If you spend much time on this blog, you know that one of my concerns is for the Truth of God’s word to be triumphed in a world that throws so much chaff at you that sometimes you feel lost in information overload and don’t know who to believe. As a preacher, this has often led me to naming names from the pulpit of those in our society that are “wolves in sheep’s clothing” as it were. The even more challenging aspect of this is that the word “Christian” has been so misused and abused that society uses it to refer to anything so long as Jesus is mentioned within it…no mind whether it is Biblical or not. Of course, our society today is so Biblically illiterate, most people cannot distinguish between that which is Biblical and that which is preferential.
Sometimes, when names are named, people feel uncomfortable. Many people have perhaps attended an event down at the prosperity gospel megachurch down the street or have read “The Shack” or a Joyce Meyer book. Many people either secretly (or not secretly) prefer listing to Joel Osteen rather than the careful exposition of the Word, and when names are named, that makes people nervous. It forces them to repent of their own sloppy theology or perhaps troubles them because they often have friends who attend churches that teach a false theology and they don’t want ruffle feathers. They also tend to think that the pastor is just on another one of his grouchy tirades against the bigger church down the street (by the way, since when did the number of people in attendance become a measure of a pastor’s ministry?).
The question, then arises, why bother? Isn’t it more polite in today’s society to avoid naming names? Can’t we be nice to the other churches and give them the benefit of the doubt? Of course, “nice” is a word that we ought not apply to any Christian. Why? See here. Here’s the thing, we are not talking about matters of preference or neighborliness. You might not like that your neighbor has planted gum trees along the border of your property line, but you don’t make a ruckus about it because that would not be neighborly. But here we are talking eternal truth and eternal error, life and death, matters of heaven and hell! If your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, or your family members are blissfully marching down the wide road to hell, it is not a nice thing, a kind thing, or a loving thing to remain silent while they perish. It is wicked and cruel.
And be clear, when I am speaking about naming names, I am not speaking about disagreements within the body of Christ. Some of my closest friends, for example, happen to be baptists and we disagree strongly about whether or not an infant should be baptized and how that baptism should be carried out. Given my German Reformed/Presbyterian background, one would expect no less. Yet, we disagree as brothers in the faith. I have several dear Lutheran friends as well, with whom I would strongly disagree as to what baptism does for the one baptized and over what takes place at the Lord’s Table, but again, these are “in house” debates in the Christian church. We ought to debate these things, yes, and debate them passionately. But we can do so all the while not breaking fellowship.
While modes of baptism, what takes place at the Lord’s Table, the music we sing, the kind of Bible we use, etc… are disagreements, they are secondary things. Differences here (in most cases) do not separate you from the body of Christ. But some differences do. When someone denies the Trinity, they can call themselves many things, but they cannot call themselves, “Christian.” When someone denies the dual nature of Christ, the substitutionary nature of Christ’s work, the authority of the Scriptures, the role of man being submissive to God, justification by grace alone worked through faith alone, the physical Resurrection on the third day, etc… one no longer is able to call oneself a Christian. They may still be an American, they may still be moral in a societal sense, they may still be a good laborer in a volunteer organization, they may still be a good neighbor, but Christian they are not. And, if there are those who are playacting at being Christian and are teaching otherwise, they need to be warned against.
Jesus warns us of false prophets (Matthew 7:15) as does the Apostle John (1 John 2:18-19 — here he calls them “antichrists”). And thus, we are called to test every tree — every spirit — by its fruit. As we look at Biblical tests of orthodoxy, some of that fruit is visible in the way we live — the Apostle Paul’s famed “Fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23 — but it is also found in the things that are taught. Thus, earlier in Galatians, Paul very clearly warns the Galatians that if anyone, even an angel from heaven, were to teach them “another Gospel” — a Gospel different than the one Paul consistently taught (something preserved in the Word) — then he should be cursed. Notice that Paul does not say, “let the teaching be accursed,” but he says, “let him be accursed.”
In Titus 1:9, Paul even expands on this idea. He says that Elders (by the way, this is one of those passages where Paul speaks of Presbyters and Overseers as one in the same office) must be taught to do two things: 1) give instruction in sound doctrine and 2) rebel those who contradict sound doctrine. Do you notice how there are two sides to the same coin. Not only must there be teaching what is right but there must be a rebuke of that which is not sound teaching (recognizing that the Greek word used here refers to a public oral attack on a person, a thought, or an idea). In other words, calling out the heretic as such and then teaching the people of God how to think Biblically is one of the primary roles of the Elder in the Christian church.
One might then ask, is it really appropriate to name names? Wouldn’t it be easier to teach specifically against a bad idea without naming those who hold to that idea? The problem with that model is, if the pastor has not told you, “Do not read books by T.D. Jakes, he is a prosperity preacher who is part of the Word Faith movement and denies the orthodox understanding of the Trinity — he is a heretic.” How will you know not to buy a book by T.D. Jakes when you see it on the shelves of your local Christian bookstore — a store that has no qualms about selling you anything for their profit, though it will not profit your soul?
Further, the model we have in the Bible is to be very clear about who those are who have denied the faith. For example, Peter singles out Simon Magus and publicly rebukes him for trying to purchase the power of the Apostles (an error later called “Simony” in remembrance of this event — see Acts 8:9-24). Paul tells Timothy how he handed Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan for blasphemy (1 Timothy 1:20), he speaks of Phygelus and Hermogenes who abandoned him when he was arrested (2 Timothy 1:15), he rebukes Demas for being in love with this world (2 Timothy 4:10), and he speaks about the Lord taking out his vengeance on Alexander the Coppersmith for the harm he had done to Paul (2 Timothy 4:14). The Apostle John warns his friend, Gaius, against Diotrephes who is subverting the power of the Apostles and calls his actions evil (3 John 9-11). Finally, even Jesus speaks this way, not just to various Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the Law during his earthly ministry, but also he calls out Jezebel in the city of Thyatira for her immorality (Revelation 2:20). And, while many scholars would suggest that Jezebel is a kind of “nick-name” given to this woman based on the wickedness of her namesake, you can be sure that everyone in that church knew exactly who that woman was.
