added here and a ritual was added there until the true religion was obscured under a large edifice of human theological ideas, rules and regulations. Some of these human traditions can be seen in the Babylonian Talmud which consists of thirty-four large volumes of fine print.
The Pharisees did not purposely set out to destroy biblical religion. They simply wanted to improve upon it and protect it with their own ideas. They did not ask the people to abandon the Old Testament or their cherished doctrines. They just wanted the people to accept a few “minor improvements” to fence the law, to make religion better. Their perversion of the church was slow, virtually imperceptible and progressive, until eventually it permeated the whole lump.
The corruption of the Roman Catholic Church occurred in a similar manner. Small changes were made in the government, worship and doctrine of the church. These little additions were often done for pragmatic yet sincere reasons. Each generation, however, inherits these human traditions, attributes an added sanctity to the practices which are now quite old, and adds some new innovations of its own. If we isolate each addition or change, it may seem minor. It may not look like a big threat to the church at all. But, if we examine how little changes add up over time and accumulate, we can observe how minor, almost imperceptible, changes eventually have disastrous consequences for the church.
There is a progressive growth of corruption until the whole lump is leavened. (For example, the full-blown doctrine of the supremacy of the papacy developed over a period of one thousand years). The people are often taken in by the fact that changes are so minor. But, as each change is accepted and becomes an indispensable tradition that people are used to, expect and love, the more difficult it becomes to return the church to its biblical foundation (i.e., doctrine and practice based on Scripture alone). Therefore, when someone bids the church to accept a “minor” addition to Scripture or some new doctrine, we must not be careless or apathetic. We must understand the nature of leaven. We must understand that even small additions will have disastrous consequences. Because leaven spreads its effect so slowly and imperceptibly, people are often not even aware of what is happening to their church: that the rope of sola Scriptura has been cut and the church has begun to drift from its biblical moorings. Thus, once again, we must note the importance of Christ’s warning: “Watch out and beware”. Small changes and additions to what God has authorized in His word have a trajectory that is deadly. They lead to apostasy and judgment.
The leaven of the Sadducees works like the leaven of the Pharisees but to a different end. Full blown modernism did not arise overnight. The “mainline” denominations took almost two generations to become apostate. The leaven of the Sadducees has small beginnings. In modern times it usually begins with new theories regarding the early chapters of Genesis. A literal Adam and Eve are replaced with poetic metaphor. The six days are said to be billions of years. Evolutionary theories are accepted. People are told that Christianity needs to be harmonized with the findings of modern science. Then scientific theories are applied to textual research. Then miracles are denied and all is lost: the virgin birth, vicarious atonement, the resurrection, etc. Biblical Christianity degenerates to the point where churches are the enemies of every major teaching in the Bible. We must be on guard against even small changes or accommodations to so-called science. We must guard the integrity of the doctrine of Scripture with every fiber of our being. J. C. Ryle writes,
Beware of the very small beginnings of false doctrine. Every heresy began at one time with some little departure from the truth. There is only a little seed of error needed to create a great tree. It is the little stones that make up the mighty building. It was the little timbers that made the great ark that carried Noah and his family over a deluged world. It is the little leaven that leavens the whole lump. It is the little flaw in one link of the chain cable that wrecks the gallant ship, and drowns the crew. It is the omission or addition of one little item in the doctor’s prescription that spoils the whole medicine, and turns it into poison.
We do not tolerate quietly a little dishonesty, or a little cheating, or a little lying. Just so, let us never allow a little false doctrine to ruin us, by thinking it is but a “little one,” and can do no harm. The Galatians seemed to be doing nothing very dangerous when they “observed days and months, and times and years.” Yet St. Paul says, “I am afraid of you.” (Gal. iv. 10, 11)2 2 J. C. Ryle, Home Truths (Conrad, Mont.: Triangle Press, no date [c. 1857]), 3:119.
We must be aware of even small additions or detractions from God’s word. The church must guard itself against every deviation from the truth. False doctrines have a tendency to progress from bad to worse, from a small departure to an apostate system.
Ways to Avoid Doctrinal Subversion
Jesus’ warning was given to the apostles and inscripturated so that His church throughout history would have an understanding of the dangers of false teaching. There are a number of things that we need to consider in order to protect ourselves from theological subversion. First, believers have a responsibility to study the Scriptures. This involves not only a careful daily, Bible reading program but also the diligent use of study aids. Christians should learn the science of hermeneutics or biblical interpretation. False teachers take advantage of professing Christians’ lack of Bible knowledge and a lack of understanding on how to interpret “difficult” passages. Cults, for example, are notorious for taking passages out of context and ignoring the analogy of Scripture. Many heresies have arisen because one or two passages are interpreted in a manner that contradicts many clearer passages.
