For many in our culture, religion and moral values have become like soft drinks. I prefer Coke, you prefer Mountain Dew, but in the end, neither of us is wrong. We’re talking about tastes, after all. Similarly, when it comes to religion, every person has his or her own personal preferences, but who’s to say that one of us is right? To each his own.
Of course, our culture doesn’t actually believe this, which is why people revolt whenever someone questions one of their cherished beliefs––like absolute personal autonomy. Nevertheless, the choose-your-own-taste view of truth and morality still sounds good to many people. While many Christians rightly recoil at such a view, they often fail to notice the inroads it has made into their own thinking. For instance, when you hear a fellow believer on a major TV news network say that Muslims who do not turn to Jesus will go to hell, do you wince? Or when a Christian pastor on NPR calls homosexuality a sin, do you feel a little uncomfortable? Sure, you may agree in principle, but for someone to put it out there so candidly, without a thousand qualifications, seems so, well, unloving and intolerant. If someone is sincere about what they believe, who are we to “judge” them?
When to Rebuke Apostles and Angels
Many believers seem to have forgotten that love “rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). We could turn that statement around and say that love rejects error. And nowhere is loving truth and rejecting error more important than when we’re talking about the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. According to the apostle Paul, not even apostles and angels get a free pass on this one.
Typically, Paul begins his letters with warm greetings, thanking God for the followers of Christ in a particular church. However, when a false gospel seemed to be gaining traction in the church at Galatia, the apostle came out swinging. Certain teachers were saying that you had to be circumcised in order to be part of God’s people. Simply believing in Christ was not sufficient in order to be justified (declared righteous) before God. In response, Paul didn’t opt for the let’s-appreciate-each-other’s-differences approach. He stated in no uncertain terms that proclaiming a distorted gospel was an offense worthy of hell:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8, emphasis added)
That word “accursed” means damned. In other words, anyone proclaiming a false gospel––even apostles or angels––is liable to God’s final judgment. Paul’s point is clear: there is only one gospel, and no one has the right to add to, take away from, water-down, distort, undermine, or downplay it. Even Peter, one of the leading apostles in the early church, was confronted “to his face” when his actions undermined the free grace of God in the gospel (Galatians 2:11–21). These kinds of errors cannot be swept under the rug.
A False Dilemma
Without a doubt, many Christians could use a strong dose of humility and compassion mixed in with their truth-speaking. Anger and spite aren’t fruits of the Spirit. But that leaves some wondering, Should we refute false teaching or should we simply love those with whom we disagree?
Sadly, some Christians don’t have a category for someone who holds tenaciously to the gospel and, at the same time, loves his or her neighbor. But these two things can go together. Better yet, they must go together.
If my youngest child were running toward the street, it would not be unloving for me to yell “Stop!” at the top of my lungs, even if it meant startling her. In fact, it would be unloving not to get her attention. When it comes to the gospel, we don’t have to yell at people, but we should be compelled to speak up when fellow believers and unbelieving neighbors are being tempted to walk down a road that leads to destruction. And that’s exactly what a false gospel does––it leads people down a road that ends in eternal ruin.
What True Love Does
Given the consequences of false teaching, it’s little wonder that Jesus and the apostles spent so much time warning us about it. And because false gospels are often subtle (at least at the beginning), we must have our spiritual antennae up at all times. Pastors, in particular, are charged with warning God’s people about such dangers. They must “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9, emphasis added). This kind of confrontation is compelled by love.
If we care about the spiritual health of our fellow believers and the salvation of unbelievers, then we must identify and refute false gospels. That includes cults who explicitly deny foundational Christian truths (like the Trinity or the deity of Christ), as well as more subtle distortions of the truth found in some versions of the Prosperity Gospel. Yes, our interactions should be marked by humility, for we too would be buying into false teaching if God had not opened our eyes to the truth (Matthew 11:25–26). We should speak about the hope we have in Christ “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). But since there is only one way to the Father (John 14:6), then we should make sure that people don’t try to get there some other way. What could be more loving and compassionate than that?
(For more on identifying false gospels, go here to learn more about Secret Church 18, “Cults and Counterfeit Gospels.”
For a few examples, see Matthew 7:15–20; Acts 20:28–31; 1 Timothy 4:1–5; 2 Peter 2–3; Revelation 2:12–17.