As a shepherd of Christ’s flock, I am responsible to Christ my King first and foremost, and not to the sensibilities of the culture around me. In addition, in todays pluralistic society, we are surrounded by people of many different religious affiliations as well as those who claim to be Christian but who teach what Paul would call “another gospel.” This last group is the one that I feel poses the greatest threat. I do not expect those who grew up in our congregation to be tempted to practice Wicca or Buddhism, but many are quick to attend churches that claim to be Christian but do not offer a Christian message. We are surrounded by Word of Faith churches, Mormons, Roman Catholics, Prosperity Gospel Churches, and the writings and television programs of many false teachers. The “Pop Christian” culture has embraced ideas from Hillsong, Elevation Church, and others who distort the Word of God. How shall I justify remaining silent?
A final illustration. If the devil wanted to infiltrate your church, how would he do so? Would he don a tail and carry a pitchfork? Or, would he look like everybody else and nuance the truth just enough to lead you astray? It was the latter he did with Eve in the garden and it is the latter that he does through many of these false teachings. On the surface, a lot of what they teach “sounds right,” but if you look deeply, it is subversive. Remember, as Christians, this world is not our home. We are soldiers in an outpost in enemy territory and our command is to take ground and tear down the strongholds of the devil. Shall we not call out the enemy for who he is and pray that by doing so, he or she may repent and believers may not be swayed by their untruths?
“Beware of the dogs! Beware of those who work evil! Beware of the mutilators!”
Having told the Philippian church to stand on firm ground, he now warns them about predators who will seek to draw them off of that sure ground of scripture. In the larger context, Paul is speaking of the danger of those who would trust in their own works for either glory of salvation. Here, Paul speaks more specifically.
To begin with, Paul warns to beware of the “dogs.” Some commentators understand the reference of “dogs” to be euphemistic for male prostitutes and the sexual activity that would be engaged in during many of the pagan practices of worship. There is some evidence for this, though I would suggest that, given the character of the Philippian church, male prostitution was not a great threat. The term, kuw/n (kuon) in Greek is also used to refer to those who are infamous criminals (again, not a likely threat to the Philippian congregation) and to those who are spiritually unclean. The Didache (an early, second-century manual for the Christian church) refers to those who are unbaptized and not yet ready to commune with the body as kuw/n (kuon). In a young and thriving church, this seems the most likely use of the term as Paul is employing it…essentially to warn them to be cautious and, as new people come into the fellowship, make sure that they are genuine believers before they are embraced entirely into the body.
The second warning is a little more plain. While there are many things that are referred to as evil in the Bible, one seems to be preeminent…that of idolatry. In fact, it can be argued that the other sins that are considered evil also flow out of an idolatrous heart. So, beware, Paul warns the church, of those who would introduce idolatry into the context of worship. One need not examine church history in that much depth to discover that idolatry is a matter that the church struggled with (and still struggles with) through the ages. Early in the life of the church some people started introducing images of Jesus and of the Apostles as “aides” to worship. The images were joined by statues, relics, praying to various saints for blessings, praying to Mary as a co-intercessor with Jesus, teaching that Mary lived as a perpetual virgin and was physically assumed into heaven, and raising up the councils as being of equal authority to scripture. Even in Protestant circles, how often strong personalities are seen to speak with authority not on the basis of content but simply on the basis of popularity. How often pastors take advantage of their congregations, using the people as little more than a stepping stool to achieve their own agendas. We are fallen people; we are prone to fall into idolatrous sin.
Finally, Paul warns to beware of the “mutilators.” In light of the context of verse 3, where Paul speaks of the true circumcision — what he elsewhere calls a circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:29) — it seems that he is speaking of those who would teach a works-based religion founded in the Jewish ritual practices. Those who would insist on physical circumcision (and not spiritual) in the church of Christ would be those who are the mutilators. Does this mean that Paul condemns his own circumcision? Not at all, as you will see (though he does not put weight in it). Circumcision of the flesh was the sign and mark of the people of God, but it was never meant to save. It was simply meant as an outward sign of an inward reality. In Christ, the sign has changed from a bloody sign on the males only to a bloodless sign on males and females both (for their is neither male nor female, but we are one in Christ — Galatians 3:28). If there is no inward reality, the sign avails nothing. And, where the sign has changed (circumcision to baptism), to insist on the physical, bloody sign is simply an act of mutilation (see how Paul speaks of those who so insist in Galatians 5:12).
Thus the warning is offered. The question is whether or not we will apply it, for the same wolves prey about our church doors even today. There is a tendency by many in the church to be broad and shallow in their teaching and, hoping not to offend anyone, no spiritual food of any value is offered. There is a tendency, in the hopes of ministering to everyone, to accept all things as equally valid and to embrace all practices as acceptable in the eyes of God. Beware those who would lead the sheep astray. Flee from the wicked. Flee from those who see ministry as a popularity contest, teaching only those parts of scripture that the people want to hear and not those parts of scripture that the people need to hear. Woe to the shepherd who does not open up the whole counsel of God. Woe to the pastor who is more concerned about his popularity with men than with his popularity with God. And church, beware these wolves, for they are clothed with the fleece of sheep, but exist only to destroy. Flee from them! And if you have been led astray as a shepherd and are guilty of acting this way or of abetting such actions from others; repent for the sake of your soul and for the sake of the souls of those in your charge. Beware those like this, says the Apostle Paul.