To protect God’s people from false teachers, Isaiah declared: “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (8:20). Every teaching or opinion is to be judged by Scripture. Thus, our Lord rebuked the false teaching of the Sadducees saying, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures . . .” (Mt. 22:29). Paul commended the Bereans because they did not accept Paul’s new doctrine simply because he said it was true, but rather “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Ac. 17:11). Secondly, believers must stand upon the theological achievements of their spiritual forefathers. Throughout the history of the church, battles have raged over many important doctrines.
These battles have produced corporate sanctification, a more careful exegesis of biblical passages, and a clarification of many doctrinal issues. It is our responsibility to learn systematic theology to inoculate ourselves from false teachings. A multiplication of cults and heresies always accompanies times of theological ignorance. Anyone familiar with the history of the church knows that many of the same heresies appear (with minor variations) over and over again to threaten the church. People who do not have a grasp of theology are the most vulnerable to attack. Thus Paul compares new believers to babies because they do not yet possess the spiritual discernment necessary to steer a path through false doctrine and subtle temptations. Because our time is one of great theological ignorance it is also one of declension in which heresy is spreading rapidly.
We must take full advantage of the many wonderful doctrinal books and creeds that have been produced by the Calvinistic wing of the Reformation. Every family should own a copy of the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity, and the determinations of the first six ecumenical councils of the church. Thirdly, Christians must place themselves in a church that is Reformed confessionally and truly Reformed with regard to its leadership. If a believer is to grow into maturity he must sit under exegetical, theological, applicatory preaching. Paul says that God has appointed some men as pastor-teachers in the church to equip and edify the body of Christ so “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting . . .” (Eph. 4:14).
The importance and centrality of preaching has been largely lost in our day of church growth gimmicks, rock and roll worship, drama, and story-telling comedian pastors. All of these things may make the “worship” service a lot of fun. But, they do not bring the spiritual maturity that people need to stand up to subtle heresies. Evangelical churches are entering a new dark age of ignorance and superstition because their concept of Christianity rotates around having an experience instead of learning about faith and life through diligent, doctrinal teaching and study.
Fourthly, there must be a restoration of biblical church discipline in “conservative” Reformed denominations to protect the flock from all false prophets and doctrinal deviants. There are a number of things that need to be done in this regard.
(1) Presbyterian churches must return to a strict subscription to the Westminster Standards. In “conservative” Presbyterian denominations, pastors and elders are required to take an ordination vow stating that they “sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith . . . as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.”3 The purpose of strict confessionalism is threefold. (a) It is necessary to hold onto the corporate doctrinal attainments of the past (e.g., the Trinity, the two natures of Christ in one person, the atonement, justification by faith alone, the new birth, etc.). (b) It is a public confession of who we are, of what we believe as Reformed Presbyterians. It is an organized summary of the doctrines which we believe are fundamental principles of Christianity. It is the system of doctrine by which we unite in church fellowship. (c) It is a doctrinal statement carefully constructed to exclude men with certain theological views from the church (e.g., modernism, Sabellianism, Nestorianism, Arianism, theistic evolution, day-age theories, non-sabbatarianism, will-worship, etc.).
3 This is the ordination vow of the P.C.U.S.A. in the nineteenth century. It is identical or virtually identical to the vows made in conservative Presbyterian denominations today. For example, vow 2 in the Orthodox Presbyterian Book of Church Order (1995) reads: “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechism of this Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?” (p. 62).
Today there is such a loose practice of subscription among most Presbyterian and Reformed churches that pastors and elders are permitted openly to hold non-confessional, heretical opinions on crucial doctrines. For example, instead of creationism, a variety of deviant positions (e.g., day-age, theistic evolution, framework hypothesis) is tolerated.
Regarding justification, heretical views (e.g., the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is denied, neo-legalism or the Norman Shepherd heresy; covenant faithfulness as co-instrument of justification) are being promulgated. In terms of the atonement, false theories (e.g., Arminianism, the Auburn Avenue heresy) are being taught. With regard to the sufficiency of Scripture, another standard is accepted: the regulative principle of worship is widely rejected in “Reformed” denominations today; and even the acceptance of so-called modern Charismatic prophecy. False views of the sacraments (e.g., baptismal regeneration, sacramentalism, paedocommunion) are practiced. Fundamental doctrines, such as the covenant of works, the distinction between the visible and invisible church, perseverance, union with Christ, and personal regeneration, are denied.
