On Denouncing “False Teachers”

About this —

— which answered a comment of mine on Tim Challies’s claim that Pope Francis is a “false teacher”, I would say, no, they have a duty not to say so unless certain stringent conditions are met. At least, that’s my inclination. So I tried to figure out why that’s my inclination — which led me to these thoughts:

The identification of a person as a “false teacher” is a particularly strong condemnation with a clear biblical source, 2 Peter 2:1-3:

There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

It’s a sound general principle, I think, that the stronger the charge you bring against a person, the stronger should be the evidence that you have against him. With that principle in mind, here are the steps that I think a Christian should follow before denouncing another Christian — or self-proclaimed Christian — as a false teacher, or a church as proclaiming a false gospel.

1) If I, for example, “believe that Catholicism is a false gospel” and its Pope a false teacher, what is the epistemological status of this “belief”? Is it a feeling I have? A long-held prejudice? Something I’ve thought about a bit but not in a systematic way? Or a position I have reached by long and serious study? Only in the last case should I even consider uttering my denunciation publicly.

2) Have I studied the relevant writings or speeches with true charity — that is, have I read in a way that seeks to build up the love of God and of my neighbor, including the neighbor I disagree with? As Augustine wrote about biblical interpretation, in a passage that is relevant to all acts of reading, “Whoever … thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived.” Have I read my opponent in this way? Have I resisted the temptation to interpret him as saying what I would like to denounce?

3) Closely related: am I in my interpretation of this person or church who claims to be Christian prayerfully seeking the oneness of the Church that Jesus implores us to seek in his great farewell discourse in John 17? Jesus pleads with the Father “that they may be one even as we are one, in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Has that been my prayer also? Have I heard the appeal of St. Paul to the Corinthians? “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

4) And also closely related: Have I read and meditated on the parable of the wheat and the weeds?

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

5) Who am I? What status do I have to make public pronouncements on matters of such import? Am I in danger of “darkening counsel by words without knowledge” (Job 38:2)? Even if I am reading with care, and reading with charity, and even if I think I have been granted an exemption to the command to let the weeds and wheat grow together until the harvest, do I have the wisdom, discernment, and intelligence to make a pronouncement for others to read and heed?

6) Moreover, might I, through my own limitations, end up doing damage to the cause I want to uphold? As Thomas Browne wrote long ago, “Every man is not a proper champion for truth, nor fit to take up the gauntlet in the cause of verity: Many from the ignorance of these maxims, and an inconsiderate zeal unto truth, have too rashly charged the troops of error, and remain as trophies unto the enemies of truth: A man may be in as just possession of truth as of a city, and yet be forced to surrender.”

7) Presumably, I do not wish merely to denounce others, but to uphold and celebrate some form of Christian life and belief. Pascal wrote, “Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true. To remedy this, we must begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason; that it is venerable, to inspire respect for it; then we must make it lovable, to make good men hope it is true; finally, we must prove it is true.” Have I considered that, if I indeed have a strong conviction that my understanding of Christianity is the right one, there are alternatives to denunciation of others, and a vital one is the difficult task of making my model of Christianity so lovable that people will want it to be true?

8) Am I praying for those whom I believe to be in error? If not, I should dare say no word against them. And if so, have I considered that such prayer may be a superior alternative to denunciation?

I’m asking people to go to a lot of trouble before publicizing their denunciations, am I not? Indeed I am. I am also setting a standard that I have rarely lived up to. But I can’t see how we can avoid at least asking the questions I have pressed here.