Sabbatarianism is ridiculed. And the plain teaching of the second commandment is perverted, so that, for example, pictures of Jesus are used to instruct children. There are so many examples of pastors and elders who are teaching and practicing things contrary to the Westminster Standards, that one could reasonably conclude that a number of these “conservative” Presbyterian denominations are already on the path toward apostasy. It is a sad and tragic time when presbyteries and general assemblies allow pastors and elders to subvert and overthrow the very doctrines they have sworn to uphold.
Why is this travesty of justice allowed to occur? There are several reasons. (a) Some men have an unbiblical, humanistic, permissive concept of love. (b) Some men do not think doctrine is very important. (c) Some men are “go along to get along” cowards. (d) And some denominations develop “good old boy” networks of bureaucrats who historically have been incompetent theologically and pragmatic socially. It is time for Presbyterian denominations to stop ordaining and allowing liars and theological perverts into the ministry. If a man has an exception to a minor, non-essential point in the Confession (e.g., the Pope or the papacy being the man of sin in 2 Th. 2:3ff.) then he must plainly state his exception to the Standards and have that exception recorded by Presbytery.
(2) Presbyterian churches must bring ecclesiastic sanctions against those who teach false doctrines and damnable heresies. This point is the logical corollary to the previous consideration.
The procedures that lead to sanctions must be biblical, diligent, swift and consistent. A confessional standard that is not backed up by sanctions is over the long run worthless. A modern loose subscription inevitably leads to church courts that are arbitrary and inconsistent in their application of discipline. In other words, judicial decisions end up being based more on the make-up of a commission than on Scriptural or confessional principles. Sola Scriptura is replaced with human wisdom, tradition and pragmatism.4
4 In his analysis of the conflicts between modernism and orthodox Christianity in the P.C.U.S.A., Gary North notes that neutrality with regard to any standard is impossible. He writes, “In 1901, the leaders on all three sides of the Presbyterian conflict had verbally and publicly professed faith in that historic Confessional position, despite the fact that none of them fully believed it. Having sworn a public oath to defend a standard they did not fully believe the officers of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., had little incentive to use the denomination’s courts to impose the oath’s mandatory negative sanctions. But without negative sanctions there can be no organization.
Some negative sanctions would eventually be imposed. These sanctions would be imposed in terms of a standard other than the Westminster Confession of Faith and its two catechisms. The institutional question became: By what other standard? The quest for this rival standard was the fundamental theme of the final three phases of the Presbyterian conflict, 1901-1936” (Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church [Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1996], 9).
5 Since the nineteenth century the responsibility of fathers or covenant heads to lead the family theologically has increasingly been replaced by church programs (Sunday school, youth groups, vacation Bible schools, etc.). Fathers have a responsibility to know and understand Reformed theology in order to lead, teach, nurture and protect their families from theological perverts and heretics. Today, however, many men have only a little theological knowledge; many men do not have the needed theological sophistication to protect their families from subtle and dangerous heresies.
(For example, the Auburn Avenue theological perversions have spread rapidly in some Reformed circles even though this system is a radical departure from Reformed orthodoxy). Reformed denominations must train fathers to be the spiritual leaders they ought to be so that doctrinal deviants will immediately face an army of opposition and be forced from their pulpits. (When the P.C.U.S.A. became apostate in the 1920’s and abused the great reformer, J. Gresham Machen, only a tiny handful of people obeyed Scripture and separated themselves from apostasy.) Heads of
(3) Presbyterian churches must speak out publicly and write position papers against all false doctrines that are making inroads in the Reformed community. In our day when theological wolves wander among the flock, many pastors and elders do absolutely nothing to stop them. Even worse, many leaders in various churches are defending the wolves while condemning the shepherds who have sounded a warning against them. Ministers and church governors have a responsibility to nip heresy in the bud. It is unbiblical and foolish to wait until heretical views have a strong foothold in the church before taking action.
There is no doctrinal or ethical neutrality. Error must be fought against and stopped or else it will spread like a deadly cancer through the body. Fifthly, heads of households must train and catechize their children so that they will able to discern between good and evil; between good doctrine and bad. When households must be expected to sturdy their Bibles and theological materials in order to protect the future. One cannot except to adequately learn theology simply by attending church. One must study to show himself approved (2 Tim. 2:15).
6 When Paul speaks of the church as the “ground” (KJV, NKJV), “support” (NASB), “foundation” (NIV, Phillips), “basement” (Fairbairn) or “bulwark” (RSV, NEB) of the truth, he is not saying that the church invents or determines the truth (e.g., Romanism). That position is absurd and impossible since the foundation of all truth is in the ontological triune God of Scripture. Rather, he is saying that the church has a responsibility to believe, teach, uphold and obey what God has revealed unto it. Calvin writes, “The reason why the Church is called the ‘pillar of truth’ is that she defends and spreads it by her agency.
God does not himself come down from heaven to us, nor does he daily send angels to make known his truth; but he employs pastors, whom he has appointed for that purpose. To express it in a more holy manner is not the Church the mother of all believers? Does she not regenerate them by the word of God, educate and nourish them through their whole life, strengthen, and bring them at length to absolute perfection? For the same reason, also, she is called ‘the pillar of truth;’ because the office of administering doctrine, which God hath placed in her hands, is the only instrument of preserving the truth, that it may not perish from the remembrance of men.
“Consequently this commendation relates to the ministry of the word; for if that be removed, the truth of God will fall to the ground. Not that it is less strong, if it be not supported by the shoulders of me, as the same Papists idly talk; for it is shocking blasphemy to say, the word of God is uncertain, till it obtain from prelatical apologists were sent by the Church of England throughout the countryside of Scotland in the seventeenth century to turn the Presbyterians into good Episcopalians, the prelates were amazed at the biblical and theological knowledge of these rather poor Scottish peasants. In town after town, the prelates were soundly refuted and turned away by simple folk who had a solid grasp of Reformed theology. Sadly, today we have a different situation-popular “Reformed” speakers advocate doctrines that are blatantly unscriptural and irrational and unlearned church goers accept them willingly.
If heads of households build up a good Reformed library; study; learn as they ought and then teach their children the truth, the false prophets among us would not even receive a hearing. They would be fired and sent packing to Rome or Constantinople where they belong.
We live in a time of great declension for many Presbyterian and Reformed churches, a time of toleration for error and syncretism with the surrounding culture. Therefore, we must carefully note and heed the many warnings and imperatives regarding purity of doctrine and false teachers in Scripture (e.g., “note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned and avoid them” [Rom. 16:17]; “charge some that they teach no other doctrine” [1 Tim. 1:3]; “guard what was committed to your trust” [1 Tim. 6:20]; “hold fast the pattern of sound words” [2 Tim. 1:13]; “shun idle and profane babblings” [2 Tim. 2:16]; “exhort and convince those who contradict” [Tit. 1:9]; “beware of false prophets” [Mt. 7:15], etc.). This point is especially important because there are neo-legalists among us who occupy positions of influence, who subvert whole households and churches with carefully crafted heretical doctrines, with simultaneous affirmations of Reformed truth and dangerous heresies.
It is time for every Reformed believer, every pastor, elder and deacon, to take a stand for the gospel and fight for the truth. Does not Paul refer to the church as “the pillar and ground of the truth”?6 (1 Tim. 3:15) Doesn’t this mean that the church has a men what may be called a borrowed certainty. Paul simply means what he states elsewhere in other words, that since our ‘faith is by hearing,’ there will be no faith, unless there be preaching. Accordingly in reference to men, the Church maintains the truth, because by preaching the Church proclaims it, because she keeps it pure and entire, because she transmits it to posterity.
And it the instruction of the gospel be not proclaimed, it there be no godly ministers who, by their preaching, rescue truth from darkness and forgetfulness, instantly falsehoods, errors, impostures, superstitions, and every kind of corruption, will reign. In short, silence in the Church is the banishment and crushing of the truth responsibility to believe, teach, propagate, uphold and obey what God has revealed (the Bible and the whole truth of Christianity including the whole body of inspired precepts and doctrines).
The church has a responsibility to keep as a sacred treasure biblical doctrine. She must not modify, ignore, corrupt, add to or detract from the authoritative, unchanging doctrine of Scripture. “The grand test is, does she hold by the truth of God? Is she in her belief and practice a witness for this? Or does she gainsay and pervert it?”7 One of the church’s most important responsibilities in upholding the truth is warning people regarding false teachers and deviant doctrines. We must continually be on guard against the leaven of the Scribes and Pharisees. May God enable us to faithfully carry the banner of truth in order to preserve our precious covenanted reformation unto future generations. Amen.
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Author: Benaiah Juma.
Email: overcomingsatanandhisangels @gmail.com.
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